“Saint Zeno’s Cathedral”


Walking around Pistoia’s city center you can’t miss the Cathedral of Saint Zeno set right in the main square (Piazza del Duomo). The principal religious building of Pistoia welcomes the visitor with its elegant facade and a formidable bell tower. It is the seat of the Bishop of Pistoia and it is dedicated to Saint Zeno.  Most probably it was built in the 10th century even if It has been speculated that a smaller cathedral may have existed in Pistoia as early as the 5th century.

Its present-day aspect is the result of various modifications that took place from the 12th to the 15th centuries. At the end of the 16th century, its gallery was also modified to become what we can see today. The interior has a nave and two side-aisles, with a presbytery and crypt. A restoration in 1952-1999 returned the church to its original lines. The facade is an eclectic mix of geometric Florentine and Pisan (the upper colonnaded galleries) styles. Right above the main portal Della Robbia’s work can be seen in the vault, and in the terracotta relief depicting the Virgin and Child. You’ll notice the contrast with the powerful bell tower, built on what was left of a Lombardian tower. The roof is crowned by the statues of the two patron saints: Zeno and James.

The history of this church is connected to the first martyr of Christendom, Saint James. After the bishop of Pistoia obtained some relics of Saint James from his tomb in Santiago de Compostela in 1144, a chapel was built in the Cathedral, as the town became an important stop on the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Later the big attraction for the pilgrims became the altarpiece dedicated to Saint James. Considered as one of the finest expressions of Pistoia’s historical and artistic culture and commissioned by the General Council of the City in 1287, the Silver Altar is recognized as an absolute masterpiece of medieval gold smithing. It was started in 1287 and took almost 2 centuries to be completed. Composed of a wooden framework to which gilded silver laminae are fixed and embossed with translucent enamels (one of the earliest and most important examples in Italy) and precious stones, the Silver Altar was consecrated in 1399 and enriched until the first half of the fifteenth century. Even Brunelleschi took part in the elaborate works, which comprises 628 figures playing out biblical scenes and episodes from the saint’s life.

Nowadays, the altar is kept in the Chapel of San Jacopo – once called the Crucifix Chapel – and stands in front of the saint’s monumental reliquary, made in Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1407. It holds Apostle Giacomo il Maggiore’s relics which, according to tradition, arrived from Santiago de Compostela in 1145. The altar and the reliquary were part of the Treasure of Saint James.

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