Wednesday, January 29, 2014

San Rufino, Assisi's cathedral

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?
 To answer the second one first, in the 16th century they baroqued the poor thing to death on the inside (sorry, I think my biases are showing...), thereby making it much less interesting to someone who studies the middle ages.   Not that there aren't still a few very cool bits, and of course there's all that history (see earlier blog post about three important baptisms).  But what is authentically 12th and 13th century is that intricate, astonishing façade.  (Also the bell tower, which actually includes some even earlier components.)

Romanesque arch

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):
Gothic arch

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)

Bell tower
In 1134 the decision was made to tear down the old church and build the one that stands on the piazza today.  Construction on the new building, designed by an architect known to us as Giovanni of Gubbio, began in 1140 and finished around 1228, though it was 1253 before it was consecrated by Pope Innocent IV.

Innocent IV
Saint Francis knew this church well.  Born in around 1181, Francis (who died in 1226) probably watched as this church was completed, and saw the decorative details as they were added to the façade over the years.  One wonders which aspects were already in place when he first preached there, around 1210 or 1211, and which were yet to come.

Saints Francis and Clare
Saint Clare would have known the church well, too - in fact, this church may be where she first heard Francis preach.  Clare's childhood home is right next door to the cathedral.  She could have stepped out her front door and reached the central portal of San Rufino in about a dozen paces.

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.

 Each portal is surrounded by rich carvings, with geometric and plant motifs,  animals, and fanciful creatures.  Sculpted lions and griffins flank the portals; one lion is eating a human being, the other a goat.  (One source says that the first represents "the pagan sacrifice" and the second "the Jewish sacrifice," but I've also read that the lion eating the man is a reminder of martyred Christians.)

Main portal

The blank space at the top of the façade may once have been intended to house a mosaic, or may even have once contained one.  This whole area is a later addition, probably 13th century.

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.

Frederick II
The bell tower's oldest extant bell dates from 1287.  At the tower's base is a vaulted Roman cistern.  The one-handed liturgical clock tells 24-hour time, with the day ending at sunset.

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.


Judith Schara said...

These pictures are so beautiful and I love the blue skies and golden light. I especially like the pink tinted rose window with the small figures. We have a Mexican version in San Antonio at the Mission Concepcion - quite a different feel to it.

Tinney Heath said...

I'm fond of those sunset pictures too, Judith. I've consumed a lot of gelato while waiting for my husband to decide the light is exactly right for the picture he wants to get.