Monday, November 18, 2013

The Dedication of Siena Cathedral

On the general liturgical calendar, November 18th is the dedication feast of the Basilicas of St. Peter in the Vatican and St. Paul on the Ostian Way in Rome. It also traditionally the anniversary of the dedication of another very important Italian church, the cathedral of Siena. The date is attested by a canon of the cathedral in an Ordo written in 1215; much later is the tradition that the ceremony was done by the Sienese Pope Alexander III Bandinelli, one of the greatest Popes of the Middle Ages, in 1179. A banner with his coat of arms is still to this day hung from the ceiling of the cathedral’s sanctuary on November 18th, and through the octave of the feast.

The cathedral of Siena is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful in all of Italy, and is indisputably one of the richest in art works. The list of sculptors who have worked on it is practically a textbook of the art of sculpture: Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Jacopo della Quercia, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Michelangelo and Bernini, to name but a few. It was formerly the home of one of the greatest paintings of the early Renaissance, the famous Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna, now unfortunately removed from its original frame and displayed (although very nicely so) in the Cathedral Museum. The famous frescoes of the Piccolomini library, an amazing collection of illuminated choir books, are one of the great achievements of a much later artist, Pinturicchio, an important associate of Raphael. Our own Gregor Kollmorgen posted several pictures of the church two years ago, but it is rich enough in art and general interest to merit its own blog, so here are a few more.

Many visitors to Siena are perplexed to see this structure on the right side of the church.

These arches are the only parts that were ever built of the right nave of the so-called New Cathedral; on the right is the “big façade”, in Italian, “la facciatona”. They are the result of an attempt by Siena to outdo the gigantic cathedral of her principal rival, Florence, by turning what was then the cathedral into the transept of a much larger cathedral. Only Tuscans could have the self-confidence to think that such a project could ever be pulled off; it was abandoned in 1355, only 16 years after it was first proposed, partly because of the enormous expense involved, partly because of the Black Death, which hit Siena particularly hard in 1348, and partly for fear that the sheer weight of the structure thus expanded would cause the hill on which it sits to collapse.
The Cathedral, and proposed transept of the New Cathedral, seen from the facciatona.

The upper internal arch of the facciatona.

The view of the Piazza del Campo, the main civic square of Siena. On the right, the famous Torre della Mangia, the bell-tower and look-out post of the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s city hall.
The cathedral is also famous for its extraordinarily rich pavement, a perfect realization of the phenomenon so beautifully described by the great scholar Émile Mâle in his book “The Gothic Image”. A huge panoply of the human experience, sacred and secular, stories from the Bible, civic emblems, the Ages of Man, etc., is represented in it. Among the most interesting of these are the eight Sibyls in the side-aisles. These pagan prophetesses were popularly believed to have foretold the coming of Christ to the pagans, as the Biblical prophets had foretold Him to the Jews, a belief already well-known in St. Augustine’s time.
Image from Wikipedia
The plaque to her left names this one as “the Erythraean Sibyl, whom Apollodorus says was of his city”; her prophecy reads “From His dwelling on high in heaven, the Lord hath looked up His lowly ones, and will be born in the latter days of a Hebrew virgin, in the cradle of the earth.”

The wooden beam in the upper right of this photograph is one of the two draw-bars of a medieval battle-wagon called a carroccio; the other is attached to the pillar on the opposite side. In Medieval Italy, armies were often accompanied by such a wagon, which held the city’s standard, and an altar on which Mass would be said before, and sometimes during, a battle. The carroccio was the rallying point for the troops, and its loss in battle was considered a definitive sign of defeat: a more elaborate and serious version of Capture-the-Flag.
After the great Battle of Montaperti in 1260, in which Siena defeated Florence heavily, the draw-bars of the carroccio were fixed here to honor the Virgin Mary, to Whom Siena had vowed itself before the battle. The carroccio itself was usually kept chained to one of the pillars of the nave when not in use.

The main altar.
The cathedral of Siena has two baptisteries. This one within the cathedral itself contains this beautiful statue of St. John the Baptist by Donatello. A second, much larger baptistery, about five stories tall by modern standards, sits below the church’s liturgical choir, serving also to support the weight of the back part of the church.
Against the counter-façade sits this statue of Pope Marcellus II, born of a Sienese family, and the last Pope to keep his baptismal name. He reigned for 22 days in April of 1555, the sixth shortest Papal reign! Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is named after him. His nephew, St. Robert Bellarmine, remains along with St. Charles Borromeo a powerful argument in favor of Papal and ecclesiastical nepotism.

Most of the walls and pillars of the church are faced over in alternating stripes of white and black marble. These help to create the illusion that the space is much taller than it really is. They are also the traditional colors of the Republic of Siena’s shield, known as the “balzana”, still to this day omnipresent as the emblem of the city. Under the architrave may be seen the busts of all the Popes from St. Peter to Alexander III’s successor, Lucius III. Until 1601, a figure labelled “Ioannes VIII, Femina ex Anglia - John VIII, a woman of England”, was included among them; another example of how the ludicrous story of the female Pope was once widely accepted, even among Catholics.

Among the huge number of sculptures on the façade, Biblical figures dominate, but the two figures on the right side of this corner are Plato with crown on his head, and the Prophet Habakkuk next to him. (Aristotle is on the corner of the opposite side.) Again, as Émile Mâle notes, these secular figures indicate whole of humanity’s knowledge, wisdom and experience is incorporated into the life of both the Church and society.

The right door of the cathedral is the church’s Jubilee door, known as the “Porta del Perdono - the Door of Forgiveness”. The inscription over it reads, “The hundredth year at Rome is always a Jubilee, crimes are forgiven; these things are given to him that repents. Boniface declare these things and strengthened them,” referring to the official proclamation of the first Jubilee by Pope Boniface in 1300.

Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, expressed by the prominent display of the IHS monogram in public places like the main door of a cathedral, was first promoted by a native son of Siena, the Franciscan St. Bernardine. He was called to preach throughout Italy against the internal faction-fighting that was tearing many of the great cities apart, and was so successful that he often had to preach in the public squares for lack of a church big enough to hold the crowds that came to hear him ... despite the fact that he no teeth.


A lion-shaped waterspout helps keep Plato dry.

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