Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore, Nave.jpg
Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, Photo by AES.

The Nave of Santa Maria Maggiore: in case you are wondering ‘maj-OR-ray’ – St Mary the Greater.

You will find the main entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piazza del Duomo – Cathedral Square.  And you could be excused for thinking that it is the Cathedral, but it isn’t – that’s next door.  This Church was founded in 1137, and its underlying style is plain – architects call it Romanesque.   The main features of Romanesque architecture are massive walls, sturdy plain pillars, barrel vaults, round arches and colonnades.  The structures are usually symmetrical and uncomplicated – Santa Maria Maggiore is on a typical cross-shaped plan.  Windows are not a major feature: they are narrow and topped by round arches.  You can see a lot of these features in this picture.

Romanesque architecture may be essentially plain, but there is nothing plain about Santa Maria Maggiore: in this view you can see the lavishly decorated ceilings from the 16th century – and that is real gold.  The wooden balustrade separating the Sanctuary from the Nave is by Lorenzo Lotto.  Huge tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries cover much of the wall space, and the rest is taken up with enormous oil paintings of religious subjects.   You can get an idea of the size of the tapestries from this photo with a Confessional, elaborately carved by Andrea Fantoni, in the foreground.  Incidentally, this is a working Catholic Church and confession is offered in a number of languages for teh benefit of the international visitors.

Santa Maria Maggiore, Fantoni Confessional.jpg
Confessional by Andrea Fantoni, Photo AES

Before all these pictures and tapestries came the 14th century wall paintings which are fully visible in some places.  In the UK, the Reformation stripped out the painted work, and left us accustomed to see ancient churches as austere structures of bare stone and plaster.  Santa Maria Maggiore remains chaotically decorated, as she always has been – originally by wall paintings, then later by everything subsequent eras, including the Italian High Renaissance and Baroque periods, could throw at her.  The effect isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I find it welcoming – like a giant lived-in room or Christmas.

The Church is so surrounded by buildings that it is hard to take a picture, so I have borrowed this one from Wikipedia.


S Maria Maggiore view from Campanone.jpg
Santa Maria Maggiore

Although work started in 1137, building continued into the 14th Century and the process of adding long after that.   The bell tower was not started until 1436.  The main entrance is through Giovanni da Campione’s 14th Century porch; the top section of this was added a quarter century after his death.  This is a beautiful entrance, but it is a very narrow entrance for such a grand basilica, and not even central in the wall.  The reason for this is that the Church was once attached to the Bishop’s Palace, which took up the space where you would expect a Great West Door to be.  Why was the location so crowded?  This wasn’t the first Church on the site.  In fact the site started out as a Roman Temple.  The transformation of Temples into Churches was a general practice: we cannot know how long there has been worship on the site of Santa Maria Maggiore, but two thousand years is a minimum.

Back to the porch and the end of this post.

Santa Maria Maggiore Colleoni 1
Campione Porch, Photo AES

The porch is the elegant simple structure on the left, not the hideous marble wedding cake on the right.  That is something else completely.  Up the sides of the doorway run reliefs of dogs hunting.  Then come two tiers of statues.

Santa Maria Maggiore Campione porch statues.jpg
Close-up Campione Porch, Photo AES.

The central statue of the lower tier represents St Alessandro, who is commemorated all over Bergamo as their first evangelist, martyr and saint.  The story is that he was a military standard bearer in the 3rd century AD who was condemned to death in the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Diocletian.  After daring escapes, he hid in the woods around Bergamo, where the Gospel had not yet been preached.  He converted many, but his zeal for the Gospel led to his discovery and death by beheading.  The tier above contains statues of Mary and the infant Jesus.  She is attended by two female saints; one (I think the one on the right) is St Grata, an early convert who stole St Alessandro’s body for burial after his execution.  She carried the severed head herself, and persuaded others to lift the heavy body.  The column which is said to mark the spot of the martyrdom is still preserved outside the Church of St Alessandro in the lower city.

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