The Basilica of San Michele Maggiore is located in the Piazza San Michele in Pavia. It was the favorite church of rulers such as Charlemagne and Barbarossa. The sculptures adorning the exterior depict the struggle between good and evil. Unfortunately, only few of the bas-reliefs have survived. The church is considered the prototype for other medieval churches in Pavia like the San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro Basilica.
San Michele Maggiore Basilica Pavia
Address: Piazza San Michele, snc – Pavia. Opening hours: Monday from 08.30 to 12.00 and 14.30 to 19.00; Tuesday to Saturday from Mon 8.30am-noon, 2.30pm-7pm, Tue-Sat 8.30am-7pm, Sun 9am-8pm. Piazza San Michele.
History and description
The San Michele Maggiore Church was reconstructed in 1090 in the so-called Romanesque style. This had become necessary after an eqrthquake had raze the original 7th century church to the ground. This first church had been built on the site where the chapel of the Royal Palace used to be in Longobard times. It is here that the Longobard kings were crowned during the time when Pavia was the capital.
Of the earliest version of the church, only the lower part of the bell tower remains.
The crypt, choir and transept are from the reconstruction of 1090, which, however, was only completed in 1155. Work had to be interrupted in 1117 because of a second earthquake.
In 1489 Agostino da Candia replaced the original vault with a new version.
The church has a Latin cross, with three naves each with four cross vaults. The transept has a barrel vault. Above the roof, the dome merges into an octagonal lantern. Above the side aisles is a matronium. The side chapels were added after the Council of Trent (16th century).
What to see (exterior)
Since the church was very prestigious, a type of stone similar to that used in the imperial cathedrals of other countries was chosen as the building material. This was a golden-colored type of sandstone found in the hills across the Po River.
The sculpture above the main portal depicts the archangel Michael, with the defeated devil in the form of a dragon at his feet. The sculptures above the other portals depict two holy bishops (Ennodio and Eleucadio) whose relics can be seen in the church.
The façade is characterized by a gable spire, huge buttresses and pillars that divide it into three parts. At the very top is a blind loggia. The now empty niches used to be decorated with multi-colored goblets.
What to see (interior)
On the floor of the nave you can see an inscription around which there are four black marble circles. It is on this spot that the kings used to be crowned.
The San Carlo Crypt is located below the presbytery and consists of three naves. The tomb for Blessed Martino Salimbene was moved here from the San Giovanni in Borgo Church.
The presbytery is slightly raised. The “Coronation of the Virgin” fresco in the apse was painted by Agostino and Giovanni da Vaprio in 1491. Urbanino da Surso produced the “Crucifix with John and the Virgin” on the triumphal arch in the late 15th century. The stone table consecrated in 1383 depicts Saint Michael (with scales) and the bishops Ennodio and Eleucadio.
When the altar was moved to the back in 1972, a floor mosaic from the early 12th century was discovered. A personification of the Year is depicted, flanked by the months of February through July. Below is part of a maze. Mazes were seen as symbols of the arduous road a believer had to travel to get to God. Thanks to a drawing in the Vatican library, we know that Theseus and the Minotaur were depicted in the center of the maze. The figures in the lower left are David and Goliath, symbolizing the victory of Good over Evil.
The capitals are largely decorated with reliefs, the original colors of which have largely disappeared. The figures themselves are still visible, however, and show human figures as well as plant and (both existing and mythological) animal motifs. There are also some Biblical scenes. The most striking one shows Saint Michael himself holding off the devil with a spear while leading a child, representing the soul of the righteous man, to heaven.
The Crucifix of Theodotus was made in the 10th century and was originally located in the Santa Maria Teodote Monastery, which closed in 1799.
On the upper part of the wall of the transept is a bas-relief depicting the life of Magnus Felix Ennodius. Sant’Ennodio was an early 6th century the bishop of Pavia. His relics have been preserved in the main altar since 1573. Together with Sant’Eleucadio, with whom he is often depicted, he is the patron saint of the church.
Saint Anne’s Chapel was originally dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. After the Bellisomi family had the chapel restored in the early 18th, it received its current name. The altarpiece, “The Holy Family with Saint Anne,” was painted by Pietro di Pietri. After a restoration in 2006, the ornamental plasterwork has regained its original colors.
The the vault of the Santa Lucia Chapel was painted by Pacifico Buzio in 1866. The theme of the work is “The Genius Worshipping God.” The individuals depicted are all writers: Dante, St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher Boëthius and Lanfranco da Pavia. The latter later became Archbishop of Canterbury and his relics are kept in the church itself. Boëthius is shown with the now non-existent tower where he was held prisoner and with the San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro Basilica, where his relics are kept. The 1619 painting “Martyrdom of Santa-Lucia” is by Guglielmo Caccia, whose nickname was Moncalvo.
Guglielmo Caccia painted the “Madonna and Child between Saints Sebastian and Rocco” (1601) in the Chapel of the Life of Saint Mary. Giovanni Francesco Romani, however, was responsible for the frescoes depicting the prophets David and Solomon. He also painted four episodes from the life of Mary. The four church doctors and the symbols of the four evangelists on the vault are by Bernardino Lanzani (1508).
In 1473 Baldino da Surso produced the nativity scene that can be seen in the church. This is the only part left of a small altar where there also used to be statues of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
The chapel next to the presbytery contains a multi-colored 16th century polyptych in an 18th century marble frame. The upper part of this bas-relief shows a Pietà between Santo Stefano and Santa Barbara. The lower part depicts the “Madonna and Child, showing the cross to Santo Stefano.” San Lorenzo and Sant’Agostino on the sides.