Perugia: Cappella di San Severo

Trinità e santi – Raphael and Perugino.

The small church of San Severo in Perugia is dedicated to Saint Severus, the fourth-century bishop of Ravenna. Until well into the thirteenth century the church and adjacent monastery were administered by the basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe. The monastery has always been associated with the Camaldolese Order, a branch of the Benedictines founded by Saint Romualdus (ca. 951-1027), who was also from Ravenna. The current church dates from 1748-1751. It replaced an older church from the fifteenth century that had been consecrated in 1484. During the rebuilding one of the most prized possessions of the church was fortunately spared, i.e. a fresco from the sixteenth century by the famous painters Raphael and Perugino. Raphael and Perugino were student and master, and the fresco is actually a co-production. What is quite special, however, is that in this case the student did not finish his master’s uncompleted work. It was quite the opposite: old Perugino painted the lower part of the fresco because his student Raphael never completed the work, in part because of his untimely death at age 37.

The church of San Severo itself is not accessible to the public, but the fresco, once painted for one of the chapels of the church, can be admired in a building next to the church (there is an entrance charge). In 1505 Raphael (1483-1520) painted the upper part of the fresco with the Holy Trinity and six saints. Regretfully this part is quite damaged. God the Father has disappeared altogether. All that is left is a page from a book with the Greek letters alpha and omega, the symbols for the beginning and the end from the Book of Revelation. On the other hand, Christ and the dove of the Holy Spirit have been preserved in their entirety. The six saints have been provided with captions, so it is not difficult to identify them. On the left we see Maurus, Placidus and Benedictus of Nursia. The latter needs no further introduction; Maurus and Placidus were his disciples. The three saints on the right are Romualdus and two members of his Order, Benedictus and John. The latter two were martyred in Poland at the start of the eleventh century. Poland at the time was still pagan territory.

Upper part of the fresco, painted by Raphael.

In 1508 Raphael left for Rome and would stay there until his premature death in 1520. After his death the Camaldolese monks commissioned the fairly elderly Perugino (ca. 1446-1523) to complete the fresco. When the painter finished the job in 1521, he was well over seventy years old. The result is nevertheless quite satisfactory. Perugino painted six saints as well. On the left these are Scholastica (Benedictus’ sister), Saint Jerome and Saint John the Evangelist. On the right we see Pope Gregorius the Great (590-604), the martyr Bonifatius and Martha, the sister of Lazarus. This Bonifatius is apparently not the Benedictine missionary who was murdered in 754 near the Frisian town of Dokkum, but a Camaldolese missionary who is alternatively known as Bruno of Querfurt. Like his aforementioned colleagues Benedictus and John, he was martyred in Poland. In the niche between the saints we see a painted terracotta statue of the Madonna and Child. It dates from the fifteenth century.

Lower part of the fresco, painted by Perugino.


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