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Bergamo Cathedral 360° virtual tour

The Cathedral dedicated to Saint Alexander of Bergamo is a beautiful Baroque church is its present form. History of the saint goes however back to much further, to the persecution of Christians.

1. Legend of St. Alexander

Saint Alexander of Bergamo (Sant' Alessandro) is the patron saint of Bergamo. According to the legend, Alexander was a soldier in the Theban Legion. This legion got its name from the city of Thebes in Upper Egypt which had already converted to Christianity by the 3rd-4th century. Not surprisingly the entire legion - 6666 men led by the Nubian Saint Maurice were also Coptic Christians. It was in 286 that emperor Maximian ordered them to march to Gaul, to assist him against rebels of Burgundy. Since they rejected to fight against Christians, the emperor ordered the decimation of the legion at Agaunum. Every tenth soldier was selected and killed by the others. The punishment turned to be useless and thus a second decimation was performed. However the soldiers still preserved their principles and they enraged the emperor so much that he commanded the entire legion to be massacred by other troops. A few survivors including Saint Alexander managed to flee to Milan, Italy.

Oppression of Christians continued and in 303 Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius issued a series of edicts to persecute Christians in the entire empire. Although being imprisoned multiple times, Alexander successfully escaped from imprisonment and became a preacher who converted many natives of Bergamo. He was captured, tortured and killed on 26th August 303 for not renouncing his Christian faith.

The Great Persecution continued till April 311 and during that period Christian buildings were destroyed and their sacred books were burnt. Christians were collected, tortured and murdered. Some were burnt alive while others were forced to fight as gladiators. Officially the persecution was ended in the East provinces in 311 and the "Edict of Milan" signed by Constantine and Licinius in 313 put and end to the persecutions. Thus Christianity spread across the empire and soon became the favored religion.

2. History of the cathedral

The first mention of the cathedral of Bergamo is from the 5th-6th centuries. At that time a simple basilica stood here that was devoted to another Christian martyr named St. Vincent. Bishop Giovanni Barozzi commissioned the rebuilding of the cathedral of St. Vincent in 1459 following the plans of Filarete (Antonio di Pietro Averlino), an architect from Florence. The first left chapel was complete by 1467 when construction works halted for about 30 years. Reason for this was that bishop Giovanni Barozzi had to leave Bergamo in 1464 and the architect also died in 1469.

Of course there used to be another church dedicated to Saint Alexander in Bergamo, but that one was destroyed by the Venetians during the 16th century. Instead of rebuilding it, the former church of St. Vincent was altered and dedicated to St. Alexander. A document from 1688 states that it was not intended to establish a new church but rather to use the already existing canons of the St. Vincent church. As of 1689, the cathedral was refurbished under the direction of Carlo Fontana. Bishop Gregorio Barbarigo obtained a bull from the pope in 1697 which allowed to dedicate the cathedral to St. Alexander. It was again renovated during the 19th century and a chapel was rebuilt to house the Chross of Rosate in 1810. The impressive neoclassic facade of the cathedral was completed by 1889.

3. What to see

Church interior comprises a single nave, a rather small transept and one side-chapel of the Cross of Rosate.

3.1. Nave and side altars

Right side altars are the following:

  1. „Altar of St. Benedict” by Andrea Previtali (1523). Honor of St. Benedict was strongly desired by Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342) for granting pardon to the people of Bergamo, after having supported the antipope Nicholas V (1328-1330). This altarpiece depicting St. Benedict with St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and St. Louis of Toulouse was commissioned by mayor Girolamo Barbarigo in 1523. The painter was Andrea Previtali, who was strongly influenced by Venetian art. The two statues in marble of Apuan Holy Apostles Philip and Simon are works of  Luigi Pagani from 1876.
  2. „Altar of St. Charles Borromeo” by Giovanni Paolo Cavagna. Before 1610, this altar was dedicated to St. George. After the canonization of St. Charles Borromeo in 1610, Giovanni Paolo Cavagna was commissioned with an altarpiece representing the Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Charles Borromeo accompanied by Ambrose. The two apostles in white marble are from the workshop of Sanz (1806).
  3. Holy Trinity and St. Gregory Barbarigo. The altarpiece is a work of Nicola La Piccola depicting "St. Charles Borromeo and Gregory Barbarigo in adoration of the Blessed Trinity." Surrounding marble statues of  Apostle James the Greater (son of Zebedee) and St. James the Lesser (son of Alphaeus) are works of Sante and Gelpino Caligari (1783).

 

Left side altars are the following:

  1. Altar of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Jerome. Present altarpiece was painted by Moroni in 1576 and depicts „Virgin and Child in Glory with St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Jerome”. The statues of Carrara marble of Saint Thomas and Bartholomew are works of Francesco Barzaghi from 1875.
  2. Altar of St. Peter and Paul. Painted about 1793, this altarpiece depicts St. Peter and Paul with St. Barnabas and the Madonna. It is flanked by Carrara marble statues of the Apostles John the Evangelist and Jude, works of Giovanni Sanz
3.2. Chapel of the Holy Chross of Rosate

The former chapel of St. John the Baptist was transformed into the Chapel of the Holy Chross in 1810. It holds the highly venerated Cross of Rosate, a medieval wood carving associated with miracles that happened in the monastery of Rosate between 1509 and 1512.

3.3. Transept

Facing each other are two altars in the transept:  „Altar of the Blessed Virgin of Mercy” and „Altar of Saints Firmus, Rusticus, and Proculus” from 1704.

3.4. Nave

The main altarpiece depicts „Martyrdom of  St. Alexander” by Nicola Malinconico. It dates back to 1694 and it is fully influenced by works of master Luca Giordano.  There are six baroque paintings on the walls of the apse. In order to make their identification easier, we use a numbering measured from the main altarpiece.

  1. The 3rd to the left is „Martyrdom of St. Proiettizio” by Gian Bettino Cignaroli
  2. The 2nd to the left is „Martyrdom of Bishop St. John of Bergamo” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1731-1743). According to the traditions, St. John was a bishop of the city between 656 and 690 when he was murdered by Arian heretics. However others claim that he died of natural causes.
  3. The 1st to the left is „Consecration of  St. Narnus” by Francesco Polazzo, a late Baroque Venetian painter. First mentioned only in the 13th century, Saint Narnus (San Narno) is considered to be the first Bishop of Bergamo.
  4. The 1st to the right depicts „Preaching of St. Viator” by Francesco Monti. Saint Viator (San Viatore) was the second bishop of Bergamo and successor of St. Narnus.
  5. The 2nd to the right is „Martyrdom of St. Asteria” by the Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Pittoni. During the persecution of Christians by Diocletian both St. Asteria (Sant'Esteria) and her sister, St. Grata were responsible for burying the body of St. Alexander. First St. Grata and soon after St. Asteria was also executed in 307.
  6. The 3rd to the right is „Martyrdom of St. James” by Silvestro Mainago

Above the main altarpiece is „St. Alexander crossing river Adda” by Carlo Innocenzo Carloni. Fine wooden panels of the choir are works of Johann Karl Sanz.

In front of the old main altar is the newly built versus populum with relics of St. Alexander held in an urn and his figure to the right of it. Artistic iconography always depicts him with two attributes: the military uniform and a lily flag. The armor is obviously linked to his military career, emphasizing virtues such as courage and strength. The lily-flag is a symbol of youthful purity and a clear indication of his martyrdom.

4. When to see

The cathedral is open daily 7.30-11.45am and 3-6.30pm.

5. Location

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