Via Santo Stefano
The Santo Stefano Complex, dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is also known as the Seven Churches (Sette Chiese). Legend says it was built on the site of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis around 430 by Bishop Petronius who, following a pilgrimage in the Holy Land, founded the seven churches here symbolising the seven stations Jesus stopped at on his climb. The first written evidence, however, dates to 887, under Charles the Fat.
From the the piazza in front you can see three churches (see photo right). On the left is Santi Vitale e Agricola, the oldest church in Bologna, then San Sepolcro in the centre, behind the tree, and finally the Crocifisso, the last and largest, with a 13th-century pulpit on its fašade, now inaccessible due to the demolition of of an internal gallery. The Crocifisso's doorway serves as the entrance to the complex, except when there's a service taking place inside.
To the right, past the trees, is the later Celestine Benedictine convent, established here in 1493 by Pope Julius II. The monks fell victim to the Napoleonic suppression of 1797. Attempts to lure monks back were unsuccessful, until the Olivetans moved in in 1941, and they remain here.
The Crocifisso (see right) (previously known as the church of San Giovanni Battista) is probably of Lombard (8th century) foundation with rebuilding in the 12th. Restoration in the past century has attempted to return the church to its medieval appearance. There is a painted Crucifix by Simone dei Crocifissi (c. 1380) hanging in the arch to the presbytery for which the church is named. The frescoed altarpiece is a 14th-century Crucifixion described as 'school of Giovanni da Modena.' The life-size PietÓ group against the left wall is 18th-century and by Angelo Pi˛. There are some 16th- and 17th-century panels.
The crypt under the very raised presbytery was built in 1019 to house the relics of Vitale and Agricola (in an urn on the altar) and was originally entered from the Cortile di Pilato. The salvaged columns include one, the second from the entrance on the right, without a capital, that Petronius is said to have brought from the Holy Land and which is the same height as Jesus. There is the statutory Lippo di Dalmasio detached fresco fragment of the Madonna and Child down here too.
To the left of the steps down to the crypt is the door to Santo Sepolcro (see right). May be as old as the 5th century, and possibly once the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Isis, which was built over a handy spring. The circle of columns are said to come from this original temple. Its present form is 11th century. Centrally-planned dodecagon with an ambulatory and women's galleries. The structure in the centre is a 12th-14th-century copy of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. It is now embellished with a Romanesque pulpit with deep-sculpted reliefs of the attributes of the Four Evangelists. On the main structure three carved panels depicting the Three Marys at the Tomb. The stairs and altar are 19th century. Behind a grill is the tomb of Saint Petronius, Bolognaĺs patron saint. His remains, discovered in 1141, were kept here but were later, in 2000, transferred to San Petronio in Piazza Maggiore, which already had his head.
The door opposite the one from the Crocifisso leads into Santi Vitale e Agricola (see right) - bare and Romanesque and maybe 5th century, but likely built in the 11th century over a church dedicated to Saint Peter. Massive brick column clusters alternate with stone columns and capitals, many of the latter from Roman buildings. The apse and flanking apsidal chapels have slim alabaster windows. The altars in the apsidal chapels are 8th- or 9th-century and were sarcophagi containing the relics of Saints Vitalis (left) and Agricola (right) who were martyred in Bologna under the emperor Diocletian. These remains were discovered in a Jewish cemetery and dug up in 392 by Saint Ambrose and where later translated to the crypt in The Crocifisso church here on March 3rd 1019 by Abbot Martino, who was responsible for the building of said crypt. There's a detached fresco panel in the rear right bay of The Virgin and Saints.
Returning to Santo Sepulcro, doors lead into the 12th-century Cortile di Pilato, so named to commemorate the place where Pontius Pilate tried Jesus. In the middle is a stoup called Pilateĺs Bowl, which had the reputation being the bowl in which Pilate washed his hands. From the 8th century, it has an obscure inscription relating to the Lombard kings Luitprand and Ilprand, who are said to have donated it. Two small chapels and one large one with a worn 14th century fresco open off the loggias down each side of the courtyard, plus one that's closed. On a pillar in a little window to the left of one chapel is a cockerel, sculpted in the 14th century. Opposite the rather special patterned brickwork on the back wall of San Sepolcro is the fašade of the wide and shallow Martyrium, (also known as the Church of the Trinity). Dating to the 13th century it may have been the east end of the 4th century church, or the later Lombard one. It was rebuilt in 1911 and again faced with lovely patterned brickwork. This chapel, restored in 1924, has a line of columns with good capitals down the centre and a fine old pavement and is believed to have been originally built over a walled Christian cemetery. Also here is a group of five stout wooden statues of the Adoration of the Magi, in a glass case, painted by the workshop of Simone dei Crocifissi (c.1370) and a damaged stone statue of Saint Peter seated. Plus some sweet little detached fresco fragment panels.
Through the right hand door from the Martyrium is the Benedictine cloister, the lower part dating from the 11th century and the upper from the 12th. It is said that Dante spent so much time sitting here that the odd figures in the capitals inspired descriptions of the damned in The Inferno. There's a good view of the Romanesque campanile too. Occasionally the door along the colonnade opposite the entrance to the shop will be open allowing access to the garden to the south of the Crocifisso church, but it's pretty uninteresting.
Off of this cloister is the shop and a small and dusty Museum with five rooms and some nice panels and detached frescoes, as well as reliquaries In the first room there are scrappily arranged and labelled panels, a good number by Simone dei Crocefissi, a small Pieta by Lippo di Dalmasio, a fine big detached fresco panel of the 15th century of Saint Petronio Enthroned with Scenes from the Lives of Saints Petronio and Stephen by Michele di Matteo, commissioned by the senator Nicol˛ Sanuti for this church. The same artist painted a now dispersed altarpiece for this church around the time of Pope Eugenius IV's sojourn in Bologna in 1436-8. It reflects, in its choice of subjects, that pope's desire to unite the Western and Eastern churches. Small rooms of ecclesiastical silver follow. The last room is the Capella della Benda (Chapel of the Bandage), which has an unusual large and Byzantine-looking 13th century detached fresco panel of The Massacre of the Innocents by Berlinghiero da Lucca, according to the label sellotaped to the wall.
Lost art in the Pinacoteca
The Miracle of Saint Bonaventura by Gessi, a collaborator with Guido Reni.
The church in art
The Tomb of the Saints Vitale and Agricola in the Underground Church of Santo Stefano (see right) from 1830 by Antonio Basoli.
Opening times 9.00-12.30 & 2.30-7.00
The museum seems to close on Sundays.
An old postcard showing a tabernacle and statue on the fašade of
Santi Vitale e Agricola which have since been removed.
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