On September 16, 2018, the Basilica and Abbey of Nonantola (Modena), was reopened to the public for worship. This jewel of Romanic style of Emilia Romagna was severely damaged by the earthquake of 2012. The history of this monument dates back to the year 752, when the Benedictine monastery was founded by Saint Anselmo, brother-in-law of Lombard King Astolfo. After 4 years, the newborn monastery received as a gift the relics of Saint Sylvester Pope I. Since then, the church was dedicated to this Pope. The Benedictine monks, whose number increased gradually to 850 people in the IX century, gave life to a pace of spirituality and culture. The Archives of the Abbey still keep today 4500 parchments dating from the VIII century onward. A place of encounter between population and kings of every era, in the Abbey the historical figures of Lothario, Carlo il Grosso, Pope Marino, Pope Gregory VII, and Matilde of Canossa sojourned.
The treasure on exhibit in the adjacent Benedictine and Diocesan Museum deserves to be seen and contains a precious relic of the Holy Cross and liturgical art pieces of praised value. In the Basilica, a fresco painting and a Crucifix of the XV century can be found, and in the crypt, the Lombard capitals from Nonantola of the IX century can be admired. The legacy of the Abbey to the surrounding territory with the land reclamation and the institute of the “Agrarian participation” of 1058 still in use today, was important. The Basilica and Abbey is a Cathedral of the Arch-Dioceses of Modena and Nonantola and thanks to a gift of Pope Francis, it is enjoying a Jubilee Year that will last until December 31, 2019, and will include celebrations and cultural events.
Entering through the portal, the eye is caught by the interior: the church is entirely made of bricks, majestic and yet of great simplicity. The Basilica features a typical Romanic structure with three naves. The two levels of the structure are well visible: the presbytery that can be accessed by the central staircase of from the two lateral ones, and the crypt resting below it. The powerful pillars that divide the central nave from the lateral ones lead one's eyes towards the end of the Balsilica and it seems as if they were flanking the walk towards the main altar, representing Christ himself, on which the Sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated.
It is the area originally dedicated to host the priests celebrating the Eucharist. The altar, the Abbot's throne and the large crucifix in the triumphal arch are noteworthy: the Christ has his eyes opened, a sign of his victory over death, and is dressed in a purple and gold “Dalmatica”, the liturgical dress of deacons, symbolizing the servant Christ: «The Son of Man has not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many » (Marc 10,45). The Tabernacle is located in the right nave, over the altar.
In some of the walls of the Basilica, and especially near the doors that give access to the crypt, there can be found some fixed sculptured elements from the Lombard era probably belonging to the previous Basilica, which were found thanks to the digging done by Manzini during the restoration at the beginning of the XX century.
The main altar is dedicated to the patron saint of Nonantola to whom the Abbey also is dedicated, Saint Sylvester I Pope, whose mortal relics rest inside of it. The work was made by sculptor from Varese Jacopo Silla de Longhi who worked on it between 1568 and 1572, on commission by the commendatory Abbot Guido Ferreri. After a partial demolition in 1913-1917, this is what remains of the original ark of Saint Sylvester commissioned by the testament will of Guido Pepoli and completed in its Baroque aspect in 1634, thanks to Abbot Barberini. The ark was originally composed of three orders: a simple box with pillars, another box with small columns that contained the Treasure od the Abbey, and lastly the tomb of Saint Sylvester with eight squares by Silla de' Longhi representing some episodes from the life of the saint.
In order: left side – 3 front – right side – 3 back
Originally the ancient crucifix, placed on a cross from the Eighteenth century period, was not located on the walls of the Basilica, but was inserted on a pedestal base. The pain showing on the suffering countenance of Christ reclining his head on one side is of great expression.
Entering from the portal, the baptismal font is found immediately on the left: the first of the Sacraments is celebrated in an area near the entrance portal, since it the initial sacrament that donates God's life and introduces the believer into the Church. The result of a reconstruction of the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the font is composed by a basin supported by a column, surrounded by an octagonal shaped brick enclosure in which are inserted fragments of a Romanic frieze, some decorative reliefs and a tombstone recalling an Early Christian burial. The baptismal font was obtained by re-using a Roman fountain. The font is octagonal in shape. The number eight has a meaning linked to salvation: in the Arc, that
The representation is developed on three levels: above, the Crucifixion scene with Mary and Saint John; in the center, the Annunciation; below, from the left, Saint Martin, Gregory The Great, John the Evangelist, Saint James, Pope Sylvester I, Saint Antony the Abbot and Saint George. The massive fresco that had originally been attributed to the Degli Erri family of painters had been connected in the past also to the figure of the Maestro della Pala dei Muratori (Master of the Altarpiece of Masons) and more recently to the context of Canozi da Lendinara.
The crypt is one of the largest Romanic churches in Europe. It can be defined as “a forest made of stone” for the presence of 64 small columns that are distributed on it surface area. Each capital is different from the others, and we can find some representing animals, others with geometrical figures, and others with floral motifs. Symbolically, 64 columns could indicate the idea of perfection, since 64 is the square of 8, the number of perfection. The most ancient capitals are those surrounding the altar, classified as “Lombard from Nonantola area”. From the standpoint of architecture, the crypt, built in the XI century, was filled with earth at the beginning of the 1400s because of frequent water flooding and was reopened to the public only after the restoration of 1913-1917.
Generally located inside the altar of the crypt, the relics of the Nonantola saints are contained within a crystal and bronze ark made in the 1990s: these are the relics of Anselmo, founder and first Abbot of the monastery, of Pope Adrian III, who died in 884 at a short distance from Nonantola during a journey from Rome to Worms; the relics of martyrs Senesio and Teopompo who were killed in the year 304 in Turkey during a persecution of Diocletian against the Christians; and relics of Virgins Fosca and Anseride.
The facade we see today is the result of the restoration works which were made at the beginning of the Twentieth century as instructed by Archbishop Natale Bruni and entrusted to the direction of Don Ferdinando Manzini, the parish priest. Built in the XI century, the facade – and the whole Basilica in general – was altered at the end of the XVII century to reflect a Baroque style, during the tenure of Cardinal Albani as Abbot. When observing the color of the stones of the facade, we can recognize some traces of the Baroque church that were eliminated during the restoration made in the Twentieth century in order to bring the Basilica back to Romanic architecture, especially the two doors that gave access to the lateral naves and the round windows that took the place of mullioned windows. The facade, which nowadays features salients (or projecting elements), in the Baroque era was a “walled” unit.
The protruding Prothyrum (porch) frames the sculpted portal with a lunette and panels on the jambs. It rests on two lions bearing columns thanks to two supports, one circular and the other square in shape: these symbolize the two natures of Christ, respectively the human and divine natures. The crouching lion represents the Risen Lord and the pray between its paws is death, which He has defeated. Moreover, the Lion-Christ is represented as the support for the two columns: the Resurrected Christ supports his Church and the entire life of the believers through the passing of time. The lunette, attributed with certainty to Wiligelmo, shows us God on his throne in the act of blessing, flanked by two angels and surrounded by traditional iconography representations of the four Evangelists (the lion for Mark, the angel for Matthew, the eagle for John and ox for Luke). Beneath the lunette we find the lintel: a rift in the center is accompanied by a Latin inscription:
The high vaults of the temple fell down in the year 1117 from the birth of the Redeemer, and four years later a reconstruction began.
This is a reference to a violent earthquake that upset the Po River Valley in 1117.
The tiles on the jambs show us a few historical episodes carved in stone. On the left are displayed the story of the foundation and the first centuries of the life of the monastery, particularly the cult of veneration of the saints in the basilica, while on the left episodes of the nativity and infancy of Christ can be identified. A parallel progression between the two jambs can be identified. The episodes of the history and origin of the abbey are an example of the same story of salvation which is celebrated in the right jamb in the cyce of the nativity of Christ.
Of great beauty, they have been recently been highlighted by the recent addition (January 2018) of 22 enameled and engraved terracotta basins which have been set in place there, thus bringing the aspect of the apses closer to what it was in Medieval times. The project to relocate the basins was authorized by the Superintendence for Archeological, Fine Arts and Landscape Patrimony of the metropolitan City of Bologna and the Provinces of Modena, Reggio Emilia and Ferrara and has been configured as a new addition to the construction worksite for the restoration of the damage caused by the earthquake of May 2012. The project started from the analyses of three Byzantine ceramic basins from the XII century, some of which are fragmentary, still existing and kept in the halls of the Diocesan Museum.
The place that today is the garden of the Abbey was the location of the ancient monastic cloister in Medieval times. Today we can see what remains of the cloister adjacent to the southern flank of the Basilica: a construction on two levels, of which the lower part is from the 1300s and the upper part from the 1400s. In addition to the cloister, here there were orchards, a cemetery area for the monks (behind the apses), some workshops – a hypothesis that has been proved also by the recent finding of a furnace, that emerged during the digging campaign conducted by the Università Cà Foscari of Venice - and probably also the monastic scriptorium.