The Duomo of Monza has antecedants dating to the 6th century when the Lombards ruled swaths of Italy. Monza, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, was the summer residence of the Lombard Queen Theodelinda (c. 570-628). In 595 she had a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist built next to her royal palace in Monza. In the 13th century a new church was built on the remains of Theodelinda’s chapel. It was rebuilt again in the early 14th century and expanded significantly at the end of the century. Two chapels were added in the expansion, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary and another across from it on the north side of the cathedral transept dedicated to Queen Theodelinda. She got such high billing because she converted her first husband King Authari to Catholic Christianity and after his death, she converted her second husband King Agilulf first to Christianity and then to Catholicism. Arianism was predominant among Lombards at the time, so Theodelinda was instrumental in establishing a foundation of Nicene Christianity among the Lombards.
The vault of the Theodelinda Chapel was painted with figures of saints and evangelists in the 1430s. In 1441, the Zavattari family of Milan were commissioned to decorate the chapel walls with a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of the Lombard queen. Pater familias Franceschino, who worked for decades on the stained glass windows of the Duomo of Milan, and his sons Giovanni and Gregorio painted 45 scenes on five levels from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. They used a variety of media — egg tempera, oil tempera, dry painting, fresco, stucco relief, gilding — showcasing the Zavattari’s workshop experience in diverse art forms.
The result was a massive masterpiece covering 5,400 square feet of wall space. It is considered by many to be the greatest example of the International Gothic style espoused by artists like Carlo Crivelli. Also like Crivelli, the Zavattari used gesso decorative elements to create dimension and relief and then gilded them. In fact there is gold everywhere. The skies aren’t blue; they’re gold. The crowns, the jewels, the hair, the helmets, the clothes, the musical instruments, the tables, the goblets, the spurs, the scepters, the reliquaries, the crosses, the candelabra, the candles, the horses’ manes, architectural elements are all gilded. Little wonder that it’s been nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of the North.”
The scenes of Theodelinda’s life story were taken from 8th century monk Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards (the parts about Theodelinda and from 13th century historian Bonincontro Morigia’s Chronicle of Monza. The first 23 cover the meeting and marriage of Theodelinda and Authari. Scenes 24 to 30 depict her second marriage to Agilulf. In scenes 31 to 41 are the founding of the church, the death of Agilulf and of Theodelinda. The last scenes depict Byzantine Emperor Constans II’s failed attack on the Lombards of southern Italy and his return to Byzantium with his tail between his legs.
In keeping with the standard practice of the time, the style of dress is typical of the courts of 15th century northern Italy. The frescoes are replete with scenes of courtly life — hunts, banquets, balls, parties — and provide a uniquely rich window into the attire, hairstyles, weapons and armour of the 15th century Milanese court. There are no fewer than 28 scenes dedicated to weddings or preparation for weddings. This is thought to be a symbolic reference to the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, legitimized natural daughter and sole heir of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza. Theodelinda had chosen her second husband thereby making him king. Bianca’s marriage to Francesco ultimately transferred the dukedom of Milan from the Visconti to the Sforza family after her father’s death. They were married in 1441, the same year the Zavattari were commissioned to paint the chapel, probably by Filippo Maria Visconti.
Theodelinda also spelled Theudelinde (c. 570–628 AD), was a queen of the Lombards by marriage to two consecutive Lombard rulers, Autari and then Agilulf, and regent of Lombardia during the minority of her son Adaloald, and co-regent when he reached majority, from 616 to 626. For well over thirty years, she exercised influence across the Lombard realm, which comprised most of Italy between the Apennines and the Alps. Born a Frankish Catholic, she convinced her first spouse Autari to convert from pagan beliefs to Christianity.
Theodelinda was the daughter of duke Garibald I of Bavaria and Waldrada. Born a Bavarian princess to King Garibald, Theodelinda's heritage included being descended on her mother's side from the previous Lombard king, Waco, whose family had ruled seven generations prior according tradition.
Theodelinda was married first in 588 to Authari, king of the Lombards, son of King Cleph. There are indications that Pope Gregory I may have had an interest in encouraging this marriage as it would tie a Bavarian Catholic with the Arian Lombards, something he did previously, when he promoted the marriage between the Frankish princess Bertha—great-granddaughter of —and the Kentish Aethelbehrt. Theodelinda's time with Authari was brief for he died in 590.
So highly esteemed across the Lombard kingdom was Theodelinda that when Authari died, she was asked to remain in power and to choose a successor.Historian Roger Collins has misgivings with the reliability of this claim—which stems from Paul the Deacon—and instead, asserts that both political bargaining or naked force were more likely attributable to her choice. Whatever the real situation, a mere two months after Authari's death, Theodelinda picked Agilulf as her next husband and the two were wed.[She thereafter exerted much influence in restoring Nicene Christianity to a position of primacy in Italy against its rival, Arian Christianity. Her reach extended across most of the Italian peninsula between the Apennines and the Alps.
While her husband Agilulf retained his Arian faith, he allowed his son with Theodelinda to be baptized a Catholic.The Lombard king faced trouble from his dukes, who were convinced that he had consigned himself instead to the faith of the conquered. Agilulf did not permit Theodelinda's faith to shape his policies against the Byzantines.[Frequently, Theodelinda corresponded with Pope Gregory (590–604) in letters, some of which are recorded by the eighth-century historian, Paul the Deacon. Some of the content in these letters concerned her husband's conversion.To further promulgate the Christian faith of the Catholics, she also welcomed Catholic missionaries across her realm. Taking full advantage of her piety and possibly to incentivize her continued Catholic proclivities, Pope Gregory sent her a series of silver ampullas of Syro-Palestinian craftsmanship, a gospel casket, and a golden cross from Byzantium.The cross was gem-encrusted and was meant as a symbol of the "impending Kingdom of God”.
Shortly before Agilulf's death in 616, he named Theodelinda co-regent for their son Adaloald and once he reached maturity, she remained co-ruler over the kingdom.
For a period of some thirty-five years Theodelinda was queen of the Lombards. Perhaps to further exhibit her faith, she constructed a Catholic cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist at Monza (near Milan) and richly endowed it. Her support for the Catholic faith also included the establishment of monasteries—one at Bobbio,and later one at Pedona, among others according to Paul the Deacon.
Within "the treasure house" that is the cathedral at Monza, one finds a splendidly detailed sculpture of a mother hen and her chicks made of gilded silver, which was likely another gift from Pope Gregory.