When the cathedral in the Italian city of Modena was put on the World Heritage List, UNESCO described it as “a masterpiece of human creative genius”.
It’s a big call but, then again, over the years this part of Italy has been the birthplace of some of the world’s most famous musicians, painters and scientists. Perhaps it should be no surprise that it would be home to a building like this.
The UNESCO description goes on. Apparently the Modena Cathedral is a masterpiece “in which a new dialectical relationship between architecture and sculpture was created in Romanesque art”.
It seems you have to be a creative genius human to understand what that means.
But, in short, it means that artistic elements were incorporated into the very structure of the cathedral, rather than just added on afterwards.
And the best way to understand that concept is with your eyes, not with your brain.
Why is Modena Cathedral significant?
The cathedral in the Italian city of Modena is considered to be one of the best examples of early Romanesque art. What makes it so special is the way an artist and an architect worked together in the 12th century to blend creative elements like sculptures with the overall design of the building.
Modena Cathedral was added to the World Heritage List in 1997.
When was Modena Cathedral built?
Construction began in 1099 on the Cathedral of Modena under the direction of an architect called Lanfranco and an artist called Wiligelmus. The church was consecrated by the Pope in 1184.
Is it worth visiting Modena Cathedral?
Modena Cathedral is one of the most important landmarks in Emilia-Romagna and is well worth visiting, offering a different style of church where the art is integrated into its architecture.
The city of Modena is a wonderful destination in itself and the cathedral is just one of the interesting things to do here.
You’ll see this fusion of art and architecture immediately from the outside of Modena Cathedral, with the rich sculptures of an artist called Wiligelmo integrated into the external walls of the building designed by the architect Lanfranco.
Look carefully at the reliefs carved onto huge stone slabs, for example, and you’ll see that they are telling the stories from the book of Genesis.
As you go inside, there are more carved artworks from Wiligelmo integrated into some of the core elements of the cathedral’s structure.
And, as you explore the different sections of Modena Cathedral, you’ll find even more masterpieces that have been added over the years, particularly in the 13th century. But these still take their inspiration from the original vision of the church.
If you would like to see Modena with a local guide, I would recommend this excellent private tour, which includes Modena Cathedral.
At the time, the approach to building Modena Cathedral was extremely innovative, resulting in one of the most incredible buildings of the Romanesque period.
The fact it still stands out as special today, one of the best sights in Emilia-Romagna, says something about the creative genius of the architect and artist behind its original design.
The importance of Modena Cathedral
Entering the cathedral, I bump into a young man who’s standing in the doorway crossing himself, and I apologise in a whisper.
It distracts me and it takes a few moments until I catch myself and and look up for the first time to see the interior of the church. That’s when this concept of artistic and architectural fusion starts to make sense.
The building is a joint creation of architect Lanfranco and sculptor Wiligelmus. Because of this relationship, the cathedral is not so much a construction as a sculpture.
The figures, the patterns, the scenes which are carved into the walls and the columns seem organic.
The very structure of the interior seems in harmony with the artwork and you can’t imagine one without the other – at one point I even consider whether the whole place would collapse if you tried to remove some of the statues.
The original building of Modena Cathedral is from 1099 and many of those original elements are still in place.
Interestingly, there are inscriptions in the cathedral crediting Lanfranco and Wiligelmus for their work. I say ‘interestingly’ because that was extremely uncommon at the time – normally it was the founder who got the credit – and this could be the first time this happened in the region.
It’s actually one of the many things that helped Modena Cathedral get listed as a World Heritage Site.
Since the cathedral first went up, there have been quite a few new features added.
Much of what you see here today is from the 13th century and was created by the Campionesi masters, a group of medieval stoneworkers active until the 14th century. Wiligelmo himself had worked with this group, but their masterpieces came after he had died.
The most famous of the pieces added by the Campionesi masters is the pontile, or rood screen, which separates the central nave and the crypt.
Leading to the pulpit, it shows the scene of the Last Supper carved in beautiful detail, the dimensions and the depth almost making it feel like you are there, rather than it just being a piece of art on a component of a church.
So, not only should the original concept of the cathedral be considered a masterpiece, so should the artworks that were added later.
Together, Modena Cathedral had a huge influence on Romanesque architecture in this part of Italy – it’s almost as though a new language of art had been created on the site.
Things to see at Modena Cathedral
I’ve already mentioned a few of the key features, but I wanted to just quickly go through a few more of the important things to see at Modena Cathedral. Although the site is not large, there’s a lot of detail here and it’s easy to miss some important artworks.
Starting from the outside, there is the main portal with the sculptures on the facade. Together they are supposed to represent the entire spiritual world – including heaven and monsters – showing the hopes and fears of the medieval era.
The other doors into the cathedral are also decorated with impressive images and are worth a look. There’s the Porta dei Principi (Princes’ Gate) on the Piazza Grande, and the Porta della Pescheria (Fish Market Gate) near the bell tower.
Inside, I’ve already mentioned the stunning pontile and its depiction of the Last Supper. But make sure to also not miss the pulpit that it connects to. Built by Enrico da Campione in 1322, it is incredibly detailed.
Throughout the cathedral, there are also later artworks, added in the 15th and 16th centuries, including:
- The Altar of the Statuettes by Michael of Florence (1441)
- The inlaid wooden choir by the Lendinara brothers (1465)
- The Bellincini Chapel (1475)
- The Saint Sebastian Panel by Dosso Dossi (1518 – 1522)
- The Nativity Scene by Antonio Begarelli (1527)
Another highlight is the piece known as the Coronation of the Virgin by the acclaimed painter Serafino de’ Serafini, which sits above a stone altar carved in the 9th century.
As well as the sculptures and artworks in the main part of the cathedral, be sure to go back into the crypt to find important things like the sepulchre of San Gemimianus, patron saint of Modena.
The Cathedral Museum in Modena
While it’s free to go into Modena Cathedral, there’s also a museum with a small €3 admission fee that I would recommend visiting while you’re here.
There are exhibits and information about the building and its design, but the focus in the museum is really on what it has been used for over the past 900 years or so.
There are paintings, sculptures, books, and important documents. One of the most precious treasures is an 11th century portable altar of San Geminiano.
Also look out for the large Flemish tapestries with images from the book of Genesis which were used as decoration in Modena Cathedral until the 1960s.
If you’re interested, there’s also the Epigraphic Museum on one floor which has a collection of sculpted remains that were found during restoration of Modena Cathedral.
Many of these sculptures date from as early as Roman times, some of which were recycled when the new cathedral was built. There are also fragments from earlier medieval churches and official buildings.
Visiting Modena Cathedral
Modena Cathedral may be the most important element, but it is officially just one part of the city’s World Heritage Site, which also includes the Torre Civica and Piazza Grande.
The Torre Civica, also known as the Torre della Ghirlandina (or just Ghirlandina) was built in the 12th century to project power and rival the towers in nearby Bologna. It’s 86 metres high and is now an icon of Modena.
The tower is a very similar design to the cathedral, also using some of the same construction materials, and climbing up it complements a visit to Modena Cathedral.
The Piazza Grande, the main square in front of the cathedral, is hard to miss. You’re pretty much guaranteed to walk through it on your way to the church. But stop for a moment and also look at the City Hall building on one side of the square.
Although it’s easy to visit Modena Cathedral independently, you’ll certainly learn a lot more with an expert guide. This excellent private tour of Modena includes a visit to the cathedral.
Where is Modena Cathedral?
Modena Cathedral is right in the centre of the historic city of Modena, about 50 kilometres west of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna.
The official address is Corso Duomo, 41121 Modena. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Modena Cathedral?
Modena Cathedral is only one kilometre from the Modena train station and you can walk there in about ten minutes.
Modena is on the main railway line running through Emilia-Romagna, and is only 17 minutes by fast train from Bologna (there are also slower and cheaper options).
When is Modena Cathedral open?
Modena Cathedral is open from 09:00 – 18:00 from Monday to Saturday and 09:30 – 18:00 on Sundays and Holidays.
The Cathedral Museum is open at these times through the year.
April – September: 10:00 – 14:00 and 15:00 – 18:00 (Tuesday – Friday) and 10:00 – 14:00 and 15:00 – 19:00 pm (Saturday and Sunday)
October – March: 09:30 – 12:30 and 15:00 – 18:00 (Tuesday – Sunday)
How much does it cost to visit Modena Cathedral?
Visiting Modena Cathedral is free.
Entry to the Cathedral Museum costs €3.
I think you could definitely come to Modena just to see the cathedral – but the good news is you don’t need to. There are plenty of other great things to do in Modena that makes this an excellent day trip (or overnight destination)!
There are also some other great ways to explore Modena here that I would recommend:
Art and architecture may blend at Modena Cathedral, but the whole city also feels like a masterpiece. Perhaps its the influence of the creativity in the church and the inspiration of having something so special here.
Whatever the cause, it is well worth visiting Modena and, when you do, I recommend you make the cathedral a priority.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN MODENA
Although some people visit as a day trip from Bologna, I think it’s worth staying overnight in Modena to explore everything properly
It’s not a typical hostel but the lovely Ostello San Filippo Neri has some great dorm beds.
Just out of town, Country Resort Modena offers budget rooms in the quiet countryside.
For something special, PHI Hotel Canalgrande is in a former duke’s palace – and is decorated accordingly.
And for modern luxury, I would recommend the five-star Best Western Premier Milano Palace Hotel.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Emilia Romagna tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.