Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The REALLY old churches of Bologna

Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher - old, really old.
When I say old, I’m thinking 1st century AD, a pagan temple to Isis built over a spring (which is still there); followed by an extraordinary construction, around the 5th century AD, that was built to resemble the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I’ve seen the current version of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - for those who don’t know and are interested, it’s billed as the ‘actual tomb’ in which Jesus Christ was placed after his crucifixion. There’s a small marble compartment with a bench where His body was supposed to have been laid and queues with other pilgrims and files by this bench. Of course, according to the Gospels, Christ was placed in a cave-like tomb: this compartment or 'aedicule' is supposed to be on the site of the cave. The original aedicule was built around the time of Constantine (c. 326 AD) but the entire Church of the Holy Sepulchre was razed to the ground in 1009 by the "mad Caliph", the Fatimid Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ending 300 years of easy access to Jerusalem by Christian pilgrims and inspiring the Crusades. 

Replica of the crypt in Jerusalem. Eerie.
But be all that as it may, in Bologna there is a replica - the only known replica - of the Holy Sepulchre. It is situated in a very atmospheric circular brick oratory, dim and evocative, which certainly does its best to carry you back to the fifth century, the time when it was built -- probably at the instigation of San Petronio, the patron saint and bishop of Bologna, who is thought to have travelled to the Holy Lands and to have been inspired to instigate the building of this replica. If San Petronio did visit Jerusalem in the 5th century, the replica he built would have been of the Holy Sepulchre standing at that time, before the "mad Caliph" razed it and before his son, the much milder Ali az-Zahir, allowed rebuilding to commence.  

Legend has it that Petronius brought back a certain column from the Holy Land - composed of two carved stones with no capitals, which is still in the Sepulchre chapel - in order to show the height of Christ to the faithful.

Dome of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre.
San Petronio’s remains were discovered buried in this Chapel in the 12th century, and remained there - viewable through a hole in the floor - until very recently, when they were removed to the huge Basilica that bears is name. 

Old, but changed many times.
This extraordinary place is embedded in a complex of ancient old churches know collectively as ‘San Stefano’, or the ‘Seven Churches’. I walked into the first one - ‘The Church of the Crucifix’ - and assumed, because of its austere and bare demeanor, that it was very, very old. Then the volunteer lady at the cash desk sold me a history of the complex, written by a monk who lived there, and I discovered - through his rather disgusted comments - that this place has been altered very, very significantly over the years, up until the 20th century, though his most acerbic comments related to the destruction at the time of Napoleon. In this strange, bare church there is a wooden Pieta, and (recent) steps leading to a light-filled altar. 

Below this church (which is already about a metre lower than the piazza in front of it) is a crypt. Even before reading the monk’s guidebook, I could tell this was old. It was built to - and still does - protect the remains of the first Bolognese martyrs, Saints Vitale and Agricola, who died for professing early Christianity. The crypt was originally secret and secluded, as protection - apparently remains of early martyrs were subject to pilfering in the 11th century.

'The Church of the Crucifix'
The crypt - Saints Vitale and Agricola.
But I must admit that the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher is the real draw-card of this complex. As the whole place is a palimpsest of many centuries of alterations, one has to use one’s imagination. As the small guidebook sold to me says:
‘In order to have an accurate picture of the small chapel in the centre that is a copy of the one in Jerusalem, it is necessary to disregard the ambone on the left. It has changed places many times during the centuries, having been moved between the different churches including the Holy Sepulcher Church. Furthermore, the staircase, the altar at the top with its balustrade and everything else that can be clearly seen to be a later addition must be disregarded. The small chapel which remains is the only reproduction left in the world of the Sepulcher of Christ...’ 
The evolution of San Stefano through the centuries is fascinating. Touring it today, you can only get a taste -- parts are closed, parts under renovation. When I was there workmen were - fascinatingly in their own right - pounding new pebbles into the surface of ‘Pilate’s Courtyard’, one by one with rubber mallets. But throughout the complex there are many ancient and evocative reminders of many centuries of Roman Catholic devotion and legend.

Yes, I wondered too...the tomb of a tailor. 
'St Peter's Window' - a reminder of the cock crowing three times...
Evocative old cloisters....
A wooden group depicting the Magi's worship in the Martyrium Church
by Bolognese artist Crocifissi - 14th C
(It would have been a better photo except that
I didn't have 20 euro cents to light it up.)
Decorations on the exterior of the Sepulcher -
Romanesque style, typical of the medieval world.

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