When The Cathedrals Were White

By: Gaither Stewart 


The actor leaps and prances and undulates across the white stage of the cathedral steps, his high black rubber boots glistening in water and light. Laughing diabolically the ballerino aims his powerful hose first to the right, then to the left, bathing and polishing the eternal marble. Under the nocturnal illumination the water smashing against the steps and against the cathedral walls splits into myriad crystalline flakes that explode upwards in the night like fireworks. Silver drips off the two guardian lions mounted on either side of the entrance and glitter on the sculptor Wiligelmo’s Garden of Eden in stone.

Reluctantly the midnight crowd gathered in front of the cathedral retreats; they are avid participants in the spectacle of the ritual cleaning of their already clean monument. The space between façade and surroundings is tight. The front rows of spectators press backwards, while the black-booted actor on center stage joyously hoses down their cathedral.

On the great piazza there is no ostentation. No haughty grandeur. The setting is far removed from the broad perspectives of a French place. Discretion and taste, joie de vivre and the community spirit that gave birth to Italy’s Romanesque cathedrals mark the medieval art of Central Italy. Yet, the sense of passing generations and the awareness that time changes little is palpable in the night air. The cathedral could have been born yesterday, or perhaps it has stood here forever.

The Cathedral of Modena stands silently at the center of the town that built it – the center of a city of portico-lined streets that create the sense of intimacy of Italian urban life. More than protection from summer heat and winter cold, the portico is also emblematic of the unity of the new spirit that marked the medieval era. Inexorably as in a repetitive dream, the porticos and cobbled streets lead back to the magnetic cathedral and to Piazza Grande where it stands. Paved with timeworn stones, surmounted by both the cathedral tower and the 11th century Ghirlandina Tower, Piazza Grande is still today the communal point of orientation.

As in the epoch in which they built them in a frenzy of medieval energy, people today still unite around the Romanesque cathedrals. Le Corbusier’s words about the cathedrals erected across Europe at the beginning of the Middle Ages reflect their enthusiasm: “The spirit of innovation that infected Europe after the year 1000 generated a spirit of unity. When the cathedrals were white, above the nations in search of identity, a common spirit predominated: Christianity.”

The year 1000 was a watershed for Christianity. At the end of the barbarian invasions, Europe began to breathe again. As the city-states emerged, also a new spirit was born. It was a Christian spirit. Though the art the new spirit generated was born in monasteries and on great feudal estates, it soon spread to the new cities and to the centers of pilgrimage as a reflection of its religious inspiration. Everywhere, the greatest expression of the new art was the cathedral. The force with which it exploded from the earth was emblematic of the energy of the epoch.

Romanesque cathedrals were not merely local in inspiration. Each was different, reflecting the personalities of their builders, but each was also all- European. Each was symbolic of the new era of hope. Italy’s new cathedrals found their origins in Carolingian Europe, to which their builders added Roman art, with Oriental and barbarian influences. Romanesque art, cultural historians instruct us, was a reaction to Byzantine mysticism; it was a return to a sense of history and of collective, all- European values.

Always dramatic with labels, the Medievalist, Umberto Eco, writes that “the medieval dream cuts through all of European civilization.” That collective dream, time-wise conveniently located at the opening of the Second Millennium, was the crucible of Europe and modern civilization. Just what kind of civilization is another story: a story of crusades, the birth of Liberalism-Capitalism and the imperialism-colonialism today apparently in its death throes.

Curiously, little else has physically changed since around the Romanesque cathedral in its nine centuries of life. Crowded into its modern city setting, the Romanesque cathedral nonetheless seems to stand solitary – alone and eternal. Today, just as 900 years ago, one feels its enduring power.

The rich sculpture of the Romanesque cathedral blends in with its architecture and is infused with symbolism and allegory reflecting the joyous epoch following the black mood of the Dark Ages. A new motto – “Another thousand years to go!” – replaced the pessimistic expression of the terrifying apocalyptic end of time -“One thousand years and never another thousand.”

Le Corbusier labels the cathedrals “God’s skyscrapers.” They seemed to reach for the heavens and toward the ends of the earth. Their architects and sculptors and the crowds of workers believed they were performing an act of faith.

In Italy, the greatest Romanesque cathedrals emerged and soared above Florence, Parma, Cremona, Ferrara, and on the island of Torcello near Venice. In France, the Cathedral of Rouen was dedicated in 1063; others were erected in Verdun and Metz, and above all of them soared the Abbey of Cluny. The new art swept across Europe.

Completed the same year as the Cathedral of Canterbury and preceding the French Gothic of the rebuilt Cathedral of Chartres, the Modena Cathedral has always been adventure. Just as the Chartres Cathedral dominates its city, the “White” Cathedral of Modena reigns supreme over the surrounding flatlands. Though its inspiration was religious, its spirit was also artistic and communal. Le Corbusier’s use of “white” to describe cathedrals of the epoch is figurative, in the sense of new or renewal – for the original colors ranged from rose to ochre, a rainbow of multi-colored stone.

The Cathedral of Modena stands like a rich book testifying to the history of men of their era. Medieval people read this book avidly, identifying the sculpted figures on the façade by their clothes, physiognomy, characteristics and behavior. Rhythm is a basic element in the medieval book of architecture – the rhythm of the pillars that divide the cathedral into three parts, the rhythm of the six arches that then again unite the whole. The geometric alignment and the rhythm of the Romanesque cathedral underline the link of the new art with Roman antiquity. Medievalists now tell us that the harmonious result symbolizes the rebirth of civilization of the year 1000 – the birth of the communes, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the pulsations of a new economic, artistic and spiritual life. On the stones of the epoch one reads the hopes of the new era.

The new art also reflected the birth of dynamic, ambitious, and evangelical Christianity in opposition to a young and vigorous Islam, born in the VI century. A religion revealed by the Archangel Gabriel in the name of the Holy Spirit, Islam had by the Middle Ages occupied the Middle East and North Africa, and soon part of Spain and Sicily, erecting its great mosques and its libraries to conserve world culture. Al-Hakim, Cairo’s great mosque, was completed in 1013 and, in the same century, half of Spain was conquered. The Romanesque cathedrals and the great mosques stood face to face, adversaries in a battle for the souls of millennial men.

The medieval architect, Lanfrancus, built his cathedral in Modena between 1099 and 1106, the first Romanesque construction in the area. The Cremona Cathedral was begun in 1107, the Parma Cathedral was erected in 1117, in Piacenza in 1122, in Ferrara in 1135. In a 12th century miniature the architector holds in one hand his virga, a measuring stick and sign of command, while with the other he issues orders to his workers. Aided by the people of Modena, who dug the foundations to the sound of music and pageantry, Lanfrancus and the sculptor, Wiligelmo, began their masterpiece on May 21 at the end of the last year of the first century of the new millennium.

In the same year of 1099, and in the same spirit of reaching for the kingdom of God on earth, the Christian army of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem – and quickly proceeded to massacre its Moslem inhabitants. Christianity was on the march.

The Architect and the Sculptor

During this fervent, fertile period, a renewed and reformed Church was generating a new man. Though they were firmly rooted in central Italy, the cultural legacy of Lanfrancus and Wiligelmo originated in southeast France in the epoch when cultural Europe was united in a way it has never been again. Established in the 10th century by reformed Benedictines, the Abbey of Cluny, directly under Papal authority, became the center of Church reforms. The fervor emanating from Cluny spread over Europe and spilled over into the enthusiasm of the crusades against rampant Islam.

In Europe, the Cluny message was one of renewal of faith and of man against the arrogance of corrupt Church power – for extensive reforms, but also a message for the Pope and Rome. The message of renewal ignited a chain of events throughout Europe – a rebirth of economy, art and culture. Renewed people built new cities around their Romanesque cathedrals and aimed at the world. It had taken ten centuries, but Europe had given birth to a new art.

Interior epigraphs inside the Cathedral of Modena refer to Lanfrancus as the architector.  He was the boss of the mobile “reform workshop” that traveled around the area building cathedrals. Little is known about the architect’s life before and after Modena, except that he was a curious intellectual who wandered over the cultural highways of new Europe. Though his models were Saint Etienne de Nevers [XI] and Cluny III [1088] – the third great church in the Cluny complex in France – he was also influenced by the architecture of south Italy, like the Salerno Cathedral, which modified his Cluny style with neo-Paleochristian ideas.

Panels on the façade of the Modena Cathedral that glisten in the nocturnal lights testify to the role of the sculptor, Wiligelmo, called the “father of Romanesque art”. Some art historians and encyclopedias link Wiligelmo’s original art to the Romanesque sculpture of the Moissac Cloister in the Abbey of Cluny; others suggest German artistic origins. Certain is his complex cultural baggage, including Cluny reformist ideas like his exhortations to work the land.

The entire Wiligelmo façade is one great vertical book of symbolism. For Umberto Eco, the Modena Cathedral is the medieval book par excellence, where the system of signs and meanings is the determinant factor. The façade of the great church expresses the religiosity of the new art: its monsters, centaurs and masks warned of the diabolic threats to man outside the city of God, threats that also came from outside the Christian world – for Sicily had already fallen, first to Islamic troops, then to Arab colonizers. The façade exalts the new man and the new values: Adam working the land to gain his redemption. In Wiligelmo’s art, the human being, until then anonymous, becomes the protagonist of history. The sculptor marked the new European emerging from Cluny, revealing now just how modern the medieval era was.

Medievalists continue to pursue Wiligelmo’s mobile workshop in its peregrinations through central Italy. The “cathedral workshop” of the Middle Ages has been described as a Rabelaisian lot, including architects and sculptors, blacksmiths, color technicians, wood and brickwork specialists, artists and artisans. They set up shop wherever they received a commission. The colorful new medieval spirit must have surprised its actors no less than us today as we reconstruct or try to imagine life in the early II Millennium.

The legacy of the itinerant Romanesque artist, Wiligelmo, is impressive. His art changes our concept of, and puts a different slant on, not only its content, but also on time itself. Time is the great paradox. It plays tricks on us gullible humans. While, for instance, the 17th century often tends to slip like smoke through the fingers of our minds, the closer we draw to the spirit of Wiligelmo, the clearer stands before us the medieval period, renascent, renewed and exuberant, no longer a dream.

Many of Wiligelmo’s works have been discovered in central Italy: in the Abbey of Nonantola, near Modena, are Wilgelmo’s two lions, his Eternal Father, and his Biblical stories. In the Cathedral of Cremona – his four prophets, an archivolt, telamons, capitals, the twelve apostles, and Christ the Child. His most important works however are his Genesis cycle on the façade of the Modena cathedral: four great marble slabs depicting the creation of Adam and Eve, original sin, expulsion from Eden, the killing of Abel and Cain, the flood, and a new life.

Here at the city’s heart, in the heart of the Italian peninsula, emphatically written in eternal stone, are the fundamental images that guided medieval men. Such works were the books of the illiterate of that eschatological world. Entrepreneurial artists of the “reform workshop” depicted figures symbolizing the new religious men of the Cluny caliber in opposition to the old Church of “simony and concubines”. The sculptor- philosopher had to be courageous: he risked in stone his subjective answers to eternal questions: Where do we come from? What dreams are just for mortal man to dream? Like the readers of his book of stone, Wiligelmo had to be an unswerving Creationist.   

The books in stone inspired the humblest of people in the rough and tumble of the Italian peninsula, infected as they were with an ethos of fatalism, to go abroad in defense of their new-found Christianity against the infidels. Yet, when the artistic works in marble and rose-colored stone on the Modena Cathedral were first uncovered, the people must have found the vivid history of biblical man so filled with fear and ecstasy – their own history, they must have thought – both spectacular and psychologically disturbing, at the same time too near and too exigent for comfort.

Their ultimate response to the internal threats of time and the external threats from a world abroad they could hardly even imagine was a collective rallying around the renewed Church. Fatalistic and prejudiced, they were in theory educable; they seemed to stand at the beginning of self-knowledge. Medieval man from one end of Christian Europe to the other became filled with a sense of power. Things seemed clear between God and man: He had created all things for man’s convenience and the Christian recognized it. The time of the White Cathedrals was no time for sophistry; there was no place for Creationist-Evolutionist debates; there were no problems with Jesus born of a virgin, who was Christ, the anointed One, the Son of God. Wiligelmo’s Genesis expressed the certainty that God created man in his own image. In the year 1000 there was no need for compromise between science and religion. Miracles, then as today, were beyond explanation, just as divine judgment, Satan and punishment, grace and His forgiveness were irresolvably mysterious.

During the most recent restoration of the Modena Cathedral in the new millennium, a sculptor uncovered a series of curious frescoes high up under the roof: paintings of the external construction itself. On the interior walls were re-designed in a mysterious medieval paradox all the architectonic elements of the exterior, so that by moving inside from the outside, from the bright exterior to the painted, red brick interior, one can see as in a negative the same façade.

Romanesque art was turned inside out. The negative of a cathedral was the negative of time and of history. It was a paradox of mankind like the paradox of its great religions, each claiming to be revealed, each claiming to be the custodian of truth. Today we have reason to wonder about the schism of civilizations. We wonder what we have learned from recent events about the world of Islam – about ourselves, about the rest of the world. One wonders if we can learn something from Islam, which has had such an impact on 1.2 billion people for 1500 years. We gaze at the Romanesque Cathedral or the Blue Mosque and ponder the fanaticism on both sides of the religious divide.

The dozen or so crusades of the Middle Ages – including the “Crusade of Children” [who ended up in slavery] – the “Permanent Crusade” in the Holy Land, and military orders like the Knights Templar still today on the island state of Malta exemplify Christianity’s historical failures to understand Islam. As Eco claimed, the Middle Ages continue to be a mirror for the present. There we find the roots of our problems today, of our anguish and our crises.

Before the nocturnal washing of the Modena Cathedral, chamber musicians on summer evenings play Mozart, Vivaldi and Pergolesi against a background of the Romanesque dream. The beauty of the scene sends shivers up the Westerner’s spine. For above all, medieval art is not classic art to be venerated in silence. The Romanesque cathedral is not a museum.  Romanesque is exciting. In the spirit of the medieval era, music and art and joyous life are at home in the “white cathedral”.


I have concluded this look at the past of Christianity and Islam with my translation of an abbreviated version of an article about Islam written by the visionary Roberto Rossellini back in the 1970s and included in the September, 1987 issue of Cinecritica. Rossellini was one of the most famous Italian film directors of all time and founder of Italy’s cinema of “neo-realism” after WWII.


By: Roberto Rossellini

Now that the world is more and more torn by new misunderstandings and unusual resentments, it is urgent to do something useful. A new fracture has taken place between the western world, proud of its pragmatism, and the Moslem world which, finally reawakened, is encouraged to make up for lost time.

I believe the Moslem world’s traditional profound capacity to meditate, theorize and philosophize can cure the presumptuous empirical practicality of the western world and many of the tragic consequences derived from its actions.

The objective situation of our planet (the vertiginous population growth, the ecological drama, the accumulation of arms of mass destruction, the potential capacity for genocide, the crisis of the economic-social system) compels us to work patiently to mend the human species.

If we men of the earth will be capable of this then we will also be capable of moving toward a radiant future, a future no longer dominated by misanthropy but by philanthropy.

I am aware that my words may raise suspicions. In fact, today the western world to which I belong is in crisis and makes offers of collaboration, but also threats. I am trying to see things in another light and to act differently: maybe I am a utopian. But my life, my actions and what I have done, I think, can show what I believe. I am convinced that there can be salvation if we men find a way to live conscientiously. That requires that each of us knows more. By developing our thinking we can dominate our instincts. Instinct is impulse, our unconsidered inclinations; thought is deliberation, conception, consideration.

To think one must know.

Today, we of the West, because of our education, but also because of our presumptions and chauvinism, do not know the Moslem world at all. We do not know how much it has counted for our own culture; we do not know how fundamental it has been for the development of our science and technology of which we are so proud.

Anything at all may happen. But in order not to hate or destroy each other and to work together, we must know each other well.

The history of the Moslem world is unusual, at least for its variety and extension: it succeeded in fusing very diverse cultures. This phenomenon is reflected in its composition: Arabs, Persians, Syrians, Greeks, Indians, Indonesians, et al. From the fusion and concord of diverse ethnic groups and their cultures emerged an immense development of its philosophy (as well as its poetry). The acumen and harmony of its thought produced the extraordinary evolution of mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, that gave rationality to the phenomena of nature and the universe.

Along the routes of reason and coherency, the Moslem world contributed to all fields of knowledge: from agriculture to medicine, from the invention of windmills to paper, from mechanics to the natural sciences. Without Arabic numbers, we would not understand anything today. In fact, there is no science without method.

But there is more. We still cannot identify ourselves as men; but to move toward understanding of ourselves, a first step was necessary, the most difficult step, that of situating our planet earth in its place in the universe. All of that came to us from the Moslem world.

The world should know that medicine, astrology, pharmacology, optics, mechanics were all developed in Jundishapar and Baghdad, which were great centres of convergence and refuge for all the world’s sciences. Where would philosophy and history be today without Cairo, Isphahan, Algiers, Alexandria, Cordova, Granada, and without Al Khawarizin, Al Biruni, Omar Kayyam. Avicenne, Averroes, et al?




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