One of the first things one should know about the small church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo is that it is not dedicated to the apostles John and Paul, even though some travel guides may state otherwise. The Giovanni and Paolo of the church are two brothers who supposedly lived in the fourth century and were martyred by the pagan Roman emperor Julianus the Apostate (361-363). The story is problematic, if not to say unhistorical, but the brothers have churches dedicated to them in Rome (where they are said to have lived), Venice (actually the largest in the city) and – as I found out recently – here in Spoleto. The Spoletan church is located right next to a restaurant called Cantina de’ Corvi, which I highly recommend if you are looking for a nice place to have lunch.
The Santi Giovanni e Paolo is an old parish church which was created by combining two separate buildings. The oldest part is the crypt, which is not accessible to visitors. In the twelfth century a larger church was built over this crypt. It was traditionally consecrated in 1174. The Santi Giovanni e Paolo has a single nave and a sanctuary and choir that are raised over the crypt. The walls are slightly skewed and the whole structure does not appear to be very stable. Nevertheless, the Santi Giovanni e Paolo is of great historical interest because of its collection of frescoes dating from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. Not all of these are still kept in the church. A famous fresco showing the martyrdom of Saints John and Paul is now in the Museo nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto. The church is the original location of a well-known crucifix (1187) by the twelfth century painter Alberto Sozio. On the occasion of its 700th anniversary in 1887, it was moved to the Duomo of Spoleto.
A tour of the frescoes starts outside the church, where the left wall has a large fresco of a Madonna and Child and four saints. It was made in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The fresco is protected against rain by a small roof, but that has not prevented it from becoming badly weathered and decayed. It has now basically become impossible to identify the four saints, so let us skip this fresco and quickly go inside. The church has been deconsecrated some time ago and should now be open to the public for a few hours on Saturdays. A ticket is just two Euros, but the staff at the ticket desk may try and sell you a Spoleto Card. Such a card can be good value for money, but in our case it was not, as it was our last day in Umbria and we had already visited many of Spoleto’s attractions.
The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
The most famous fresco of the church can be found on the left wall. It depicts the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. Becket was embroiled in a bitter conflict with King Henry II of England (1154-1189). Fearing for his life, the archbishop had already spent a few years in exile in France, but in 1170 he had been able to return to England. However, King Henry continued to display open hostility towards his archbishop, and at one point he uttered words which were interpreted by four knights as a command to kill Becket. There is still debate about which words the king actually used, but the phrase ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ has become immortal, not least because of a famous episode of Blackadder. Becket was murdered in his own cathedral on 29 December 1170. He was canonised in early 1173 by Pope Alexander III (1159-1181).
Since the fresco depicts Becket as a saint, it must have been made after 1173. It is certainly one of the oldest depictions of the assassination in Italy, but the style suggests it was painted in the thirteenth rather than the twelfth century. A date between 1220 and 1230 seems plausible. At the time there was a conflict between the popes in Rome – especially Gregorius IX (1227-1241) and Innocentius (1243-1254) – on the one hand and the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1220-1250) on the other. Much like the conflict between Thomas Becket and King Henry II, this was a struggle between the Church and the secular authorities. Spoleto had been part of the Papal States since 1198, and the fresco, while depicting an event that took place in the past, may actually be referring to the ongoing conflict between the Pope and the Emperor.
Even though the fresco is damaged, it is still possible to make out many of the fine details. We see two of the four knights, clad in chainmail and waving about large swords. The head of the knight on the right is gone, but the knight on the left can be seen wearing a helmet with a face mask. Becket is standing behind the altar and is protected by a servant. Perhaps this man is Edward Grim, a monk who tried to save the archbishop and was wounded in the attempt. If we study the fresco closely, the servant does seem to lose a hand. He also seems to have a tonsured head, so he could very well be a monk. Becket is struck on the head by the knight on the right, who has also taken hold of his right hand. On the altar are the archbishop’s mitre, a chalice and a book with the text DOMINVS VOBISCV(M), “the Lord be with you”. On the right is a fresco of Saint Nicolas of Bari, on the left a fresco of an unknown saint that appears to have been painted over the Becket fresco.
The left wall has some more frescoes which are interesting, but damaged as well. We see a large fresco by an anonymous painter depicting the Madonna della Cintola, the Virgin who is taken up to heaven and throwing her girdle to Saint Thomas. On the left is Saint Franciscus of Assisi. The date of the fresco is disputed, but it does not seem to have been made before 1300. Below this fresco are smaller frescoes of the Crucifixion and of Saint John the Baptist, all painted by anonymous artists.
The left wall has another fresco of Saint John the Baptist, this time depicted in his traditional camel hair shirt. Perhaps it was part of a larger fresco once, but if this was the case, the place of that fresco has now been taken by two frescoes from the fifteenth century. The top one is attributed to the Maestro di Eggi (Eggi being a frazione of Spoleto), and since the bottom one is painted in exactly the same style, it seems reasonable to attribute this fresco to the Maestro di Eggi as well. The upper fresco depicts Saint Leonard, Saint Gregorius the Great (with a papal tiara) and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (noted the spoked wheel). The lower fresco depicts a Madonna breastfeeding the Child. She is flanked by Saint Eligius (Sant’Alo) and an unknown female saint. Eligius is the patron of goldsmiths. He is depicted with a hammer and the leg of a horse with a horseshoe. Since the first fresco was made in 1445, the second was probably made around the same time.
The choir has frescoes from the sixteenth century by Piermatteo Gigli, a local painter of little fame and talent. He painted a Madonna and Child with two angels and a plethora of saints. On the left are Saint Joseph and three Saints named John: a scantily clad Saint John the Baptist, the legendary bishop John of Spoleto and one of the two brothers named John. On the right are Saint Mary Magdalene with a jar of ointment, Saint Jerome with lion, Saint Antonius of Padova and Saint Paul, the other brother. In the centre, below the Madonna and Child, we see Christ rising from his tomb and elements of his Passion, the spear and the cross. The vault has frescoes of the four Evangelists.
The right wall has many (fragments of) frescoes of saints. One of the most interesting features Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint Margareth of Antioch and Saint Thaddeus. It is attributed to a follower of the aforementioned Alberto Sozio, so it was probably executed in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. A fresco in the corner seems to depict a Nativity scene. Although it is damaged, we still clearly see a swaddled child in a feeding trough, the ox and the donkey, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph.
A visit of the Santi Giovanni e Paolo is highly recommended, if only because of the Thomas Becket fresco. So if you happen to be in the vicinity on a Saturday, do not hesitate!