In the second part of this series about the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia I will discuss the oratory of Santa Maria in Solario. This square edifice dates from the twelfth century and was built in the Romanesque style. Its splendid octagonal dome with colonnades just below the eaves can – admittedly with some difficulty – be seen from the Via dei Musei. The ground floor of the oratory presumably served as the treasury of the monastic complex, while the oratory proper was on the first floor. This oratory is a small, square room with three apses which was intended for religious services. People visiting the Museo di Santa Giulia will soon find themselves in the Santa Maria in Solario; after buying a ticket they are first directed to this part of the museum.
Things to see on the first floor
Between 1513 and 1524, the oratory was embellished with frescoes by Floriano Ferramola (ca. 1478-1528) and his studio. This painter, who died rather young, has left us more work in Brescia, for example in the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso, but also in the nuns’ choir of San Salvatore, which will be discussed in part 3 of this series. Some of the frescoes in the Santa Maria in Solario have the life and death of Christ as a theme, but others depict the martyrdom of Saint Julia. The relics of this fifth century martyr have been kept in the church of San Salvatore since 761 (see part 1). And then there are frescoes showing scenes from the lives of saints who have a close connection with the Benedictine Order, for instance Saint Benedictus himself (ca. 480-547), his sister Scholastica and Pope Gregorius the Great (pope from 590 to 604). The frescoes are beautiful and colourful, but unfortunately it can be rather dark inside the oratory. Do not forget to look up and admire the (painted) starry heavens.
In the same room we also find the famous Cross of Desiderius, a precious work of art made of wood, metal and 212 gems, cameos and other decorations. The cross dates from the end of the eighth century and probably has little to no connection to king Desiderius. After all, the king had been defeated and deposed by Charlemagne as early as 774 (see part 1). The gems on the Cross date from various periods in time, ranging from the Augustan era of the Roman Empire (27 BCE-14 CE) to the sixteenth century. It seems likely that the Cross was carried around during processions. It is undoubtedly a very valuable object.
Things to see on the ground floor
On the ground floor we find an object which, from an art-historical point of view, may very well be even more valuable: a reliquary or lipsanoteca from the second half of the fourth century. This little ivory casket is decorated with stories from the Old and New Testaments. It is nowadays assumed that the casket was made by a workshop in Milan during the reign of Saint Ambrosius as bishop of the city (374-397). This Ambrosius was a fierce opponent of the Arians in Milan, i.e. the Christians who denied the divine nature of Christ and considered him to have been a mortal man. It has been hypothesised that the central scene on the front of the casket refers to the struggle against the Arians. In the scene, we see Christ holding a scroll and preaching among a group of men in a building. According to one theory we see him defending his divine nature. However, this is not entirely clear. Who, for instance, are the men in the crowd? Are they doctors, disciples of Christ or just common listeners?
And that brings us to an important problem with regard to the casket: some scenes are difficult to interpret. Those on the lid are fairly easy to decipher. Here we see Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest by a group of soldiers and Saint Peter’s betrayal (note the rooster). Below these scenes Christ is brought before the high priest Caiaphas, while the prefect Pontius Pilatus washes his hands in innocence. The details of this part of the casket are very impressive. Note for instance the torches of the soldiers and the patterns on their shields.
On the front of the lipsanoteca (see the image above) we see tondi with Christ and the apostles. The two bearded men are probably Saints Peter and Paul. Below them scenes from the story of the prophet Jonah have been sculpted. He is swallowed by a pistrix, a sea monster that often features in Roman art. As was already mentioned above, the central scene is one of a preaching Christ, with New Testament scenes on either side: Jesus healing the bleeding woman and the parable of the sheep. The lower scenes feature Daniel and Susanna. Jonah, Daniel and Susanna return on the rear side of the casket, where they are accompanied by Moses and Jethro. Unfortunately the central scenes on this side are very hard to interpret, although it is certain they are from the New Testament, like all central scenes. On the sides of the casket we see Christ performing several miracles: the healing of a blind man, the raising of Lazarus and the raising of the daughter of Jairus.
The exhibition on the ground floor comprises more Christian art, for instance a series of fifteenth century frescoes from the church of San Salvatore (see part 1) and several sculptures. In this part of the museum we also find works of art from the pre-Christian era which were reused in Christian buildings. A good example is a slab of Proconnesian marble from the second or third century featuring the three Graces: Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia. The slab became part of the floor of San Salvatore. The front of an Attic sarcophagus, also from the second or third century, shared that fate. This marvellous piece of sculptural work depicts the battle between the Athenians and Amazons. Both marble slabs feature a lot of nudity, but apparently the worshippers that visited the San Salvatore did not take offence.