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Santa Maria Maggiore 360° virtual tour

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the most magnificent church in entire Bergamo, overwhelming even the cathedral. It has a rather mixed architecture: the external appearance has largely maintained its Lombard-Romanesque origin while the interior decoration is mostly from the 17th century Baroque renovation.

1. History of the church

According to a local legend, the area of Bergamo was struck by major droughts followed by famine and plague in 1133. People prayed to the Virgin asking for her help and offering to build a new church for her in turn. When the disaster was over in 1137, they kept their wov and construction works of Santa Maria Maggiore were commenced. It is also said that work began on the site of a former church of the Virgin from the 8th century, which was in turn erected over a pagan temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Clemence. However, existence of these former building is yet to be confirmed.

Before the 12th century, the old Roman forum of Bergamo was a large open space dominated by the Church of St. Vincent (present cathedral) and the bishop's palace. In just about a few decades two new buildings were raised by the commune of the city: Santa Maria, the „church of the city” and Palazzo della Ragione, the administrative center of the city. These two new buildings reshaped the old Forum, separated the old St. Vincent church from the bishop's palace and the entire complex became densely filled.

Original plan of Santa Matia Maggiore followed a Greek cross layout with five apses and a transept. The high altar was consecrated in 1185, followed by the presbytery and the transept wings completed in 1187. Due to financial issues construction works took longer than expected and lasted till the 15th century. Plans were changed multiple times and thus of the five original apses only two, the central and the south-west have survived. One was completely demolished in 1472 by Bartolomeo Colleoni to make room for his family burial chapel, while two others were partially rebuilt when the sacristy was established in 1485 and the tower was raised between 1436 and 1459. Exteriors of the intact Romanesque apses are adorned with two rows of arches, the first one containing medieval windows while the second one built only for decoration purpose.

2. What to see
2.1. Medieval exterior

Uniquely, the church has never had a main entrance because the bishop's Audience and Judgment Hall occupies the place where its main facade should have stood. Instead both transepts have got entrances and porches attached to them. Both of these Gothic porches were carved by Giovanni da Campione.

The north one is the more elaborately carved with columns departing from lions in Veronese marble. Above the arch is a 14th century loggia housing statues of St Barbara, St Vincent and St Alexander. At the peak is a niche with the Madonna with Child flanked by St Asteria and St Grata, martyrs of Bergamo.

Noteworthy is also the south porch with columns supported by lions in white marble.

2.2. Giottesque frescoes

Although the interior of Santa Maria Maggiore contains a very fine 17th century Baroque decoration, you can still find a couple of Giottesque frescoes from an unknown artist in the left and right transepts. The left one contains among others a Last Supper scene and there is also a depiction of the Tree of Life (1347) partially covered by a 17th century painting in the right transept. At the beginning of the left aisle is the Baroque confessional carved by Andrea Fantoni in 1704.

2.3. Donizetti tomb

On the rear wall in the left aisle is the tomb of the famous composer Gaetano Donizetti, by Vincenzo Vela (1855). His master, Simone Mayr was also buried here and his tomb by Innocenzo Fraccaroli (1852) is to be found on the rear wall of the right aisle. Next to the tomb of Simone Mayr is the sepulchre of Cardinal Guglielmo Longhi, a work by Ugo da Campione. The cardinal died in Avignon in 1319 and his tomb was originally located at the Franciscan church but when it was destroyed in the 19th century, the tomb was moved to its present location.

2.4. Presbytery & choir

Continuing our visit to the presbytery, it is important to note the 14th century crucifix on its balustrade.

Executed by Giovan Francesco Capoferri, Bernardo Zenale and Andrea Previtali, the choir is a masterpiece of woodcarving with its Biblical reliefs. They depict scenes of the Old Testament like the Exodus from Egypt, the Great Flood, Judith and Holofernes, and David and Goliath etc. Each wooden panel has a cover and a scene below it. These reliefs were executed in 1524–1555 on designs by Lorenzo Lotto and their polychrome effect achieved with the use of different wood types makes them unique.

Probably the most surprising of all of the scenes is the Exodus. The cover depicts a naked man riding a donkey. In Jewish tradition, the donkey is a royal steed and it is a positive symbol. Meaning of the scene is that the Jewish exodus from Egypt is spurred by God on the back of the donkey with twelve flames. The scene behind the cover depicts the submersion of Pharaoh in the Red Sea.

2.5. Apse

Noteworthy are the six bronze candelabra on the main altar, dating back to 1597.

Behind the altar is a painting by Camillo Procaccini from 1594 depicting the “Apostles discovering the empty tomb of Mary”. According to a 7th century version of the Assumption of Mary, she died alike any other human being and was buried by the apostles. One of the apostles, St. Thomas was not present at the death of Mary, but his late arrival precipitates a reopening of Mary's tomb, which is found to be empty. The painting follows the concave shape of the apse wall, providing a monumental vision of the Apostles standing around the empty tomb of Mary. Behind them is an evening natural background.

The four oval medallions in the vault of the presbytery were decorated with Events from life of Mary. Namely they are: Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, Annunciation, and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth by Francesco Bassano the Younger (Francesco Giambattista da Ponte) between 1586-1592.

2.6. Tapestries

Noteworthy are the 16th-century tapestries on the walls, partly from Florence and of Flemish origin. List of most significant tapestries:

  • Adoration of the Magi by Alessandro Allori (1583)
  • Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1586)
  • Marriage of the Virgin by Alessandro Allori
  • Annunciation by Alessandro Allori
  • Circumcision of Jesus (1584)
  • Assumption of Mary
  • Nativity (1583)
  • Flight into Egypt (1583)
2.7. Paintings

Santa Maria Maggiore houses a significant collection of 15th-18th century paintings. This is a list of the most significant ones:

  • Apostles discovering the empty tomb of Mary by Camillo Procaccini in 1594
  • Christ and the glory of Saints by Antonio Boselli in 1514
  • Moses obtaining water from the rock of Horeb by Antonio Zanchi in 1669
  • Massacre of the Innocents by Fra’ Massimo da Verona in 1658
  • Adoration of the Magi by Enea Salmeggia (Talpino) in 1595
  • Sacrifice of Noah by Federico Cervelli in 1678, it depicts survivors of the Great Flood gathering around an altar upon which Noah sacrifices a ram to God. It is interesting to see that God and Noah have the same facial features. A possible reason is that the artist wants to suggest that right men selected by God can bear similarities to him.
  • Crossing of the Red Sea: located right above a tapestry, it is a significant work of art by Neapolitan painter Luca Giordano (1681-1682). Miriam, the sister of Moses became the key figure of this painting, she is depicted in the act of prayer, while women and children play and sing around her to celebrate the freedom of Israel.  Miriam is the Hebrew version of Mary and thus, it is considered by commentators of the Bible as a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary.
3. When to see

Opening times:

  • from Monday to Friday 9-12.30 and 2.30-5pm.
  • Saturdays 9-11am and 2.30-5pm.
  • Sundays 9-11am and 2.30-6pm.

4. Location

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