|San Rufino at sunset|
As promised a little while ago, I'd like to introduce you to my all-time favorite medieval church façade, the magnificent 12th century romanesque front of Assisi's cathedral. This medieval church is dedicated to San Rufino and houses the saint's relics.
This may well suggest two questions to you:
- What, exactly, is romanesque, anyway?
- And why just the façade?
As for the second one, there's a simple distinction between medieval arches (round arch = romanesque = earlier, pointy arch = gothic = later), but of course there's lots more to it than that. Not that I understand much of it; I don't really speak architecture. But I did find this passage helpful (from Architectural Guides for Travellers: Medieval Tuscany and Umbria, by Anthony Osler McIntyre):
The name Romanesque indicates the style's debt to classical architecture. As a living architecture it was partly an inheritance from the Lombards, who had ruled in Central Italy until the eighth century, and to some extent from the Carolingian architects who had followed them. Yet the medieval artist grew up surrounded by real classical buildings, as were so many of the structures he demolished to build the new civic palaces or churches.This author does seem to know his pediments from his cornices, though he's a tad shaky on the history (Saint Clare was Saint Francis's sister?!? I think that would have surprised both of them quite a bit!).
But we are (I hope!) less shaky on the history, on this blog. So here's a bit of the history of this church:
The Duomo of San Rufino honors - naturally enough - San Rufino, a 3rd century martyr and the patron saint of the city of Assisi. (What? you may say. It isn't Francis? No, Francis is one of the patron saints of all of Italy. Rufino gets Assisi.)
As early as the 5th century here was a chapel dedicated to San Rufino on this spot, which many believe to be the site of the Forum from Assisi's Roman days. Traces of a Roman retaining wall survive under the floor of the current church.
|Santa Maria Maggiore|
In the 11th century Bishop Ugone built a new cathedral on the site. At the time this building was constructed, Assisi's cathedral was Santa Maria Maggiore, but Bishop Ugone's version of San Rufino became the cathedral in 1036. This version of the church projected farther out into what is now the piazza (and sometime parking lot) than the current church does. Bits of it can still be seen in the crypt, and also the lowest part of the bell tower.
|Piazza (and parking lot)|
|Saints Francis and Clare|
The remarkable façade, with its biblical and animal motifs, is thought to have been modeled on Spoleto's cathedral, shown here:
The building is constructed of white stone from Mount Subasio and of travertine. Mount Subasio produces stone in both white and pink, and in Assisi the two have often been used together to graceful effect:
The lower part contains three doors. An arcade rests on the cornice, and a central rose window, consisting of three concentric circles, is surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists and held up by three telamones or atlantes standing on the backs of three fabulous beasts. These little guys are my favorite part of the whole church; I find them utterly charming, for some reason.
The lunette over the main portal pictures a figure of the Blessing God, crowned like a king and with an outstretched hand that some find reminiscent of contemporary depictions of the emperor Frederick II, who had childhood ties with Assisi and may have contributed to the building of this church. On one side is the Madonna, nursing the infant Jesus; on the other, a figure representing either San Rufino or Saint John the Evangelist.
And since sunset is perhaps the best time to view this beautiful and evocative church, I'll leave you as we began, with a view of the cathedral at the close of the day.
Images in this picture: Frederick II, Saint Francis, and gothic and romanesque arches are in the public domain by virtue of age. Photos of the loggia supported by carved heads and of the detail around the main portal are licensed to Wolfgang Sauber under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license via Wikimedia Commons; the picture of the griffin is similarly licensed to JoJan (Georges Jansoone); and the picture of the Cathedral of Spoleto is similarly licensed to Italiamedievale. Other photos are by my husband Tim Heath, who holds copyright.