Spoleto: Museo Diocesano and Sant’Eufemia

Part of a polyptych, attributed to the Maestro della Madonna Strauss (14th-15th century).

I do not usually discuss a museum and a church in one post, but in this case the church is actually part of the museum. The church of Sant’Eufemia cannot even be visited separately; it can only be entered from the museum and potential visitors therefore have to buy a ticket. The Diocesan museum is housed on the first floor of the north wing of the Palazzo Vescovile and has a very interesting collection of religious art. I would definitely recommend a visit, and the fact that the ticket gives access to the church of Sant’Eufemia as well can be considered a bonus.

Museo Diocesano

The former bishop’s palace of Spoleto has a long history. In the first century BCE, an artificial platform was built here so that the forum of Roman Spoletium (see: Spoleto: Remains of a Roman city) could be extended further to the north. Tradition dictates that in the sixth century, a palace was built here for the Ostrogothic king Theoderic (493-526). That palace was later used by the dukes who ruled the Longobard Duchy of Spoleto, founded in the late sixth century and ended in 776, when Spoleto was conquered by the Carolingian Franks. The complex was likely also used by the Carolingian rulers until it passed to a community of Benedictine nuns in the tenth century at the latest. The nuns lost control of the site at an unspecified moment and an Episcopal palace or Palazzo Vescovile was constructed here in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.

Bust of Pope Urbanus VIII – Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Spoleto lies in an area that is prone to seismic activity and was damaged by earthquakes in 1571, 1703 and 1762. The earthquakes affected the palace as well and necessitated restorations and remodelling projects which were launched on various occasions. The current Museo Diocesano is housed in the apartments of Cesare Facchinetti, who served as bishop of Spoleto from 1655 until 1672. The collection of the museum includes works by (or attributed to) Bartolomeo da Miranda, Neri di Bicci and Filippino Lippi, but also by Domenico Beccafumi, the Cavalier d’Arpino and Sebastiano Conca.

One of the most famous works on display is a bust of Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), made between 1640 and 1644. The bust was commissioned by the Pope himself and was originally placed on the counter-facade of the Duomo of Spoleto. The reason to put it there was not only that Urbanus, who was born Maffeo Barberini, had served as bishop of Spoleto from 1608 until 1617, but also that he and his nephew cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679) were the driving force behind an extensive remodelling of the cathedral in the seventeenth century. The bust stood in the Duomo until 1998, when it was moved to the Museo Diocesano and replaced with a copy.

Among the other highlights are a triptych attributed to Bartolomeo da Miranda and a panel painting attributed to Neri di Bicci, both painters from the fifteenth century. The triptych (ca. 1450) was commissioned for the church of Sant’Eufemia by Marco Condulmer, the former patriarch of Grado (1439-1445). He was a Venetian by birth and a relative of Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447), who was born Gabriele Condulmer. Eugenius had sent him to Spoleto in 1445 after the death of its bishop to administer the diocese. The triptych features the Assumption of the Virgin in the central panel. On the left and right we see Saints John of Spoleto and Lucia. The reason for including these two saints was that the church of Sant’Eufemia was actually (co-)dedicated to Saint John at the time and was rededicated to Saint Lucia when Condulmer administered Spoleto.

Sant’Eufemia Triptych (left) and Madonna of the Snow (right).

Neri di Bicci’s panel (ca. 1464) tells the foundation legend of the predecessor of the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the Basilica Liberiana. It features the Virgin in the centre, flanked by Saint Sebastian on the left, his body riddled with arrows, and Pope Liberius (352-366) on the right. The Virgin Mary had appeared to Liberius in a dream and told him to build a church dedicated to her at a site in Rome where snow would fall the next day. Since it was actually August, this was a weird dream indeed. But lo and behold, there was indeed a miraculous case of snowfall on the Esquiline Hill. The Pope needed no more proof that this was the spot where he would build his new church. Below the Virgin we see the outlines of the church in the snow.

Madonna and Child with Saints Montanus and Bartholomew – Filippino Lippi.

Of very high quality is Filippino Lippi’s panel painting of the Madonna and Child with Saints Montanus and Bartholomew. Lippi (1457-1504) was the son of the Carmelite friar and painter Filippo Lippi and a nun called Lucrezia Buti. Young Filippino was tutored by Sandro Botticelli and became an accomplished painter himself; see for instance his works in the Brancacci Chapel and the church of Santa Maria Novella, both in Florence. The panel painting in the Museo Diocesano was made in ca. 1485 and is conspicuous for its golden background, which could have been considered a slightly archaic feature at the time. Note that around the same time Lippi painted his Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard (1482-1486), now in the Badia Fiorentina in Florence. This painting has a realistic background.

At the time I visited the Museo Diocesano, which was in September of 2018, several museums in Umbria had launched a joint exhibition called Capolavori del Trecento, which featured about 70 masterpieces from the fourteenth century, which were exhibited on various locations in Trevi, Montefalco, Spoleto and Scheggino. The Museo Diocesano was one of these locations and it had focussed on the mysterious Maestro di Cesi. We do not have a clue as regards his true identity, but the Museo Diocesano claims that he was a student of Giotto and worked with the great master at the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. A caption explained how his initial linear style, typical of the thirteenth century, evolved into a more natural style as a result of his stay in Assisi.

Polyptych by the Maestro di Cesi.

On display at the museum was, among other works, a polyptych, dated ca. 1295, which was on loan from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. It used to be in the Della Stella monastery in Spoleto. The polyptych features a large scene of the Assumption of the Virgin in the centre and eight smaller scenes about her life and death. The Assumption is unusual in that Christ is seated inside the mandorla with her. A similar scene can be found in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, although that fresco was painted by Cimabue rather than by Giotto.


The Sant’Eufemia.

The first church on this site may date from the seventh century and there is a possibility that it served as a palace chapel for the Longobard Dukes of Spoleto. The church was probably rebuilt in the twelfth century. The original dedication was to Saint Euphemia of Chalcedon, an early fourth century martyr. The church was for some time (co-)dedicated to Saint John of Spoleto, a semi-legendary bishop of the city who may have lived in the first half of the sixth century. Later it was dedicated to Saint Lucia, after the Venetian Marco Condulmer had been appointed to administer to diocese of Spoleto. Why he did this is puzzling. Condulmer was the former Patriarch of Grado, a town that has its own church of Santa Eufemia, the former cathedral. One would have perhaps expected a special devotion to this saint, although it should be noted that the Patriarchate of Grado was suppressed in 1451 in favour of Venice and that its patriarchs had been effectively ruling from the Serenissima for centuries anyway.

The church is now deconsecrated and that may be reason it was given back its original name of Sant’Eufemia. The building owes its present appearance largely to restorations that were started in 1907 by the Spoletan archaeologist Giuseppe Sordini (1853-1914). These were only completed in 1954. What is special about the church is that it still has its matronaea, i.e. the galleries above the aisles. These were intended for those who did not want to or were not allowed to attend mass in the nave below (probably not just women or ‘matrons’, but also sick people). We have seen other examples of matronaea in Milan in Lombardy (here and here), and their presence here in Spoleto may indeed be a sign of Longobard influence. The church has been compared to the Sant’Ambrogio in Milan and especially to the San Lorenzo in Verona. It should in any case be noted that the matronaea in the Sant’Eufemia are unique in Umbria.

Interior of the church, seen from the matronaea.

Altar of the church.

The church features little decoration, apart from a heavily repainted fresco of God the Father with angels in the conch of the apse. The altar is worth closer inspection. The original altar was destroyed accidentally during the restorations of the first half of the twentieth century. The version we see today has a frontal that used to be in the Duomo of Spoleto. It features strips of Cosmatesque decorations and reliefs of the Lamb of God and the four Evangelists.

Being part of the Museo Diocesano, the church was one of the locations of the Capolavori del Trecento exhibition (see above). On display were works by two anonymous artists known as the Maestro di San Ponziano and the Maestro di San Felice di Giano. The former was a contemporary of the Maestro di Cesi, the latter one of his predecessors. Included in this post is a panel painting by the latter, which is currently in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, but which used to be in an abbey in Giano dell’Umbria, some 15 kilometres northwest of Spoleto.

Dossal (ca. 1270-1280) by the Maestro di San Felice di Giano.

The painting is actually a dossal. It features Christ – labelled IHS XC – seated inside a mandorla and giving his blessing. Below him are tondi with the Lamb of God and the symbols of the four Evangelists. Note that there is a small kneeling figure in white to the right of the Lamb (identity unknown). The top register of the dossal features two angels with incense burners, who are labelled Michael and Gabriel. The other saints that are depicted are Saints Andrew, Simon and Paul and the Virgin Mary (on the left), and Saints John the Baptist, Peter, James and Philip (on the right). The middle register has prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, while the bottom register features the martyrdom of Saint Felix of Massa Martana, a fairly obscure saint.

Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley travel guide, Italian Wikipedia and the Key to Umbria website.

One Comment:

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