The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the adjacent eponymous sanctuary (santuario) are of great importance to the citizens of Brescia. It was in the sanctuary that a certain Giovanni Battista Montini, just 22 years old and only recently ordained a priest, celebrated his first mass in 1920. In 1963 he was elected Pope Paulus VI. Since he was born and raised in Concesio, a town just north of Brescia, the Brescians consider him one of their own. It should therefore not come as a surprise that in one of the chapels of the Santa Maria delle Grazie we find a relief of this pope, as well as a prayer that can be read out in honour of him.
The church was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century by members of the Order of Saint Jerome. These Hieronymites had originally used a church that stood way outside the city walls of Brescia. In 1512, however, the French under Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours (1489-1512), had pillaged the city, prompting the decision that all churches outside the walls were to be abandoned. In 1517 the Hieronymites obeyed the order to demolish their old church, and they were subsequently granted the thirteenth century church of Santa Maria di Palazzolo in the city itself. This church and the adjacent monastery were administered by members of the Humiliati, the Humble Ones (see Florence: Ognissanti), but their order was in decline and would be dissolved by Pope Pius V (1566-1572) in 1571. The fact that the Humiliati lost their church and monastery to the Hieronymites was a token of their dwindling prestige.
The Hieronymites left the Santa Maria di Palazzolo as it was and started building a new church on the other side of the cloister, which they named the Santa Maria delle Grazie, Our Lady of Grace. Construction started in 1522 and was led by brother Lodovico Barcella, himself a member of the Order. In 1539 the now finished building was consecrated. The Hieronymites were allowed to enjoy their new accommodation until 1668: in that year their order was dissolved by Pope Clemens IX (1667-1669). The church and monastery were then granted to the Jesuits, who would administer the complex until 1797.
The exterior of the Santa Maria delle Grazie is very simple. Its façade is rather boring, but fortunately we can still admire a portal that was taken from the old church outside the city walls. Especially the fifteenth century tympanum above the entrance is marvellous. One modern decoration outside the church is the Ionic column with the Madonna of Peace, a statue by the sculptor Emilio Magoni (1867-1922).
The church has a splendid Baroque interior that was mostly created in the seventeenth century. It can be counted among the most beautiful and certainly the most opulent church interiors in all of Brescia (see the second image in this post). If you look up, you will instantly notice the gilded stucco work, and if you look down, you will immediately marvel at the gorgeous floor with its trompe-l’oeil decorations. The church once possessed three works by the great painter Il Moretto (Alessandro Bonvicino; ca. 1498-1554/64). Two of these have regretfully been replaced with copies: a panel featuring Saint Antonius of Padova among other saints (painted ca. 1530) and a Nativity that used to be above the high altar. The original works are now in the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, while the only real Moretto can be found in the right aisle. It is a panel featuring the Madonna and Child in Glory with Saints Rochus, Martin and Sebastian. The panel was painted in about 1525.
I paused for a while in the chapel with the relief of and prayer for Pope Paulus VI. I did not do this out of respect for this pope (who was, by the way, canonised in 2018), but because of the nice altarpiece by Paolo Caylina the Younger (ca. 1485-1545). It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven, an event witnessed by four saints down below (see the image above). The most important among them is Saint Jerome (ca. 347-420), who is only wearing a loin cloth. Jerome was the man who inspired the Hieronymites, as is demonstrated by the name of their order. The other saints that Caylina painted are students of Jerome. The man on the left is Eusebius of Cremona, while the women on the right are Paula and Eustochium, mother and daughter. The background of the painting is very well done. If we look closely, we can still see Christ on the cross.
An exit on the left side of the church gives access to a small, but beautiful cloister with a fountain. The fountain has a statue of the Madonna made by Santo Calegari il Vecchio (1662-1717). From the cloister we can enter the sanctuary (santuario) of Santa Maria delle Grazie. As was already stated above, this used to be the location of the church of Santa Maria di Palazzolo. This church was restored on more than one occasion, but ultimately replaced with the current Neogothic sanctuary, which was built in the last quarter of the nineteenth century under the direction of the architect Antonio Tagliaferri (1835-1909). The Neogothic paintings are the works of Modesto Faustini (1839-1891) and his successor Cesare Bertolotti (1854-1932). The sanctuary has just one painting that can really be considered ‘old’: a Nativity above the altar that dates from the fifteenth century and is attributed to a painter from the school of Vincenzo Foppa (ca. 1427-1515).
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 64-65;
- Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie on Italian Wikipedia;
- Santuario di Santa Maria delle Grazie on Italian Wikipedia.
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