The church of San Gregorio Maggiore could easily be mistaken for a smaller version of the Duomo of Spoleto. Even though there are a few differences and the huge campanile is on the right instead of the left, the similarities are hard to miss. My first attempt to visit the church ended in failure: there was a funeral going on and visits were understandably suspended. My second attempt, on the last day of my holiday in Umbria in September of 2018, was fortunately more successful.
The church is dedicated to Saint Gregorius of Spoleto, a local martyr who, according to tradition, was thrown to the beasts in 303 or 304. This supposedly happened at the amphitheatre of the city, where Gregorius was killed along with several others. Their remains were collected by a widow named Abbondanza, who was said to have founded a Christian cemetery outside the walls of the city. A first church dedicated to Saint Gregorius may have been built in the sixth century. It was known as San Gregorio Maggiore because there were (and are) two other churches dedicated to Saint Gregorius in Spoleto: the San Gregorio Minore was built into the amphitheatre where the saint was martyred and the San Gregorio della Sinagoga – now deconsecrated – was built over the prison where he was held prior to his execution.
The San Gregorio Maggiore was restored in the eighth century by a woman who – mirabile dictu – was also named Abbondanza. In fact, my rather sceptical nature leads me to conclude that the first Abbondanza was probably fictional and that only the second can be considered historical. The early Christian church was completely rebuilt between 1079 and 1146. The result was the present San Gregorio, which was co-dedicated to a rather obscure martyr named Saint Paractalis. It is not entirely clear whether the church was damaged when the army of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa sacked Spoleto in 1155, but the church may actually have been spared as most of the fighting took place in the higher parts of the city.
The church was altered on many occasions after 1146. The facade dates from about 1388, the year in which the relics of Saint Gregorius were rediscovered. Like the facade of the Duomo, it has three niches, but there is no splendid mosaic. If we study the central niche closely, we may spot traces of a fresco which was added in the early fifteenth century, but which is now almost completely gone. The two smaller niches have statues which were placed here in 1932. The one on the left is Saint Gregorius and the other has been identified as either Saint Paractalis or Abbondanza (the statue is so damaged that it is even hard to tell whether it represents a man or a woman). The imposing campanile, which appears to be almost as wide as the church itself, was only completed in 1492. Its base is very interesting: in order to create it, blocks of stone from Roman buildings were re-used.
The portico in the style of the Renaissance is an addition from the early sixteenth century. If we go down the stairs of the portico, we can enter the fourteenth century Cappella degli Innocenti on the left. The chapel features a large and colourful fresco of the Murder of the Innocents, but much more interesting are the three scenes above it. Here we see episodes from the life of Abbondanza, the Abbondanza from the eighth century that is. Especially interesting is the scene on the right, which features a church that is supposed to be San Gregorio Maggiore. There can hardly be any doubt that it is this church, but note that the facade is not depicted accurately and that the slender campanile is also incorrect.
The interior of the church was given a Baroque makeover in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but most of the interventions were undone in the twentieth century and the former Romanesque interior of the San Gregorio Maggiore was restored. The walls had been plastered in the eighteenth century and when the plaster was removed some two centuries later, fragments of frescoes from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries were rediscovered. Many are heavily damaged and some were clearly painted over older frescoes. None are of exceptional quality. Nevertheless, the church has an interesting collection and I will discuss some of the highlights.
On the left wall is a large fresco of the Crucifixion from the early thirteenth century. We see Christ on the cross, flanked by the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist. Also visible are two angels and an unknown female saint. Part of the titulus of the cross is still legible.
Also on the left wall is a fresco of the Madonna Enthroned between two saints. The saint on the left is riding a horse and holding a banner. He has been identified as Saint Pontianus, the patron saint of Spoleto (see: Spoleto: San Ponziano). The female saint on the right is Saint Lucia of Syracuse, while the female saint of the fresco to her right is believed to be Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The frescoes were painted in the fourteenth century.
The right wall also has a fresco of the Madonna Enthroned, but the most interesting element of the painting is not the Madonna herself, but the woman below the throne. Here we see Eve, scantily clad and accompanied by the serpent who enticed her to eat from the forbidden fruit. The fresco is attributed to the Maestro della Dormitio di Terni and was painted after 1360. It was originally painted for the apse of the church, but it was detached and moved here in the 1950s.
The sanctuary still has its original Cosmatesque floor from the twelfth century and the surviving frescoes on the apse walls also date from this period. Just below the windows are the remains of three saints. The man in the middle is Saint Gregorius, the man on the left Saint Paractalis. The identity of the other man can no longer be established. Many more saints were painted on this part of the apse wall, but only their feet have been preserved. Below the saints are the portraits of nine bishops. Although the condition of these frescoes is quite good, their identities are not known.
So far I have only discussed frescoes, but the church also has a very nice tabernacle, which can be found in the Cappella del Sacramento on the left. The tabernacle dates from 1523 and is attributed to the architect and sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano (ca. 1474-1552). It has been in the San Gregorio since 1873 and was moved to the chapel in 1932.
The crypt of the church can be compared to that of the San Ponziano elsewhere in Spoleto. It is open to the public, but when I visited in September of 2018, there was no light and I had to use flash to take a picture. Unfortunately there is no great fresco art down here, but that does add to the solemn atmosphere of the crypt.