As the name suggests, the church of Santa Corona in Vicenza is named after the sacred crown of thorns that Jezus was forced to wear after his arrest and that was part of his Passion. The church possesses one of the thorns of this crown as a precious relic. It was donated to the blessed Bartolomeo da Breganze, bishop of Vicenza between 1259 and 1270, by King Louis IX of France. The king had obtained the crown in Constantinople, where it had been offered to him by the emperor of the so-called Latin Empire (1204-1261). Louis then had the Sainte-Chapelle built in Paris to house the relic, but he was kind enough to gift one of the thorns to his friend, the bishop of Vicenza. Construction of the church of Santa Corona commenced in 1261. It was probably completed around the time of Bartolomeo’s death in 1270. The church was modified and enlarged significantly in the late fifteenth century and more changes were implemented in the ensuing centuries. The relic of the thorn has always served as a pilgrim magnet. This arguably makes the church of Santa Corona of greater religious importance than the Duomo of Vicenza.
The Santa Corona has always been a church administered by Dominicans, which is apparently linked to the fact that two Dominican friars transported the crown of thorns from Constantinople to Paris. The Dominicans were responsible for the annual Processione della Sacra Spina, a procession in which the relic of the thorn was solemnly carried from the Santa Corona to the cathedral. However, in 1458 it was decided that the friars administering the church and convent had to make way for their fellow Dominicans of the much stricter Observant Lombard Congregation. The original friars were forcefully evicted. Some twenty years after the takeover, a process was initiated that aimed to enlarge the church and to radically change the use of space. The original thirteenth century church was much smaller than the present church. It had a five-bay nave, with choir stalls and a choir screen in the upper part of the nave. This arrangement left too little space for worshippers, so the decision to remove the screen and move the choir stalls to an enlarged apse or Cappella Maggiore is understandable. At the same time, a crypt was to be built to house the relic of the thorns.
Construction of the crypt, the new sanctuary and apse started in about 1481. This work in the Late Gothic style is usually attributed to the architect Lorenzo da Bologna (died ca. 1508). The renovated church of Santa Corona was consecrated on 20 October 1504, but the relic of the thorn was not translated to its new location in the crypt until 1520. The original choir stalls from the nave were replaced with new stalls by the sculptor Pier Antonio degli Abbati (ca. 1430-1504) from Modena. Although we now find them behind the high altar in the apse, they were originally placed in front of it. The stalls, which are of very high quality, were moved to their present location in 1663. The spectacular high altar was made in the late 1660s and early 1670s by members of the Corbarelli workshop from Florence. Expensive materials such as polychrome marble, lapis lazuli, corals and pearls were used in its construction. The altar is embellished with a sculpture group by Angelo Marinali (1654-1702), and features sculptures of Saint Sebastian, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint Jerome.
Visitors should take some time to study the antependium or altar frontal. It features several religious scenes in inlaid marble which are truly spectacular. Some are related to the life of Christ and depict scenes such as the Resurrection and the Last Supper. Others are about important religious events in Vicentine history and for instance deal with the donation of the thorn to bishop Bartolomeo or the apparition of the Virgin to Vincenza Pasini on Monte Berico in Vicenza in 1426 and 1428. Monte Berico is now the site of an important Marian church. The scene about the apparition not only features the Virgin, Vincenza Pasini and Saint Vincent of Saragossa (one of the patron saints of Vicenza), but also the city of Vicenza itself. Andrea Palladio’s dome of the cathedral of Vicenza is clearly visible and so is his Basilica Palladiana, built between 1546 and 1614. Palladio (1508-1580) was one of Vicenza’s most famous architects. His family tomb is located in the crypt of the Santa Corona.
Exploring the Santa Corona
When visiting the Santa Corona, we should realise that we are fortunate that the church was spared during World War II. On 14 May 1944, an Allied bombing raid severely damaged one of the adjacent cloisters but fortunately did not hit the church itself. Starting outside, we can first take a look at the simple Gothic facade of the church with its large and elegant rose window. The facade has a single portal with a lunette featuring a nineteenth century relief of the flagellation of Christ. The Latin text reads:
TUAM CORONAM ADORAMUS DOMINE
(“Lord, we worship your crown”)
The interior of the Santa Corona is mostly bright white and very spacious (see the image above). Once inside, it is easy to appreciate the amount of space that was freed up by the removal of the choir from the nave in the late fifteenth century. In fact, this facilitated the construction of what is arguably the church’s greatest artistic treasure: the Cappella Graziani near the fifth bay on the left at the end of the nave. Now it should be noted that the chapels on this side of the church are not really chapels, but rather altars. However, this does not in any way diminish the splendour of the Cappella Graziani. It was commissioned in the early sixteenth century by the wealthy textile merchant Battista Graziani. The immense altar frame was made by Tommaso da Lugano and Bernardino da Como, possibly with a little assistance from Rocco da Vicenza (1495-1529). It is topped by statue of Christ the Redeemer. The frame is so large it almost dwarfs the painting that it holds: the Baptism of Christ by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516). And mind you, were are talking about a painting on a panel that measures 400 by 263 centimetres!
Bellini’s painting was discussed in detail by British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon in the third episode (“The Merchants of Venice”) of Season Three of Italy Unpacked. Graham-Dixon called the painting “one of the most haunting pictures ever created by human hands” and “one of the top five most beautiful paintings in the world”. So yes, he obviously likes it, and so do I. The painting shows Christ in the centre, with rays of light in the shape of a crown emanating from his head. This is an obvious reference to the Santa Corona. On the right we see Saint John the Baptist, baptising Christ by affusion. When on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Battista Graziani had vowed to dedicate an altar to his namesake, Saint John the Baptist. By having the Cappella Graziani built, Graziani fulfilled that vow.
The three women on the left have been identified as the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. High up in the clouds is God the Father, releasing the dove of the Holy Spirit. Also in the painting, between Christ and Saint John, is a parrot, a symbol that is not easy to interpret. Just below Saint John’s feet is a little note where Bellini signed the painting with the Latin words IOANNES BELLINVS. The painter worked on the Baptism of Christ between 1500 and 1502, so he must have been well into his seventies. At the time, he was one of the most famous painters in Italy.
The other altars and chapels
The Santa Corona has many more interesting altars and chapels. On the left, we also find the Altare della Madonna delle Stelle, the Altar of the Madonna of the Stars. It was commissioned in 1519 by the Compagnia della Misericordia. The name of the altar refers to the altarpiece, which is a peculiar composite work. The upper part was painted in the second half of the fourteenth century by an unknown painter from the Veneto, with the church itself suggesting that he may have been Lorenzo Veneziano. It shows a seated Madonna in dark blue (or purple) and gold breastfeeding the infant Jesus. The lower part shows a panorama of Vicenza and is tentatively attributed to Marcello Fogolino. It is interesting to compare this panorama to the panorama of Vicenza on the high altar (see above). The latter depicts the situation in ca. 1670, while the former shows the situation in 1519. One building clearly towers above all the others in Fogolino’s work: the Palazzo della Ragione, the predecessor to Palladio’s Basilica Palladiana (see below).
The second altar on the left does not draw hordes of tourists, but it is interesting nonetheless. No great art here, but underneath the altar is the tomb of Luigi da Porto (1485-1529), a nobleman from Vicenza. Most people have probably never heard of him, but he was the author of a novel called the Historia nuovamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti. It contained the sad story of two lovers named Giulietta and Romeo. William Shakespeare took inspiration from it when he wrote his tragedy Romeo and Juliet in the 1590s. Note that in Italian the story is called “Giulietta e Romeo”, so Juliet is mentioned first.
Also worth a visit is the Cappella di San Giuseppe, the third chapel on the right. This is a relatively new part of the church, constructed in the last decade of the eighteenth century. The altarpiece is older though. It is a painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). The next chapel, the fourth on the right, is the Cappella della Vergine del Rosario, which was constructed to commemorate the victory of a Christian fleet over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. At the time, Vicenza was under Venetian rule and part of the Serenissima’s mainland possessions, or terra firma. Vicenza is not even close to the sea and it seems unlikely that the Vicentines contributed much to the victory at Lepanto. Nevertheless, as subjects of the victorious Venetians, they shared in the glory. The large chapel was built between 1613 and 1642 and replaced two smaller, older chapels from the fifteenth century. Inside are paintings by Alessandro Maganza (ca. 1556-1632) and Pietro Damani (1592-1631). The sculptural work was done by the brothers Giambattista (1573-1630) and Girolamo Albanese (1584-1660).
Finally, there is the Thiene Chapel, which can be found to the right of the stairs leading to the Cappella Maggiore. It is one of the oldest chapels in the Santa Corona and was already part of the thirteenth century version of the church, although it was restructured in the eighteenth century. The chapel was leased to Giovanni Thiene in 1390. His tomb (ca. 1415) can be found on the left side of the chapel. The tomb on the other side is that of Marco Thiene, his great-uncle. The frescoes in the lunettes of the tombs are attributed to Michelino da Besozzo (ca. 1370-1455), whose work in Milan I have discussed previously.
While writing this post, I made extensive use of the long article on Italian Wikipedia about the Santa Corona and of Joanne Allen’s excellent essay ‘Giovanni Bellini’s Baptism of Christ in its visual and devotional context: transforming sacred space in Santa Corona in Vicenza’. My Trotter travel guide to North-East Italy provided some addition information, as did the information panels in the Santa Corona itself.
Update 1 October 2022: text and images have been updated.