Vercelli: Sant’Andrea

Basilica of Sant’Andrea.

It is without a doubt the most conspicuous building in all of Vercelli: the basilica of Sant’Andrea with its eye-catching green façade. The basilica is the life’s work of cardinal Guala Bicchieri (ca. 1150-1227), who was himself from Vercelli. In addition to being a cardinal, he was also a papal legate, and in that capacity Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) sent him on important missions to France and England. When he arrived in the latter country in 1216, the English king John Lackland was embroiled in a war against his vassals, known as the First Barons’ War. Guala Bicchieri supported the king, and after John’s death on 19 October 1216 he proved instrumental in securing the royal crown for the deceased king’s son and successor Henry III, then still a minor. The papal legate moreover had a part in the promulgation of a toned-down version of the Magna Carta, the famous document regarding the restriction of royal power that had been signed in 1215 and had immediately been declared null and void by Pope Innocentius III. In 1218 Guala Bicchieri completed his English mission. His next objective was to erect a lasting monument in the town where he had been born.


Cardinal Guala Bicchieri had bought a piece of land in Vercelli as early as 1215. On 19 February 1219 he and the local bishop laid the foundation stone of a new church. The church would become part of a larger complex, which also comprised a convent, a guesthouse and a hospital for pilgrims. In 1227 the project was completed. This was just in time for the cardinal, who died on the 30th of May of the same year in Rome. He was well into his seventies and had lived a rich and rewarding life.

Side view of the basilica.

The complex of Sant’Andrea was entrusted to canons of the Congregation of Saint Victor. This was a French congregation that had been founded in 1108 by the theologian and future bishop William of Champeaux (ca. 1070-1121). The congregation had an important abbey in the vicinity of Paris. The first abbot in Vercelli was also a Frenchman, one Thomas Gallus or Tommaso Gallo, who was born around 1200 and died in 1246. As the basilica of Sant’Andrea is a remarkable mix of classical Romanesque and French Gothic architecture (the latter a style novel to Italy), it is sometimes assumed that this Thomas Gallus played a role in designing and subsequently constructing the church. There is no evidence for this assumption, and the same holds true as regards the claim that the famous architect and sculptor Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230) was the lead architect of the project. Fact is that we do not know the name or names of the builders.

Interior of the basilica.

The canons of Saint Victor left the complex in 1467 and were replaced by Lateran canons. These have lived at the complex, albeit intermittently, until 2004. In the meantime the basilica and adjacent cloister have been renovated on several occasions. A large restoration for instance took place in the sixteenth century, which saw a complete rebuilding of the colonnade of the cloister with its characteristic quadruple columns. Another important restoration took place from 1818 onwards. This was executed by Count Carlo Emanuele Arborio Mella (1783-1850). He was the father of the architect Edoardo Arborio Mella (1808-1884), the man who rebuilt the cathedral of Casale Monferrato.


The Romanesque façade of the basilica is truly magnificent. Visitors see an intriguing play of colours, with the green stone (serpentino and other materials) contrasting beautifully with the bricks and plasterwork of the two towers. A number of stones of the façade have become discoloured and now look brown. I have unfortunately not been able to establish whether this is the same chemical process I had previously seen in Prato, Tuscany, i.e. a case of the pietra alberese type of stone turning brown after a while. It is certainly a possibility. Above the three portals with Romanesque rounded arches we see a Gothic rose window. The two galleries above the rose window are typically Romanesque again. There is another gallery running along the flanks of the basilica, which is best viewed from the little park next to the Sant’Andrea (the park has a bust of King Umberto I, assassinated in 1900). From the park we can also see the freestanding campanile, which was built to the right of the basilica in the fifteenth century. For some reason the tower was constructed at somewhat of an angle to the church building. The Sant’Andrea is in any case well-endowed with towers, as the dome was also provided with one. The two slender towers of the façade both have spires which are topped by a rooster (left) and a Saint Andrew’s Cross (right) respectively.

Crucifixion of Saint Andrew.

The most beautiful decorations of the façade are the lunettes above the middle and left entrances. In the middle we see the crucifixion of Saint Andrew the Apostle, attributed to the aforementioned Benedetto Antelami, his studio, his students or his followers. According to tradition Andrew was crucified in Achaea in present-day Greece around the year 60. In the lunette we see how he is tied with ropes to a regular cross. Apparently the tradition that Andrew was martyred on a Saint Andrew’s Cross – an X-shaped cross that is of course named after him – had yet to take root in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. On the right sits the Roman magistrate that has condemned Saint Andrew to death and above the crucifixion we see how an angel takes the soul of the martyr up to heaven. The lunette must have been entirely painted once, but of all the paint only a few traces remain.

Cardinal Guala Bicchieri offers a model of the basilica to Saint Andrew.

The lunette on the left is a little simpler. Here we see how cardinal Guala Bicchieri offers a disproportionally large model of the basilica to Saint Andrew. What is remarkable is that the model is hardly a spitting image of the actual building. The two distinctive towers of the façade are for instance absent, although it is conceivable that these were only added after the cardinal’s death. This lunette was once painted as well, and we can still see some painted motifs on the robes of the cardinal and the apostle.


The interior of the basilica is fairly sober. Gothic elements such as pointed arches and rib vaults dominate the building. The Sant’Andrea has been built in the shape of a Latin cross. Grey columns divide the interior into a nave and two side aisles. Unfortunately the medieval stained glass windows were lost long ago, and the visitor has to put in some effort to find any art that warrants closer inspection. Fortunately the beautiful keystones of the rib vaults have been preserved. Some of these are still painted in bright colours. See for instance the keystone below, which features the Lamb of God against a background of a blue starry sky. Below the octagonal dome we also find a number of sculptures, representing the symbols of the four evangelists.

Keystone with the Lamb of God.

In the back of the basilica we see nice wooden choir benches in the rectangular apse. These were made from 1511 onwards by the wood carver Paolo Sacca from Cremona (died 1537). Each bench has its own decoration of inlaid woodwork, with Saint Andrew as the central figure. There are 25 scenes in total.

Funerary monument for Thomas Gallus.

Things start to get really interesting when we reach the second chapel to the right of the choir. Here is located the funerary monument for Thomas Gallus, the aforementioned first abbot of Sant’Andrea. Although Thomas was dead by 1246, the monument is at least a century younger (middle of the fourteenth century). It consists of three separate layers. At the bottom we see a relief of the Madonna and the decapitated Child. On the right the equally headless Thomas Gallus is introduced to them by Saint Andrew. The figures on the left are Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The latter was a theologian from the fifth century whose work Thomas had studied extensively. Thomas himself was also a gifted theologian, as is demonstrated by the fresco painted above the relief. Here we see him seated behind a lectern, lecturing a group of monks. The monument is topped by a fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin. An interesting detail is the group of angels providing musical entertainment for the coronation ceremony. They can be seen playing various musical instruments, including a portable organ.

Cloister, sacristy and chapter room

A beautifully sculpted portal – perhaps again by Antelami or his school? – gives access to the cloister next to the basilica. Visitors are unlikely to find important artworks here, but it is definitely nice to go for a stroll in the cloister. From this cloister one moreover has a good view of the left flank of the basilica, the left transept (with two galleries) and the octagonal dome topped by a little tower that is octagonal as well. The cloister basically underwent very few changes since the thirteenth century. It is true that the colonnade was rebuilt in the sixteenth century (as was already mentioned above), but in the process the original style was respected.

Cloister of the complex.

The sacristy of the basilica is accessible to the public, and the “highlight” here is a rather gruesome crucifix from the fourteenth century. This was a time when the serene Christus Triumphans had finally made way for the dramatic Christus Patiens, the suffering Christ. It goes without saying that the Christ we see in the sacristy is suffering. Just look at the blood gushing from his head or pierced hands. A custodian asked my better half what she thought of the crucifix. The lady herself thought it was molto forte. A strong representation indeed, but that does not make the crucifix beautiful.

Lastly, I recommend a visit to the chapter room of Sant’Andrea. Not because of its fantastic art (largely absent again), but because of an important historical event that took place here in 1310. In that year Henry VII, King of the Romans, managed to broker a peace deal between the supporters of the Pope (the Guelfs) and those of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Ghibellines). Henry was reportedly disgusted by both parties, even by the Ghibellines, although these were formally on his side. The peace was signed here in the chapter room of Sant’Andrea, although it proved to be a brittle peace and did not end the violence in Italy. Henry for his part was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1312, but died the next year. The emperor found his final resting place in the cathedral of Pisa, although the most beautiful elements of his funerary monument can now be admired in a museum.



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