Two atti prodigiosi – “prodigious acts” – are inextricably linked to Bolsena’s Basilica di Santa Cristina, named in of honor one of the town’s patron saints, Cristina. According to local legend, young Cristina was finally martyred after numerous grisly futile attempts, those scenes acted out throughout the town in tableaux annually by appassioned bolsenesi on the vigil and day of her feast day, July 24th.
One attempt was drowning but we are told that the young Cristina came up floating on Lake Bolsena, drifting on a slab of volcanic rock, basalt. That slab is now conserved as the facade of an altar – called Altare del Miracolo – in the Basilica in the most ancient part of this church (consecrated in the 11th-century). Also called Altare delle Quattro Colonne, the ciborium over the altar is helped up by four 8th-9th-century columns with Corinthian capitals.
A 16th-century balustrade surrounds this altar of miracles:
“Altare del Miracolo” refers to another miracle which took place here in 1263 when a Bohemian priest, Peter of Prague, stopped in Bolsena while on a pilgrimage to Rome undertaken in the hopes that he would overcome his doubts in Transubstantion (that is, that the Host does become the Body of Christ at the Consecration of the Mass). All his doubts dispersed as he raised the Host during the Consecration while saying Mass at this altar, for blood dripped down on the Sacred Corporal and drops fell on the altar stone as well.
Astonished by the news, Pope Urban IV in nearby Orvieto at the time confirmed the Miracle of Bolsena and soon promulgated the Festa di Corpus Domini (also called “Corpus Cristi”). The blood-stained Sacro Corporale is now in the Cathedral (Duomo) of Orvieto….
…while the blood-stained altar stone is reverently conserved in a gilded reliquary in the Bolsena Basilica:
Next to this chapel is the entrance to the la Grotta di Santa Cristina, housing 3rd-5th c A.D. Paleochristian burial sites. These catacombs – as per tradition- would have then been outside the walls of the town of Bolsena and this area of the Basilica is a veritable basilichetta ipogea (“small underground basilica”)
In the far corner of the grotto, a Santa Cristina in the serene sleep of death was sculpted in the late 15th-century by Benedetto Buglioni in glazed terracotta.
Below the Buglioni statue is the 4th-century sarcophagus which is said to have held the remains of the saint.
In a small nearby-chapel, his altarpiece depicts the Miracle of Bolsena below a scene of the Crucifixion:
Buglioni’s glazed terracotta reliefs also surmount main entrance to the Basilica and a side entrance: :
In a side chapel in the church, the Florentine Buglioni also sculpted an altarpiece depicting the martyrdom of Santa Cristina:
He and his father, Francesco Buglioni, designed the facade in the late 15th-century. A church had been here as early as the 11th-century but full Renaissance renovation was undertaken 1493- 1495 sponsored by Cardinal Giovanni de Medici (son of the great Lorenzo dei Medici) and the community of Bolsena.
The nave of the interior – restored over just a hundred years ago to return the Basilica to its medieval imprint is flanked with medieval columns topped with sculpted capitals:
The venerated statue of Santa Cristina – carried in procession on July 23 and 24 during festivities celebrating her – is near the main altar: Medieval and Renaissance frescoes adorn the walls of side chapels, Santa Cristina often a protagonist as in these frecoes of the 15th and early 16th-century frescoes:
….but not only: San Bernardino da Siena- always holding the Cristogram, representing Christ Crucified – is most revered in nearby Umbria and Latium and his image was frescoed in the late 16th-century by Giovanni dei Ferrarris dei Mondovi, a painter from Piedmont, living then in the Bolsena area:
The same painter also frescoed images of San Sebastiano and San Benedetto di Norcia. We might termSan Sebastiano is a “pandemic saint” as he was often invoked during outbreaks of the plague.
San Rocco as well, depicted in the Basilica di Santa Cristina in fresco and in an 18th-century painted wood sculpture:
Bolsena’s Basilica di Santa Cristina is certainly “prodigious” – and not just for two miracles.
Click here to read about the celebrations for Santa Cristina’s July feast day
Click here to read about – and see! – the floral splendors of Bolsena for Corpus Domini
Read about Bolsena’s singing washerwomen
See – and hear! – those delightful wash-day singers
Read more about the living tableaux for Santa Cristina
Read about the links between Bolsena and nearby Orvieto
Read about saints and “saintly” eating in Bolsena!
Read about ancient treasures of Bolsena
Read more about wash-day singing in Bolsena
Click here to read about a prize-winning Bolsena gelato
Read about Bolsena’s many treasures