At the sides of the main portal of the cathedral, four ancient prophets welcome us and let us intuit how far in the past we must look for the origins of this wonderful temple. A plaque in the canonic sacristy can shed light on this mystery: the “Foundation Stone”, a slab attributable to a master from the workshop of Wiligelmus, supported by two sculptures representing the prophets Enoch and Elia, who, not having known death – as Tradition teaches – become a sign of immortality for the Cathedral itself.
The plaque indicates the 26th of August 1107 as the starting point for the construction of the Duomo. It is a construction site, arising in a time of a vacant bishop’s seat and political power probably just recently in the hands of the nascent Commune, that immediately became a sign of the grandeur to which this monument was originally intended as a religious symbol of the community of the faithful and emblem of the new regime and of the citizenship itself.
Three crucial dates mark the development of the works: 1107, 1117, and 1129. The year 1107 sees the beginning of the construction – as aforementioned – which probably initiates at the apse and presbyteral area, setting up a building with three naves punctuated by an alternation of composite and four-lobed pillars. Unfortunately, the work will suffer an interruption ten years later due to a devastating earthquake that affected the entire Po valley and became the cause of cave-ins and collapses – fortunately not fatal – in the structure then in place, in all likelihood, up to the crossing span between the central body and the transepts – already set – and, in height, up to the high windowed wall (clerestory). In 1129 it is the discovery under the rubble of the relics of St. Himerius – which arrived in Cremona in 965 at the behest of Bishop Liutprand – which gives new impetus to the works until their completion by the middle of the century, certainly concluded when , in 1167, the new building site for the construction of the Baptistery began.
Among the work which took place following the earthquake we can highlight the raising of the large walls of the transepts – already set in the previous construction phase – and the consolidation of both the pillars already made and of the structure of the apse and eastern area through a stone cladding that intended to be a sort of reinforcement “shell”.
Certainly we can affirm that the ancient and original “Latin cross” architectural layout with a longitudinal body divided into three naves punctuated by an alternation of columns and pillars, with a raised presbytery on a basement crypt (originally larger than the current one which probably extended up to the side aisles), has crossed the centuries to reach us, thereby preserving its original character.
We can still admire some of the sculptural decorative structure of the first decades of life of our Cathedral. Of great importance is the intervention of the workshop headed by Master Niccolò – involved in the middle of the century in the building sites of the Cathedrals of Piacenza, Ferrara and Verona – which had a considerable influence even on numerous anonymous masters to whom many works are to be attributed, including many – often no longer in their original location – that are still found today on the major façade and on that of the northern transept.
The stone covering with grayish tones still visible in the lower part, partially hidden by the Renaissance portico, may be considered part of the primitive main façade (following the earthquake). It is a covering that reaches up to the upper end of the two sixteenth-century oculi and which is distinguished, by color and size, from the upper parts in white and pink marble.
Credit is attributed to Niccolò for the large central portal, whose solemnity is elegantly adorned by the alternation of twists and flat elements of the broad splays, enriched by two free semi-columns supported by two telamons on the sides of the doors. Exceptional elements that make the portal, in a certain sense, a “true Door of Faith” are the four sculptures of Prophets, attributable to an anonymous “Master of the Prophets” who was active before the earthquake of 1117, placed here by Niccolò himself: Jeremiah and Isaiah on the left; Daniel and Ezekiel on the right. These sculptures of great refinement, with their cartouches later completed with quotations referring both to the texts of the Prophets themselves and also to the theme of the Incarnation and Salvation, have truly welcomed the faithful for centuries, introducing them to the contemplation of God through the beauty of the Duomo.
- Prophet Isaiah“HECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET ET PARIET FILIUM ET VOCABITUR NOMEN EIUS EMANUEL”
- Prophet Jeremiah“HIC EST I(N)QUIT D(EU)S N(OSTE)R ET N(ON) ESTIMABITUR ALIUS ABSQ(UE) ILLO Q(UI) (IN) VENIT OMNE(M) VIAM SCIENTIE ET DEDIT EAM IACOB PUERO SUO ET ISRAEL DILECTO SUO”
- Prophet Daniel“DIC S(AN)C(T)E DANIHEL DE XR(IST)O Q(UO)D NOSTI CUM VENERIT IN Q(UO)D S(AN)C(TU)S SA(N)TORUM CESSABIT UNCTIO VESTRA”
- Prophet Ezekiel“VIDI PORTAM IN DOMO DOMINI CLAUSAM”
Originally, the portal was not preceded, as we now see, by the prothyrum, but by a sort of “squaring”, “a flat prothyrum”, which recalls the shape of a triumphal arch.
Dating back to the most ancient epoch are the symbols of the Evangelists, of which we find a couple above the series of capitals of the splays (the ox – Luke – and the lion – Mark – even if in switched positions), while the angel – Matthew – and the eagle – John – are now embedded in the wall up above the archivolt.
Of exceptional value are some sculptural groups that cannot be ignored: embedded to the left of the portal, under the portico, the slabs attributable to the School of Wiligelmo, with scenes inspired by the Old Testament book Genesis (in reverse order: on the left the Expulsion from Paradise and on the right, the original sin), dominated by a branch populated by animals and small figures – part of a wider cycle of stories inspired by the Creation theme.
On the north side, in the lintel of the entrance to the transept, two friezes, always part of the first phase, are not coeval: a blessing Christ in almond flanked by the Apostles on the front side – probably attributable to a master close to the style of the prophets of the portal – and a verdant branch populated by monstrous figures on the lower side, with a Niccolesque style.
The end of the twelfth century (1190 or 1196) sees the solemn consecration of the Cathedral by Bishop Sicardo, with the transfer of the relics of St. Himerius. It is during the episcopate of Sicardo (1185-1215) that the elegant cycle of the months, the “Labours of the months” is produced, a probable ornament of the ancient “flat prothyrum” and now incorporated on the front of the protruding prothyrum and interrupted by a later vertical sculpture depicting a bishop. It is a work of excellent value, attributed to a Master similar in style to Benedetto Antelami, working during the same years in Parma: we can match the cycle of months of the baptistery of Parma to that of Cremona although the latter is more complex. The reading of the frieze begins on the right with Spring – the only season represented – and from the month of March (according to the calendar “ab Incarnatione” in use at that time in Cremona, the year began on March 25, the day of the Incarnation of Christ,) and every month is represented by a labour and accompanied, with rare exception, by the related zodiac sign, with great attention to a realistic reference to the world of crafts and to the rural characteristic of the months depicted.
The following century will also see in Cremona, as well as in the rest of northern Italy, workers from the Como-Ticino region, the Maestri campionesi (master craftsmen from the comune Campione d’Italia), whose sculptural contribution is found particularly in the high parts of the transepts and the façades of the Cathedral. The main façade is completed with a white and pink marble covering. Marked by two orders of galleries, it was originally lower, as evidenced by traces still evident on the sides of the rose window. A plaque located in the lunette above the portal states that it is to be attributed to the Como master Jacopo Porrata in 1274. The current rose window – the result of an expansion of a previous opening as verifiable in some municipal seals that depict the Cathedral at different times, thus bearing witness to the evolutionary phases – has 26 columns that arise from a central crown, joined by intersecting arches and has a large conch decorated with alternating twists and stylized plant shoots, the most external of which is also populated by small animals.
The chronicling of the protruding prothyrum supported by two column-bearing lions is more complex. The lower part – as evidenced also by the municipal seals mentioned above – is probably coeval with the work of Porrata on the rose window (1274). A triple lancet window originally visible above the structure was later hidden by a subsequent architectural intervention. The work of the superior structure, consisting of a loggia on three arches with cross vaults which interrupt the decoration with entwined arches at the base of the galleries, should date towards the end of the 14th century. The Maestri campionesi are credited with the relocation of various sculptures adorning the upper loggia of the prothyrum, such as lion-supported columns of various sizes and different materials; the symbols of the Evangelists embedded above the arches; a sculpture depicting a bishop – presumably Sicardus – placed in a vertical position to interrupt the cycle of the months. The lions found at the base of columns supporting the prothyrum, dated 1282-1283, have been attributed in the past, although not with absolute certainty, to Giambono da Bissone, also of the Maestri campionesi and creator of the lions of the Duomo of Parma.
At the end of the thirteenth century (1288) the work on the north façade in which Giacomo Camperio and Bartolino Bragherio were involved was completed. Of a clearly gothic design, it is vertically punctuated by two lesenes and articulated in various levels of openings by three-mullioned windows, a central four-mullioned window, rose windows, an upper loggia and topped off by a simple one-level prothyrum whose columns are supported by lions.
With the completion of the northern head of the transept (the completion of the southern one will occur only in the following century), the actual level of elevation of the structures is reached. Originally, in fact, the same transept, as well as the longitudinal body, must have been considerably lower. The intervention by the Maestri campionesi involved, therefore, not only a renewal of the decorative aspect of the Cathedral, but also a structural change with the raising of the walls of the clerestories and the substitution, if one would turn to look upwards in the transepts and the central nave, of the wooden trusses with high cross vaults (certainly following the opening of the large façade rosette, as can be seen from the greater elevation of the vault of the first western bay). Finishing touches were then added outside with the construction of loggias on stone columns that mark the upper profiles of the perimeter walls and the heights of the apses.
If in the fourteenth century we can say the construction phases ended with the completion of the southern transept finalized in 1342 with its façade – simpler than the northern one, without a prothyrum and with more modest decorations – the same cannot be said of the sculptural-decorative design. In fact, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, these extraordinary statues were placed in the loggia of the front prothyrum: the Madonna with Child, Saint Homobonus and Saint Himerius, works by Marco Romano, an outstanding itinerant Master of Tuscan formation, active in the Sienese area and northern Italy. The current location is probably not the original one, given the reduced thickness of unfinished marble on the back; this would suggest a hypothetical arrangement within niches, but unfortunately we do not have certain information about these previous positions nor about their relocation into the loggia of the prothyrum.
These are monumental statues whose refined technique of execution has been able to naturally reveal the traits of the three subjects: the sweetness of the Marian group, the ecstatic impassibility of the Bishop Himerius, the expressive naturalness of Saint Homobonus.
Given the traces of uncovered pigments, in all likelihood originally polychrome, they now inspire in the candor of their majesty: true pearls of the Cathedral’s decorative panorama, they represent one of the apexes of the artistic quality present in the Cathedral and can truly be defined as an ideal starting point for the Cremonese gothic style.
We will have to wait until the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century for the major façade to take on the aspect that we can still admire today. It will be thanks to the enhancement of the new mansard covered in white and pink marble – initially entrusted in 1491 to Alberto Maffioli da Carrara (whose work does not leave any significant traces) and then completed between 1498 and 1507 by Giovan Pietro da Rho (who also created the four statues of Saint Marcellinus, the apostles Peter and Paul, and Peter the Exorcist located in the niche) – that the current elevation is reached, elegantly refined by the two side volutes that host four busts of Prophets in the terminal tondos. We also owe Giovan Pietro da Rho for the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin in the two tondos on the side of the mansard niches.
Under the guidance of Lorenzo Trotti, between the end of the fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth century, comes the construction of the stone portico, designed by Maffioli, to replace a preceding wooden portico that also reached the Baptistery.
In the eighteenth-century, Giorgio and Antonio Ferretti create the alternating statues of angels and saints that decorate the balcony; from the left we recognize Saint Peter of Verona, Saint Agatha, Saint Eusebio, Saint Barnaba, Saint Teresa, and Saint Francis.
Therefore, entire generations have contributed stone after stone, always aiming to achieve the best possible result and expressing a sensitivity at the highest level, for the construction and decoration of this extraordinary temple; a monument which, in its solemnity and beauty, can truly be called a precious treasure chest of the Faith that it celebrates even through its mighty walls.