The Cathedral of Parma is from 900 years a place of art, history and sacredness. Here are preserved the bas-reliefs by Benedetto Antelami, the romanesque art heritage and the grand frescoes by Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio. Entering into this place means living the faith, opening up to art and discovering one of the most precious treasures of the city.
Building of the Cathedral began in 1074 under Bishop-Count Guibodo, following the terrible fire that destroyed the previous early Christian basilica.
Since then it has always been a symbol of the lively religious tradition of the city, but also a monumental work of art, which through the centuries has been enriched with priceless treasures. Here the essential nature of Romanesque sculpture coexists with the sumptuousness of Renaissance painting, creating one of the most fascinating places of worship in the Emilia region.
Cupola of Correggio
The Assumption of the Virgin by Correggio is a grandiose work of prospective, where light, composition and movement blend in a masterpiece of visual illusionism.
Somewhere between the Renaissance pictorial language and the audacity of Baroque art, this cupola was soon pronounced to be “scandalous” by some contemporary critics. What particularly strikes the observer is the Assumption of Mary to heaven: a whirling tangle of figures that accompany the Virgin towards the circle of the blessed. At the centre of the cupola is Christ, who descends from the light in a pose whose plasticity was incredibly innovative at the time.
The cycle of frescoes by Lattanzio Gambara
An imposing cycle of frescoes that accompanies worshippers along the entire central nave: they tell the story of the Life of Christ and also depict episodes from the Old Testament.
Both the right and left wall are entirely covered by frescoes, which follow a precise thematic organization. The frescoes between the arches and the women’s gallery depict scenes of the Old Testament, those between the women’s gallery and the lunettes images from the Gospel, while allegorical figures appear in the lunettes. This imposing work bears witness to Lattanzio Gambara‘s apprenticeship with Giulio Campi, but also to the influence of the painter Giulio Romano.
Christ in Glory in the apse
The images of this fresco by Gerolamo Mazzola Bedoli, which dominates the entire cathedral from the apse, convey the intensity of the Eucharistic mystery.
At the centre of the fresco is Christ who, still bearing the signs of his sacrifice, ascends to heaven among the jubilation of angels and saints. The scene is dominated by an intense blue light and gathers in a single composition the symbols of passion, leading the faithful on a spiritual journey that goes from earthly suffering to divine glory.
The Deposition by Antelami
This is the first great known work by Benedetto Antelami and a masterpiece of Gothic art. It originally was part of the ambo, from which the Word of God used to be proclaimed.
Looking at the composition carefully one becomes aware of the modernity and humanity that the artist sculpted into the marble. The scene has a strong dramatic impact: Christ is at the centre, his lifeless body supported by John. At the left of the Cross are the gambling centurions, casting dice for the robes of the son of God. Antelami‘s style is very personal, and although he created this work in 1178 he anticipates with remarkable foresight elements of Gothic sculpture.
The ancient bishop’s throne
The throne is adorned with a symbolically rich marble group in which scenes from the Scriptures are intertwined with anthropomorphic figures and episodes drawn from hagiographic stories.
From a symbolic point of view, the bishop’s throne represents the Bishop presiding over liturgical assemblies within the Cathedral, which takes its name from this seat (“cathedra”). The arms are symmetrical and consist of two human figures crushed by lions that embody the victory of Christ over death. Other episodes are depicted on its sides, such as the battle between Saint George and the dragon and the conversion of Paul.
The entrance portal and the two Lions
Two great marble lions guard the entrance to the Cathedral: they were sculpted by Giambono da Bissono in 1281 and are among the symbols of the Cathedral.
The door is by Luchino Bianchino, who carved it in 1494. A closer look at the lions reveals that they are not perfectly symmetrical. On the contrary. One is red and the other is white. It seems that this difference may be interpreted as the dual human and divine nature of Christ. The two lions represent the Lord and embody his strength, his ability to support his own Church and victory over death.
This chapel, decorated in the 15th-century, is located on the left aisle. Two different painters created the frescoes depicting the life stories of the Saints Catherine, Christopher and Andrew, drawn from the Golden Legend.
The chapel is named after its patron, an important member of the local community who, following a period in exile, commissioned the frescoes to rehabilitate his image. The chapel is characterized by its unusual hexagonal shape and by the elegance of its decoration. The work by Bertolino de’ Grossi, a prominent painter in 15th-century Parma, is the one most easily recognized.
Chapel of the Commune
It is accessed from the right aisle and it depicts the history of Saint Sebastian, an airy cycle of paintings attributed to the workshop of Bertolino de’ Grossi and commissioned by the Commune during a plague epidemic.
The chapel was dedicated to the story of Saint Sebastian because this was the saint people were turning to for help in the midst of the deadly epidemic. The frescoes are characterized by a slow narrative rhythm, by the distinctive gestures of the figures and by a lighter painting style than the one found in the Valeri Chapel.
The medieval capitals
An encyclopedia of images engraved in stone: this is how one can describe the countless medieval capitals that can be discovered while walking along the aisles of the cathedral.
Most of the capitals in the Cathedral are of the Corinthian-type, with vegetal decoration. But there are also capitals with different decorations, such as hunting scenes, mythological tales, Bible stories and scenes drawn from daily life. The capitals used to be polychromatic, but today bare stone and 16th-century gilding prevail.
A dense interweaving of columns and groin vaults that can be compared to a “stone garden”. Here are preserved the relics of San Bernardo degli Uberti, patron saint of the Diocese.
It is thought that the columns used in this crypt were taken from the ancient Roman town, thus establishing an ideal continuity between the ancient town and the Cathedral. Of particular interest is the statue of Saint Bernard at the centre of the chapel dedicated to him and altered over the centuries. From the crypt one gains access to two precious Renaissance chapels: the Rusconi chapel and the Ravacaldi chapel.
This side chapel located at the right of the crypt contains elegant frescoes commissioned by Bishop Giovanni Rusconi in 1398. A magnificent votive fresco dominates the chapel.
This fresco shows the Bishop kneeling by the throne of the Virgin and absorbed in prayer. The rest of the chapel shows depictions of the prophets, attributed to Padua workshops, and images of the Evangelists enclosed in elegant frames. Of particular interests is the depiction of the Trinity through the superimposition of the three divine faces, which at the time was considered an unorthodox choice.
This is the other side-chapel in the crypt. Here one can see the fresco of the Annunciation and a cycle of paintings about the life of the Virgin, evidence of the fine narrative taste of the workshop of Bertolino de’ Grossi.
This chapel is also named after its patron, a canon whose figure seems to be included in the Annunciation fresco. The particular attention given to details and faces makes of these frescos an interesting example of 15th-century painting.
The visit of the city of Parma begins from the view of Piazza Duomo characterized by three buildings: the Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Bishop’s Palace. The atmosphere of the marvelous square is the original medieval one.The Cathedral is one of the highest expression of Romanesque architecture in Italy with a Latin cross plan and a beautiful façade with a pitched roof. Inside the church we can find some masterpieces like the fresco by Correggio in the Dome showing the Assumption of the Virgin and like the Deposition of Benedetto Antelami. The Baptistery, considered the transition between Romanesque to Gothic architecture, is due to the Antelami: the plan of the building is octagonal and the façade in pink verona marble.Near the Cathedral we find the Monastery of St. John’s characterized by the Church, the Convent and the Ancient Benedectine Apothecary’s. The church has a Latin cross plan with three naves and six chapels. In the central nave we have the frieze designed by Correggio who also frescoed the dome with the Transit of St. John. The convent has two fascinating cloisters.In the center of the town we have also the Church of Madonna della Steccata, a splendid Renaissance church. Near the the Steccata we have the neoclassical Teatro Regio one of the most renowned theatres in Italy.The visit of Parma continues in the Ducal Park, an example of a french style garden, which houses the Ducal Palace; then we can see the Town Hall and the Governor’s Palace in the central Piazza Garibaldi, the House of Music and the Auditorium Paganini designed by the famous italian architect Renzo Piano. View the Virtual Tour of Parma on my site.