The Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna; Jacopo della Quercia magnificent relief sculptures

Dominating the major square of Piazza Maggiore in Bologna is this important basilica. For me, the relief sculptures on the facade are the reason to visit, but there are many other reasons as well.

The basilica is dedicated to the patron saint of the city, Saint Petronius, who was the bishop of Bologna in the 5th century. Construction began in 1390 and its main facade has never been finished. Interestingly, the basilica was only consecrated in 1954! It has held the relics of Bologna’s patron saint only since 2000; until then they were preserved in the Santo Stefano.

The main doorway (Porta Magna) was decorated by Jacopo della Quercia of Siena with scenes from the Old Testament on the pillars, eighteen prophets on the archivolt, scenes from the New Testament on the architrave, and a Madonna and ChildSaint Ambrose and Saint Petronius on the tympanum.

Two side doors flank the central one with della Quercia’s reliefs. Alfonso Lombardi’s Resurrection sequence is on the left and Amico Aspertini’s Deposition in on the right.

But I’m only concerned in this post with the sculpture by Jacopo della Quercia (c. 1374-1438). He was also known as Jacopo di Pietro d’Agnolo di Guarnieri. He was a major sculptor of the Renaissance, a contemporary of Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Donatello. He is considered to be a precursor of Michelangelo.

Here is a portrait of the artist:


A detail of the “original sin” relief.

Detail of the Noah’s ark relief.

Detail of the relief depicting Isaac and Jacob.
Detail of the relief depicting the Massacre of the Innocents.

Below: a detail of the archivolt sculptures of the Prophets

In 1425 della Quercia accepted a major commission: the design of the round-arched Porta Magna of the San Petronio church in Bologna. It would keep him busy for a good deal of the last thirteen years of his life and it is considered his masterwork. Each side of the door is flanked, first by a colonette with a spirally wound decoration, then nine busts of prophets and at the end five scenes from the Old Testament, carved into somewhat lower relief.

In the Creation of Adam, he uses the same arrangement as in the Fonte Gaia (in Siena), but in reverse order.

Michelangelo, who had visited Bologna in 1494, conceded that his Genesis on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was based on these reliefs.

The architrave above the door contains five reliefs with representations from the New Testament.

The lunette contains three free-standing statues : Virgin and Child, Saint Petronius (with a model of Bologna in his right hand) and Saint Ambrose (carved by another sculptor Domenico Aimo in 1510). Originally this third statue had to represent the papal legate Cardinal Alemmano, but this intention was quickly abandoned after the cardinal had been evicted from Bologna. He relied heavily on the artists of his Bolognese workshop, such as Cino di Bartolo, for assistance in this project.

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