Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Chapel of St Theodelinda at Monza Cathedral

This past Sunday, January 22, was the feast of St Theodolinda, queen of the Lombards, who died in the year 627. A daughter of the duke of Bavaria, she was married in 589 to the Lombard King Authari. When he died the following year, she was allowed to choose her own second husband, who would then become the next king. Her choice fell upon Agilulf, the duke of Turin, who at her behest, moved the capital from Pavia to Milan, a move which helped to integrate the Lombards with the Roman population; henceforth, the kings of Lombardy were to be called “Kings of All Italy” instead.

As a fervent Catholic, Theodolinda contributed much to the restoration of the Nicene faith among the many Arian peoples of northern Italy. On the occasion of her son Adaloald’s baptism, Pope St Gregory the Great sent her a precious Gospel book which is still preserved at Monza.

The original covers of the Gospel Book of St Theodelinda.
The foundation of that city, where she kept her summer residence, is traditionally attributed to her; the legend has it that while traveling there, she dreamed of a dove that said to her “modo”, i.e. “here”, to which she answered “etiam.” i.e. “yes!” This is said to be the origin of the Latin “Modœtia”, which became “Monza” in Italian. In her new city, Theodolinda also established a private oratory, dedicated to St John the Baptist, the earliest foundation of the city’s cathedral.

At the death of Agilulf, she ruled for a time as her son’s regent, and in this period, received a second gift from Pope Gregory, the Iron Crown of Monza. This was said to have been made from a helmet of Constantine, and to include within itself one of the Nails of the Crucifixion, given to the latter by his mother St Helena three centuries earlier. This crown would become the symbol of the title “King of Italy.”

However, at the very end of her life, her son was deposed by the dukes of Lombard dukes in favor of her son-in-law. She died a few months later, in the year 628, and was originally buried in her oratory in Monza, where she has long been popularly venerated as a Saint. The Iron Crown is preserved in a special chapel of the Cathedral of Monza, dedicated to St Theodelinda, and frescoed with the episodes of her life in the 1440s by the brothers Zavattari. (These pictures, and the text above, are by our Ambrosian correspondent Nicola de’ Grandi.)

Her sepulcher

St Theodelinda’s dream, and the construction of the city of Monza and the original oratory. 

In the upper right, next to the stem of the Visconti family (rulers of Milan from 1277 to 1447), Agilulf abjures Arianism and converts to Catholicism; below, first Theodelinda, and then Adaloald, offer various gifts to the cathedral of Monza. (Some of the items represented in these frescoes still exist, and are preserved in the cathedral treasury, of which we will show some photos later this week.)


The Iron Crown is the crown of the famous episode of Napoleon’s self-coronation as King of Italy. It was last used in 1838, when the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I was crowned as king of Lombardy-Venetia (the Austrian possessions in Italy) by Karl Cardinal von Gaysruck; this ceremony took place in the cathedral of Milan, with a Pontifical Mass in the Ambrosian Rite.

In the ceiling, three deacons are shown with their stoles above their dalmatics, in accordance with the Ambrosian custom (although Monza is not an Ambrosian city): St Vincent of Saragossa in the center in red, who shares his feast day with St Theodelinda, with Ss Stephen and Lawrence to either side of him.

Episodes of the Life of St Theodelinda, most importantly, at the bottom, the death of Authari at Pavia (possibly by poison) in 590. In 1447, the last Visconti duke of Milan, Filippo Maria, died without a legitimate male heir, and the title therefore passed through his daughter Bianca Maria to his son-in-law, Francesco Sforza. The story of Theodelinda, who was allowed to choose her husband’s successor, establishes an ancient precedent for such a succession through the female line.

The Life of Theodelinda: Authari seeks a wife from the King of the Franks and is refused; his emissaries seeks the hand of Theodelinda from her father, the Duke of Bavaria; she comes to Italy; in the lowest part (after the death of Authari), she sends messengers to the duke of Turin, Agilulf, choosing him as Authari’s successor.

Theodelinda and Agilulf go hunting; during the trip, she will have the dream of the dove that leads to the founding of Monza. In the lower and final scene, the Byzantine Emperor Constans II enters Italy with a great army, intending to conquer the Lombard kingdom. An old hermit dissuades him, saying that it is the will of God that the Lombards remain in Italy, and so the Emperor departs without a fight.






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