Friday, April 16, 2010

San Giorgio in Brancoli (Lucca)

The recent posting of a lovely image of a Venetian church inspired me to post some images of my favorite medieval “pieve”, the Italian words for a parish church with a baptismal font. This is the 12th-century church of San Giorgio in Brancoli, which is located in the mountains above Lucca. I wrote extensively about this church and its medieval furnishing in my book Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, because it is, as far as I know the only medieval Italian parish where the interior survives intact from the Middle Ages. There are a few examples of medieval parish churches with their interiors intact in Scandinavia, but elsewhere, thanks to Protestant iconoclasm or remodeling in the Baroque period, such an interior is pretty much unheard of, unless it be a modern reconstruction, as is often the case in England. First, here a is panorama from the site of the church looking down toward the Arno.

Here is the facade and the belltower, with the modern parish house to the right. It is extraordinary that this church is usually open, even when the priest is away; you can just walk right in, and what you find is amazing.
First a view of the nave. You can see the 12th-century ambo to the right, which is in the choir screen--still intact! (I am very fond of the lions that hold up the ambo.) That screen, also of the 12th century is about 5½ feet high; the altar is seen through the chancel opening.The hanging painted cross is an Italian Gothic work of the early 13th-century. Sadly only traces of the apse fresco remain. Excuse the felt banner on the screen.

Here is a closer view of the early 13th-century altar, which you will notice is (as was nearly always the case in the 1200s) freestanding and table-like in shape. I wish the carpet were not there, so one could see the medieval flagstone floor.

Even though it is small building, the church has two aisles. Here is the north aisle, seen through the side opening in the choir screen; a sixteenth-century side altar is on the wall, and just behind it, the 12th-century baptismal font.

Here is a closer view of the splendid baptismal font. In the Middles Ages (up until the Reformation in some places, and the 15th-century in others) baptism done was by immersion. You can see the large “dunking” style font; I discuss medieval Italian baptismal rites extensively in Cities.

A closer view of the font, showing the well.

Even into the 16th-century, the Sacrament was not reserved on the altar in Italy, but in a aumbry or “ciborium” on the side wall of the chancel. Here is the 15th-century tabernacle at Broncoli.

Finally, what church is complete without an image of the patron? Here is the one above the side altar in the south aisle, a 15th-century work by the Della Robbias, which was probably brought in at the same time as the ciborium.

I wish I could include a photo of the Carolingian-era holy water font of this church, which is usually mentioned in the guidebooks, but when I was there in 2005, it had been stolen. As far as I know it has never been found; that loss makes the leaving of the church open to the public even more surprising.

If you ever get to Lucca, rent a car and go up to Brancoli to see this wonderful church.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: