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Bologna City | Attractions | Churches

There is a little Zion in the heart of Bologna. It is the basilica of Santo Stefano, which for more than a thousand years has been known as the ‘sancta Jerusalem Bononiensis’ – Bologna’s holy Jerusalem.


You approach along a portico that is topped with a row of beautifully carved heads, all of them bowed as if in prayer.

Where the portico ends the road opens out into a long isosceles triangle, surely the most beautiful of Bologna’s many beautiful piazze. Santo Stefano stands at the far end of this space, along the triangle’s shortest edge, and a visit to its precincts is an excellent way to spend a quiet hour or two. 


The architectural ensemble of San Stefano is sometimes called ‘le Sette Chiese’, the Seven Churches. If there were every precisely seven – that mystic number – there are now only four, and they are fused together like coral on a reef.


You pass through the complex like a person lost in a stone maze. The entrance to this ecclesiastical labyrinth is in the gable end of the largest and most prominent of the buildings, which is known as the Church of the Crucifix. The door leads into an austere space dedicated to Christ’s Passion. The altar is on a strange mezzanine, at the top of a flight of stairs.


Suspended from the ceiling above the stairs is a crucifix, Byzantine in appearance, but actually Italian. A grey and skeletal Jesus hangs on that painted cross, close to death and every rib painfully visible.

He is observed by his mother, positioned on a kind of round finial at the end of one arm of the cross. She peeps out of this circular frame like a fighter pilot surveying the skies from his cockpit.

A grieving St John occupies a similar window on the other arm.


This work is by an artist so devoted to his theme that it became his adopted surname: he was Simone de’ Crocifissi – Simon of the Crucifixions.

A faded portrayal of the same gruesome scene, but in a florid Baroque style, hangs some distance behind the first,in the apse of the church. These two paintings, separated by about ten yards and two hundred years, create a strange dissonance: to look at them both at once is like listening to a sparse Gregorian chant in one ear, and a lush Bach oratorio in the other.


A low door on the left wall of this church leads into the next – the Holy Sepulchre. This cylindrical edifice, like a tall grain silo, is the site of a Roman temple of Isis that was the first sacred building on the site.

One of the Roman columns still stands, a slim marble rod jammed up against a stouter brick-built neighbour. In the middle of the space stands a 1000-year-old mausoleum – a building within a building. It is an exact copy of the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, or it would be exact if it had not been altered and amended down the centuries.

This is the resting-place of Petronius, 5th-century bishop of Bologna and now the city’s patron saint.

At the bottom of the structure, like the grate in a fireplace, is a barred window, through which you peer to see the grave of Petronius.


From the drum-shaped sepulchre you pass into the Basilica of Saints Vitale and Agricola.

These two Romans, master and servant, were the first citizens of Bologna to die for their Christian faith – during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian.

Piazza Santo Stefano
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The church is as bare as a barn, but has some warm decorative touches: the low-relief peacocks and deer on the saints’ stone sarcophagus, for example.

Here in this cold space, you begin to realise that San Stefano – all of it – is a very populous church. Humans and animals, wrought in stone, are everywhere to be seen: they are your companions in the maze.

In the chilly Gethsemane that you just left there were winged griffins, stylised lions, and a rather cheerful carving of three dozing soldiers – so sleepy that they fail to witness the moment of the Resurrection. 


You very soon start looking out for these vignettes.

In Pilate’s Courtyard – the next space you come to – there is an arch that shelters a 14th-century stone cockerel. It is there to serve as a reminder of Simon Peter’s betrayal: ‘…this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice…’ And in the nearby cloister the capitals of some of the columns take the form of weird and rather unhappy little men, hunched or crouching or, in one case, clinging to the top of the column like a monkey on a palm trunk.


All of these naked homunculi are the work of the Lombards – ‘Longbeards’ – the Germanic people who occupied northern Italy for much of the Dark Ages. They are perhaps the single most appealing thing about basilica of San Stefano.

The Lombards are also responsible for the magnificent brickwork patterns, like a patchwork quilt in shades of terracotta, that make up the walls of Pilate’s Courtyard.


The final church – called the Holy Cross or the Martyrium – is perhaps the strangest of them all. It is transverse, wider than it is long, and features a series of niches along the back wall.


By some modern magic, these niches light up as you pass by, creating an effect for the visitor that is like walking through a fairground hall of mirrors.

One niche contains a colourful and rather joyful group of wooden figures representing the three kings presenting their gifts to the Christ-child. It turns out that these are the work of Simone de’ Crocifissi, portraying the Messiah in happier times, for once.


But next door is something more mournful: a horizontal wooden statue of the deceased Jesus. He lies feet foremost, his pierced hands crossed over his abdomen, his head lost in shadow.

Gazing at him from this angle is like looking at a dimly lit, 3-D reconstruction of Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, that deeply sorrowful work that happens to be such a perfect exercise in perspective painting.


Whether you are a believer or not, you are sure to emerge from San Stefano with a heightened awareness of suffering – the divine redemptive Passion, perhaps, but also the universal fact of human pain, the commonplace inevitability of death.


Perhaps the Jerusalem of Bologna has evolved, organically and down the centuries, to guide you on that sobering journey, to lead you on a symbolic pilgrimage to the end of life. If so, that is no bad thing. Because you will at least step back onto the triangular square of San Stefano and be glad to feel the warm Italian sunshine on your face, to breathe the fresh Bolognese air, and to know that to be alive at all is a very wonderful, worthwhile thing.










Article by Jonathan Bastable

Photographs by Paolo Righi



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