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The wooden doors between Rome and Split The wooden doors between Rome and Split

The wooden doors between Rome and Split

Written by  The Dubrovnik Times Dec 23, 2020

Rome and Split have always been intimately connected by the name and memory of Emperor Diocletian.

If Rome experienced his proud and fierce personality, Split witnessed his most private side, that of an old and weakened by illness man who decided to spend the last years of his life in his own palace, after having abdicated and witnessing so the end of his Tetrarchy.

Is there, however, an artistic component that inextricably binds Rome and Split? Probably yes. There is indeed a wooden door that can open in both directions, creating a further similarity between the two cities.

We talk about it with Vincenzo, Tour Guide of Rome and President of Rome Guides Association, who will try to match for us two very similar doors, one in the Croatian capital, the other in the Italian one, discovering how they open on the same corridor.


The Cathedral of Split represents still today the pride of the city: the ancient mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, considered a persecutor of Christians, was transformed in the 7th Century AD into the city's main church, intended to preserve for eternity the mortal remains of the martyrs St. Doimus and St. Anastasius, executed in nearby Salona. The building was richly decorated: the external octagon of the mausoleum was surrounded by a peripteral portico with 24 columns, and its dome shone thanks to a glittering mosaic.


In any case, the most incredible decoration of the Cathedral had yet to be installed inside the holy place.

In 1198, Archbishop Bernard took possession of the Cathedral of Split. The Archbishop Bernard was a Benedictine Cistercian coming from Perugia and he spent thirty years of his life studying Christian Doctrine and Philosophy in Bologna. As he was the personal teacher of the Croatian-Hungarian King Emeric, we could define him closer to the Crown than to the Pope, who accepted his investiture as Archbishop of Split with reluctance. The Archbishop was also extremely rich and he owned an important library, included in the palace that he built in Vranjic, near Salona, on some royally owned land; indeed, the King entrusted him completely as a leader in the fierce struggle against the heretics who had caused upheavals in the Croatian-Hungarian Kingdom, so that he gave him the title of Commander of the Crusade that he started in Bosnia. So, the Archbishop Bernard wrote many books against heresies, and a codex with portions of his speeches and ideas versus the heretics is still preserved in the Treasury, inside of the Cathedral of Split.

Despite the fact that, as a member of the Cistercian Order, the Archbishop Bernard was committed to strict discipline and to a total devoid of frivolous decorations, it was during his administration that the doors for the Cathedral of Split were carved by the carpenter and painter Andrija Buvina, the same artist who painted the St. Christopher that was in the Peristyle of the Diocletian’s Palace.

According to the documents, the doors were finished and mounted on April 23th 1214: they can be considered without any doubt the most important Romanesque art project ever executed in Split. The doors (made of oak, carob and walnut wood) depict 28 scenes from the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Ascension: this task was specifically commissioned by Archbishop Bernard, in order to fight the danger of heresies that were rapidly spreading. The 14 bas-reliefs on each door, interspersed with elegant geometric decorations, represent a sort of "simple" Bible for the common people, aiming to reach as many persons as possible thanks to the graphic clarity of the illustrations, confirming so with great intensity the double nature of Christ, human and divine, which many heretics denied.

In rendering the scenes, Buvina used heterogeneous models, being inspired partially from Byzantine iconography and partially from the contemporary Western designs.

The doors created by Andrija Buvina represent the masterpiece of a mature artist, aware of his own abilities, and give a very clear idea of the splendor of medieval Split, a city located on the Adriatic coast and endowed at that time with a very flourishing economy, to the point of extending beyond the circle of the Walls of Diocletian's Palace to become a cosmopolitan city that was an obligatory stopover on trips to the Holy Land.

Split holds indeed a real treasure, but can Rome extract from its cylinder something even more amazing? Are there doors even more spectacular than the ones visible in the Croatian Cathedral?



Rome is connected to Split not only because of the name of the Emperor Diocletian, who left in Rome several buildings connected to his memory (the most important of which is undoubtedly the colossal Baths of Diocletian), but also for the wooden doors of an important church of the Eternal City, seven centuries older than the ones of the Cathedral of Split.

Built in the V Century AD over the tomb of St. Sabina, the homonymous church is located on the Aventine Hill and is one of the best preserved Paleochristian churches in Italy, although it has been heavily restored in recent times.

The main entrance of the Church of St. Sabina is indeed closed by an impressive wooden door dating back to the V Century AD, which is the oldest existing example of early Christian wooden sculpture.

It originally consisted of 28 panels, but unfortunately there are only 18 still left, among which there is the one depicting the Crucifixion, which is the oldest known representation of this event. It is made of cypress wood and it is singular that the door has remained in its original location, coming in excellent condition to us, although with some restoration and with the subsequent addition of the decorative band of bunches and leaves of grapes, which surrounds the single panels. There are scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including the stories of Moses, Elijah, the Epiphany, the miracles of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Ascension. In the current arrangement, the stories are mixed, with no separation between the Old Testament and the New Testament, illustrating the parallelism between the Mosaic Law and the Law of Christ (a theme that was also chosen centuries later, for example, for the walls of the Sistine Chapel).

The list of reliefs is split into four columns.

The first column includes the Crucifixion, the Miracles of Christ (Healing of the blind man, Multiplication of loaves and fishes, Wedding in Cana), Christ rebuking Thomas, Three episodes from the life of Moses and finally Christ condemned by Pilate.

The second column includes the Angel and the Three Womens at the tomb of Christ, Four episodes of Moses and the Jews in the desert, The risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene and a generic scene of acclamation.

In the third column it is easy to distinguish the Epiphany, the Ascension, Jesus Christ announcing Peter's denial and Three episodes from the Exodus of the Hebrews.

The fourth column shows the following reliefs: Christ on the road to Emmaus, the Triumph of Christ and the Church, Habakkuk that flies towards Daniel, Elijah ascending into heaven and finally Jesus Christ before Caiaphas.

Two very different artists worked on the wooden door: one was inspired by classical-Hellenistic art, the other by late antique popular inspiration. To this second artist belongs the panel of the Crucifixion (which is, as we said, the first artistic representation of Jesus Christ between the two robbers). Christ is represented with bigger size, to signify his moral superiority. There is no perspective research, as the figures rest on a wall that simulates bricks, and the crosses are only visible behind the heads and the hands of the robbers: in the early days of Christianity, indeed, it was forbidden to represent Christ during his torture, since among other things the memory of the death on the cross as a punishment reserved for slaves was still alive. A rough art, with a very direct carving, because it had to be understood by the common people, as it was exposed in a place of public worship.

The door of St. Sabina was carved seven centuries earlier than the one in Split, but with the same function: to bring the word of God to the common people, often unable to read and write.

Just a final curiosity: during the restoration of the wooden portal, happened in 1836, the restorer retouched the face of the pharaoh who was about to drown, in the panel related to the Crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews, depicting there Napoleon, who had died fifteen years before.

The door is a symbol of openness, but Roman citizens have never been able to forgive the French Emperor who offended their city and plundered it, even fifteen years after his death. Revenge can be eternal, just as eternal is Rome: the doors of St. Sabina will be always here, ready to open for you.


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