Friday, October 20, 2023

Romanesque Sculptures in the Baptistery of Parma

As a follow-up to our recent posts about the cathedral and baptistery of Parma, Italy, here are some final pictures which give us a closer view of some of the sculptures by the original architect of both buildings, Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230). Many of the great medieval churches are decorated with sculptures of subjects that are not immediately and specifically religious, such as the months and seasons of the year, the labors of man etc. The great French art historian Émile Mâle offers an explanation of this in his magnificent book The Gothic Image.

“The whole world is a symbol. The sun, the stars, the seasons, day and night, all speak in solemn accents. Of what were the Middle Ages thinking in the winter time when the days were shortening sadly and the darkness seemed to be triumphing for ever over the light? They thought of the long centuries of twilight that preceded the coming of Christ, and they understood that in the divine drama both light and darkness have their place. They gave the name of Advent (Adventus) to those weeks of December, when by means of the liturgy and lessons from Scripture they expressed the long waiting of the ancient world. It was at the winter solstice, at the time when light begins to reappear and the days to lengthen, that the Son of God was born. Even the round of the year shadows forth man’s course upon earth, and recounts the drama of life and death. Spring, which gives new life to the world, is the symbol of baptism which renews the spirit of man at his entrance into life. Summer too is a type, for its burning heat and light are reminders of the light of another world and of the ardent love of the eternal life. Autumn, season of harvest and vintage, is the dread symbol of the last Judgment—that great Day on which men will reap as they have sown. Winter is a shadow of that death which awaits mankind and the universe. Thus the thinker moved in a world of symbols, thronged by forms pregnant with spiritual meaning.”

In this spirit which Mâle describes so beautifully, Antelami created a series of sculptures which represents the months of the year as figures performing an agricultural labors typical of each of them.  These kinds of figures are usually placed on the outside of building, but have been inside the baptistery from time out of mind, and normally live in the lower rank of niches seen here.
Nicola took these pictures recently when they were moved down to the floor (temporarily, I believe.) March is represented as a young shepherd playing a pipe, the first month of the year, and the traditional beginning of the zodiacal cycle with Aries. Several of the niches have representations of the signs of the zodiac in the wall beneath them, but in others, as seen below, the sign is incorporated into the symbol of the month. 
June, the first wheat harvest. 
August, making barrels to store wine. 
September, trimming the vines, with the symbol of the constellation Libra.
November, decanting the first wine of the year, with the symbol of Sagittarius
December, clearing the fields to lie fallow for the winter.
January, hunkering down for the winter in a cloak.
February, preparing the fields at the first thaw, with the symbol of Pisces. (Parma is in northern Italy, but its winter climate is still usually quite mild.) 
and Winter (statues of Summer and Fall were never completed).
The altar

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