Mantova: Sant’Andrea

The Sant’Andrea.

People who approach Mantova from the northeast and cross the Ponte San Giorgio to get to the city will see the enormous dome of the church and co-cathedral of Sant’Andrea rise up behind the lower buildings. The Sant’Andrea is by far the largest church in the city. From a religious point of view it is also the most important church, together with the actual cathedral, for in the crypt some of the presumed blood of Christ is kept. According to tradition it was the Roman centurion Longinus, an eye-witness of the Crucifixion, who took the blood to Mantova. Not long after the execution of the Messiah the centurion converted to Christianity and collected some earth at the foot of the Cross which contained drops of the Sacred Blood. He took the earth with him to Mantova, where he was subsequently martyred, at least according to tradition. Centuries later the precious relic was recovered, and in the eleventh century Beatrice of Lorraine (ca. 1016-1076) had an oratory built to house the Sacred Blood. Beatrice was the mother of the margravine Matilda of Tuscany. The sanctuary was dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle, a dedication that was no doubt inspired by the fact that the cathedral is dedicated to Andrew’s brother Saint Peter.

In the fifteenth century the Sacred Blood was an immensely popular relic. Each year many thousands of pilgrims flocked to Mantova to see it. There were so many of them that Ludovico III Gonzaga, marquess of Mantova between 1444 and 1478, decided to have the sanctuary rebuilt and enlarged. Around the year 1470 the famous architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was commissioned, but although he designed the church he passed away before the actual construction started in June of 1472. Alberti’s design was therefore executed by Luca Fancelli (ca. 1430-1502), a student of Filippo Brunelleschi. It is not clear whether Fancelli followed his predecessor’s plans to the letter or changed elements of it whenever it suited him. Apart from the Gothic bell-tower from 1413, the enormous façade shaped liked a Roman triumphal arch immediately catches the eye. It is an archetypical Renaissance element. A triangular pediment was placed onto the arch, and above the pediment we see an open barrel vault. The dome of the building, which is over 80 metres high, was built in 1732 by the architect Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736).

View of Mantova. In the centre: the dome of the Sant’Andrea.

Side view of the Sant’Andrea.

The church has a single nave. Its interior, with an immense barrel vault, is most impressive. The Sant’Andrea is 103 metres deep, 19 metres wide and 28 metres high. The wide open space does feel a bit empty though. My primary reason to visit the Sant’Andrea was to see the tomb of the famous painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), who was buried in the first chapel on the left. Given the painter’s first name it was never in doubt that he would find his final resting place here in the Sant’Andrea. Unfortunately the chapel was closed during my visit and the lights had been switched off. If you are lucky and find the chapel open, you will first of all see a bronze bust of the painter on the left wall. The chapel also has two very late works by Mantegna, the Holy Family and the Family of Saint John the Baptist and the Baptism of Christ. The latter work was possibly completed by Mantegna’s son Francesco. Other decorations in the chapel are attributed to Antonio Allegri, alternatively known as Correggio (1489-1534).

Interior of the church.

Right transept.

Crucifixion by Rinaldo Mantovano.

Many decorations in the church were made at the end of the eighteenth century by a team of painters led by the architect Paolo Pozzo (1741-1803), also known for creating the Piazza Virgilliana. The paintings are generally good, but hardly spectacular. Among the more interesting decorations in the church are those in the Cappella di San Longino. On the right wall the sixteenth-century local painter Rinaldo Mantovano painted a scene of the Crucifixion. Three angels can be seen collecting the blood of Christ flowing from his hands and feet into chalices. At the foot of the cross Longinus is kneeling. He collects the blood flowing from Christ’s side. The Cappella dell’Immacolata is also all about the Blood of Christ. The beautiful altar wall was a gift of Anna Isabella Gonzaga, wife of the last duke of Mantova, Ferdinando Carlo di Gonzaga-Nevers (1665-1708).


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