Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Baptistery of Parma

The city of Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy has one of the most beautiful baptisteries in the country. Commissioned in 1196 from the architect and sculptor Benedetto Antelami, it was completed according to his design around 1270, about 40 years after his death. Its unusual appearance results from the combination of Romanesque architectural elements, arranged according to the sensibility of the Gothic style, particularly in regard to its height. It also preserves in remarkably good condition a magnificent frescoed cupola of the later 13th century; while the lower part of the interior, arranged in a series of niches, is filled with frescoes of the 13th and 14th century. These pictures were taken by our Ambrosian correspondent Nicola de’ Grandi during a recent visit.

The ceiling is arranged in six bands. The red circle in the middle is the upper heaven, the band below it, with the blue background and rhombuses with stars in them, the lower heaven. These are followed by the Twelve Apostles and the Four Evangelists; Ss Paul and Barnabas are included among the former, since Matthew and John are with the latter. The fourth band shows a deesis scene, Christ with the Virgin and the Baptist to either side of Him (on the left in the photo below); the remaining 13 spaces are occupied by as many prophets. In the fifth band, the life of St John the Baptist is depicted in the full panels; those which are pierced with windows have two Saints on either side, including the Doctors of the Church. The sixth has episodes from the life of Abraham in the full arches; the alternating arches with have to either side of them Virgin Saints, the four elements, and the four seasons.

Unlike the cupola, the niches in the lower part of the building are not organized in a unitary program; they were painted at different stages by a variety of artists, many as ex votos. Here we see in the first niche a relief sculpture of an angel, with Ss Peter and Paul to either side, and below, a Madonna and Child with the Archangel and St John the Baptist, who presents to them Card. Gherardo Bianchi (1220-1302) a native of Parma. In the second, a relief of Christ in glory, with Angels and the symbols of the Evangelists, with His Baptism below, and the Virgin and Child with angels below that. In the third niche, a relief of an angel, with Ss Ambrose and Jerome, the Crucifixion, and the Madonna of mercy with Saints, a popular medieval motif. In the fourth niche, a relief of St Michael spearing a dragon, with Christ above him, and the Evangelists and other Saints; below that, a Madonna and Child with a sainted pope and bishop.
Statues of the months and seasons in the loggia, the work of Antelami and assistants.
In the niche to the left, St Francis with a Seraph, a relief of an angel, and the animal of Ezehiel’s vision, with a Nativity scene below; in the 2nd niche, a relief of St Gabriel, and two Saints represented while blessing people; below that, the Resurrection, the Baptism of Christ, and the baptism of Constantine.
In the niche on the left, the Annunciation and Visitation above; a series of votive images below. (The Virgin with the dead Christ; the Crucifixion of Lucca, known as the Volto Santo; St Catherine of Alexandria, St Christopher, etc.) On the right, a relief of St Michael stepping on a dragon, with two Saints; below, St George (attributed to the painter Buffalmacco), the Baptism of Christ, and the Beheading of St John the Baptist.

The west portal, with the Last Judgment in the lunette and architrave; to the left of the door, six of the seven works of mercy, and the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 21, 33-46.)
The north portal. In the lunette, the Virgin and Child, with the Magi and the angel instructing Joseph to flee to Egypt. The arch above it shows twelve prophets holding shields with the faces of the twelve Apostles. In the architrave, the Baptism of Christ, Herod’s banquet, and the decapitation of St John the Baptist. The plaques to either side of the door show the genealogies of Christ (left) and Mary (right).

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