As I circle the domed space, I approach the front of the pulpit for the third time. I can’t believe how perfect it is that I am seeing the chapel at night; that I am alone. There is an eerie feel to the room that’s intensified by the few thin slices of light glancing off the rough brick and terracotta surfaces. Though the hushed ambiance seems appropriate for a place of worship, there is a lively element in the room that causes me to smile each time I come upon it—it’s a prancing creature that is now my pick as the new face of religious zeal.
I move away from its happy expression to peer into the dimness of the triforium that rings the top of the space where the ceiling begins to gather itself into an octagonal dome. The darkness behind the openings is haunting. Just as I think how likely it is that spirits lurk there, a door slams and I jump. I’m inwardly chiding myself for the overreaction when I realize I feel like a kid who’s about to get caught somewhere I’m not supposed to be.
This somewhere is the oldest chapel within the Santo Stefano Basilica in Bologna. Called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was modeled after the Jerusalem rotunda of the same name built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 336 A.D. to hold Jesus’ tomb. The person responsible for giving the citizens of Bologna a replica is Petronius Vescovo, who is now Bologna’s patron saint. He experienced the original church during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime during the fifth century.
During his tenure as the Bishop of Bologna, he is credited with repairing many of the town’s churches destroyed by the Goths during their invasion of the Western Empire, but these interconnected chapels built in 450 A.D. are his most notable architectural contributions to Bologna’s history. Local lore says he wanted to provide the citizens with the same experience he had had while walking through some of the most revered architecture in Christendom at the time. The complex is still called Le Sette Chiese, or the Seven Churches, even though only four of the original chapels remain and it has changed significantly since Saint Petronius walked through its cloisters.
The chapel that beckoned me that night held the saint’s remains and the relics commemorating his life until 2000 when they were moved to the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna’s main church on the Piazza Maggiore. (2) When these artifacts were found in 1141, the discovery prompted a weekly tradition during which the door of the tomb was opened to allow visitors to crawl inside so they could pay their respects to the saint’s remains. I still recoil when thinking about the chamber behind the grated window at the bottom of the pulpit that would have held his bones: it was a pitch-black hole when I saw it that night.
Though the fifth century seems mind-bogglingly old, this particular building had a previous life: it stands on the footprint of a temple celebrating the Egyptian goddess Aset, which we know in modern times as the goddess Isis. A tablet found on the premises confirms this, (3) as does an architectural detail that has survived from the temple—a slim marble column set next to one of twelve stouter brick ones that ring the pulpit in the middle of the space. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists former residents of the compound as ancient Egyptian monks, the Celestines and the Benedictines, who care for the buildings today.
I was in town to cover Cersaie, an Italian tradeshow devoted to ceramic tile and found myself at the church when organizers of the fair took us to the soulful spot to enjoyed hors d’oeuvres by candlelight in the medieval cloister. Interspersed with the noisy throng of VIPs and journalists were a handful of the resident friars, their white cassocks gleaming in the candle-glow. I am still not sure why I decided to wander off from the crowd; I simply remember feeling inexplicably drawn into the empty room, and I am so glad I was because this is when I came upon the amusing creatures frolicking on the bas relief that wrapped around one corner of the pulpit.
They represent the four evangelists, and while St. Matthew and St. John were rendered as a pious angle and a stately eagle respectively, St. Luke as a winged ox seems to be merrily leaping and St. Mark as a winged lion is having a gambol with a beatific smile taking over most of his face! Below them, a story unfolds beneath the trefoil arch, which acts as a scrim to the mausoleum. It features three napping Roman soldiers who have just slept through the Resurrection—a cautionary tale to misbehaving Christians no doubt.
When I decided it was time to write about this experience, I went in search of the name of the artist or artists who created the sculptures on the pulpit but the identity of anyone associated with the work seems to have been lost. In his Historical Handbook of Italian Sculpturepublished in 1882, Charles Callahan Perkins writes that there are “scant records of early sculptors” in Bologna and that the date of the pulpit and name of its creator remain unknown. He called the figures on the surface of the tall platform “rude,” and though the crudeness of the art was one of the first things that struck me about the architectural gem of storytelling, I didn’t find it lacking. I actually felt I was seeing religion at its friendliest, a state of mind that had permeated the evening from start to finish.
There was a great camaraderie between us journalists in town for the trade show and we’d had the good fortune of befriending one of the friars. He had us all in stitches when he crowed three times to bring the story of the Rooster of St. Peter to life. His inspiration was a stone sculpture perched under the portico that runs along the edge of the Courtyard of Pilates where we had spent most of the evening. I’d never met a monk while visiting a monastery before and I felt privileged to have done so. I also felt happy that he was such a jovial man, one who seemed so content in his surroundings, because it changed my view of monastic life as a more contemporary experience in keeping with our times.
My frame of reference before that night had been gleaned from books about hermits who were prone to asceticism and self-flagellation, not the habits of a person you’d find engaging enough to spend time with during happy hour! They had more important things to do than party, of course, such as recording the history of religious development from classical antiquity forward. They were the perfect personalities to make sure the fables of the Middle Ages survived, and they are the reason we have so much evidence of the medieval mind available to us today. They brought the stories of their times forward through the illuminated manuscripts they created, such as the Gospel Booksthat show us how the four evangelists I found on the pulpit were thought of when it was created.
The colorful but somber drawings representing these symbols from Ezekiel’s ominous vision were far from merry in these books, which leaves me asking why the sculptor, or sculptors, rendered such a beaming portrayal of a figure at the center of one of the biggest religious upheavals in history. There’s not a smidge of lightheartedness in the Gospel According to Saint Mark now. Was there then? Their account of Mark’s mythic tale wasn’t the same during medieval times as we know it now: the story ended in mystery with an empty tomb. This is one of the interesting things about looking so far back in time. Life then is not life as we know it and it’s important not to impose our thinking on their realities.
As I began writing this piece, it dawned on me why I felt like a kid who’d been caught somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be that evening. The seriousness of the atmosphere and the innocence of the carved symbols reminded me of one of my favorite classes in elementary school. It was taught by Mrs. Gray, who brought the stories of the Bible to life with her jovial manner and her passion for storytelling. I saw the same joy depicted in the winged lion that I saw on her portly face back then. I haven’t thought of her or the award I received as the most attentive student in that sixth-grade class in decades, and I’m grateful to the unknown artist for leading me back to my own ancient history when religion was as mysterious as a grinning lion with wings!
The Modern Salonnière and The New Face of Religious Zeal © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose booksinclude Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is the co-founder of Sharktooth Press. You can see recommendations for books from many of her posts on her Amazon Influencer page and find her essays on Medium.by