Spoleto’s Romanesque Sublimity: the Church of San Pietro
Rising behind the 12th-century Church of San Pietro extra moenia (outside the walls) is Monteluco, the sacred woods of the Romans, protected by the 3rd-2nd-century B.C. law, Lex Luci Spoletina which forbade the cutting of its trees. Still respected, this law is considered Italy’s first forestry law.
And what a backdrop for one of the most stunning Romanesque churches in all of Umbria:
Built on site of an early Christian cemetery – and before that, a pre-Roman necropolis – the church facade is lavishly decorated with some of the most outstanding sculptural work in the Romanesque style in all of the region of Umbria:
A previous church dedicated to St. Peter was probably built here as of the 5th-century, attributed to Bishop Achilleus of Spoleto, and it is said that the church housed a precious relic: a piece of one of the chains bounding St. Peter.
So Spoleto has its own version of the famous Roman church, San Pietro in Vincoli.
The majestic facade of the Spoleto church miraculously survived the 14th-century church fire set by the Ghibelline faction (those supporting imperial power in opposition to the Guelfs who supported the Papacy).
The church was rebuilt in the late 14th and 15th-centuries and the simple late Baroque interior dates to the 17th-century.
But if you visit this church, not to worry if closed: the splendor is on the facade.
The main portal is crowned with a Cosmatesque mosaic lunette with Cosmatesque swirls to the left and right surmounted by eagles.
Intertwining vines of foliage surrounded the door, symbolizing medieval man’s hopes for everlasting life:
On a recent visit – not our first by any means! – Pino and I spent a good amount of time studying the details of the reliefs, many of them depicting allegorical images and tales, also taken from the medieval bestiaries
– and others representing daily tasks of medieval life, such as plowing the fields with oxen:
As the church is dedicated to him, St. Peter is depicted in various sculpted reliefs. To the right of the lunette, the upper relief shows Christ washing the feet of Peter:
The relief below that depicts the calling of the fishermen, St. Peter and St. Andrew, by Christ:.
To the left of the lunette, St. Peter saves the soul of a dead man. In the upper relief, we see Peter seated with the keys, his iconographic symbol and to the right and still holding the keys, he releases the dead man who had been tied to his bed. St. Michael the Archangel acts as judge, weighing the dead man’s soul.
The man is admitted to Heaven much to the fury of the devil who tries to grab the scales in the relief below. The devil holds a scroll bearing the words, DOLEO Q(VIA) AN(TE) E(RAT) MEVS, “I suffer because he was once mine”; that is, the man’s soul was bound for hell before salvation by Saint Peter.
Heaven awaits him now.
And heavenly is that facade of San Pietro: every sculpted relief. Sublime Romanesque.
Click here to read about – and see!- Spoleto’s 14th-c. Papal fortress
Read about the splendid Cathedral of Spoleto