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Santo Stefano

The Seven Churches

Facade of the Chiesa del Crocifisso

Dedicated to the first Christian martyr, Santo Stefano is the Jerusalem Bononiensis, the 'Jerusalem of Bologna'. It was founded, according to legend by St Petronius, who had visited the hermit-saints of the Holy Land as a youth. Petronius’ intent was to reproduce the seven holy sites of Jerusalem, enabling the faithful to make at least a symbolic pilgrimage.

Most of the work in this unique complex dates from the 8th–12th centuries. It was held in the highest esteem by the Lombards in their day, but was considerably altered in modern restorations. The restorations uncovered the interesting fact that Santo Stefano was built over the site of an ancient religious sanctuary, a temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis (Egyptian religion was extremely popular in the Roman Empire, and promoted by several of the emperors, especially Domitian).

Plan of Santo Stefano

Santo Stefano Plan
1-3. Chiesa del Crocifisso
2. Crypt
4. San Sepolcro
5. Basilica dei SS. Vitale e Agricola
6. Cortile di Pilato
7. Trinità (Martyrum)
8. Cloister
9-12. Chiesa della Benda and Museum

Three of the churches of this unique and harmonious Romanesque ensemble face Piazza Santo Stefano. The entrance is through the Chiesa del Crocifisso, with a Renaissance pulpit in its façade, begun in the 11th century and containing an ancient crypt below its raised choir; here are the relics of the first Bolognese martyrs SS. Vitale and Agricola, discovered by St Ambrose and Bologna’s Bishop Eusebius in a Jewish cemetery and brought here in AD393.

To the left is the entrance to San Sepolcro, a strangely irregular polygonal temple, modelled after Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre and containing the equally curious Edicola di San Petronio, a large pulpit adorned with reliefs; in a macabre touch, the saint’s bones are visible through a tiny hole at floor level. The circle of columns around it survives from Isis’ circular temple, used as a Christian baptistry from the 5th century and rebuilt in its present form in the 11th.

Outside the circle, a single column standing alone was claimed as the column to which Christ was bound during his flagellation. A door behind this column leads directly into evocative SS. Vitale e Agricola, Bologna’s oldest church; built in the 5th century, it incorporates bits and pieces of old Roman buildings and alabaster windows. A second church Santi Vitale e Agricola in Arena, marks the site of the Roman amphitheatre where they were killed.

SS. Vitale e Agricola

Beyond it is the Cortile di Pilato, in patterned brick with interlacing arches, replicating the courtyard where Pontius Pilate tried Jesus. Its centrepiece is an 8th-century basin, donated to the church by the Lombard kings Luitbrand and Ilbrand, that somehow gained the sinister reputation of being the basin in which Pilate washed his hands.

From here you can enter the fourth church, the 13th-century Trinità, which may originally have been the east end of a 4th-century church, or a Lombard church of the 800s – like most of the complex, it has been rebuilt and reconfigured so often that scholars have endless opportunity to debate what was what. The Trinità, also called the Martyrium; it contains a striking if sombre wooden Adoration of the Magi from the 1370s, with the figures painted by Simone de’Crocefissi.

Capital in the cloister

A passage from the Cortile di Pilato leads into the lovely double decker 10th-century cloister, with some fascinating capitals, including a bare-bottom figure with its head on backwards, and a curious diving man pulling his beard. A room facing it contains the museum, with a collection of mostly 14th-century painting, including works by Simone de’ Crocifissi, Michele di Matteo (the Lives of St Stephen and St Petronius), and a detached fresco of the Massacre of the Innocents by Berlinghero di Lucca.

No Jerusalem would be complete without a Mount of Olives, and the small hill to the south of Santo Stefano was called Monte Oliveto in the Middle Ages. On top of it, in a picturesque piazza off Via Santo Stefano, San Giovanni in Monte was built in 1286 on the site of the original church founded by St Petronius. Largely remodelled in the late 1400s, it contains paintings by Guercino and Lorenzo Costa. The terracotta eagle over the portal is the work of Nicolò dell’Arca.

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Via Santo Stefano 24

Hours daily 8am-7pm

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+39 051 4126177

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Gaspa, Creative Commons License, M.Violante, GNU Creative Commons License, GFreihalter, Creative Commons License, mararie