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Is the Monza Cathedral’s treasure just barbaritas glitter?

The story behind Theodolinda’s jewels

 Dietro i gioielli di Teodolinda  DCM-001
05 January 2024

An ivory comb, a purple parchment fan, jeweled crowns, gold crosses, precious reliquaries, and evocative sculptures. Even Theodolinda’s crown.  This and more can be admired in the Monza Cathedral Treasury. The basilica, developed from the original St John the Baptist complex -between the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century- was erected at the behest of the queen of all Lombardy, from the personal chapel attached to her palace.

Theodolinda, who died in Monza on January 22, 627, was born in Bavaria (perhaps, Regensburg) in about 570. A Lombard on her mother’s side, while her father was Bavarian. By virtue of a marriage policy subservient to the needs of war, she was given in marriage to Autari, king of the Lombards. He had been chosen by the other dukes who had descended from Hungary to Italy with their tribes (the “fares”), to give stability to the dominion.

Far from being a mere geopolitical pawn, Theodolinda was able to gain independence. When she became a widow after just a year of marriage, she played a role in the appointment of a successor, although that prerogative belonged to the warrior aristocracy. Her preference went to the Count of Turin, to Agilulfo. When it came to choosing the faith of her son, Adaloald, the heir to the throne, she wanted him to be baptized according to the Catholic rite, even though the Lombards were mostly pagan or Arian. The ceremony, celebrated in Monza in 603, marked a symbolically important moment in the political and social history of Italy. In fact, this choice favoured the integration between the local population and the new ruling elite, though it must be said that the actual conversion of those people did not happen overnight.

We do not have much information about Theodolinda, but we do have a text written by Paul Deacon, the author of a history of the Lombards. His book -written two hundred years after the events-, dwells on her two marriages and the Monza donation. We learn more from a significant epistolary exchange that took place between the queen and Pope Gregory the Great. In the three letters sent to Theodolinda, Gregory expresses gratitude and friendship towards those who, like her, were able to work for peace in an Italy torn apart by wars, devastation and general insecurity following the end of the Western Roman Empire. There are very few documents, some objects, and works of art that can be traced back to Theodolinda. There are stories, traditions, and in some cases legends, but little else. Monza, which was the summer seat of the Lombard kings, was also chosen because of its proximity to Milan and the salubriousness of the area. Here, the Museum of the Treasury houses furnishings for personal use, objects with a significant symbolic value, others that are votive and the fruit of a long-distance dialogue with Gregory the Great.

In the first category, there is an ivory and silver comb, which is decorated with gems and gold threads from the queen's tomb, and a parchment fan, each side of which is decorated with verses written in gold that celebrate the beauty of the woman who uses it. To the second category, in the basilica, we find an object made up of a hen with chicks, and the crowns. Various meanings have been attributed to the sculptural group of the hen, with hypotheses referring to the transit from life to death, to the role of guide of the Church of Rome, even the desire for Theodolinda’s fertility. There are five crowns that can be associated with Theodolinda and her family, including the one known as ‘Theodolinda’s crown’, made of gold, gems and mother-of-pearl. However, the most emblematic of the five from a devotional and political point of view, is the Iron Crown. According to tradition, this one bears, a nail -set among enamels, gold and jewels- that was extracted from the True Cross, and preserved in the diadem of the emperor Constantine, and then placed onto the heads of successive Lombard kings.

At the heart of the objects preserved in the Treasury Museum is of a devotional nature, from processional crosses to the evangelarium, from sacred furnishings to silk vestments and reliquaries. The ampulla from the Holy Land, containing the oil from the lamps of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, stand out, some of which depict the dome and the aedicule placed to protect the tomb of Christ. These were all gifts from Gregory the Great to Theodolinda, brought from Palestine by Abbot Probus as souvenirs of his pilgrimage (signa peregrinorum).

Among the merits of the Lombard sovereign was that of having tried to give stability to her reign by advocating the heredity of the royal title. After Agilulf's death, Theodolinda exercised the regent’s functions on behalf of her son Adaloald, who ended up the victim of a conspiracy. Theodolinda died a year later, in 627.

Monza did not forget the person who -more than anyone else- brought prestige to the city. A popular cult was nurtured around Theodolinda -whose body was moved to the cathedral chapel-, which reached its peak during the 15th century. In the place that also houses the iron crown, the Zavattari brothers, a family of painters with a workshop in Milan, frescoed Stories of the Queen. In a style of typical late Gothic richness, the most emblematic events of Theodolinda's history and legend are sumptuously retraced, idealized and relocated in the climate and customs of Visconti Lombardy, including the long golden journey of a queen from the glitter of the Middle Ages to the splendour of the Early Renaissance.

by Giuseppe Perta
Lecturer in Medieval History, Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples