Spoleto’s Church of San Ponziano: Underground Splendor
On Spoleto’s Cinciano Hill, the Church of San Ponziano, built between the 11th and 13th centuries on an early Christian cemetery site, is dedicated to San Ponziano of Roman Spoletium said to have been martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180).
Patron saint of Spoleto, his skull is kept in the church in a sumptuous silver reliquary and carried each year on January 14th, his feast day, to the Duomo of Spoleto in solemn procession, which you can see below – as celebrated in 1895:
In 1703, just after evening vespers in the Church of San Ponziano, a devastating earthquake had rocked the central Appenine area. In Spoleto, various buildings crumbled but no lives were lost and for the spoletini, the salvation of all was due to the intercession of San Ponziano, thereafter deemed the protector against earthquakes.
In Spoleto, if an earthquake tremor is felt, the exclamation is not “E’ passato il terremoto!” but rather “E’ passato San Ponziano!” An earthquake did not pass through – but San Ponziano did.
The medieval church dedicated to the beloved Patron Saint has undergone numerous alterations over the years, the most recent in 1788 when Roman architect Giuseppe Valadier remodeled the interior.
Fortunately, the crypt escaped the re-modelling that transformed the church.
Head down the steps near the altar – passing early Christian sarcofagi…
to enter into the splendor:The four columns forming the nave of the crypt and sustaining the vault are sculpted of materiale di spoglio (recycled from a pre-existing building, either Roman or early medieval).
The column on the right nearest the altar is actually inverted.
The nave terminates in an apse that contains three semi-circular chapels.
Three sarcophagi – probably came from the early Christian cemetery – are arranged in a line behind the altar, one in front of each of the chapels in the apse.
One sarcophagus is incised with a Lombard name, Agipertus – the first Lombard spoletino confirmed by archaeologists. This tomb confirms that the religious area of the Lombard dukedom, Ducato di Spoleto was in this area. Very nearby, in fact, is the Basilica di San Salvatore, UNESCO World Heritage site recognized in the group of seven sites in Italy representing “The Lombards in Italy. The Places of Power (568-774 AD).”
The frescoes in the crypt date from the 14th and 15th-centuries and most are of unknown artists. Probably a few are ex-voto works, that is, a thanks for a favor received or requesting a favor. Certainly ex-voto images are those saints invoked at the time of an outbreak of the plague: San Rocco, indicating a pustule on his thigh…
…..and martyr San Sebastiano (in two frescoes):
More than one image of the Virgin and Child appears in the crypt, leading us to conclude that these frescoes too, were probably ex-voto images thanking the Virgin for a favor received – or invoking her assistance. Two are in the left apse near the images of San Sebastiano and San Rocco.
And do note the kneeling figures below the larger frescoed Madonna ( on the left in the image above): two male figures kneel in prayer. One interpretation is that the figures are ex-voto images commissioned by survivors of “Mediterranean anemia.”
As is the third kneeling figure:
(No, I have no idea what “Mediterranean anemia” is!)
In an apse on the right, an image of the Trinity reigns over a sarcophagus, probably frescoed by theMaestro della Dormitio di Terni or one of his followers in 1400 roughly:
God the Father holds the Cross of His Beloved Crucified Son, the dove representing the Holy Spirit perches on an arm of the Cross:Kneeling figures are on the left and right – perhaps confraternity members? Patrons? Or saints?
Another splendid work is Michael the Archangel, frescoed in the early 14th-century by il Maestro di Fossa. This was probably a costly work as the painter generously used gold and lapis lazuli.
The patrons are probably the kneeling figures below the saint, the one on the right a nun, perhaps the Benedictine abbess of the adjacent monastero (convent), at that time, inhabited by the Benedictines.
The Crucifixion scene backing the sarcophagus in the central apse needs restoration…..
…but a curious figure is visible: to the right of the Crucifixion, a haloed figure is carried to Heaven by the angels:
Certamente, San Ponziano’s soul.
He’s off to Heaven so that he can keep an eye on all from above during seismic moments:
Before you leave the San Ponziano complex (attached to the church is a convent, now a guest house)…..….. do take time to observe the Romanesque Cosmatesque splendor of the entry door:
San Ponziano: an off-the track Spoleto treasure.
It’s well-worth seeking it out.
Read about a splendid Spoleto basilica of Lombard architecture, UNESCO World Heritage site
Click here to read about another UNESCO World Heritage splendor of Spoleto
Click here to read about – and see -a Spoleto church enhanced with Roman remnants
Read about the treasures in Spoleto’s Museo Diocesano
Click here to read about the splendid Spoleto cathedral
Read about – and see – Spoleto’s splendid Church of Sant’ Eufemia
Read about – and see! – the splendor of Spoleto’s historic library
Read here about Spoleto’s Roman house
Click here to read about – and see!- Spoleto’s 14th-c. Papal fortress
Read about one of Umbria’s most splendid medieval churches – in Spoleto