Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Old Cathedral of Brescia, Italy

As we have explained before, in the Ambrosian Rite, the liturgical year is divided into two major parts; until the construction of the modern Duomo, the bishop and cathedral chapter would celebrate all the principal services in the “summer church”, as it was called, starting on Easter, and in the “winter church” starting on the Third Sunday of October. The city of Brescia, also in Lombardy, has not used the Ambrosian Rite since at least the Carolingian era, but also has a summer and a winter cathedral; it is, however, a debated point whether the two churches were used in the same way there as in Milan. The former was originally dedicated to St Peter, and the latter to the Assumption, but nowadays, they are both dedicated to the Assumption. The church has some particularly notable relics, which are housed in a chapel seen below, and the occasion of a special jubilee being celebrated in Brescia this year. Here are some photos taken of the winter church by our Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi during a recent visit.

Shortly after Brescia was devastated by a terrible fire in 1095, the current “winter church” was begun to replace a paleo-Christian basilica known as “Santa Maria Maggiore de Dom”, and completed by the mid-12th century. Its rather squat appearance is due to the subsequent elevation of the piazza around it, which completely buried the original door; the current door was opened up in 1571. The bell-tower of the cathedral complex was formerly over the door, but a poorly planned 17th-century enlargement of the latter led to the tower’s collapse in 1708. Behind the church to left is the “new cathedral”, also dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption, built from 1604-1825 to replace the paleo-Christian church of “San Pietro de Dom.”
The view from just inside from the main door. The central rotunda is the only part of the church whose floor stands at the original level; in 1571, the architect Giovanni Maria Piantavigna raised the level of the ambulacrum to that of the new door, and added the two small staircases (behind the pillars) that come down to the original floor. The ambulacrum is separated from the central rotunda  by eight massive pillars that support the dome, and has several side chapels. The sanctuary area opposite the door is a later addition to the original structure, and the crypt of the earlier Santa Maria Maggiore de Dom is underneath it (photos below.)
The vault which covered the sanctuary added in the 13th century is still completely covered in frescoes, which were rediscovered in excellent condition in 1957. Each vault contains the symbol of one of the Evangelists enclosed in a circle; on the lunette to the right is an angel, and facing it on the left, the Tree of Life. The rest of the vault and the ribs are painted with decorative cornices, rosettes and geometric motifs; on the keystone is the Lamb of God.
In the 15th century, the church was expanded once again with the addition of this choir extending out of the sanctuary added in the 13th. The large high altar in the middle is made of red marble from Verona, also one of the additions of the 13th century. The large altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin is by Alessandro Bonvicino (1498 ca. 1542), a native of Brescia usually known as “Il Moretto - the little Moor”; painted between 1524-26, it is considered the best piece of the artist’s youth. Underneath it is a bust of Pope Alexander VIII (Pietro Ottoboni), a Venetian nobleman who served as bishop of Brescia from 1654 to 1664.
The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, added by Piantavigna in 1571, and originally dedicated to St Justina of Padua. At the time, both Brescia and Padua were ruled by the Venetian Republic, one of the great protagonists of the Battle of Lepanto, which took place on St Justina’s feast day, October 7th, and in the wake of which, chapels were built in her honor thoughout the territory of the Most Serene Republic.
On the opposite side of the church, the Chapel of the Cross houses a set of particularly important relics. The most important of these is a piece of the True Cross, known as “the Renowned Relic”, together with two reliquaries in which it was formerly kept, one of the 11th century, and another of the late 15th and early 16th. A local legend  of doubtful historicity states that this was brought to Brescia by one Namo, duke of Bavaria, who had received them from Charlemagne and was appointed governor of the city by him. The other are the “Field Cross” (Croce del Campo), a 11th-12th century wooden cross covered in silver and gems, which was lifted up on Brescia’s battle-wagon (carroccio) during the wars of the Lombard League; a reliquary of the Crown of Thorns; and another reliquary with two fragments of the Cross, donated by Paolo Zane, who was bishop of Brescia for over 50 years, from 1480-1531. The last of these is here seen on the altar; to the left is a reproduction of the Field Cross, mounted on a banner. The others are kept in the large gilded tabernacle behind the grill, and exposed for veneration on the last Friday of Lent and the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. These relics are all under the custody of a confraternity known as the “Company of the Guardians of the Holy Crosses”, which was founded in 1520; the diocese of Brescia this year is celebrating an extraordinary jubilee in honor of its fifth centuary.
A painting by Brescia native Antonio Gandino (1560-1631), representing Namo’s donation of the relics of the Cross.
Constantine’s Vision of the Cross, by Grazio Cossali (1563-1629).
Under the pavement of the sanctuary can be seen some remains of the mosaic floor of the ancient church of Santa Maria Maggiore de Dom. This section, located at the top of the stairs that lead into the sanctuary, is dated to the 6th century, and records the donation of a deacon named Syrus, who seems to have paid it. The twelve lambs symbolize the twelve Apostles.
This fragment is even earlier, dating back to the original foundation of the 5th or 6th century.
The crypt under the sanctuary is dedicated to St Philastrius, bishop of Brescia in the later 4th century, whose relics were translated here in 838 by St Rampert, also bishop of Brescia, from the older cathedral of St Andrew. The crypt was originally built in the 6th century, but completed restructured in the Carolingian period, with column and capitals recycled from ancient Roman buildings, or copied from Roman models.
The translation of the relics of Ss Dominator, Paul and Anastasius, all bishops of Brescia, by Francesco Maffei (1605-60).
Another work by Moretto, Ss Fautinus and Jovita, two early martyrs of Brescia, holding the relic of the Holy Cross. This painting was formerly used as a processional banner, but is now kept in the Tosio-Martinengo Gallery in Brescia. 
The tomb of Berardo Maggi, the bishop of Brescia from 1275-1308, who commissioned the expansion of the sanctuary noted above. On the cubes at the corners are depicted Ss Peter and Paul...
and between them, an important episode in the city’s history, the establishment of peace between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions which he brought about in the year 1298. 
On the opposite side, a life-size representation of Bishop Maggi, and a relief of his funeral cortege.
Melchisedek Offering Bread and Wine to Abraham, also by il Moretto.

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