On my way back to the railway station of Pisa I accidentally passed by the church of San Sisto. I immediately noticed the multicoloured decorative basins under the eaves. In the Middle Ages, such basins were often part of the booty taken during attacks on and raids in Muslim-held territories. During her heydays Pisa was frequently involved in such raids, which is evident from the famous griffin of the cathedral of the city. It was now apparent to me that the San Sisto was a medieval church. This was reason enough to pop in and explore the building.
The construction of the San Sisto started in 1087 and in 1133 the church was consecrated. The bell-tower probably dates from the thirteenth century. ‘San Sisto’ is in this case Pope Sixtus II (257-258), a very deliberate choice. On 6 August 1087 troops from Pisa and Genoa had captured and looted the Tunisian city of Mahdia. Sixtus had been martyred in Rome on the 6th of August of the year 258, so it seemed like a logical move to dedicate a new church in Pisa to him. Undoubtedly part of the booty was used for the construction of this church and the new building may very well have been decorated with stolen Islamic earthenware (nowadays replaced by copies). During the sack of Mahdia the Pisans and Genovese had worked together like brothers, but on 6 August 1284 they were lethal enemies during the naval battle of Meloria. The Pisan fleet suffered an ignominious defeat and the city lost its dominant position at sea. Even the construction of the famous Leaning Tower had to be suspended. For reasons that are quite understandable, the popularity of Pope Sixtus II almost instantly went down the drain.
The interior of the church is plain and simple. The columns that divide the building into a nave and aisles are clearly spolia, that is reused materials from Roman buildings. Not one column is identical, so the materials must have been taken from different buildings. Some of the capitals also date from the Roman era, others were made in the Middle Ages. The San Sisto does not have a ceiling: we see the painted wooden beams of the roof construction. The chessboard-pattern floor looks new and is not that interesting. The church has a Baroque high altar made in 1730 by the sculptor Andrea Vaccà, whose work we have previously seen in Pistoia. Many other Baroque decorations were removed in the twentieth century to give the church back its medieval appearance.
Among the highlights in the church is a painted wooden crucifix. It dates from 1370 and is a copy of the famous Volto Santo in Lucca. Christ on the cross is fully dressed and, moreover, crowned. He has evidently triumphed over death. Visitors will find the crucifix in the right aisle.
Another remarkable object in the church is the epitaph of the Muslim emir Al-Murtada, who died on 7 January 1094. Ibn Aglab al-Murtada was the ruler of the Balearic Islands, off the east coast of Spain, from 1076 onwards. In 1113 a large Christian fleet attacked the islands as part of a crusade that would last until 1115. The Pisans, led by their archbishop Pietro Moriconi, had a major role in the expedition, which for reasons that should now be obvious they had launched exactly on the 6th of August of the year 1113. Again Saint Sixtus was in a favourable mood, as the crusade became a big success. During the invasion the Pisans confiscated the epitaph of the emir on Mallorca, after which it was shipped to the San Sisto in 1115. The epitaph is written in Kufic, which is an old Arabic script. The object was apparently lost for ages, as it was only rediscovered during restoration works in 1937. It currently hangs on the counter-façade, and fortunately comes with a translation (in Italian; for an English translation, see the link below).
Further reading: Church of San Sisto | Comune di Pisa – Turismo