San Gregorio Maggiore: In Spoleto, Splendor Underground
When you arrive by train to Spoleto, take the short walk to the nearby 12th-century Romanesque splendor, Basilica di San Gregorio Maggiore, dedicated to Spoleto’s San Gregorio, priest martyred in 304 A.D. during the reign of Diocletian.
The passio (story of a saint’s martyrdom) recounts that after the Saint’s decapitation, Gregorio was buried by a pious spoletina, Abbondanza, close to the city walls, thus initiating an early Christian cemetery. Abbondanza saw to the burial not only of San Gregorio but of other martyrs probably executed in the nearby 2nd-century A.D. Roman amphitheater. Legend tells us that yet another Abbondanza promoted restoration of the earlier church in the 8th-century.
The inscription on the 16th-century portico – added by Bishop Paolo Sanvitale – indicates dedication to the Virgin saint who took care of “thousands” of martyrs (though that number might be a bit inflated):
In the 10th-century, the Bishop of Cologne transferred the relics of San Gregorio to his city’s cathedral where the saint is depicted in a stained glass window:
Spoleto’s Basilica di San Gregorio Maggiore was built on the foundations of an earlier church and a plaque on a back wall in the church – below remnants of a fresco of the Crucifixion – is testament to the start of construction in 1079….
…and another plaque confirms the church’s dedication in 1146 celebrated by six bishops:
The imposing massive bell-tower flanking the entryway, embedded with massive travertine blocks di spoglia (recycled remants of ancient architecture), was initiated in the 12th century, completed in the 15th-century:
Not surprisingly, the church was altered on many occasions after 1146. The facade dates to the late 14th-century, when the relics of Saint Gregorio were rediscovered. The portico on the facade was added by Bishop San Vitale at the end of the 16th-century.
On the left end of the portico, the Chapel of the Innocents is adorned with frescoes recalling the founding of the church and the life of Santa Abbondanza, supposedly buried in the crypt of San Gregorio Maggiore.
The frescoes of the Cappella degli Innocenti were the work of two brothers, the Angelucci di Mevale, who depicted an action-packed colorful fresco of the Slaughter of the Innocents on the base, though the frescoes above are the most interesting: episodes of the life of Sant’Abbondanza (that is, the 8th-century Abbondanza) and including a scene with San Gregorio Maggiore in the background.
The church is clearly San Gregorio Maggiore though not accurately depicted: the bell-tower, for example, is far too slender and the portico arches too high:
On the ceiling, the Four Evangelists reign, each accompanied by his iconographic symbol…
Matthew with his angel….
…Mark with the lion (a rather serious and grumpy one)…
….Luke and the oxen (on whose head he rests the book where he is writing his Gospel)…,
….and John and his eagle which seems to gaze at him, perplexed…..
As for many a spoletina church, San Gregorio Maggiore will be restored and reconstructed in the 14th, 16th and 18th-centuries. Early 20th-century restoration of the Basilica has resulted in restoration of the church to its past Romanesque-Lombard appearance.
Restoration has uncovered many of the frescoes painted between the 12th and 15th centuries which adorn the walls of the Basilica, (artists unknown in most cases):
San Gregorio is of course, depicted….
…..as is San Ponziano (on horseback), patron saint of Spoleto:
More than one Madonna del Latte (“Our Lady of the Milk,” i.e, the Virgin nursing the Christ Child) is depicted:
A most curious fresco is the depiction of the Madonna and Child Enthroned with a scantily-clad Eve below them lounging in the grass, near the serpent who enticed her to eat the forbidden fruit:
The fresco was painted in the late 14th-century, probably by a Terni painter (il Maestro del Dormitio). The painting – intended for the apse but moved here in the 1950’s – is surrounded by remnants of other frescoes:
In the apse of the raised presbytery (typical of Romanesque churches), fine 12th-century frescos document the flowering of Spoleto artists of that period:
And after you explore the church, head down the steps to the left of the raised presbytery to seek out the “hidden” splendor of the Basilica di San Gregorio: the crypt. The bellissima crypt with three naves is rich in materiale di spoglio (recycled materials from pre-existing edifices), the vault sustained with sculpted columns topped with elegant capitals from Roman and early medieval edifices.
Just have a look:
Ready to join me in Spoleto to explore the wonders?
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