The church of the Most Sacred Body of Christ can be counted among the most intriguing in all of Brescia. It is one of the very few churches in the city that has kept some of its Gothic elements. Because its name is so long, it is frequently abbreviated to San Cristo. This alternative name suggests that, like the Basilica of the Saviour in Rome, the church is dedicated to Christ himself, but this is not the case: it is specifically dedicated to Christ’s body. A second point of confusion is the name of the religious order that, starting in 1467, had the church built. The Santissimo Corpo di Cristo was not erected by the Jesuits, who were founded as late as 1534, but by the Order of the Gesuati, founded in 1360 by Giovanni Colombini from Siena (ca. 1304-1367) and dissolved in 1668 by order of Pope Clemens IX. The church is famous for its beautiful frescoes painted by Benedetto da Marone (ca. 1525-after 1579). The painter became a member of the Gesuati in 1550 and was later commissioned by them to embellish their principal church in Brescia. Because of Benedetto’s frescoes, this church is sometimes called the Sistine Chapel of Brescia. That is too much honour, if you ask me. Fra Benedetto was a good painter and he must have been familiar with the frescoes in the real Sistine Chapel, but he was definitely no Michelangelo.
As was already stated above, construction of the church commenced in 1467. The rich and noble Martinengo family donated land to the Gesuati, who hired an unknown architect to build the Santissimo Corpo di Cristo. Three cloisters were erected adjacent to the church. In 1501 the now finished building was consecrated. We know that by that time parts of the church had already been decorated with frescoes, some of which were painted by Paolo da Caylina the Elder (died after 1486). Three of his frescoes have been preserved, one of them outside and two inside. I will discuss these later. Benedetto da Marone does not enter the scene until 1565. In that year he was commissioned by his fellow friars to decorate the walls, the choir, the apse and the vault of the church with frescoes. It should be noted that there was as yet no vault: the church had an open roof at the time, so the beams and rafters were all visible from the nave. Before he picked up the brush, Fra Benedetto therefore first designed the very complicated rib vault. Only when this was completed did he start painting his impressive fresco cycle.
Unfortunately the cycle has not been preserved in its entirety. We may blame the architect and painter Pier Maria Bagnadore (1550-1627), who was the first architect of the Duomo Nuovo, for the loss of part of the frescoes. At the beginning of the seventeenth century he added three chapels to the right side of the nave. The builders simply knocked through the walls, causing Fra Benedetto’s frescoes featuring the first six Stations of the Cross to be lost forever. After the Gesuati had been dissolved in 1668, the church and adjacent convent were granted to a community of Franciscans, who administered the complex until 1810. By 1883 the frescoes had deteriorated so badly that something had to be done. The church relinquished possession of the mausoleum of Bernardino and Marcantonio Martinengo, scions of the aforementioned Martinengo family. The mausoleum was moved to Brescia’s recently opened Christian museum, which explains why there is a rather ugly empty spot on the left wall of the church. In return for the mausoleum, the comune offered to help restore the frescoes. The mausoleum can nowadays be admired in the Museo di Santa Giulia.
It seems, however, that the first proper restoration attempts started as late as 1957, the year in which the church and convent were granted to the Order of the Padri Saveriani. This religious order was founded in 1895 by Guido Maria Conforti (1865-1931), who was canonised in 2011. It is thanks to the efforts of the Padri Saveriani that we can still admire the works of Paolo da Caylina the Elder and Fra Benedetto, as well as those by Lattanzio Gambara (ca. 1530-1574) and Romanino (Girolamo Romani; ca. 1484-1566), which will become clear in a moment.
The Santissimo Corpo di Cristo is situated on a very nice spot on the slope of the Colle Cidneo, overlooking the theatre and forum of Roman Brescia. If you study the facade of the building carefully, you will notice that some building materials from the Roman forum were reused for the church. On the far right we see two tiles featuring rosettes which once adorned the ceiling of the Capitolium, the temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva from the first century which stood at the back end of the forum. The rest of the facade is rather plain; the lower part was executed in Marmo Botticino and the upper part in brick. Unfortunately, it is rather hard to miss the large cracks in the brick part. The rest of the church is a mix of stone and brick, and the best way to observe this is to find a high lookout point, for instance the church of San Pietro in Oliveto, which is higher up the Colle Cidneo (see the second image in this post).
The entrance to the church is decorated with delicate sculptural work. The tympanum above the entrance has two extremely faded frescoes. The lower fresco, attributed to Paolo da Caylina the Elder, features two angels venerating the body of Christ in the shape of the sacred host. The upper fresco has a barely legible Annunciation which is credited to the young Il Moretto (Alessandro Bonvicino; ca. 1498-1554/1564). If you visit the church, expect to find the main entrance closed. Entry to the church is through the adjacent cloister, which is a nice and quiet place. In the refectory (which was closed when we visited the church in July of 2019), one should be able to admire a fresco of the Last Supper by Romanino.
Benedetto da Marone was not the only sixteenth century painter who was active in this church. His contemporary Lattanzio Gambara decorated the narthex or entrance hall of the building, and he possibly did so simultaneously with Benedetto. Four large frescoes about the life of Christ were painted by Gambara. We see the Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple, Christ among the Doctors and the Baptism.
Four frescoes on the triumphal arch at the end of the nave date from the fifteenth century. As was already mentioned above, two of these were painted by Paolo da Caylina the Elder. The lower fresco on the left features an Adoration of the Christ child, while the upper fresco on the right depicts a Madonna and Child with Saints Rochus and Christopher. Rochus was considered a protector of plague-sufferers, as is demonstrated by the fact that he points at the signs of the plague on his thigh. Images of this saint often show him accompanied by a dog (see for instance Brescia: Santi Nazaro e Celso), but his canine fellow is absent here. Christopher – Christoforus, i.e. ‘Christ-bearer’ – is carrying the Christ child on his broad shoulders. The two other fifteenth century frescoes were executed by less famous painters from Brescia. They are interesting nonetheless, because they feature two important members of the Gesuati, Giovanni Tavelli and the aforementioned Giovanni Colombini.
Pier Maria Bagnadore’s chapels on the right side of the church are not that interesting, so let us focus on the surviving frescoes by Benedetto da Marone. Fortunately, quite a few of these have been preserved. On the left wall we see the last six Stations of the Cross (see the fourth image in this post). In most Catholic churches we nowadays find fourteen Stations of the Cross, but the Santissimo Corpo di Cristo used to have just twelve Stations. Perhaps some of the events of the Crucifixion were simply merged into a single scene: in this case, the Descent from the Cross and the Entombment of Christ share a fresco. It should be noted that the frescoes of the Stations of the Cross are rather small compared to the frescoes that were painted below them. These lower frescoes feature fake architectural elements. The trompe-l’oeil effects are very clever.
Fra Benedetto used the top part of the triumphal arch to paint scenes from the Last Judgment, while in the choir we find several stories from the Old Testament that Christians believed to be connected with the celebration of the Eucharist, and therefore with the body and blood of Christ. We for instance see Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham meeting Melchizedek, the King of Salem. The purported link between these stories and the celebration of the Eucharist is very old (see Ravenna: San Vitale for some early examples). The rib vault has frescoes of the four Evangelists, and in the apse we find scenes from the life of Christ, including large frescoes of the Washing of the Feet and the Last Supper.
To conclude this post, I must mention the wonderful ceiling of the church. In the central lozenge, we see the letters IHS, a reference to the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek: Iota, Eta, Sigma. Later generations offered alternative explanations for these letters, ranging from Iesuiti Habent Satis (‘The Jesuits have enough’) to Iesus Hominem Salvator (‘Jesus the Saviour of Mankind’) and In Hoc Signo (‘in this sign’; a reference to the heavenly sign that the emperor Constantine is supposed to have seen). Historically, however, all of these alternative explanations are incorrect. The larger lozenges surrounding the name of the Jesus feature the twelve Apostles. Each Apostle is recognisable by his personal attribute. Thomas has a carpenter’s square, for instance, while Philip has a large cross and Bartholomew a knife.
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 53;
- Italian Wikipedia.