Postcard from Modena, Italy: Watch out for the devil in the architectural details

…monstrous beings of every kind, sinful creatures threatening the spiritual path of humankind…. Images emphasize the symbolic meaning of the church door, which separates the believers gathered inside, from those standing outside, who may fall prey to the Devil.”

UNESCO Guide to Visiting the Cathedral of Modena

Fortunately, if one does not want to pass through the doorway with the most monsters, the Cathedral dominating two plazas in Modena has numerous entrances with other lessons. Sculptural reliefs clustered around and above the doors teach the Biblical lesson of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden; the story of the city’s patron saint, Saint Geminiani, who died shortly before the year 400 and whose remains are housed in the crypt; seasonal harvests; and Arthurian legends.

Many of these were the work of sculptor Wiligemo, who worked simultaneously with the architect Lanfranco – “the choice of architect had been miraculously inspired by God.” Construction of the Romanesque Cathedral began in 1099, and it was consecrated in 1184. UNESCO describes the result as:

a magnificent example of Romanesque Art which astonished society at the time and still fills us with wonder….

As construction work took more than a century, some interior sculptural work was designed and completed by Campionesi masters.

The soaring Cathedral and the Ghirlandina Tower on its side are among the beautiful buildings in Modena compelling one to linger, meandering its relatively tourist-free streets and plazas.

Coming home to roost to celebrate San Jacinto Day?

corrmorants

 

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew, 
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv’d….

Paradise Lost, John Milton

Satan disguised as a cormorant to spy on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden seems apt to me.

stretching-cormorant

USDA photo

The gloomy-looking double-crested cormorants always spook me. They love to pose on the chains by the dam by the marina, stretching their pterodactyl-type wings as though offering to lift the chains for the barges to cruise right under, dramatically plunging to the level below.

I feel a little bit better about this display now that I know they have no oil glands to repel water; they have to spread their wings to dry out their water-logged feathers. They can’t help it.

But cormorants pop up suddenly from underwater, seemingly out of nowhere, as you walk along the river’s banks. Like Lola Fandango swimming in the tank in Where the Boys Are, these expert fishermen can hold their breath as they swim underwater for a long time. More than a minute.

Even one of river’s cormorants can give me the willies. That’s why this Hitchcock-like gathering of the birds on the Mission Reach seemed particularly ominous the other morning. For birds added to the list of those protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the 1970s, this had to represent some kind of major powwow. Fortunately, their eyes focused toward downtown, the water buzzards let us pass by them unharmed.

What could the convention of cormorants portend? The Irish part of me heaved a sigh of relief – at least the sea crows were not perched atop a church steeple.

Some cultures consider cormorants noble, but, while I’m trying to regard the glass as half-full, I can’t sell myself on that one.

Fishermen regard their sighting as good luck; the fish they seek should be found nearby. One plus for the cormorant.

According to the USDA, greedy cormorants keep fish from overpopulating the river. They actually are an environmental indicator species, meaning the environment of the Mission Reach is healthy. So our cormorants are bearers of good news. Chalk up one more for the cormorant, plus one for the work of the San Antonio River Authority.

In old Norwegian legends, a trio of cormorants bear messages or warnings from the dead.*

But we encountered a whole army of them ready to invade downtown. There were maybe 100 of them. Maybe even more than 200 (Okay, I’m not sure how many. But we definitely were outnumbered.).

But good ol’ Cliff helped me figure this out. Norwegians also believed the dead used the cormorant guise another way as well – so they could fly home for a visit.

the spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

the noble spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

So, based on my extensive research, my interpretation of the meaning of the gathered army follows.

Obviously, those cormorants were the defenders of the Alamo, rising up to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Mexican Army at San Jacinto in 1836.

What do you think of that brilliant idea, my friend, Phil Collins?

Fiesta San Antonio must be their favorite holiday for rising from the grave. Betcha they come back next year.

*I have to stop right here and make a confession to the spirit of Mrs. Masterson. Some of these concepts came from CliffsNotes.com. But I promise. I never opened one of those guides once in your class in high school. Not for Milton. Not even when Moby Dick threatened to swallow all time for social life. Plus, I knew you could smell a CliffsNotes’ idea in the answer to a discussion question before the ink dried. Toward the end of the book, though, I did start reading only every fifth chapter…. That was still a whale of a lot of pages.