The Duomo of Fiesole in Tuscany

The Duomo of Fiesole is situated in Tuscany and anyone who has been to Tuscany will certainly recognize this right from the outset by simply looking at its external architecture, most especially its distinctly Tuscan style tower. 

The foundation of the cathedral dates to the year 1024, thirty years prior to the Great Schism of East and West in the year 1054.  In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the cathedral was enlarged.  The general form of the basilica is Romanesque in its style,

The interior is relatively spartan with the usual Romanesque features of a single main nave and two aisles down each side separated by columns as well an trussed, open timber ceiling.

One of the more interesting and unique features of the cathedral is the altar and presbytery. The historic high altar is that located at the very end of the basilica and the presbytery is raised similar to what one sees in San Lorenzo fuori le Muro in Rome, a crypt beneath. The current high altar, however, is that which sits before it down at the level of the nave.

This type of arrangement is more commonly seen today of course, but what makes this stand out is that this is not the result of a re-ordering of the second half of the twentieth century, but rather an earlier re-ordering as can be seen in these images from the nineteenth century.  Paintings of the Duomo show that at one time this altar had a large reredos surmounted by a crucifix and canopy which would have substantially blocked the view of the historical high altar found in behind -- no doubt purposefully so as to focus attention on what had become the main altar. At some point this was likewise changed to a retablo and the altar canopy removed to better reveal what was behind. Finally, in our modern era, the retablo too was removed and a freestanding altar arrangement put in place. The progression can be seen here in the following succession of images:

It is not without irony that for all these modern re-orderings, if they were set on doing this it was arguably the very first re-ordering that is the most properly liturgical by virtue of an arrangement whose intent was to make that altar the primary point of focus in the cathedral -- as is liturgically appropriate. In the second and third iterations we begin to see this fade to the extent that in its current incarnation one could be forgiven for failing to notice there was an altar there at all -- something as simple as a set of high altar candlesticks and antependium would substantially help to remedy.

Of course, it all begs the question of whether any of this was advisable in the first place. If greater visibility was the aim, a better compromise might have been to lower and/or move back a portion of the railing located in the historic presbytery, thereby giving a clearer view of the altar and its associated ceremonies from the nave for as many a modern liturgist and renovating architect has no doubt discovered, it can be very difficult to work against the clear architectural and artistic integrity of these buildings, and attempting to overshadow a historical ordering such as this is an uphill battle at best -- and likely, as we see here, a lost one. 

With that said, let us turn our attention where it likely should be: to the historic presbytery and altar which is dominated by the fifteenth century triptych depicting "The Virgin and Child with Saints Alexander, Peter, Romulus and Donatus" which was done by the artist Bicci de Lorenzo in the 1440's.  

As we have noted in our series on the history of the forms of the Christian altar, altars historically come either in table form or tomb form; in this particular instance we see the former and it raises an important point. While many today automatically associate a "table altar" as necessarily meaning something insubstantial, likely moveable, that is by no means the case historically speaking. The best altars in table form should have the same presence and substantiality as those in tomb form.

The second point of interest is the painted apsidal vault which depicts scenes from the life of St. Romulus of Fiesole by Nicodemo Ferrucci, painted in the 1600's. If you are wondering who this saint is, St. Romulus was a first century bishop and martyr who, by tradition, is believed to have been a disciple of St. Peter himself. He is the patron saint of Fiesole.

Finally, I'd like to conclude by showing a few images of this spectacular altar in liturgical use, coming within the context of the usus antiquior offered on Gaudete Sunday in 2019 by the Institute of Christ the King -- whose seminary is situated relatively nearby -- in the presence of the bishop of Fiesole.

Do you like Liturgical Arts Journal's original content? You can help support LAJ in its mission and vision to promote beauty in Catholic worship either by: 

You choose the amount! Your support makes all the difference.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.