The exterior of the Modena cathedral and the astonishing first sculptural representation of the King Arthur legend!

The foundation stone for the new Cathedral was laid on 9th June 1099, when the Modenese community desired a new Duomo to finally put their Patron Saint, Geminiano (312-397), to rest.

The architect was Lanfranco; the sculpture by Wiligelmo. The construction started fast building from the apses, and in 1106 the Saint was solemnly laid to rest in the new crypt. Pope Paschal II and the feudal lady Matilde di Canossa attended the ceremony (this is the story told by the Relatio de innovatione ecclesiae Sancti Geminiani ac de translatione eius beatissimi corporis visible in the Museo del Duomo).

In 1173 the Congress of the Lombard League (of which Modena was a member) was held here. The official consecration of the church took place in 1184 with Pope Lucius III.

From the end of the XII century, replacing the followers of Lanfranco and Wiligelmo, the so-called “Maestri Campionesi” started working on the cathedral, remaining here until the middle of the 13th century. They made several Gothic modifications, such as the rose window, the lateral portals of the facade, the addition of the Porta Regia on Piazza Grande, the false transept, and many internal decorations, plus the wonderful spire of the Ghirlandina tower.

In the first half of the 15th century, the ancient wooden trusses were substituted by the cross vaults in brick and the aisles were enriched by works of arts and monuments.

The Cathedral has always been at the heart of the town life. One legend says that the Emperor Charles V risked breaking a leg when slipping in the nave, while visiting Modena.

During the Baroque period, the church was considered bare and so it was additionally decorated. Someone even proposed destroying the Duomo to build a new church: fortunately his whim was not satisfied.

Other alterations were made in the 18th century, particularly in the central apse of the crypt, and at the end of the following century, when the Cathedral was cleaned up from all the unnecessary decorations.

A solemn Te Deum was performed when Napoleon passed through, and another one when the Estense Dukes returned to Modena after being re-enstated.

Recently the Duomo has been restored in order to conserve it in the best way possible, expecially protecting it from smog and subsidence. So, one can admire the Cathedral as thousands of people have done in 1000 years of history.


The Cathedral, as many of the churches of the same period, is built in a west-east direction, with the facade is the western side.

The facade, on Corso Duomo, was planned, like the rest of the edifice, by the famous architect Lanfranco, about whom we know little.

The height is exactly the same as the width, lending the church a robust but gentle harmony. All around the exterior, it is decorated with loggias closed under arches, and adorned with wonderful capitals and statues. Three doors are open, though originally only the central one existed: modifications, like the rose window, carried out by the Maestri Campionesi, who worked here from about 1170 to 1320.

The four large reliefs by Wiligelmo are exceptionally important, as they symbolize the renaissance of art after the medieval centuries. They were put on the same level as the central ones, so that people who could not read were able to find the illustrations of the Biblical stories they had heard about.

Starting from the left, in the first relief: God in a mandorla (symbol of inner life and light) with an open book in his hands, over two angels; Adam’s creation and Eve’s from one of his rips (the caption are still visible nowadays); the orginal sin (the protagonists eating the apple offered by the snake, and covering themself with fig leaves).

Second relief: God points disapproving at Adam and Eve, who tear their hair, while an angel drives them away from the Eden; they are then completely dressed working around a plant, their heads bowed under some arches.

Third relief: the first men after the original sin. Cain and Abel offer a lamb and some ears of corn to God, then Cain kills his brother hitting him on the head and is reproached by God.

Fourth reliefs: Cain himself is killed by the blind Lamech as it was predicted (he shoots an arrow with his eyes closed); Noah and his wife during the Flood in an ark which is vaguely similar to the Duomo (the believers are saved by the church is the message); Noah with his sons Sem, Cam and Iafet go out of the ark to populate the world.

The Major Portal
is really interesting and was decorated by Wiligelmo himself. The column-bearing lions are Roman, probably taken from an ancient grave. The extrados is decorated with a rich acanthus tree supported by two male telamons: where men, bizarre and natural beings are hidden (for example, a basilisk, a mermaid, a griffin, vipers, hawks, cranes).

The archivolt presents at the top a two-faced Janus, the Roman protector of doors. In the intrados, prophets (in Italian: Mosè, Aronne, Daniele, Zaccaria, Michea, Abdia, Abacuc, Exechiele, Isaia, Geremia, Malachia, Sofonia. Their names are in the respective niches).

On the left of the Portal, a wonderful inscription, supported by the prophets Enoc and Elijah (symbol of long life for the Cathedral), commemorates the laying of the foundation stone (6th june 1099) and Wiligelmo, the creator of the sculpture work: «Inter scultpres quanto sis dignus onore claret scultura nunc Vuiligelme tua» (in Latin). Also at the sides of the Portal, two panels by Wiligelmo represent angels leaning on upside-down torches (in the left one with an ibis, probably symbol of the sinner’s death).

At the corners: on the left two deer are wrestling with a single head, on the right, two lions trying to break free from a snake (symbol of the man against sin).

Higher than the rose window, the so-called Saint Geminiano cross has a really particular shape. Under it, the images of the four Evangelists, a Christ in ‘almond’ shape by the Campionesi and Samson with the lion. An angel on the top and two turrets (finished in the first years of the 20th century) complete the astonishing facade of the Duomo.

Southern Side
The arches with galleries continue on this side of the Duomo, decorated by original figures sculptured in the stone. After the calle dei Campionesi, the narrow street on the right of the facade, behind a little gate, the Porta dei Principi (the Princes’ door) stands, through which the persons to be baptized passed into the church. The portal was by the so-called Maestro of Saint Geminiano, a contemporary follower of Wiligelmo, modelling it on the major one in the facade.

Besides the two column-bearing lions, in the intrados one can see the Apostles (where Matthias replaces Judas the traitor); in the extrados, an inhabited spray.

The architrave is decorated with six episodes from Saint Geminiano’s life: he sets off to the Orient on horseback and by ship to exorcise the daughter of the Emperor Jovian (a curious winged demon is liberated); he then receives gifts and returns to Modena, where he dies and is buried like a mummy.

The intrados of the architrave itself is particular, as a lamb is kept up by two angels flying in the sky, and looked upon from the corners by Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul.

On the right of the prothyrum, the Fight between Jacob and the angel and Truth wrenching the tongue of the fraud. Then, a big incision commemorates the consecration of the Duomo of Modena, in 1184, by Pope Lucius III.

A text also commemorates the visit of Pope John Paul II in June 1988.

The side open to the Piazza Grande is dominated by the Porta Regia, built in the first years of the 13th century by the Maestri Campionesi. Wrought in red Veronese marble, it is characterized by an extraordinary embrasure with interlaced columns and roses and by the two lions with prey under their paws. The stucture is surmounted by a niche with a statue of the Patron Saint Geminiano (the original one is in the Museums of the Duomo) and an incredible bone of a whale. The balcony is completed with a lion at the top.

Going right, the dummy transept is visible, made by the Maestri Campionesi while building the internal choir, culminating in another lion. In 1501 the pulpit was added by Jacopo and Paolo da Ferrara, representing the four Evangelists, whereas the relief realized in 1442 by Agostino di Duccio was placed here in 1584. It tells the same stories of Saint Geminiano as the Porta dei Principi (the recovery of the Emperor’s daughter, the gifts and the funeral with the miracle of the fog which saved Modena from the barbarians). Between the pulpit and the relief, two plaques commemorate the oath of Pontida on the field of Legnano, when the Lombard League was born against the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and the creation, in 1855, of the ecclesiastic province of Modena thanks to Pope Pius IX.

Already finished in 1106, the year of the translation of Saint Geminiano’s corpse (according to the Relatio conserved in the Museums of the Duomo), the three apses are one of the things to notice about the Cathedral. Here one can appreciate the design of the loggias (which run all around the perimeter) and the splendour of the twenty different types of stone which cover the church.
In the central one, a plaque praises the architect of the Duomo and surmounts a window decorated with flowers. The Modenese measures which are carved in the wall are really interesting: the merchants in Piazza Grande could come here (where the ‘Buona Stima’ office stood) to control the goods against fraud. From the left, the brick, the step, the pole and the pantile: the whole Duomo was built following these measurements, and in fact it bears them out exactly.

Northern Side
Along the northern side of the Duomo via Lanfranco was opened at the end of the 19th century, separating the church from the other edifices of the sacristry and the presbitery (now the Museums of the Duomo). Here one can admire the longest perspective of the architectonic motive with arches and gallery which characterizes the whole Cathedral. There are also wondeful metopes and capitals: each one is different from the other, representing imaginary and naturalistic subjects.

Near the Ghirlandina tower, the Porta della Pescheria (that is ‘Portal of the fish market’) or “delle Donzelle” was the place where pilgrims coming from the via Emilia entered the church. This is the reason why the sculptures are of international and pagan subjects. The name derives from the market which once stood here and from the fact that it was the door dedicated to women. A covered passage connects the church to the sacristry, whereas the preceding arches were built in the Gothic style probably in 1338, to avoid the bell tower leaning towards the Cathedral.

The portal is characterized, like the others, by a pair of column-bearing lions. The sculpture is of an exceptional interest. In the extrados telamons hold up an inhabited spray. In the intrados, the months of the year are represented: January cures a pig; February is wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire; March cuts the grapevine; April brings flowers; May leads a horse as it was the period when wars started; June cuts the grass with a sickle; July reaps the wheat; August thrashes it; September makes wine in a barrel; November sows and December cuts the wood. The cycle of the seasons is so represented, as was the unescapable rhythm of life at the time.

In the architrave there are fables of French origin: a Nereid hunts a Triton; two cocks bring in a fox pretending to be dead; the storks are trying to free themselves from a snake; a wolf and a crane belong to Phaedrus fable.

However, the most incredible subject is the one of the arch. In the keystone, Mardoc holds Guinevere prisoner in a castle, while knights are trying to free her. Among them, King Arthur and Galvagino, as the caption explains: it is the story of the Arthurian legend (or of the Knights of the Round Table). The astonishing thing is that the first known written edition dates back to 1136, whereas the portal was made twenty years before! So it is the most ancient representation of the legend in the world, brought across Medieval Europe by the pilgrims.

made by: web agency modena area9

The remarkable duomo of Modena is dedicated to the Virgin Mary of the Assumption and to St. Geminianus, the patron saint of the city. Consecrated in 1184, it is an important example of the Romanesque style and, along with its bell tower, the Torre della Ghirlandina, and the piazza on which they stand, is designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

We know that 2 earlier churches had existed on the site of the present cathedral since the 5th century; the discovery of the burial site of Saint Geminianus, Modena’s patron saint, led to the destruction of those churches and to the building of this cathedral by 1099.

The initial design and direction was provided by an architect known as Lanfranco, about whom little is known.

The Saint’s remains are still exhibited in the cathedral’s elaborately decorated crypt, which I will discuss in a separate postWhen I W. The present cathedral was consecrated by Pope Lucius III on July 12, 1184. 

When I visited Modena in early November, 2021, the Christmas lights were already being hung in the city.

After Lanfranco, the Cathedral was embellished by Anselmo da Campione and his heirs, the so-called “Campionese-masters,” who were active from the second half of the 12th century to the first half of the 14th. These were groups of builders and sculptors from Campione, a town on Lake Lugano, who worked like real family workshops. It was the Campionesi Masters who created the large rose window, the two lateral doors on the façade, and the magnificent “Porta Regia” discussed below.

The majestic rose-window was added by Anselmo in the 13th century. The two lions supporting the entrance’s columns were borrowed from other buildings and date to the Roman era.

The façade also has notable reliefs by Wiligelmus, a contemporary of Lanfranco; these include portraits of prophets and patriarchs, and Bible stories. The sculpture ensemble taken as a whole is a masterpiece of the Romanesque era and style. Scholars have especially noted the splendid sculptural achievements in the scenes depicting The creation of Adam and Eve, The original sin; and the The story of Noah.

This side of the cathedral faces the Piazza Grande.
The front entrance of the cathedral

For more on the cathedral, check this source: The following quote is taken from this source.

“For the front doorway, Wiligelmo also created the sculptures on the façade, depicting sacred, profane, heavenly and monstrous worlds. These portray the spirituality of medieval society together with its faith, hopes, fears, certainties and doubts.

However, the most important example of Wiligelmo’s great art is the decoration of the main portal through which, in simple, but powerful terms, he expresses his contemporaries’ vision of society.

Among the various plant motifs evoking the woods as a dreadful place symbolising the dangers of human life, we have monstrous beings of every kind, sinful creatures threatening the spiritual path of humankind, and a believer fighting a wild herd of lions, dragons and centaurs: monsters taken from ancient repertoires and medieval bestiaries.

So life is portrayed as a difficult journey, with salvation is the ultimate goal; we also find harvest scenes depicting the “Lord’s vineyard.” In the door frames, figures representing patriarchs and prophets announce the birth of Jesus Christ. These images emphasize the symbolic meaning of the church door, which separates the believers gathered inside – the saved ones, from those standing outside, who may fall prey to the Devil. “

The touching expressiveness of Wiligelmo’s reliefs from Genesis is particularly noteworthy. The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah’s Ark still maintain their original intensity, emotional charge, and extraordinary narrative force. In recent years researchers have shown great interest in interpreting the meaning of these reliefs, and two different schools of thoughts have emerged from these studies.

In the microcosmic sense, one sees the external sculpture of the Cathedral of Modena as a local response to the problems of the town and its role in the Gregorian Reform. According to this interpretation, the four reliefs from Genesis represent very important subjects related to the Reform: sin, repentance, the need for a well-ordered and properly invested Clergy, and the central role of the Church as the only institution which offers a path to redemption. As a result, all those involved in the overall design of the Cathedral of Modena would have wanted to promote the new alliance with the Papacy, an agreement replacing the city’s previous alliance to the imperial party.

Doorway of the Princes

Here are carved episodes from the life of St. Geminianus by Wiligelmo and his workshop. Opening onto the lovely “Piazza Grande,” this doorway stands out in contrast to the white wall of the cathedral due to the chromatic effects of its rose-colored marbles.

Fish Market Door, north side of church

Of particular note here are the metopes, which are the sculptural reliefs found on the projections of the roof. They representing a lively group of imaginary and monstrous beings. The ones found on the Cathedral today are reproductions, as the originals have been moved into the “Museo lapidario del Duomo” for conservation purposes.

The ?? Gate

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