Of Santuari, Basiliche, Duomi and Cattedrali in Parma

A sanctuary is a place of safety. Traditionally, one can seek sanctuary from an enemy by sheltering in the sacred precincts of a religious building. Today, unfortunately as world events have shown, such places are no guarantee of safety at all.

A sanctuary is also a place associated with a saint. Italy is a country of saints and sanctuaries proliferate. Lucca, for example, has its sanctuary dedicated to Saint Gemma (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/saint-gemma-galgani-mystic-saint-or-mental-patient/  ). Often sanctuaries are larger and more imposing buildings than cathedrals. In Padua  the extraordinary sanctuary dedicated to Saint Anthony (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/the-saint-of-lost-causes/) dominates the town in a way that the Duomo does not.

Parma’s magnificent cathedral (the Correggio frescoes in its cupola are the precursor of the ascending-heavenly-angelic 3-D effects which characterize counter-reformation churches), which we visited on a previous trip to this city, still retains its primacy among religious edifices:


but coming a close second is the beautiful sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata (literally Saint Mary of the stockade) which I had missed out on the previous visit but was now able to see last week-end.

The sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata is also a basilica. At this stage one might rightly be confused about the terms duomo, cattedrale and basilica as applied in Italy. Let’s try to explain their difference:

A basilica is, literally, ‘the house of the king’ and, thus, of the Lord. Its name derives from Greek ‘Basileus’ which signifies king and from ‘oikos’ which means house. Every church could thus be defined as a basilica but the Roman Catholic Church only gives to some the title of basilica (which could be a minor or major one) depending on their importance and artistic value. A basilica, furthermore must be able maintain the correct decorum in the practise of its religious rites.

A Duomo, from Latin ‘Domus’ meaning house, still remains the house of God and is the most important church in a town or city. It’s usually originally built in gothic style with a firm emphasis on the vertical – aspirations going heavenwards.

A cattedrale (cathedral) is a Duomo located in a town or city which is also the seat of a bishop. In fact, the name cattedrale comes from Latin ‘cathedra’ meaning a throne – for that’s where the bishop has his seat.

The Basilica of Santa Maria della Steccata, from 1718 the seat of the Constantinian Order of St. George (which is supposed to date back to its founding by the Roman Emperor Constantine) was constructed between 1521 and 1539 and in 2008 elevated to the rank of minor basilica. So it’s both a sanctuary and a basilica but not a duomo or cattedrale. I hope that explains it now!

10192015 136

On the site of the present church a religious building existed since 1392 and an oratory was built to house a venerated image of St. John the Baptist painted in fresco on the outer wall of a house. The building became home to a brotherhood dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation and engaged in the distribution of dowries for poor girls and unmarried women who lacked paternal protection.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century a picture of the Madonna nursing the baby Jesus on the facade of the oratory was painted. This image soon became the object of special devotion on the part of the people of Parma Since the area of ​​the building was protected by a fence, erected perhaps to control the flow of pilgrims, the Virgin began to be invoked under the title of ‘Our Lady of the Steccata’ (stockade).

In order to conserve the precious image, the congregants, in 1521, decided to build a large sanctuary. On April 4, 1521 the Bishop of Lodi, Nicola Urbani, laid the foundation stone of the present building. The work was entrusted to the architects Bernardino and Giovan Francesco Zaccagni from Torrechiara, who had already directed the construction of the town’s abbey church of St. John.  From 1525 work continued under Gian Francesco d’Agrate. The dome was raised, however, between 1526 and 1527 by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who was sent to Parma from Pope Clement VII where he had been involved in the construction of the new Saint Peter’s basilica…

The church was consecrated on February 24, 1539 by Cardinal Ciocchi Gian Maria del Monte, papal legate of the duchies of Parma and Piacenza.

The building’s plan is a Greek cross, with transepts placed on the cardinal axes. Between the cross’s arms there are four quadrangular chapels. The church is, indeed, very similar to the original plan for Saint Peter’s in Rome before Maderna changed that building’s Michaelangeloesque plan into the more generally accepted Latin cross, with a long nave better suited to liturgical purposes.

10192015 137
The interior is decorated with seventeenth century frescoes of the Parma school.  The entire pictorial decoration was initially entrusted to Parmigianino, but only he managed to paint a few frescoes depicting the three wise


and the three foolish virgins.


The decoration was continued by Michelangelo Anselmi, who painted the frescoes of the Coronation of the Virgin in the eastern apse (designed by Giulio Romano),

10192015 113

and Bernardino Gatti, who painted the Assumption of Mary in the dome.

10192015 134

The interior is permeated with a rich and mystic atmosphere intensified by the arrival of many pilgrims while I was there. It’s pure frozen music and would, in fact, make a wonderful ambience for such works as Palestrina’s polyphonic masses.

I was also able to visit the sacristy which I would rate as one of the most beautiful of any visited in Italy. The wood carving of the cupboards containing the priest’s vestments is supreme and their contents, richly embroidered by an enclosed order of nuns, is quite heavenly. Photography is not encouraged so you’ll have to imagine much of it. However, here are some shots I took of this opulent room:

Equally interesting is the crypt. In 1823, at the behest of Marie Luigia of Austria, a crypt was built to preserve the tombs of the dukes and princes of the houses of Farnese and Bourbon-Parma (the ashes were transferred from the church of Santa Maria Del Tempio). Here there’s a connection with the crypt of the Hapsburgs we saw in Vienna quite a few years back,


for Maria Luigia was herself a member of this great Austrian dynasty of the Hapsburgs.

The basilica has two magnificent organs.

The Antegnati organ dates back to 1574. The Antegnati were a Brescian family of organ builders who were active between the end of the fifteenth and the start of the eighteenth century.  The organ was restored in 1778 by Antonio Negri Poncini and again by the now defunct Tamburini firm of organ builders in 1970.

The second organ was built by Carlo Vegezzi-Bossi in 1892 and restored in 1940, again by Tamburini.

It would be fantastic to hear these organs. Next visit perhaps?


2 thoughts on “Of Santuari, Basiliche, Duomi and Cattedrali in Parma

  1. Thanks for the erudite explanation of basilica cattedrale and duomo now we know fascinating! I enjoyed the photos very creative angles and what absolute dreamy paintings I love the sculpted creatures owl and has relief horse certainly all very theatrical unlike the advice of Jesus to have simple places of worship to the point that we can pray and be heard anywhere I feel that we do notray enough remember the Grace Prayer before and after meals our long boring daily events. What I adore about the Catholic Ritual is that the Seasons are so clearly marked and you feel so in touch with Mother Nature plus if you have a good priest you could well get a fascinating Sermon to the point that once we were invited to clap at the end as if it were a show maybe a show of appreciation a sort of thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s