Parma: San Giovanni Evangelista

Church of San Giovanni Evangelista.

The church of San Giovanni Evangelista is situated directly behind the cathedral of Parma. The large church is part of an even larger Benedictine abbey. The first abbey complex dates back to the tenth century: it was built between 980 and 988 and replaced an older oratory dedicated to the Irish saint Columbanus (ca. 540-615). The first complex was destroyed by a fire in 1477 and was rebuilt by the architect Bernardino Zaccagni (ca. 1455-1531) between 1490 and 1519. The façade of the church was designed by Simone Moschino (1553-1610) and completed in 1607 by Giovan Battista Carra da Bissone. The year of completion is mentioned on the façade in Roman numerals: MDCVII. Carra, who was a relatively unknown architect and sculptor, also made the statues adorning the façade. To the left of the main entrance we find Saint John the Evangelist and his eagle. The church is dedicated to him. Other statues have a clear connection with the Benedictines. We for instance see Saint Benedictus himself (or so I presume), his sister Scholastica and two of his most important followers, Maurus (an abbot) and Placidus (a monk).

One special characteristic of the church is that it has the highest campanile in Parma. This bell-tower was built in 1613 by Giovanni Battista Magnani (1571-1653). It reaches a height of 75 metres, which makes it about 12 metres taller than the bell-tower of the Duomo, which is ‘only’ 63 metres high. Other parts of the abbey complex are three cloisters next to the church and the Antica Spezieria di San Giovanni, a medieval pharmacy that is currently a museum.

Interior of the church.

Il Correggio

The most important artist who worked in the church of San Giovanni was undoubtedly Antonio Allegri (1489-1534), also known as Il Correggio. The works he painted in 1520-1524 were preceded by his beautiful frescoes for the Camera della Badessa elsewhere in Parma and followed by his famous dome fresco in the cathedral of the city. Correggio provided the church of San Giovanni with a dome fresco as well (1520-1522). This fresco is both smaller – 9.69 by 8.89 metres – and less sophisticated than the fresco he made for the Duomo several years later, but it is certainly impressive. It represents the vision that Saint John the Evangelist is said to have experienced on the island of Patmos, which involved Heaven cracking open and Jesus Christ descending from it. It is generally assumed that the fresco is partly based on a passage about the second coming of Christ in the Book of Revelation (1:7):

“Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him.” (NKJV)

Vision of Saint John the Evangelist – Il Correggio.

With his right hand the Messiah assigns Saint John a seat among the other apostles, so the fresco also has the death of the evangelist as its theme. Although difficult to see, John himself was in fact depicted. Correggio painted him below a cloud on which two apostles sit, standing behind a lectern shaped like an eagle, his standard attribute. The artist’s intention was apparently that only the monks in the choir would see the evangelist, and not the common churchgoers in the nave. John and the other evangelists also feature on the four pendentives of the dome. Each evangelist is accompanied by one of the four Doctors of the Church.

Vision of Saint John the Evangelist (detail) – Il Correggio.

Even before he started on his dome fresco Correggio painted a fresco of the young Saint John and his eagle. This fresco can be found in a lunette above a door leading to the sacristy. It dates from about 1520 and features the Latin text ALTIUS CAETERIS DEI PATEFECIT ARCANA. This means something along the lines of “more than the others he (i.e. John) revealed the secrets of God”. Another work by Correggio was the fresco in the conch of the apse. Unfortunately that work was largely lost when the choir of the church was extended in 1587. Correggio’s fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin was replaced with a copy by Cesare Aretusi (1549-1612) on that occasion. In the Galleria Nazionale of Parma you can still admire a few remnants of the original work. Lastly, Correggio, or his studio, was responsible for the painted frieze in the nave of the San Giovanni (for images, see here).

Saint John the Evangelist and an eagle – Il Correggio.

Other artists

Adoration of the Magi – Cristoforo Caselli.

The church has six side chapels alongside chapels in the transept and on either side of the choir. Many talented artists embellished these chapels with their work. Among these artists were Michelangelo Anselmi (ca. 1491-1556) and Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (ca. 1500-1569). The former painted the cross-vault of the nave and the apses in the transept, among other things, while the latter provided the church with an altarpiece featuring the Transfiguration. Like the dome fresco, the large painting adorning the counter-façade is about the vision of Saint John the Evangelist. This work by Giovanni Battista Merano (1632-1698) was painted in 1687. Visitors from the Netherlands will be pleasantly surprised by the presence of a work by the painter Jan Soens from Den Bosch. His Madonna and Child, Saint John the Evangelist and Pope Stephen is located in the chapel of Saint John the Evangelist on the left side of the church. Soens lived and worked in Parma at the court of duke Ranuccio I Farnese for several years. The painter also died in Parma, somewhere between 1611 and 1614.

Other painters active in the San Giovanni were Cristoforo Caselli (ca. 1460-1521) from Parma and the brothers Giacomo and Giulio Francia from Bologna. In 1499 the former painted an Adoration of the Magi which still clearly looks like a medieval work. The Adoration of the Shepherds by the Francia brothers was painted twenty years later, in 1519. And it is not just the paintings that make the San Giovanni an interesting church, the sculptures are pretty good too. First of all I refer to the statues in the transept made in 1530-1540 by Antonio Begarelli (1499-1565). The left transept has statues of Saint John the Evangelist and the Madonna and Child with young Saint John the Baptist. In the right transept we find statues of Saint Felicitas of Rome and her son Vitalis, and of Saint Benedictus.

Funerary monument of Albertina di Montenuovo.

Another interesting artwork is the funerary monument of Albertina di Montenuovo (1817-1821). She was the daughter of Marie Louise of Austria, who was duchess of Parma and Piacenza between 1814 and 1847. Right up until his death in 1821 Marie Louise was formally married to the former French emperor Napoleon, but while he was living in exile on Elba she met Adam Albert von Neipperg, a one-eyed Austrian general. The two started an extramarital relationship, which resulted in the birth of a daughter named Albertina in 1817 and a son named Wilhelm Albrecht in 1819. Marie Louise’s marriage to Napoleon was legally annulled by the latter’s passing in 1821, which allowed the former to finally marry Von Neipperg. The marriage was morganatic: Von Neipperg nor his children would be entitled to any of her rights and privileges after her death. In 1833 Albertina in her turn married the nobleman and future senator Luigi Sanvitale (1799-1876). Her funerary monument in the San Giovanni is a work by the sculptor Cristoforo Marzaroli (1836-1871), a talented artist who unfortunately died of tuberculosis while still very young (see Piacenza: San Francesco). The monument depicts Albertina while tending to the needs of the poor.

Lastly, an artist who certainly needs to be mentioned in this post is Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, commonly known as Parmigianino (1503-1540). This ‘little man from Parma’ – for that is what Parmigianino means – was not yet twenty years old when he assisted Correggio in painting the inside of the dome. At least one of the putti frescoed there is attributed to him. Then in 1522-1523 he painted a number of smaller frescoes in some of the chapels on the left side of the church. The most interesting of these is the Cappella di Santa Gertrude. Here the young artist painted the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, as well as Saints Lucia and Apollonia. Agatha is tied to a column and the executioner is ready to amputate her breasts. On the other side Lucia’s eyes have already be gouged out and are lying on a platter. Blond Apollonia, for her part, has pliers in her right hand. According to tradition she was tortured by having all her teeth pulled out.

Saint Agatha (left), Saint Apollonia and Saint Lucia (right) – Parmigianino.

Sources: Parma Welcome, Italian Wikipedia, the information panels in the San Giovanni, Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 28 and my Trotter travel guide for Northeast Italy.

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