29 September 2008

Cathedral of Modena

The Cathedral of Modena

The cornerstone for the Cathedral of Modena was laid on June 6, 1099. When finished, this building was the culmination of unique collaborations for its time, one between the architect and sculptor, another between the lay civic population and the clergy. The decision to replace the existing building was not made by the bishop, as the bishop’s see was vacant at the time. Nor was it made by the nobility Maltida of Tuscany, she is recorded as being pleased the decision was made but having no part in making it. Neither person nor office we could define as the owner was responsible for choosing to renovate the cathedral. It was the customers, the tenants, the common people who demanded this new cathedral. Why did they assert themselves so?
Society of this time was famously described as being of three classes:
those who toil
those who fight
and those who pray.
Many other historians have noted this left unmentioned those important members of the community, the merchants those who buy and sell and craftsmen, those who work with their hands. True, merchants favor cities, and the various migrations / invasions after the collapse of the Roman Empire were unkind to the cities, so there may have been a substantial drop in commerce and with it the merchants. Yet, trade was never abandoned, so merchants were always there.
The contribution of the local merchant was not forgotten here. On the apse of this cathedral are the “official” measurements of city. In the image (linked) on the left is the brick, next is the ell for bolts of cloth, the perch was used to land & timber, and the coppa or roofing tile that doubled as a 3-liter bucket stave. This harkens back to the role of the basilica in Roman times, as multi-purpose structure – where civil and religious affairs were conducted. So this may be new for its time, but it also an old practice. Nonetheless, the placement of these commercial standards on prominent position is a statement of religious and commercial solidarity. Our goods are sanctified - quality and quantity – guaranteed by God.
The object of attention goes by the official name of the La Porta delle Donzelle, Door of the Maidens; but it known by its colloquial name of La Porta della Pescheria – The door of the Fish Market. This portal is famous for its depiction of the Arthurian cycle, one that may be the first visual depiction of this subject. Furthermore the doorjamb decoration, The Labors of the Months, is one of the earliest examples of this motif. (The Link opens a Flash movie of relief sculptures)

Obviously it was not intended to teach the peasants their assigned duties, for even illiterate peasants must have known what job needed to done as well as the times and order of these tasks. This must be a re-interpretation of the work, transforming it from a curse to a “mission statement.” Previously punishment from God, now work is the pathway to redemption. (So do more of it!) Even if this is what the church wanted to say, it did not prevent the people from hearing something other than the intended message. If the peasants received this as a celebration of their life, they may have considered this portal as a demonstration of good faith bargaining on the part of the church. Literally set in stone, it is a contract with the labor force.
Which brings us back to the Arthurian Cycle the main highlight of this doorway. The archivolt depicts the rescue of Winlogee, the Breton equivalent of Guinevere, from the castle of Mardoc. I am leaving out from where and how did the story come to Modena from this discussion. (Breton knights in Bari) Just let me slip this in, it antedates both the Arthurian epics of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chr├ętien de Troyes.
Why was this scene chosen is my question. The original name implies the archivolt was the focus. Interesting, the plural was employed, only one woman is depicted rescued. In that an interpretation can be made this an exhortation by the church to the nobility to behave a chivalrous manner. Another answer is that a patron named Artuisis contributed enough to have his name recorded in this manner. Why an Italian merchant would choose to be identified with a figure from Breton mythology is not known. (It is not out of place to have a donor recognized, but the allegory is a bit tenuous.) Either answer fits with what we know, these epics were tremendously popular. My favorite description is from Norman Cantor, he described them as spreading like a “medieval plague.” However, too often, we discount the affects of theater outside the church and how those activities impact inside of the church.
That in mind, I see this as a maneuver by the clergy, one with the express purpose of appealing to the peasantry. Arthur’s Christian mission comes much later with Mallory’s compilation, so the story here is a decidedly secular one. In a church that is steeped in tradition and determined to reinforce and exert its moral supremacy, adding popular contemporary subjects to the religious program is not something I expect. As popular as The Simpsons may be, I doubt Homer will be added to the Roman Catholic repertoire. There was a conflict between the clergy and nobility, but the relationships between the urban dwellers and rural framer, between the lay and the clerical were more important and it was to that audience to whom this is directed. If the portal is focused on the satisfying the peasantry, this theme fits perfectly because it gives to them something that has personal fascination.
Exploring that proposition leads to consideration of entertainment. During this time, entertainment is up close and personal, the custom being troubadours and wandering bands of musicians. Private theater occurred the houses of nobility; the public version was staged in the church squares. It seems worth mentioning that in the latter case, this was one of the few times nobility and peasantry were together, the other one being church. That some churches were at odds with these groups, seeing them as sinful and vulgar who would corrupt the order of the town does not indicate all were as fastidious. Some clerics allowed this entertainment, considering it as a complement of secular to sacred. Looking this sculpture through this tolerant lens, the subject matter is not out of character and perhaps is to be expected. A troupe passing along the road, looking up and seeing a popular story carved in stone would alert them to a possible audience for their talents. Indeed, the purpose of this sculpture may have been to attract such actors and musicians and invite them to stay and entertain the citizens. Attract a crowd, bring people to our market, we care about our customers, especially the ones that bring money.

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