The church of Santi Nazaro e Celso is dedicated to two fairly obscure martyrs, Nazarius and Celsus. According to tradition, it was Saint Ambrosius of Milan (ca. 340-397) who dug up their relics in the cemetery surrounding the Basilica Apostolorum, a church he had founded. This basilica was later renamed the San Nazaro in Brolo. There are serious doubts whether Nazarius and Celsus ever really existed. The two saints were nevertheless rather popular, even outside their native Milan. And that is why we also find a church dedicated to them in Brescia, east of Milan. This church is in fact one of the largest in the city. It is simply huge, and well worth a visit because of its many artistic treasures.
Brescia has had a sanctuary dedicated to Nazarius and Celsus since at least the thirteenth century. This must have been of modest size and was not on the same spot as the current church. The nucleus of the present church was built in the fourteenth century by Berardo Maggi, the then bishop of the city (1275-1308). His splendid tomb can be admired in the Duomo Vecchio. Maggi set up a collegiate chapter to administer the church. This chapter ordered a thorough reconstruction and expansion of the building in the fifteenth century, a project that was presumably executed between 1455 and 1485. It was likely during this period that Paolo da Caylina the Elder painted his beautiful triptych, which is now in the sacristy and which will be discussed in greater detail below.
In the early sixteenth century, a major player in the history of the church was Altobello Averoldi (1468-1531), provost of the chapter and bishop of Pula in Croatia. He commissioned the Venetian painter Titian to paint the Averoldi Polyptych, which is nowadays considered the top piece of art in the church. Averoldi himself was portrayed on the walls of the chapterhouse, together with his predecessor Giovanni Ducco and other provosts. If there happens to be a custodian on duty in the church, you may ask him or her to show you this room. The wall frescoes are attributed to Floriano Ferramola (ca. 1478-1528), albeit without concrete evidence. The chapter also hired the artists Romanino (Girolamo Romani; ca. 1484-1566) and Il Moretto (Alessandro Bonvicino; ca. 1498-1554/1564) to embellish the church.
In the second half of the eighteenth chapter, the church was completely rebuilt. The provost Alessandro Fè d’Ostiani (1716-1791), who became head of the chapter in 1746, may claim all credit for this project. The addition of his bust to the new, Neo-classicist façade was therefore fully justified. The rebuilding of the church commenced in 1753, but the first architect proved to be a failure. He was replaced by Antonio Marchetti (1724-1791), who was certainly more competent, but obviously powerless against a massive explosion of 90.000 kilos of gunpowder, stored at a bastion near the Porta San Nazaro, in 1769. As the name of this gate in the city walls suggests, it was located in the vicinity of the church. What was left of the old church was almost entirely swept away, while the new church under construction suffered serious damage. In spite of the tragedy, the project could continue and the new church was completed in 1780.
Exterior and interior
Because it was rebuilt in its entirety, the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso displays a visually evident architectural unity. Both the exterior and the interior are examples of the Neo-classicist style. One will first of all notice how exceptionally large this building is. As it is not located on a square, but simply on the Corso Giacomo Matteotti, it can be difficult to get a good look at the façade. Taking a good photo may very well prove to be an ordeal (see my attempt above). Fortunately the façade is not the most interesting part of the church. We see the familiar Corinthian columns, a triangular pediment with the letters D.O.M. (Deo Optimo Maximo), statues of Christ and several saints, and finally the bust of Alessandro Fè d’Ostiani, already mentioned above.
If you go into the church, you will first enter a narthex or vestibule. From there you can go into the nave of the church. As the church has a single nave only, this is a huge open space. On either side of the nave we may find five chapels. The dominance of the colour white and the many windows ensure that the church interior is quite bright. Again the Corinthian columns immediately catch the eye. At the back of the church, in the choir and above the high altar, we can see the Averoldi Polyptych. Fortunately visitors are allowed to enter the choir, so one can get close to the painting. Note that entering the choir may be prohibited in other churches, but in this case, the caretakers have even put a ladder in place, so that visitors can get on practically the same level as the panel.
The Averoldi Polyptych
As was mentioned above, the polyptych was commissioned by the provost Altobello Averoldi. In 1517, Averoldi had been appointed papal nuncio in Venice, and this happened to be the hometown of the painter Titian (1488-1576). The Venetian painter completed the polyptych in 1522, a year which is actually mentioned on the panel in the lower right corner. Take a look at the column on which Saint Sebastian rests his foot: it has the text TICIANVS FACIEBAT / MDXXII, “Titian made this (work) in 1522”. On the central panel we see the risen Christ. He has a banner in his right hand and appears to be floating above his tomb. From the colours of the background we may deduce that the resurrection took place at dawn. Next to the tomb are two perplexed soldiers, and in the background the tower of a city is visible.
The small panels in the left and rights corners should be viewed as a single scene, i.e. that of the Annunciation. The archangel Gabriel is holding a banner with the Latin words AVE [MARIA] GRATIA PLENA, “Hail [Mary], full of grace”. The panels in the lower left and right corners are almost thrice as large. On the left we see a kneeling Altobello Averoldi with Saints Nazarius and Celsus. The man in military garb with the red cape is presumably Nazarius. The panel on the right depicts Saint Sebastian, who has been tied to a tree in a rather strange, asymmetrical way. He has his foot on a piece of column and his body has been hit by a single arrow. The saint is wearing just a loincloth and closely resembles the Christ of the central panel. Below his right knee, Titian painted a blond angel dressed in white. The second saint behind the angel is much lesser visible. He is Saint Rochus, who together with Saint Sebastian is considered a protector of plague-sufferers.
Other things to see
And speaking of Saint Rochus: the custodian who had duty that day showed us a nice sculpture of this saint in the first chapel on the right (it may not be there permanently; see the last image in this post). The statue has been painted and the colours are still fresh and vibrant. However, if you walk around Saint Rochus, you will see that the rear of the sculpture has never been finished. Nevertheless, the sculpture is rich in detail. Just take a look at the signs of the plague on Rochus’ bare thigh and the dog with the piece of bread in its mouth.
Above, I already mentioned a work by Paolo da Caylina the Elder, who died after 1486. He was a painter and the brother-in-law of the more famous Vincenzo Foppa (ca. 1427-1515). His triptych, to be found in the sacristy, was made between 1460 and 1480. The central panel features a Madonna and Child with two angels. On the side panels, we see Saint Lawrence (left) and Saint Augustinus (right). Lawrence was a deacon who was martyred in 258 during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Valerianus (see Rome: San Lorenzo in Lucina). The iron grid that was used to roast him alive is clearly visible on the left panel. Augustinus was bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He is depicted as such, with a bishop’s chasuble and staff. The objects at the feet of the two saints are tools used by shoemakers and leather workers. They were the people who commissioned the triptych.
The Santi Nazaro e Celso still possesses a couple of works by the great painter Il Moretto, whose real name was Alessandro Bonvicino. He was born in the town of Rovato between Brescia and Bergamo and became a pupil of the aforementioned Floriano Ferramola. It is possible that he also trained with Vincenzo Foppa for a while. Rather curiously, his year of death appears to be unknown. His last (known) works date from 1554, so some – including the people who administer this church – conclude he must have died in about that year. Others assume he died in 1564.
Il Moretto’s Coronation of the Virgin, to be found in the second chapel on the left, is a fine work of art (see the image on the left). It was painted around 1534. We see how Christ crowns his mother in heaven, under the watchful eye of God the Father, who was painted on a separate panel. Below the Coronation scene are four saints. Saint Michael the archangel appears to have little interest in the event that goes on in heaven. He is too busy killing a monster that represents evil. The Coronation does have the attention of Saints Joseph and Franciscus of Assisi. The bishop on the right is Saint Nicholas (is he holding oranges in his hand?). The altarpiece is actually a pentaptych, as was already suggested by the separate panel with God the Father. Unfortunately the small panels featuring the archangel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary (together another Annunciation) and the Adoration of the Shepherds have not been put on display in the church.
The third chapel on the right has another work by Il Moretto, a painting of the Passion of Christ with Moses and Solomon (ca. 1541-1542). The fourth chapel on the left has an Adoration of the Shepherds with Saints Nazarius and Celsus by the same painter (ca. 1540). The church possesses a few more works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but these are not that interesting.
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 61;
- Italian Wikipedia;
- Turismo Brescia city map.