From the entrance level the church is reached via a wide and steep grand staircase, which has been dated to the mid-twelfth century. After the first few steps, on the left is a pillar of over 18 meters that supports the floor of the church above; on the right there appears an outcrop of rock that is incorporated into the opposite wall. In the central niche several skeletons of monks were displayed until 1936, hence the name: Great Staircase of the Dead.
This “entrance hall” was once much used for the burial of distinguished men, abbots and worthies of the monastery. Some of the tombs were decorated with marble, others were plastered and painted: today there remain only five of these.
The Great Staircase of the Dead ends at the Portal of the Zodiac (1128-30), a Romanesque work carved by Master Nicolao, a famous architect and sculptor from Piacenza.
It is so called because the jambs on the sides turned towards the staircase, are carved on the right with the twelve signs of the zodiac and on the left with the southern and northern constellations.
Most important, from an historical point of view, is the central side of the right jamb where, at the corners of a scene of hare hunting, there are two poems written in Latin, ending with the author’s signature.
The capitals are quite remarkable in their symbolism:
- Cain and Abel
- three angry people tearing at each other’s hair
- the adventures of Samson
- two women breastfeeding four snakes
- four falcons in a circle
- the rampant lion
- three tritons (human busts on which fishtails are grafted)
The bases of the columns are also quite significant: three lions chasing each other and two griffins pecking at a man’s head.