The beautiful abbey church of San Bartolomeo in Pantano was founded around 760, in the late Longobard era (568-774). The monks that settled here followed the rule of the Irish Saint Columbanus (ca. 540-615). Columbanus had travelled to Longobard Italy and had founded a famous abbey at Bobbio just before his death. A few decades after the Longobards had been defeated by the Franks, the abbey in Pistoia was taken over by Benedictines. The Benedictines in their turn were succeeded by Augustinians and Vallombrosians. After 1810 the San Bartolomeo became a parish church. The addition ‘in Pantano’ – literally: in the swamp – refers to the fact that the church was built on marshy terrain.
We visited the church on 24 August 2020, which happened to be the feast day of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, Saint Bartholomew. He was the apostle that was flayed alive (see Milan: The Duomo). On his feast day, a small market where all sorts of sweets are sold is set up in front of the church. The smell of anise was hard to miss! We had already spotted the market when we standing on the bell-tower of the Duomo, which offers a very good view of the church and the adjacent monastery. When we subsequently decided to visit the San Bartolomeo we regretfully found that some of the market stalls were blocking the view and that it was quite difficult to take good pictures of the beautiful façade of the building. Fortunately we had planned a second visit to Pistoia.
The church from the Longobard era was rebuilt in 1159 by order of an abbot named Bono. The extraordinary architrave above the central entrance dates from 1167 and is attributed to the sculptor Gruamonte, who was also active elsewhere in Pistoia (here and here). The relief features Christ and the twelve apostles. Judas is no longer present and has already been replaced by Matthias, a story that is told in Acts 1:23-26. The apostles are flanked by two angels, of which one has unfortunately lost its head. Below the men their names are mentioned, but rather oddly the name of the man to whom the church is dedicated is largely lost: all that is left is BA. The name of the apostle Thomas is entirely gone; he is the man standing directly to the left of Christ and feeling the wound in Christ’s side. The other apostles are Simon, Matthew and Philip to the left of Christ, and John, Peter (with the keys), Andrew, Thaddeus and the two Jameses to his right. We may conclude that the sculptor followed Mark 3:16-19 and Matthew 10:2-4.
Above the apostles is a long text in Latin that is difficult to read. Letters have been omitted or squeezed in between. It is, however, clear that these are Christ’s words (PAX EGO SVM VOBIS, “I am peace to you”) and that he commands the apostles to go and convert the world. In the lunette above the architrave are two lions. The one on the left has caught a dragon, the one on the right a sinner. The rest of the façade is fairly plain and simple, although we do find the familiar alternating pieces of white and green marble that are so typical of Pistoian churches. From the square in front of the church visitors may just be able to spot the bell-tower. Its construction is somewhat remarkable. The lower part of the tower is fairly broad and has its own tiled roof, but the part above it, which contains the bell-chamber, is much more narrow. This upper part furthermore has Gothic-style pointed arches, whereas the façade has the rounded arches characteristic of Romanesque architecture.
The interior of the church is fairly grey. A remodelling executed between 1951 and 1961 gave the San Bartolomeo back its original medieval appearance. The operation did not just entail the elimination of several post-medieval additions, it also led to the rediscovery of various wall frescoes from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The information panel in the church has a helpful plan of all the frescoes and more modern paintings that visitors can admire. Directly to the left of the main entrance and to the right of the high altar are frescoes of Saint Bartholomew himself that have been fairly well preserved. Other frescoes feature Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Anthony of Padova and a Madonna and Child enthroned. The Madonna fresco is all the more interesting because a further two saints have been depicted as well (James the Great and perhaps again Catherine of Alexandria). They can be seen introducing a kneeling man and woman to the Madonna and Child.
The apse fresco of Christ the Pantokrator inside a mandorla is attributed to Manfredino di Alberto. It was painted at the end of the thirteenth century (ca. 1275-1290). Christ has been depicted inside a mandorla that is surrounded by angels. The fresco also features two saints, Saint Bartholomew on the left and Saint John the Baptist on the right. Unfortunately the lower part of the fresco is damaged. The crucifix in the apse dates from the late thirteenth century as well.
The most beautiful object in the church is the pulpit, which was made in 1250 by Guido Bigarelli, also known as Guido da Como . He was almost certainly a nephew of Lanfranco da Como, the man who in 1226 crafted the plunge pool that is now in the Baptistery of Pistoia. Guido’s name and the year of completion are mentioned on the pulpit, which was commissioned by the abbot Simone.
From top to bottom, Guido da Como’s pulpit is of exceptional quality and beauty. It is supported by three columns, of which the front two are made of red marble. All the columns have a beautifully carved base. Twice we see a lion, while the third base represents a man with a bent back. The lion on the left has a basilisk between its paws, the one on the right a lion’s cub. The website of the church claims that the man on whom the third column rests may be the sculptor himself. The upper part of the pulpit may very well be counted among the highlights of Romanesque sculpture. The four reliefs featuring scenes related to the Resurrection are truly extraordinary. In the first scene Christ has descended into Limbo to save Adam and a few other righteous figures. The second relief is about the road to Emmaus appearance. After his Resurrection, Christ is met by two of his disciples, but the men do not recognise him (Luke 24:13). The third relief features Christ showing himself to his foremost disciples. We count eleven of them: Judas has not yet been replaced by Matthias (see above). In the final scene we see a doubting Thomas feeling the wound in Christ’s side, an event mentioned in John 20:27.
The pulpit has two lecterns. The first has the shape of an eagle, the symbol of Saint John the Evangelist. Below the eagle we see the symbols of the other three evangelists: an ox for Luke, a lion for Mark and a man for Matthew. The three symbols rest on a horned devil’s head. The figures below the other lectern are Saint Paul the Apostle and his two companions, Timothy and Titus. Both are known from the epistles that Saint Paul wrote (or that are attributed to him). Titus was a non-Jew who had converted to Christianity. He ultimately became the patron saint of Crete.
Behind the pulpit two panels have been attached to the side wall. The panels feature four scenes from the life of Christ. Judging by what has been depicted, we see – from left to right and from top to bottom – the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Presentation in the Temple and the Adoration of the Magi. I do not know what the panels were used for. They are sometimes attributed to the aforementioned Guido da Como, but the church itself asserts another sculptor was responsible for their creation. The artistic quality of the reliefs is in any case excellent.
Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Florence and Tuscany, the information panel in the church, the website of the church and Italian Wikipedia.