Modena Cathedral. Wikimedia Commons

The 900 Years of Modena Cathedral

The splendid church in this Italian city, the symbol of her people's unity. Built at the behest of Matilda of Canossa to bring the population back to an obedience to the Pope's.
Giuseppe Frangi

Historians tell us that nine centuries ago Modena was in very bad shape. The ancient Roman settlement was in ruins. The new Christian settlement, which had arisen outside the walls around what had been the ancient necropolis, was flooded by water ("inundatione submersa," the chronicles report). Even the cathedral, erected on the site where Saint Geminianus was martyred, showed signs of collapse. It had been built around 1060, but Canon Ajmone says that it was dangerous to enter it, for fear of crumbling structures. Whether these were real risks or only symbolic threats, given that the cathedral had been conceived and built by a schismatic Bishop, Eriberto, matters little. Modena remained a village besieged by poverty and ruin. The Episcopal see was vacant, and there seemed to be no one on the horizon who could again take up the thread of civil society.

But in that long ago 1099 some truly extraordinary things happened. Modena's fate fell under the gaze of the most charismatic personality of the region: Matilda of Canossa. A supporter of the Pope in the Investiture Conflict, protagonist of the famous humiliation of Emperor Henry IV, Matilda had, from the height of her inviolable castle in the heart of the Apennines, bit by bit enlarged her hegemony to take in the plain below. Monasteries, abbeys, cathedrals: wherever possible, her efforts went toward initiating building projects to establish new sites for the faith, following the model of Cluny. As the century drew to a close, her attention was drawn to that old Roman settlement which, thanks to the act of a saint, had been spared from the scourge of Attila and was now barely surviving. Her intervention was discreet. She understood that it was the right moment for bringing Modena back to the obedience of Peter. The clergy was in shambles, but the people were immediately on her side. As Canon Ajmone reports, "non tanto ordo clericorum sed universus ecclesiae populus conferre coeperunt." That is, against conservative resistances, the party of the people took the upper hand and set out to build the cathedral.

The builder from Como
And here we have the second unexpected event. To build a cathedral, someone who had experience in this field was needed. And who would come into those wild plains, when the news from the north, France in particular, told of great and magnificent constructions in progress? But, once again-it is Ajmone who recounts the story-by God's mercy ("inventus est vir"), the providential man was found. His name was Lanfranco, "mirabilis artifex, mirificus aedificator." Artifex, or creator; aedificator, or builder. Nothing is known about him. Tradition, reasoning according to logic, says he came from Como, where an extraordinary school of builders had been established; witnesses to this are those two shining jewels of the Romanesque, the churches of Sant'Abbondio and San Fedele. With Lanfranco, the Romanesque style took on thrust, beauty, elegance. The structures became lighter; the lines, stripped to essentials, were more graceful and luminous. Also the materials received more care and attention. And, in this sense, Ajmone recounts, in 1099 a third prodigious feat took place. The funds had been found, the architect as well, but the endeavor was at risk for an early end due to lack of its raw material: stones. But the stones too appeared from unknown and unexpected sources. For the foundations, great blocks were reused from some Roman monument, blocks that must have been found not far from there, given their dimensions which were regular but also considerable (1.56 x 1.04 meters, or about 5 x 3 feet, each). Work began on May 23, 1099. After only eighteen days the foundations had been dug and the building began to emerge from the ground. It was June 9th. From that moment on, stones for the walls began to arrive from quarries in the area around Vicenza and Verona. For the interior, Lanfranco set his ingenuity to work, using Roman marble columns alternated with bundled brick pillars, while the inside walls were faced with brick.

The result is a moving synthesis of fidelity to early Christian building tradition and innovation according to the most elevated spirit of the times.

The genius who came out of nowhere
But the true, remarkable synthesis that was created in Modena was between Lanfranco and the other famous artist called to the site: Wiligelmo. He too came out of nowhere, and we might not have known anything about his existence if the plaque commemorating the foundation of the cathedral did not bear, with an emphasis that is decidedly unusual, his name: "Inter sculptores quanto sis dignus onore claret scultura nunc Eiligelme tua" ("Wiligelmo, your sculpture proclaims your worth among sculptors"). Without this fragile piece of evidence engraved in the marble of the bas-relief of Enoch and Elijah, the outstanding genius who left behind him on the facade of Modena cathedral the highest achievements in Romanesque sculpture would be a genius lost in the dark of time. Instead, Wiligelmo, bearing a name that is at the same time archaic and triumphant, is a presence with precise, definite, imperious outlines. He worked on the site at the same time, certainly, as the architectural structure was going up, thus in the early years of the Twelfth Century, and it is certain that he made the panels with stories from Genesis, which were once set lower than we see them today. Like Lanfranco, his history and sensibility led him to realize the extraordinary embrace between romanitas and Romanesque art. The construction site at Modena, in fact, was characterized by this: here, perhaps because of the vicinity of ancient ruins, perhaps for the religious reasons mentioned in the beginning, the air of Rome was strongly felt. It is the Romanesque that, instead of turning in on itself in its albeit charming and humble roughness, becomes almost bold, majestic.

Preciousness in stone Wiligelmo worked like a sculptor of a thousand years earlier. He was capable of virtuoso effects in stone that were decidedly uncommon for his time. In his workshop the stone was worked with a drill, and the join between the blocks was made using techniques absorbed from ancient sources.

All this could answer to "abstractly archaeological criteria"-as the most profound scholar of the construction of Modena Cathedral, Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, has pointed out- if it had not been conceived by Wiligelmo as a mere instrument to make his inventions even more powerful.

With him, on the facade, something happened that is comparable only to what Masaccio would do three centuries later on the walls of the Brancacci chapel. In Florence, Masaccio invented projected shadows (like the one of Peter healing the cripple). Here Wiligelmo invents the human body. How moving is the sight of the sleeping outline of Adam, in whom the beating warmth of the flesh transpires from the stone! Wiligelmo is the first to short-circuit any abstraction or formality of expression. His figures bursting forth from the stone exude all the mystery and power of the life that constitutes them. Within their muscles is all the heaviness of human finiteness, but at the same time also the light that only the fact of being children of God can imbue into the body of living beings.

In 1106, Modena Cathedral received its first consecration. The body of Saint Geminianus, in the presence of Countess Matilda, Pope Paschal II, and Bishop Dodone who had been appointed in the meantime, was transferred from the old church to the new one. The clergy had wanted to make this move earlier. The people demanded instead that it be done in the presence of the Pope. The body of the saint who had defended Christianity from the Arian heresy in these plains and had protected them from the scourge of Attila was exhumed. The saint appeared "integrum et illibatum" ("whole and unviolated"), reports Deacon Ajmone, who was an eyewitness to all these events. Only seven years had passed, and Modena once again had her saint and her cathedral