The Cathedral and the organ
The main religious building of Valvasone is dedicated to the Most Holy Body of Christ, a name which, as it often happens, summarises and explains a great deal of its historical and artistic events.
In fact, according to tradition, the cathedral was erected as a result of an event occurred in Gruaro (a place in the province of Venice), along the irrigation ditch called Versiola, where in 1294 (but more likely in 1394) a pious lady, busy washing a tablecloth from the nearby church of St. Giusto, apparently noticed a consecrated Host – negligently forgotten in the folds of the linen by a doubtful officiant – bleeding and inevitably staining the cloth.
A similar prodigious event – along with many other events of this kind that occurred in late medieval times, especially close to the famous miracle of Bolsena in 1263 – always according to tradition, soon gave rise to a dispute with regard to the precious Eucharistic relic: the parish priest of Gruaro wished to keep it in his church, the Bishop of Concordia instead would have preferred it in the cathedral, and finally, also the earls of Valvasone, at the time of the miracle Jus patronatus of the church in Gruaro, claimed it as their property.
The documents state that, at the start of the 15th century, the sacred tablecloth had been transferred to Valvasone and placed in an apposite altar of the old parish church dedicated to Saint Mary of Graces and Saint John, subject, after the construction of the cathedral, to a deterioration that, due to changing fortunes (in 1485 it was entrusted to the Serviti friars, replaced in 1665 by the Dominican friars that remained there till 1770), led it to a slow yet inexorable decline which ended when it was eventually demolished in 1866.
The episode of the transportation of the Sacred Tablecloth was frescoed by an unknown artist in 1688 on the façade of a building known as “Torricella” (or small tower), placed in an area of Valvasone named after it.
As regards the matter of the ownership of the relic, quite delicate from both the religious and the political point of view, no satisfactory solution was found locally and it was decided to refer the matter to the Holy See.
Consequently, on 28 March 1454 pope Nicolò V ordered that the precious tablecloth be entrusted with the Valvason family (that, in the meantime, had ceded the castle of Gruaro to the abbot of Sesto, in exchange for the villas of San Lorenzo and Orcenico Superiore), on the condition that they built a new church to house it, to be obviously dedicated to the Most Holy Body of Christ.
The roman order overlapped the decision, taken in 1449 at the church of Saint James (located where the former Post Office building was), under the auspices of Earl Giacomo Giorgio di Valvason (the coat of arms of the earls, jus patronus of the cathedral, can be easily seen in various parts of the church which, as a result, seems to be a palatine chapel), to build a new religious building where the relic could be kept, within the second circle of walls, in an area owned by the earl, to replace the inadequate and decentralised parish church.
Probably, the decision taken by the pope in 1454 had taken account of the earls’ willingness to build a new church, thus conveniently settling the controversial chapter dealing with the allocation of the sacred linen cloth, which was finally entrusted to a temple dedicated to it, just as it had happened two centuries before in Orvieto for the miracle of Bolsena.
The building works of the new centre of Valvasone’s religious life were not particularly fast, perhaps because the parish church was still in good state, and it was only in 1466 that the roof was eventually finished; whilst the sacred relic was transferred to the new and final home around 1479, day in which the church was surely served, even if the works allegedly finished around 1484, when on the 8th September – the day when Mary was born – it was finally solemnly consecrated.
From the architectural point of view, the building looks extremely simple and severe, follows the same pattern of the Franciscan order (in turn stemming from the Cistercian one), perhaps also due to practical needs linked to the place chosen.
The building structure that we admire today is basically the same as the 15th century one: a large rectangular room, its use facing east (on a place that is lower than the surrounding square), aisleless, with a visible trussed roof, whilst lancet arches frame the rectangular-shaped presbytery and the two chapels beside it (the left one less deep to leave room for the powerful bell tower, which still houses a bell cast in 1733, using metal from another two-century old bell.
A similar kind of building can also be found in other churches located on the Right of the Tagliamento, erected in the 14th century, like San Pantaleone in Spilimbergo (1368), and still in the second half of the 15th century, among which the parishchurchofManiagostands out (1488).
Originally the façade was supposed to faithfully reflect the severity of the interiors, proposing a saddle roof and a single entrance in the middle, surmounted by a big circular window which probably had two smaller ones on each side, thus symbolically recreating the Holy Trinity.
The presbytery, instead, was lit by two high lancet-arched windows, walled up in the 19th century and replaced with a rose window. Recently the two openings were restored, hence the 19th-century addition was eliminated, bringing this part of the building back to its original architectural structure; this also enabled to highlight, on the back wall, the remains of a plant-shaped fresco.
The present look of the façade and of most of the temple are due to a series of radical building works carried out between 1889 and the early 1900′s (thanks to help of Luigi Paolo Leonardon from San Vito), influenced by the neo-Gothic revival which was in fashion at the time, following a style used also in many more Friulian churches, among which, to remain in the area, the parish church of San Giovanni Casarsa ((1896-1904).
Those works generated a Romanesque façade, divided into three parts by four pilasters, with a large central rose window and on the sides, above an elevated rusticated plinths, two high double lancet windows, with a portal in the centre in the shape of a cuspidated shrine with a lunette frescoed by a 19th-century anonymous author (the external side depicting the Adoration of the Body of Christ, the internal side the Christus passus), the whole set framed by lines of small terraced arches and completed by four steeples, joined by thin spires connected by multi-lobed arches within a small triangular gable, to form a pediment that crowns the building.
The works terminated with the plastering of the façade and the internal part of the temple with horizontal stripes, probably eliminating previous fresco-style decorations (that nonetheless were not to be particularly meaningful): works that seemingly connect thechurchofValvasonewith the famous cathedral of Orvieto, associating in that way, at least visually, two seats keeping celebrated Eucharistic relics.
The neo-Gothic changes were not just made to the façade, but concerned the interior as well: they concerned the apse, where the two original openings were walled up and replaced by a rose window; and the northern side, where the 15th-centiry windows were replaced with the double lancet windows that can still be seen today.
Furthermore, the new late 19th-century façade – emphasised by the demolition of the tower placed before it – radically modified the function of the northern side, which, due to the particular urban structure of the area, had basically played the role of main façade (as it happened to the cathedral of Spilimbergo), as it can be still noticed nowadays in the refined brickwork frieze and the presence of geometrically-shaped and figurative decoration frescoes (as all the façades of the constructions surrounding the sacred building were probably frescoed). Among these, worthy of notice are the remains of some busts of saints, inserted in the space within the small terraced arches under the cornice.
The interior of the cathedral, despite it is five hundred years old, is quite close to the original intention of creating an environment of mystical simplicity, where the attention of the believers was to be exclusively targeted to the sacred Eucharistic relic.
Such an intention became even more evident after the recent changes (in 2004) made to the apse, which reached their climax by moving back the 17th-century altar, thus restoring the old partioning of the space.
The high altar, dating back to the 17th century, reproduces the architecture of a small temple, enriched with polychromatic marbles and its tabernacle has safely stored the Sacred Tablecloth since 1793. Above it there is a big wooden Crucifix, ascribed to Pomponio Amalteo, or better to his workshop, dating around 1556-1557 and intentionally created following a late style so as to recall the one adopted in the previous century. The valuable carving was initially placed on the beam of the choir arch (hence the name Christ of the beam), as proven by the excellent “di sotto in su” technique, literally “from below up” to help viewers appreciate the workmanship.
In the 16th century, the high altar was adorned by an altar-piece, now disappeared, which depicted the Saviour, whilst the sacred linen was stored in a small gilded copper altar-piece.
Following the recommendations expressed in 1584 by the apostolical visitor Cesare de Nores, bishop of Parenzo – a follower of Counter-Reformation principles – the high altar was fitted with a tabernacle so that the Sacred Eucharist would be in the middle of the choir rather than in a simple niche just like in Valvasone.
During the 17th century radical changes were also made to the two lateral chapels, the left one dedicated to Saints James Major and Christopher and the other one to Saint Catherine ofAlexandria.
Especially the altar, dedicated to the patroness of Venice and her puerperae (women progressing through the puerperium), displays extremely interesting features: a spectacular Baroque altar, enriched with an elegant frontal depicting Scenes from the martyrdom of Saint Catherine, both works from the period of Francesco Penso, known as “Cabianca” (Venice, 1665-1737), and dating back to the last decade of the 17th century. In the chapel of Valvasone, Cabianca offered a refined example of his plastic skills, illustrating three moments of the martyrdom of Saint Catherine: in the middle, in a bas-reliefs that seems to suggest the remoteness of the action, the adoration of idols, reproducing Hercules (it recalls the Farnese one) and a lizard that simultaneously hints to the wisdom of the martyr and the will to seek the light of the true God as opposed to the darkness of Paganism; to the right the judgement of the saint and to the left the sequence of her execution, scenes where the figures are recreated using a high-relief that generates light and shade effects of dramatic intensity.
Moreover, this altar stores an exceptional altar-piece, the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, a work of art that dates back to 1701 by Lombardy-born Giulio Quaglio (Laino approx. 1668 – approx. 1751), quite an active fresco-painter in Friuli, especially in Udine, as well as in Slovenia (Ljubljana) and Austria (Graz and Salzburg), between the end of the 17th century and the start of the next century. Thus it is one of the rarest known examples of easel painting by Quaglio who, fully abiding by traditional iconography, depicted the virgin Catherine, praying standing, with the cruel emperor Massenzio, the wheel broken by the angels and the two lifeless executioners.
Also the chapel dedicated to Saints James Major and Christopher houses an altar, with an architectonic structure that is quite similar to the one mentioned above, and a 17th-century marble frontal which depicts the Martyrdom of Saint James, a work that however does not have the same expressive strength and execution quality of the frontal found on the opposite side.
In this case the altar-piece that adorns the altar, dating 1667, is ascribed to Bartolomeo Ferrari and depicts the owners of the chapel, that is Saints James Major and Christopher with the Virgin Mary, in a static reproposal of the schemes derived from the painting style ofPalma the Younger.
The same chapel has kept the icon of the Breastfeeding Madonna (or Galactotrofusa) for decades, a painting dating back to the first half of the 14th century and executed at a workshop from the so-called “Adriatic school”, active on the Dalmatian coasts since the beginning of the 14th century under the influence of those stylistic elements typical of Pisa and Rimini which, in effect, can also be found in the table of Valvasone.
The small painting with a gold background probably comes from the ancient parish church dedicated to St. Mary and St. John where it probably arrived in 1345-1355 and where it was allegedly kept until the end of the 18th century; over the centuries it was the object of particular veneration, so much that miraculous events have been often ascribed to it by local tradition.
Two additional altars are located along the side walls: on the left the altar dedicated to San Nicolò and on the opposite side the one of the Holy Cross.
The first one was executed in neo-Gothic style, during the late 19th-century works carried out on the façade, and replaces an altar dated 1678, a work by stonecutters Meduno Giuseppe and Daniele Ciotta. It houses an altar-piece by the Venetian painter Matteo Luigi Canonici, paid in 1791, which portrays Saint Nicolas praying before the Virgin Mary with the Child.
Conversely, the altar dedicated to the Holy Cross – to which in 1576 the countess Giulia di Valvasone bequeathed 1,000 ducats – was made in 1705 by Francesco Caribolo, undergoing subsequent major changes at the start of the 20th century, and houses an altar-piece by the painter Anzolo di Portogruaro of 1605, which portrays St. Helen and the recovery of the Cross.
The 16th-century cathedral organ is the pride of the community of Valvasone and is surely one of the most interesting works of art in the whole ofFriulifor its musical value and the important pictorial decorations that embellish it.
In fact, it is a musical instrument, unique in its genre, ordered in 1532 from the great master organ-maker Vincenzo de Columbis (Casale Monferrato, approx. 1490 – Venice, 1574), with the contribution of the greatest Friulian painter of the time, Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis, also known as “Pordenone” (approx. 1484 – 1539).
The works commenced in 1533 with the execution of the architectonic pieces to place the organ on a choir stall anchored to the right wall, and the musical instrument was first used in the same year, although the construction of the sheath enclosing it was not completed until 1535.
At that point the decoration woks started by the carver Girolamo di Venezia and the gilder Tommaso Mioni da Udine, who proposed an elegant repertoire comprising gargoyles and spirals, that were however closer to the Mannerist style.
Pordenone, instead, was contacted for the hatches. He received a down payment of 55 ducats to make the two doors illustrating Eucharistic themes; unfortunately, the painter died two years later inFerrara, leaving its work unfinished.
The effort undertaken for this musical instrument, by hiring leading organ makers, craftsmen and artists of the time hence incurring significant expenses, is eloquent evidence of the attention paid to the musical activity in Valvasone in the 17th century when such activity was promoted by as many as two centres, both closely linked to the lords of Valvason: the castle and the parish church.
In the parish church the liturgical and musical activity must have been quite intense, as evidenced by several documents which, inter alia, recount that sacred representations were frequently played, such as for example Abraam e Isac by Feo Belcari which were linked to Eucharistic themes and therefore suited to a place that stored a sacred linen.
Pordenonewas one of the most eminent painters of the time and was considered one of the greatest interpreters of Renaissance art, for the monumentality he could confer upon the figures he painted, often using daring and amazing perspectives, and inserting them in newly-invented compositions. The artist had already proved his creativity in adorning organs, working for both the cathedral of Spilimbergo (in 1523-1524) and the one ofUdine(in 1527-1528).Pordenonedied in 1539, probably leaving on the shutters only a sketch of the scenes. The painter Pomponio Amalteo (Motta di Livenza 1505 – San Vito al Tagliamento 1590) from San Vito, pupil and brother-in-law of de’ Sacchis, was called in 1549 to complete the works.
It is not the only episode of its genre, as Pomponio also “inherited” other contracts left unfinished by the father-in-law, completing them using the same language as his master’s, though following a less refined style.
Although the iconographic programme of the pictorial decoration of the musical instrument is not exactly known – nor do we know who the inspirer was – the reference to the Body of Christ (which the church is named after) is always central and evidently linked to the worship of the sacred relic; however, according to some interpretations, the paintings from Valvasone probably hide a subtle dispute with the Roman church and the attention in favour of the Lutheran movement (the same is likely to hold good for the painters of the organ from Spilimbergo) that was probably followed by some members of the Family of Valvasone just like other noble Friulian families of the time.
However, the shutters conceived by Pordenone depict themes from the Old Testament: when they are closed they propose the majestic scene of the Fall – with some central figures autographed by the great master – a biblical episode that portrays an evident foreshadowing of the Eucharist, whilst when they are open, that is when the musical instrument is in operation, we find the Sacrifice of Abraham on the left and the Sacrifice of Melchisedech on the opposite side, being two events commented by tradition as Eucharistic symbols, executed by Amalteo in 1549 following the drawing of his father-in-law.
On the contrary, the frontal shows frames, wholly devised and executed by Pomponio Amalteo at the beginning of the 50’s, with episodes taken from the Gospels: from the left, the Marriage Feast at Cana, the Merchants banished from the Temple, the Probatica piscina, the Multiplication of the Loaves, and the Conversion of St. Mary Magdalene. All events linked in some way to an Eucharistic exegesis, as foreshadowings under other kinds of the Sacrament.
Also the friezes frescoed with grotesque motifs on the side of the instrument are ascribed to Pomponio.