Cathedrals Of Italy – Heart Of The Country’s Religious Life

The cathedrals of Italy are found throughout the country’s major cities and represent some of the finest architectural work of the last thousand years. Ranging from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, each cathedral is a treasure trove of art, sculptures and stained glass windows, as well as serving central religious and social functions within the communities they serve. One of the many things I love to do as an Expat in Italy is to visit the major cathedrals.

What Does The Word Cathedral Mean?

The word ‘cathedral’ originates from the Latin word ‘cathedra’ and literally translates to the word ‘seat’. The ‘cathedra’ or ‘seat’, refers to the fact that the cathedral is the ‘seat of the Bishop’ in the Roman Catholic religious structure. The Bishop oversees the other churches and priests within his diocese as well as conducting services in his, and other, cathedrals.

What’s The Difference Between A Church And A Cathedral?

Both cathedrals and churches are places of worship in the Christian faith, although there are important differences between the two.

Firstly, a cathedral is managed by a bishop whereas a church is run by a priest. Cathedrals also have administrative and logistical functions within the diocese that churches do not. In this sense, a cathedral is higher up the religious hierarchy than a church is; just as a bishop is a higher authority within the Christian religion than a priest is.

Bologna Skyline Sunset

There are exceptions to the rule that all cathedrals have a bishop because following the Reformation of the 16th Century some cathedrals replaced their bishops with priests; although these churches were still referred to as cathedrals and kept their special status. This was most common in Scotland, Holland, certain regions of Germany and Switzerland; where they took up a more Presbyterian approach to Christianity.

Nonetheless, both churches and cathedrals are extremely important institutions for their congregations and serve as community hubs where many civil functions take place, including weddings, funerals and baptisms. In any city there will be many churches, however only one cathedral in any given denomination, which has been designated by the Pope and the Holy See. There are some cities that have several cathedrals but each one is of a different denomination.

What Are The Main Functions Of A Cathedral?

Cathedrals are primarily a place of worship however they do serve multiple symbolic, civic, social and religious functions. Naturally, there is some overlap between the different functions although they all play a valuable role in the day to day life of the people in Italy, which is a much more religious country than most of its neighbors in Europe.

Symbolic Functions Of The Cathedral.

Cathedrals are usually large, impressive buildings that dominate the city’s skyline. This emphasizes the importance of the religion in a visual way and publicly honors God, for whom the building is ultimately created to serve.

Cathedrals are traditionally built with an East/West orientation that allows the congregation to look towards the rising sun while they worship. Symbolically, the rising sun represents Jesus and the resurrection from the cross and is a central philosophy of all Christians around the world.

As well as orientating the building towards the rising sun, cathedrals are also built in the shape of a cross; with a long central nave and two branches coming out at right angles, although not in all cases.

The nave itself comes from the Latin word which means ‘ship’, and is a symbolic representation of the cathedral as the ship which carries the congregation through the hard times and storms of life.

Cathedrals of the Eastern Orthodox Church are built around a central plan and always have a large dome. Orthodox cathedrals symbolize the relationship between the heavens and earth; with the dome representing the heavens above. This is often emphasized by beautiful decorations in the form of mosaics and elaborate frescoes depicting the Saints and other Biblical imagery.

Religious Functions Of The Cathedral.

As well as being the home of the bishop in his diocese, the cathedral also has other important religious functions. For instance, the cathedral is used as the location for the meetings of the Chapter of the Diocese; which is made up from a group of trusted canon priests who advise and support the bishop in his work. The Chapter of the cathedral is sometimes also charged with electing a new bishop if there is a vacancy for the position.

Cathedrals also provide daily services for their congregations. Traditionally, a cathedral has 3 services each day, including the early matins, the Holy Communion and an evening service when the choir sings hymns. Cathedrals also host special services on Sundays and on all the major religious holidays and celebrations.

All cathedrals have a water basin, known as the ‘font’, which is used to perform Baptisms; a ceremony that initiates new members into the church community. The font is traditionally placed near the door of the church, symbolically representing the entry of a new initiate into the church community.

Of course, every cathedral has a pulpit from where the scriptures are taught and the bishop, or other priests, deliver their services. The pulpit is raised above the rest of the congregation and is often adorned with a lion, a bull, an eagle and a winged man; which symbolically represent the 4 writers of the Gospels; Mark, Luke, John and Matthew.

Social And Civic Functions Of The Cathedral.

Services in the cathedral are based on the seasons of the Northern hemisphere with Christmas being celebrated in midwinter and Easter being celebrated in the spring. Many cathedrals also host annual Harvest festivals during the autumn, when crops are traditionally harvested and stored for the winter ahead.

Cathedrals conduct other important social and civic functions, the most important of which are weddings, funerals, births and confirmations. These events are the bedrock of civic life and help to bind the community together in both times of celebration and mourning.

People who have worked with the cathedral, or are closely associated with it, are often buried on the cathedral’s grounds. In other cases, the cathedrals hold memorial services for those who have served it well. Lastly, cathedrals were the traditional location for the coronation of monarchies throughout Europe.

Dome of Saint Peter's Basilica

Cathedrals usually have large bell towers which are used to communicate with the community at large. Daily services are announced by ringing the bells. There are other signs that the bells can convey, for example, a ringing of the peals announces a time of celebration whereas a slow tolling of the bells announces a death or a community disaster. Many cathedrals also ring their bells on the hour, throughout the day, to help the community keep track of the time; something which was especially important before people had watches or phones! Cathedral bells were also rung out to signify the beginning and end of wars and conflicts in Europe.

Cathedrals sometimes have political functions including housing the offices of a local mayor, city council or even the courts. Some cathedrals have their own schools which teach their own choirs as well as weekend Sunday school lessons for children of the congregation.

What Are The Most Famous Cathedrals In Italy?

Italy is home to some of the world’s most famous and impressive cathedrals. The cathedrals of Italy are built in many different architectural styles which is largely determined by when they were first designed and built. For instance, the Cathedral of Milan is an amazing example of the Gothic style whereas St Peter’s in the Vatican has many features of Renaissance architecture.

  • St Peter’s, in the Vatican: St Peter’s Basilica is the seat of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, and is the largest and most important cathedral in the world. The basilica is traditionally said to be the burial place of St Peter, the Apostle, who was the first Bishop of Rome. The stunning cathedral houses incredible artwork as well as precious relics and holds many of the central ceremonies of Catholicism throughout the year.
  • Milan Cathedral: The Milan Cathedral is consecrated and dedicated to the praise of the Nativity of Saint Mary, and is consequently known as the Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Nativity of Saint Mary. The incredible Gothic cathedral took more than 600 years to build, with work starting in 1386 and finally being completed in the 1960s! Milan Cathedral is the second largest cathedral in the world, behind St Peter’s in the Vatican.
  • Florence Cathedral: Known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florence Cathedral was built between 1296 and 1436. This Gothic masterpiece was designed by Arnolfo di Cambrio, while the famous dome was created by Filippo Brunelleschi. The outer facades of the cathedral are made from marble panels in different shades of pink and green with a white border, as well as an additional beautiful 19th Century façade made by Emilio De Fabris.
  • Siena Cathedral: The Siena Cathedral, or the Duomo di Siena, is a stunning medieval church that is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The cathedral was built between 1215 and 1263 and is now the seat of the Archdiocese of Siena-Colle di Val d’Elsa Montalcino. The cathedral was actually built on the site of a former structure and is designed in the shape of a cross. The large bell tower houses 6 bells, the oldest of which was actually cast in 1149!
  • Modena Cathedral: The Cathedral di Santa Maria Asunta e San Geminiano, or the Modena Cathedral for short, is dedicated to Saint Geminianus and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is currently the seat of the Archdiocese of Modena. The cathedral was built in the 12th century and is a fantastic example of the Romanesque architectural style; in recent years the Modena Cathedral has been assigned World Heritage Site status.
  • Pisa Cathedral: Pisa Cathedral is a medieval church that’s located in the Piazza dei Miracoli and is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This stunning cathedral is a notable Romanesque cathedral that also incorporates elements of the Byzantine and Classical styles in its features. This is a special type of architectural design that is known as ‘Pisan Romanesque’. The cathedral was designed by Buscheto in the 11th Century and used money that was obtained from fighting the Muslims in Sicily during the same period.
  • Assisi Cathedral: This is one of the major Franciscan cathedrals in Italy that is dedicated to the Rufinus of Assisi who was martyred in the 3rd Century. The cathedral is designed in an Umbrian Romanesque style, making it fairly unique in the Christian world. The cathedral was built in the 12th Century and is also the site where important figures such as Francis of Assisi, Saint Clare and others were baptized into the church.
  • Parma Cathedral: The Duomo di Parma, or the Cathedral di Santa Maria Assunta, is the episcopal seat of the important Diocese of Parma in Emilia Romagna. This cathedral is a beautiful example of a Romanesque cathedral with its classical dome in the center of the roof; and its elaborately decorated interior was designed by the Renaissance artist Antonio da Correggio.
Florence Italy Sunset
  • Orvieto Cathedral: This large cathedral in Orvieto is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and since 1986 has been the episcopal seat of the Diocese of Trodi as well as Orvieto. The cathedral was built after Pope Urban IV ordered the creation of a home for the ‘Corporal of Bolsena’, a holy relic of the miracle that was said to have happened in the 13th Century. A priest was doubting the transubstantiation of the sacramental bread when he discovered that it was actually bleeding in its plate! This miraculous blood continued to appear and stained the altar cloth; which is now kept inside the Chapel of the Orvieto Cathedral and revered as a holy relic.
  • Basilica San Marco: This incredible cathedral is the Archdiocese of Venice and is usually known as St Mark’s Basilica, or the ‘Basilica di San Marco’ in Italian. This is one of the city’s most renowned cathedrals and is a fantastic example of Byzantine architecture. Originally connected to the official Doge’s Palace, it only became the city’s cathedral in the early 19th Century.
  • Basilica of Saint Anthony: Located in Padua, the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua is a cathedral and minor basilica which is dedicated to Saint Anthony. The cathedral is a popular pilgrimage site for people from all over the world and although it’s not the city’s main cathedral, it is one of only 8 International Shrines that have been officially consecrated by the Pope and the Holy See.

The Cathedrals Of Italy Are Architectural Wonders Of The World.

No visit, or stay, in Italy would be complete without exploring the incredible cathedrals that are located throughout the country’s major cities. Not only can you explore the religious and social significance of the cathedrals but you can see and experience the phenomenal architecture, art and decorations that give them such a divine presence.

Regardless of whether or not you are a practicing Christian, attending some of the major services and holy day events in the cathedrals is a fantastic way to get a real taste of how religion plays a role in the life of Italy.

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