Padova: Santa Giustina

Santa Giustina.

Big, bigger, Santa Giustina. This enormous basilica on the southern edge of Padova’s historical centre will make a lasting impression on just about every visitor. The church adjoins the Prato della Valle, a large piazza in the shape of an ellipse where in Antiquity the theatre of Roman Patavium must have stood. The piazza, with its large collection of statues and a green island in the middle, is a nice place to go for a stroll. However, this post is all about the church, which is dedicated to Saint Justina, a sixteen-year-old girl who is said to have been martyred in 304. It is not inconceivable that she was a historical person, but her biography is full of fictive elements. She was supposedly baptised by Saint Prosdocimus, the first bishop of Padova. Unfortunately this is impossible, as Prosdocimus, a Greek, was said to have been a student of Saint Peter who died around the year 100. However this all may be, Justina quickly became a popular saint in the Veneto. She was considered the patron saint of Padova until a Portuguese man named Fernando Martins (also known as Saint Antonius of Padova) took over that role in the thirteenth century. Elsewhere in the Veneto we also find churches dedicated to her.

Early history

The history of the church goes back to the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century. A certain Venantius Opilius, consul in 524, had a small basilica dedicated to Saint Justina built over her grave. Part of the basilica was a chapel or oratory dedicated to the aforementioned Prosdocimus. This cruciform chapel still exists and is one of the most interesting parts of the present church. Here we find the sixteenth-century sarcophagus of the bishop. Above it is a relief featuring the bishop’s face in a so-called clipeus (‘shield’). This relief contrasts sharply with the relief on the sarcophagus. There we see an older bearded man dressed as a bishop, while the clipeus shows us a clean-shaven young man who seems to be dressed as a Roman senator. On the latter relief Prosdocimus is called EP[ISCOPV]S ET CONFESS[OR], bishop and confessor. The relief dates from the fifth or sixth century.

Saint Prosdocimus.

A second interesting element in the chapel is the pergula, i.e. the barrier between the choir with the altar and the rest of the chapel. Apparently this is an original early Christian element as well, made of Greek marble. According to an information panel in the chapel the pergula is rarissima, ‘very rare’. The Latin text on the pergula reads:

Oratory of Saint Prosdocimus.


(“In the name of God. In this place the relics have been collected of the holy apostles and of the many martyrs who would deign to pray for the Maker and the whole people of the faithful”)

Just outside the chapel we find a triangular pediment which was originally above the main entrance of the early Christian basilica. It has a Latin text mentioning and honouring Opilius. According to the inscription he was a VC, a vir clarissimus, so a member of the senatorial order. Moreover he was a praefectus praetorio, a praetorian prefect, and a patricius, a patrician. The pediment is decorated with two Latin crosses. From each cross two more crosses have been suspended, as well as the Greek letters alpha and omega (Revelation 22:13).

Pediment with an inscription mentioning Opilius.

The present church

The first church is often called the Basilica Opilionea, after Venantius Opilius. Next to this church a Benedictine monastery was founded in the eighth century. The Longobard king Liutprand (712-744) and his nephew and co-ruler Hildeprand (737-744) are said to have provided the financial means to build it. In 1117 Northern Italy was struck by a heavy earthquake, which led to the collapse of the Basilica Opilionea. Several restoration projects followed, but in 1501 the monk Girolamo da Brescia led the construction of a whole new and much larger church. The new church arose just north of the old one, on marshy terrain. Girolamo da Brescia was later replaced with Sebastiano da Lugano (died 1528), who was in his turn replaced with Andrea Briosco (1470-1532). When Briosco died in 1532, the project was continued first under Andrea Moroni (1500-1560) and then under Andrea della Valle (died 1578). All in all construction of the new Santa Giustina took at least a century. It was not until 14 March 1606 that the new church was consecrated.

Santa Giustina with its domes visible.

It had taken a while, but at least Padova now had something to be proud of. Looking at the present church, it is hard to deny that the church of Sant’Antonio di Padova (Il Santo) elsewhere in Padova served as a source of inspiration for the architects. Just take a look at the four large and four small domes of the building. The large number of cloisters is a good indication of the importance of the Benedictine abbey next to the church. I counted at least five of these. Nevertheless, the complex had its dark years as well. In 1810 the monks were evicted from their monastery. A large part of their artworks had previously been confiscated, taken to France or sold. This explains why we currently find a famous altarpiece by the painter Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506) in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan instead of here in Padova, where it once embellished a chapel in the left transept dedicated to Saint Luke the Evangelist. Apart from the evangelist the altarpiece also features Prosdocimus and Justina. More information about the bond between the basilica and the evangelist can be found below.

Interior of the church.

In 1812 the Santa Giustina became a parish church. The adjacent monastery was used by the Austrian army, first as a hospital and then as a barracks. About a century later the tide had finally turned. In 1909 Pope Pius X (1903-1914) granted the Santa Giustina the status of a minor basilica, and in 1923 the Italian state gave the Benedictine monks permission to use the monastery again. The monks are still there, although it should be noted that the state is still formally the owner of the complex.

Things to see

The façade of the church looks rather crude and was apparently never completed. All we see is a mass of bricks, with every now and then small pieces of decoration. These decorations are modern sculptures of the symbols of the four evangelists and doors that are also modern. The two griffins on either side of the stairs leading to the church are medieval. Unfortunately they are easy to miss, and I have to admit that I only saw photos of them. The griffins date from the fourteenth century. They were part of the decorations of a loggia of the previous church and were made of Verona marble. On the large central dome, which is almost 70 metres high, an enormous statue of Saint Justina was placed. The four smaller domes around the central one also have statues. The statues represent Prosdocimus, Benedictus of Nursia, Daniel of Padova and Arnaldo da Limena (ca. 1185-1255), who was abbot of Santa Giustina in the thirteenth century.

Frescoes by Sebastiano Ricci.

The interior of the church is impressive. The Santa Giustina has a nice floor, which was laid between 1608 and 1615, and enormous pillars that support the vaults. The building does feel rather empty. Of course it is not easy to decorate a church this size with frescoes, paintings, mosaics and sculptures, and the looting by Napoleon’s French cannot have helped much either. It is nevertheless remarkable that we only find ceiling frescoes in the chapel of the Most Sacred Sacrament. These were painted in 1700 by Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) and represent God the Father surrounded by angels and the Veneration of the Sacrament by the apostles. The Santa Giustina has many more chapels in the aisles, the transept and on either side of the choir. Here we find works by painters such as Luca Giordano (1634-1705) and Palma il Giovane (ca. 1548-1628), but I personally thought the altars with inlaid marble decorations were much more interesting.

A good example of such an altar is that in the chapel of the aforementioned abbot Arnaldo da Limena. In 1246 the abbot was taken prisoner by Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), a tyrant who ruled over Padova between 1237 and 1256. Arnaldo was incarcerated in the town of Asolo, where he lived on water and bread until he died in February of 1255. Arnaldo was initially buried in a Franciscan church in Asolo, but later his body was taken back to Padova. The abbot now rests in a chapel that is dedicated to him and that dates from 1562. However, the altar is over a century younger: it was completed in 1681. Many of the sculptures were made by Bernardo Falconi (ca. 1620-1696), a sculptor from Bissone in present-day Switzerland. However, the statues of Saints Peter (right) and Paul (left) were made by Orazio Marinali (1643-1720) and Michele Fabris (1644-1684). The latter was also known as l’Ongaro, ‘the Hungarian’. He was born in Bratislava, which is now a city in Slovakia. The highlight of the chapel must be the inlaid marble, made by the Corbarelli family from Florence.

Chapel of the Blessed Arnaldo da Limena.

Elsewhere in the church we can admire more work by the Corbarelli family. See for instance the altars in the chapel of the Most Sacred Sacrament, the chapel of Saint Felicitas of Rome and the chapel of Saint Maximus. According to tradition Maximus was the second bishop of Padova and Prosdocimus’ successor. In 1052 his remains were reportedly discovered by the then bishop of the city. In 1562 the remains were placed in a chapel dedicated to Maximus, but the altar in the chapel dates from 1681-1682. Most of the statues, including that of Saint James the Great on the left, were sculpted by Michele Fabris. However, it was Bernardo Falconi who made the rather macabre statue of Saint Bartholomew on the right. The inlaid marble features, among other things, a mitre and a bishop’s staff, so there can be little doubt about the profession of the deceased.

Chapel of Saint Maximus.

As was already noted, the basilica has a special bond with Saint Luke the Evangelist. It is actually claimed that his body is kept in the basilica. Unfortunately it is quite unclear how it ended up in Padova. According to tradition Saint Luke died in Boeotia, Greece, aged 84. His remains were taken to Constantinople in the fourth century. It is therefore rather surprising that Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) in 1177 identified a body that had been exhumed next to the Santa Giustina as that of the apostle. More than enough people were willing to believe the story. In 1354 Charles IV, king of Bohemia and future Holy Roman emperor, paid a visit to Padova and confiscated the skull of the saint, which is currently in the cathedral of Prague. In 1992, at the request of the orthodox archbishop of Thebes, one of Luke’s ribs was returned to Greece. The body of the apostle still rests in the left transept, in a splendid sarcophagus from the fourteenth century.

Madonna costantinopolitana.

Saint Luke, a Syrian Greek, was a doctor by profession. The Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are attributed to him. He was moreover said to have been a prolific painter. The church possesses an icon of a Madonna and Child that was supposedly painted by Luke, the so-called Madonna costantinopolitana. This icon is no longer visible to the public. In the chapel we now see a sixteenth-century copy that is attributed to Alessandro Bonvicino (ca. 1498-1554/64), nicknamed Il Moretto, a well-known painter from Brescia. The copy is, by the way, hardly visible either. Except for the faces of the Madonna and Child it is almost entirely covered by a layer of gilded copper. Also connected to the story of Saint Luke is an old chest that is kept in the Corridoio dei Martiri (Corridor of the Martyrs). I presume this is the chest in which the remains of the evangelist were found in 1177.

The Santa Giustina claims it also possesses part of the relics of Saint Matthias, the thirteenth apostle. He was chosen to replace the traitor Judas, who had committed suicide (according to Matthew 27:5) or who had fallen so badly that his intestines came out (according to Acts 1:18). We know little about the life and work of Saint Matthias, but the empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, is usually given credit for the presence of his (presumed) relics in Padova. These now rest in a sarcophagus in the right transept. The sarcophagus is a work of Giovanni Francesco de Surdis from the sixteenth century. It was clearly inspired by the sarcophagus of Saint Luke in the left transept.

Chapel of Saint Matthias.

Corridoio dei Martiri.

Martyrdom of Saint Justina – Veronese.

Perhaps the most famous work of art in the basilica is the large altarpiece featuring the Martyrdom of Saint Justina by Veronese (1528-1588). The painting was made in the 1570s and consists of two parts. Down below we see how Justina is about to be executed. The execution evidently takes place in Padova, for in the background the Santo basilica is visible (an anachronism of course). A cloud of putti separates the lower and upper parts of the painting. In the upper part Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist witness the cruel execution below. Heaven is a crowded place and many of the angels are playing musical instruments. Interestingly, around the same time Veronese made a second painting about the Martyrdom of Saint Justina. This can nowadays be admired in the Uffizi in Florence.

Lastly, a fun fact about the abbey of Santa Giustina is that the Venetian Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684) was interred here. In 1678 she was the first woman to be awarded an academic degree by the University of Padova. She had initially planned to study theology there, but the then bishop of the city, Gregorio Barbarigo (see Padova: The Duomo), would not allow it. After all, theology was an exclusively male domain. Elena then chose to study philosophy, which the bishop deemed acceptable. Unfortunately brilliant Elena passed away at the tender age of 38, but her achievements were not forgotten.

Martyrdom of Saint Justina (detail) – Veronese.



  1. Pingback:Padova: Santa Giustina – – Corvinus –

  2. Pingback:Piacenza: The Duomo – – Corvinus –

  3. Pingback:Milan: Pinacoteca di Brera – – Corvinus –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.