The splendid church of Santa Eufemia in Grado’s historical city centre is actually a former patriarchal basilica. It was the formal seat of the Patriarch of Grado until, in 1451, the Patriarchate of Grado was suppressed and moved to Venice. By that time, the Patriarch of Grado had already for centuries been effectively ruling from Venice anyway, so the suppression was basically just a formality and involved no more than a relabeling exercise. In spite of its loss of status, the Santa Eufemia church has kept its charm and is definitely worth a visit. Especially worthy of note is its original sixth century mosaic floor, which is a true treasure.
The first church on this site has been tentatively attributed to bishop Nicetas (ca. 454-485), who had guided his flock from Aquileia to Grado after the 452 invasion of the Huns led by their notorious king Attila. This migration was initially meant to be temporary, with the people returning to Aquileia once the barbarian storm had subsided. However, as Italy kept being overrun by new invaders and people kept fleeing to the relative safety of the lagoon, the migration ultimately became permanent. When the Longobards invaded Italy in 568, the Patriarch of Aquileia, one Paulinus (ca. 557-569), decided to leave the devastated mainland for good, take the sacred relics with him and settle in Grado for good. It was Paulinus’ successor Elia or Helias (ca. 569-586) who was responsible for the construction of the current church. He either modified or completed the edifice started by Nicetas and dedicated it to Saint Euphemia on 3 September 579.
The nature of Christ
The dedication to Euphemia is quite significant and is closely related to a religious dispute that tore the Christian church in Italy apart in the sixth century. This dispute is known as the Schism of the Three Chapters. A little background information is in order here. One of the most contentious issues of Early Christianity was that of the nature of Christ and his relationship to God the Father. Arian Christians for instance did not believe in the so-called consubstantiality of God of the Father and Jesus his Son. According to Arians, God and Christ were not “of the same substance”, which was the Orthodox position. Christ had been a mortal man, and as such, he was subordinate to God. Although the Arian doctrine was condemned as heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325, it remained quite popular among the Germanic tribes living outside the Roman Empire. The Ostrogoths who invaded Italy in 489 and ruled most of it until the reconquest by the Eastern Romans were staunch Arians, as were the Longobards who controlled most of the Italian peninsula after their 568 invasion.
And that is not all. Nestorian Christians – named after Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople (died 435) – believed that Christ had two distinct natures, one human and one divine. As a result, the Virgin Mary could merely be considered the mother of Christ, not the Theotokos, the Mother of God. The Nestorian doctrine soon became popular in the Eastern Roman Empire, not least with the court in Constantinople. It was, however, vehemently challenged by patriarch Cyrillus of the rival see of Alexandria in Egypt. It was this Cyrillus who presided over the Council of Ephesos in 431 that condemned the Nestorian view as being heretical. Nestorius was stripped off his office and later banished. Most of his followers left the Empire and fled further east, where they would ultimately reach Persia, China and even Mongolia. A Nestorian Christian woman from the Kerait tribe named Sorghaghtani married Tolui, son of Genghis Khan, and became the mother of two great Mongol emperors, Möngke and Kublai Khan.
And then there were those who believed that Christ had just one nature, which was in every aspect divine. This doctrine is traditionally called Monophysitism, and although the term has been challenged, for simplicity’s sake I will still use it for this post. Monophysitism was condemned as heresy by the Council of Chalcedon of 451. This Council laid down the Orthodox position on the nature of Christ, which to a non-believer might sound both illogical and incomprehensible. The Council basically declared that Christ is one person with two indivisible natures, and that he is “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man”. It is a position that actually comes close to Nestorianism, the difference apparently being that in the latter doctrine there are two distinct natures (like water and oil, which do not mix), whereas in the Orthodox position they are inseparable (like water mixed with wine).
The Three-Chapter controversy
Not that it mattered much, for while the Goths and Longobards simply ignored the condemnation of Arianism at Nicea, the Monophysites of Egypt and Syria cold-shouldered the Chalcedonian Creed. And they were a force to be reckoned with. Even the powerful Eastern Roman empress Theodora (see Ravenna: San Vitale) was a non-Chalcedonian Christian. Her Orthodox husband, the emperor Justinianus (527-565), could not risk antagonising the non-Chalcedonians too much, and in a desperate attempt to conserve the unity of the Church he decided, in 544, to issue a decree condemning as heretical the person and writings of Theodorus of Mopsuestia – a precursor of Nestorius – as well as certain works by the obscure and long-forgotten writers Theodoretus of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa. All of these writings were associated with Nestorianism, and since both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians abhorred the teachings of Nestorius, Justinianus apparently hoped to bring about a reconciliation by anathemising the aforementioned Three Chapters.
It did not work. Only the Orthodox Christians in the East showed some lacklustre support for the decree. The non-Chalcedonians of Egypt and Syria – who had hoped for serious concessions – were disappointed, while the Christians in the West – in Italy, but also in Africa – were absolutely livid. The Pope in Rome, a strict Chalcedonian, refused to condemn the Three Chapters, believing the decree to be merely a smokescreen to hide the fact that the emperor had failed to take action against the Monophysites, even though these had already been condemned as heretics in 451. As a result, Pope Vigilius (537-555) was abducted by the emperor in 545. After reading mass at the church of Santa Cecilia, he was intercepted by the emperor’s soldiers and taken aboard a ship that took him from Rome to Sicily and then to Constantinople. The pope was under immense pressure from both Justinianus and Theodora to condemn the Three Chapters, which he ultimately did. However, when Theodora died in 548, Vigilius repented and withdrew his condemnation, which had already been almost univocally criticised in the West.
This was not the end of the misery for Vigilius. Effectively a prisoner of the emperor, he suffered another defeat when a new Council of Constantinople, mostly composed of Eastern bishops and held in the Hagia Sophia in 553, upheld Justinianus’ decree of 544 and condemned the Three Chapters again. Vigilius was now a broken man, suffering seriously from gallstones. Almost certainly under immense duress, he signed a declaration in 554 formally admitting his past errors and condemning the Three Chapters after all. The pope was now allowed to leave Constantinople, but he died on the way back to Rome in Syracuse. His capitulation was not appreciated in Italy, and that is putting it mildly. The bishops of the important sees of Milan and Aquileia severed all ties with Rome. The archbishop of Aquileia now began styling himself “patriarch” instead of just archbishop. The Schism of the Three Chapters had been born.
Patriarch Elia dedicated his new cathedral to Saint Euphemia for a reason. According to Church tradition, Euphemia had been martyred at Chalcedon in the early fourth century, so the dedication of the basilica to her was a clear reference to the Council of Chalcedon of 451 and a token of the patriarch’s strong Chalcedonian position. Dedicating a church to a Chalcedonian saint was also a way of giving the Pope in Rome the finger and emphasising the schism that now existed between Rome and the all-important see of Aquileia. Of course, the situation had already become even more complicated , as the Patriarch of Aquileia now resided in Grado, because Aquileia itself was under Longobard control. To make matter still worse, in 606, a rival Patriarch of Aquileia was appointed on the mainland, supported by the Longobards, who would soon shed their Arian feathers and embrace the Orthodox position. It would not be until 698 that the rift between Rome, Aquileia and Grado was finally healed. The communion between Rome and Aquileia was restored, and Aquileia and Grado became two separate patriarchates.
Although the Santa Eufemia is, in essence, a sixth century basilica, its campanile dates from 1455. It is some 42 metres high and was constructed four years after the Patriarchate of Grado had been suppressed in favour of Venice (see above), perhaps as a form of compensation from the Venetians for Santa Eufemia’s loss of status. The campanile is topped by a weathervane statue of an archangel, added in 1462. Since he is carrying two lilies, the archangel appears to be Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, although most sources identify him as Saint Michael instead. The statue is about the only decoration to be found on the exterior of the church. The church facade is very simple and completely in naked brick. Behind the church is an interesting lapidarium, with many finds from excavations carried out since the early twentieth century. Do not forget to visit the simple but elegant baptistery next door.
The walls of the Santa Eufemia have little decoration. The lack of decoration leads us to focus immediately on two interesting items, the strange pulpit (see the image above) and the golden screen (pala d’oro) behind the altar. The hexagonal pulpit was apparently made in the thirteenth century. It features reliefs with the symbols of the evangelists and is topped by a Moorish-style canopy. The wonderful pala d’oro has three registers and was donated to the church by a Venetian nobleman in 1372. Also worthy of note is the medieval Gothic apse fresco (see the image above), perhaps from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, which is unfortunately somewhat damaged and faded in places. It shows Christ Enthroned inside a mandorla, flanked by the four evangelists and several saints. The saint next to the Lion (the symbol of Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice) must be Saint Euphemia herself, while the saint with the camel hair shirt and the scroll next to the bull must be Saint John the Baptist. The two saints at the far left and right are Saints Hermagoras and Fortunatus, or so I assume. They are the patron saints of Grado. The book on Christ’s lap has words taken from the Gospel of John (“Ego sum lux mundi etc.”).
The sixth century mosaic floor is clearly the highlight of the church. Not all of the mosaics are visible; many are covered by either carpets or pews. This is not surprising: the Santa Eufemia is a church, not a museum. I will specifically mention two mosaics. The first is a mosaic that can be found on the right side of the nave, just in front of the sanctuary (image on the left). It shows various geometrical shapes and images of birds, as well as several texts mentioning the citizens who sponsored the mosaic. As is the case in other churches in Grado, the texts specify how many pedes of mosaic each citizen or group of citizens has sponsored. The names that we can find here are those of Martinianus and Simplicia, Honoratus, Vigilius and Hanna.
In a chapel on the right side of the church, we find an exceptionally large mosaic with the name of patriarch Elia in the central tondo (image below).
The full text in Latin reads:
SERVVS IHU XRI HELIAS EPSSC AEAQVIL ECCL TIBI SERVIENS FEC
(“The servant of Jesus Christ, Helias, Bishop of Aquileia, built this church serving You”)
The other texts of the mosaic are also interesting, especially because they refer to people who were not just laymen, but who held specific positions in the church. All of them fulfilled their vows by sponsoring part of the floor (VOTVM SOLVIT). One Lautus was a lector, a reader, while a certain Laurentius served as a diaconus, a deacon (like his namesake, Saint Lawrence of Rome). Petrus, Dominicus, Justinus and Irenianus were notarii, secretaries who drew up official documents. Note that all of the sponsors are men: women could sponsor mosaics, but not hold church positions. All in all, the mosaic floor of Santa Eufemia gives an excellent impression of religious life in Grado in the late sixth century.
An important source for this post is the entry on Grado on the Treccani website. For the events leading to the Schism of the Three Chapters, I mainly used John Julius Norwich, ‘The Popes’, Chapter III. Additional information about the church can be found on Italian Wikipedia.
 The (arch)bishop of Aquileia assumed the title of patriarch in 557.
 Moreover, during his captivity in Constantinople, Pope Vigilius had escaped from his palace prison and had fled to the church of Saint Euphemia in Chalcedon.