Nonantola - The abbey of San Silvestro

The facade
The facade of the Abbey of San Silvestro – entirely in brick, decorated with overhanging arches along the whole exterior wall – is divided in three by two semi-columns. A twin lancet window lights the central nave while the prothyron – supported by two columns with leafy capitals resting on lions guarding the entrance – frames the splendid portal. The latter demonstrates a clear-cut relationship with the Duomo of Modena, also in terms of workmanship:  indeed it is above all the sculptures of the portal which invite comparisons with those of Wiligelmus.
Also at Nonantola, along the archivolt and the internal jambs, there are ornaments in the form of acanthus vines populated by human and monstrous figures, while the exterior jambs illustrate, on the left, inside ten panels partially held aloft by two Telamons, the history of the Abbey, and on the right, episodes from the life of Christ.
Once again on the left is sculpted the story of how Aistulf, King of the Lombards donated the territory of Nonantola that the church would be erected on, to Anselm. We can then admire the translated body of another Pope, Hadrian III, who died near Nonantola and was buried in the monastery. Events from the life of Jesus including the Visitation, the Annunciation and the Nativity, are clearly visible on the left, while in the lunette is depicted the enthroned Christ with two angels; in the corners, inside medallions, are placed the symbols of the four Evangelists. Finally, on the architrave and slightly crooked due to an ancient crack, it is possible to read an inscription referring to the destruction suffered by the church in 1117 following an earthquake.

The interior
The interior – given rhythm by the mighty quatrefoil pillars which divide it into three naves – has a solemn and austere presence. The eye is instantly attracted by the presbytery, raised above the crypt, and by the main altar – in which the reliquaries of the Saints lie – enriched by priceless panels illustrating scenes from the life of Saint Sylvester, produced in 1572 by Giacomo Silla de’ Longhi.
The left-hand nave holds the baptismal font, put together from ancient marble fragments. On the right, framed by a Gothic arch, the splendid fresco from the Bolognese school of the Erri family, is in three bands: at the top the Crucifixion, in the centre the Annunciation, at the bottom the Saints Martin and Gregory, John the Baptist and others. Of note too is the perfectly restored organ from 1743 by Domenico Traeri, just in front of the staircase. Lastly, there is the crypt, made highly atmospheric by the play of light and shade afforded by its 64 small columns, and last restored in 1913-17. Particularly fascinating are the 36 ancient capitals, sculpted between the ninth and eleventh century.

The apses
Leaving the crypt, via the southern nave of the Basilica, it is possible to reach the fourteenth to fifteenth century loggia and from there, the apses. Held to be a genuine masterpiece of Romanesque art, these feature a sober elegance marked by pilasters, blind arcades, overhanging arches and a twin lancet window mirroring that of the facade, divided by a small column with capital. The Palazzo Abbaziale, a building adjoining the Abbey, still conserves plentiful features of the original medieval building under its plasterwork. Not to be missed is the gorgeous Gothic portal.
Long the home of the Abbey seminary, the Palazzo now houses the Abbey’s archives and library, the Nonantola Benedictine Museum and the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art. The Abbey’s archives conserve almost the entire documentary heritage of the Abbey; the earliest and most important nucleus consisting of 4,524 parchments dating back to as early as 751 AD

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