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Basilica Santo Stefano

Religious building, Bologna

Basilica Santo Stefano: Attraction informations

The Basilica of Santo Stefano is dedicated to the first Christian martyr. The complex, which overlooks Piazza Santo Stefano in Bologna, rises on the site of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Isis.

The first church to be built was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, easily recognized by its octagonal appearance and placed directly on the remains of the ancient temple. One of the original marble columns of this temple is still visible within the church.

The second church built is the first one on the left. It faces the square and is dedicated to saints Vitalis and Agricola. This church was built on behalf of Bologna’s bishop, Petronius, who wanted a worthy burial site for Vitalis and Agricola, a Roman master and his servant, and the first citizens of Bologna to die for their Christian faith during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian.

The current main entrance to the complex is the Church of the Crucifix, built during the Lombard period.

The interior

Overlapping stories surround us as soon as we set foot into the complex. The Seven Churches are in fact known as the “Piccola Gerusalemme” (“little Jerusalem”) as their structure represents the sites of Christ’s Passion in the Holy City.

The birth of this complex is due to a need of worshippers during the Crusades. Believers expressed their wish to go to Jerusalem asking for indulgence but soon realized that only the richest and bravest could deal with the journey. The Church therefore decided to build similar sites to Jerusalem throughout Italian cities offering worshippers alternative places to pray and attain full indulgence.

Following this similarity, inside the first church we find both the crypt that serves as the room for the Last Supper, and the raised presbytery, symbol of Pilate’s site. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there is an exact copy of the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Back in time the church was decorated with frescoes and the reproduction of the sepulchre was the resting-place of Petronius, a 5th-century Bishop of Bologna (and now the city’s patron saint) following his last wishes.

A column, a little isolated from the others and probably brought into the city from middle-east territories, symbolizes the moment of Christ’s flogging.

Proceeding with our visit to the Sette Chiese, we enter the church of Saints Vitalis and Agricola, main characters of one of the most outrageous episodes of the Bolognese church. In 1141, during restoration works, some relics were found inside a wooden chest bearing the Greek name of Simon. Initially considered of little relevance, the remains were reassessed towards the end of the XIV century, when the Seven Churches was losing its value in the eyes of pilgrims who favored the new Church of Saint Petronius. The monks, wanting to increase the flow of pilgrims, started to spread the word that the remains belonged to the father founder of the Church.

When the rumors got as far as Rome the Pope ordered the monks to stop lying and was rebuffed; he immediately punished their refusal by taking of the roof of the church and filling its interior with earth. The church was left on those conditions until the end of the 400’s when it was emptied, restored and consecrated again.

In the first cloister going out of Santo Stefano a basin placed by the Lombards stands out: it symbolizes the one where Pilate washed his hands. The church overlooking the cloister on the opposite side represents the site of Christ’s crucifixion and holds the plaques dedicated to the fallen soldiers during World War I.

The second cloister embraces the lower and upper cloisters, connected to the insides of the monastery.

Olivetan Benedictine monks have their home in it. A legend tells us that Dante, then a law student in Bologna, was inspired by the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic capitals that decorate the upper cloister when writing his famous Inferno.

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