Lots to write about…

Welcome to Verona! The basilica of San Zeno is on the lower left edge of the map. You might notice the Roman arena (lower center), which is still used for operas and rock concerts today.

I’ve fallen way behind in blogging because I’ve been so busy seeing and traveling! I’ve seen some amazing churches, phenomenal art, and even made a few discoveries. I’m not going to put them all into one blog post, but know that coming up we have Giotto’s magnificent Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (Padova), two churches in the Venetian Lagoon, the paleochristian basilica in Aquileia, and the brilliant mosaics of Ravenna.

But this post is going to deal with some imagery from Verona in the basilica of the city’s patron saint, San Zeno. Western Christians often fail to think of Roman Christianity in the context of the whole Mediterranean, but the influence of Northern Africa in early Christianity is hard to overestimate, spanning from Egypt to Mauritania (modern Algeria and Morocco). Think about it: the church has been shaped profoundly by St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Anthansius of Alexandria. All of which is to say that the beloved patron saint of Verona, San Zeno, was also from Mauritania. He was born circa 300 and lived into his 70s. He is often pictured with either a fishing rod or a fish on the line hanging from his crozier. Two stories exist: one that he was fond of fishing in the River Adige and another that he was a great “fisher of people.” I like to think he was using dry flies and landing bigger fish than the one pictured below.

16th c. polychrome statue of San Zeno in his basilica in Verona.

The basilica contains wonderful frescoes and a triptych by Andrea Mantegna, but the element that struck me most strongly were the amazing bronze plaques on the great doors of the basilica. (SAYS) There are 48 of them, primarily of biblical scenes, and they are beautiful. They were likely created in two stages from the 10th to 12th century. (A major earthquake in 1117 destroyed the earlier edifice, and the current Romanesque basilica was built afterward.) And at least the first batch was made by a Saxon artisan.

It is always interesting to see what scenes are chosen to be represented in art. (And what is selected by the blogger to show you!) I’ll include some representative samples below (including an image of San Zeno.)

(MEANT) I don’t know much about the intended purpose of the panels, though my guess is that they served some didactic use, telling different biblical stories and also local lore. See what you think! It’s also interesting to consider that around 1000, most of Spain and Portugal were under Islamic control, and that Christianity was just making headway in Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia. And the Holy Roman Empire was absorbing northern Italy.

(MEANS) I found the plaques fascinating because they allow us a brief glimpse into Christianity a thousand years ago. The figures come from an entirely different age than our own, and it shows. There is a rustic beauty and artistic quality in the panels. The figures say something to me as a person of faith, looking back at my own tradition: that story matters, whether factual or metaphoric. What do these panels say to you?

It is difficult to capture the scale of the doors…maybe 30 feet high?
Noah and the Ark
The beheading of John the Baptizer
Crucifixion with angels in the sun and the moon
The Empty Tomb, but that’s not all…
A really odd anastasis, showing Jesus on the right edge, extracting people from Hades. Note the absence of any imagery we often see: keys or broken gates.
And dear San Zeno fishing from his cathedra (bishop’s chair) by the side of the Adige. Not everyone gets a seat while fishing!