Cremona: Sant’Agata

Church of Sant’Agata.

The conspicuous neo-classicist façade of the church of Sant’Agata will lead many visitors to conclude that the church was built fairly recently. It was not. Construction of the church started as early as 1077, some thirty years before that of the Duomo of Cremona. In 1223 the Sant’Agata was thoroughly restored. Regretfully, not much is left of the old medieval church. The beautiful Romanesque campanile, which towers high above the temple-shaped façade, is in fact the only element of the church that reminds passers-by of its ancient roots. The brick construction of the tower contrasts sharply with the façade, with regard to both colour and style. The façade was added in 1835-1837 by Luigi Voghera (1788-1840).

Although Voghera’s addition does not necessarily qualify as beautiful, it is worth a closer inspection. Six Ionic columns support a frieze with the Latin text:

DEO SACR. IN HONOREM S. AGATHAE V. ET M. INVICTAE

Interior of the church.

Which can be translated as: “For holy God, in honour of Saint Agatha, unconquered virgin (virgo) and martyr”. Saint Agatha in this case refers to Saint Agatha of Sicily, a virgin who suffered a martyr’s fate in the middle of the third century. Tradition dictates that her breasts were amputated with a pair of pincers (see Rome: Sant’Agata dei Goti). Her martyrdom is depicted in the relief adorning the triangular pediment above the frieze. The six columns create a portico or pronaos, an element that is known from pagan temples. Such porticos are typical neo-classicist features, as this style reached back to Antiquity.

The interior of the church was thoroughly remodelled by Bernardino de Lera towards the end of the fifteenth century, in about 1495. A feature that is hard to miss, is that the Sant’Agata has a nave and four aisles. Among its most famous works of art is the mausoleum of Pietro Francesco Trecchi, which was made at the beginning of the sixteenth century by the sculptor Giovanni Cristoforo Romano (1456-1512). The church is furthermore famous for a panel painting which is called La Tavola di Sant’Agata. This small wooden panel measures 112 by 69 centimetres and was painted by an anonymous master at the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century. The painter may have been a miniaturist, i.e. an artist who also illuminated manuscripts.

Tavola di Sant’Agata.

On one side of the panel we see the Madonna and Child with an image of the Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit. The other side has stories from the life of Saint Agatha. These stories closely follow Agatha’s hagiography in the Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1230-1298). In the first register of images we see how the pious Agatha rejects the Sicilian prefect Quintianus. Because of this she is dragged before the prefect, flogged and thrown in the dungeon. Subsequently her breasts are amputated. The large central scene shows us how Agatha is visited in prison by an old man, who is immediately recognisable as Saint Peter the apostle. The story then continues in the two lower registers, which are unfortunately a bit damaged. Here we see how Agatha is burned with fire, how Sicily is struck by an earthquake, Agatha’s death, Quintianus’ death and a posthumous miracle by Agatha, which saves Sicily from an eruption of the Etna volcano.

Several of these stories return in the paintings in the choir, but their style is completely different. The frescoes that we find here were painted by Giulio Campi (1502-1572), a scion of a famous family of painters from Cremona. He completed these works in 1537. We see four separate scenes and recognise the amputation of the breasts, Saint Peter’s visit, the torture with fire (I presume) and Agatha’s funeral. Note the angel with the stone tablet in the last scene. On the tablet is the abbreviation M.S.S.(H)O.D.E.P.L., which is short for Mentem Sanctam Spontaneam, (H)onorem Deo et Patriae Liberationem. In English: Agatha had a sacred and spontaneous mind, she brought honour to God and aimed at the liberation of her fatherland.

Martyrdom of Saint Agatha – Giulio Campi.

Martyrdom of Saint Agatha – Giulio Campi.

Sources

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