Located in the central Italian region of Lazio, Anagni Cathedral is a magnificent Romanesque edifice that should be more famous than it is. In addition to imposing castle-like architecture, it contains a crypt covered in beautifully-preserved medieval frescoes of biblical stories, saints and scientific diagrams.
Christianity arrived fairly early in Anagni as a result of its proximity to Rome. Later legends mention St. Peter visiting Anagni in the first century, but this has no historical basis. A bit more reliable are documents that record a local woman named Marcia, mistress of Emperor Commodus (180-92), taking a liking to Christians and procuring benefits for them.
Fifty years later, during the persecution under Decius (249-51), St. Secondina was martyred at Anagni. Her relics are in the cathedral crypt.
It was probably around 450 that a pagan sanctuary on the acropolis of Anagni was transformed into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Such dedications were became increasingly popular after the Council of Ephesus in 431. The first certain historical record of Christianity in Anagni dates to March 13, 487, when Felice, Bishop of Anagni, was recorded at a council in the Lateran Basilica in Rome.
The present Anagni Cathedral was commissioned by Bishop St. Peter of Salerno in 1072, who was assigned the task by St. Magnus in a vision. A Benedictine monk, Peter is known to have made two trips to Constantinople, the second to participate in the First Crusade (1096). It is likely he brought Byzantine craftsmen back to Anagni with him to help build his new cathedral, which was consecrated in 1104.
In the Middle Ages, Anagni became a popular country residence and frequent birthplace of popes. The only English pope, Hadrian IV, happened to die here in 1159 - allegedly from choking on a fly he inhaled while on a walk outside. Four popes in the 13th century were natives of Anagni, including the important Innocent III.
The pope who made the most lasting impression on Anagni is Boniface VIII, who was born here to the noble Caetani family in 1235. He was a canon of Anagni Cathedral before departing for legal studies in Umbria. In 1294, he became pope when his predecessor abdicated, which no other pope in history has done. Rumors have circulated ever since that the wily Boniface had convinced the simple hermit Celestine V to resign. Whatever happened, the new pope did keep Celestine prisoner nearby, where he eventually died.
During his reign, Pope Boniface VIII made lasting contributions including the papal bull entitled Unam Sanctum, which establishes the pope's authority as Vicar of Christ; the foundation of the first university in Rome; and the institution of the first Holy Year (in 1300), during which all pilgrims to Rome receive full remission of sins.
Boniface VIII found himself at the receiving end of trouble in 1303, after excommunicating King Philip V of France over the taxation of French clergy. Fed up, Philip sent soldiers and members of a rival noble family to the pope's country house in Anagni, and held him prisoner there for three days before the local citizens rescued him. After this humiliating incident, during which it is said he received a schiaffo (slap in the face), Boniface died within the month. The incident is mentioned by Dante in the Purgatorio (XX, vv. 85-93).
What to See
Anagni Cathedral has an imposing but aesthetically pleasing appearance from the outside. Built high on the ancient acropolis of Anagni, one is usually looking up at it. The most attractive aspect of the exterior is the east end, where three semicircular apses towering over a wide stone staircase.
There is a good view of its south exterior from the small lower plaza, which is now a parking lot. Near the top is a niche protecting a large statue of Boniface VIII from the 15th century. Below this is a large door opening onto a spacious balcony. Near the west end is an unusual semicircular shape marking the baptistery. The south transept is mostly plain but for a charming little rose window.
An almost-hidden staircase at the southwest corner leads to the the main plaza and west facade. Here also is a lovely freestanding Romanesque campanile and fine views of the countryside. The tower was probably placed in its unusual position right across from the central portal due to the need for stability of the ground.
The west front is austere, with only a few small windows and blocks of decorative reliefs interrupting the plain, bare masonry. Entrance is currently through the southernmost of the three portals.
Inside is a beautiful Cosmatesque pavement dating from before 1227, which a plaque notes was funded by 100 gold coins donated by Rainaldo Conti, a canon of the cathedral.
In the apse are fine marble furnishings (ciborium, paschal candlestick, and bishop's throne) created in 1263 by Vassalletto, who also worked at San Giovanni Laterano in Rome. The murals of the apse were painted by Antonio da Borgogna in 1673.
The entire cathedral interior was once covered in medieval frescoes, but only two small fragments survive: a Madonna with St. Magnus and St. Secondina (late 1300s) above the west door and a Byzantine-style Madonna on a pillar of the left aisle (c.1250). There is also a fresco of the Madonna and Saints above a Cosmatesque tomb (1292) in the Caetani Chapel.
The crypt of Anagni Cathedral, located beneath the choir, is one of the area's greatest attractions. It centers on the tomb of St. Magnus in the central apse, with relics of Sts. Secondina, Aurelia and Neomisia in the left apse and Sts. Sebastian, Caesarius and other martyrs in the right apse.
The walls and vaults of the crypt are completely covered in medieval frescoes, which are in remarkable condition: still brightly colored and almost fully intact. They form one of the most extensive and best-preserved medieval pictorial cycles in Europe. The frescoes were painted in 1237 by Friar Romanus, who also painted the frescoes at San Benedetto in Subiaco, and two other unknown masters.
The subjects of the frescoes include:
The crypt also retains its original Cosmatesque pavement (c.1235), fully intact and unrestored. Visits to the crypt are escorted very half-hour.
Finally, Anagni Cathedral is home to two small but important museums. Adjoining the south aisle is the lapidarium, where Roman inscriptions and medieval architectural fragments are displayed.
Among the notable Roman artifacts are the cippi of the beautiful Marcia who was said to favor Christians in the 2nd century and her father Evodio (IVHODI), a freed slave and administrator of Villa Magna. Medieval highlights include Cosmatesque mosaic decorations and a sculpture of a seated St. Francis of Assisi.
The treasury is housed in a medieval chapel (c.1105) with fresco fragments and other rooms on the upper floor of the cathedral. It contains the pontifical vestments of Boniface VIII, including two magnificent copes; a Limoges casket for relics of St. Thomas Becket; a 12th-century bishop's throne made of wood; and other artworks.
The chapter house, sacristy and another treasury can be visited on request.
Also shown only on request is the Oratory of St. Thomas Becket, a cave-like stone chapel which was originally a Roman mithraeum. Located under the south aisle of the nave, it is decorated with frescoes that probably date from the same time as those in the crypt (c.1237) but are not nearly as well-preserved. They depict the Creation, Old Testament scenes, Christ and the Madonna, and bishops including St. Thomas Becket.
Murdered by the king's knights at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was quickly canonized. His cause was encouraged by the pope at nearby Segni in 1173 and subsequent popes also promoted the martyred bishop, who conveniently symbolized the importance of siding with the Church over temporal rulers.
Quick Facts on Anagni Cathedral
|Names:||Anagni Cathedral; Cattedrale di Santa Maria|
|Feat:||Gothic Murals; Relics|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.742972° N, 13.161761° E (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of Anagni Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Anagni Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Personal visit (April 13, 2008).
- Don Angelo Ricci, ed. The Cathedral of Anagni: Art, History, Legend (1998). Official publication of the cathedral available in the shop.
- Gianfranco Ravasi, The Crypt of the Cathedral of Anagni: A miniature underground Sistine (1995). Official publication of the cathedral available in the shop.
- Alta Macadam and Ellen Grady, Blue Guide Central Italy with Rome and Florence, 1st ed. (Somerset: Blue Guides Limited, 2008), 211-15.
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