Santa Grata Inter Vites – Macabre Paintings

Santa Grata - Macabre Paintings

Santa Grata – Macabre Paintings

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Santa Grata Inter Vites – Macabre Paintings

Leaving through the Porta di San Alessandro in the north-western section of the walls of Città Alta, and walking just a little beyond the bottom funicular station that takes you up to San Vigilio (the highest point to look down on Bergamo) you’ll arrive, on the right going downhill, at the narrow street of Via Borgo Canale. A couple of hundred metres down this road, on the left hand side, is the church of Santa Grata Inter Vites, home to the macabre paintings by the local painter Paulo Vincenzo Bonomini (1757-1839). 

Along with the Romanesque church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, the Santa Grata is one of the places that I think is a must on any visited to the Città Alta of Bergamo. Not that there’s not a lot of interest around the Piazza Duomo but these two churches offer the opportunity to see something unusual and on a scale that’s a little more human. Cathedrals were constructed to make the individual feel small, the Romanesque frescoes and the macabre paintings in these locations were designed to make the individual think of his/her place in the world.

Macabre paintings date back to the 14th century but few examples from that time have survived. There’s speculation as to why this form of depiction of ‘life’ was chosen in the first place. Some argue that it was in response to the Black Death that wiped out anything from a third to a half of the population of Europe in the thirteen hundreds. Others argue it was to depict the constant struggle that humans have with Death, even though in that battle there will only be, and can only be, one winner.

Whatever the original reason for their becoming widespread during the medieval period Bonomini chose this style when he was commissioned to create a series of paintings in his local parish church in 1800. The fact that Europe was then embroiled in the biggest and most widespread war up to that time, with country after country falling to the Empire of the Corsican upstart and usurper of the gains of the French Revolution, might well have influenced his theme.

Bonomini couldn’t have been more of a local choice of artist for the commission. He was born in the same street at No 10 and was baptised in Santa Grata church on Christmas Day 1757 (Gaetano Donizetti, of bel canto opera fame, and the cellist Alfredo Piatti were also both born in Via Borgo Canale and baptised in this church).

There are six paintings in total, located behind the altar, and can be seen by the congregation between the pillars and the silverware.

One depicts a country couple, the man sitting down, with agricultural produce in their hands or on the ground, perhaps on their way to market.

Santa Grata - Rustic Couple

Santa Grata – Rustic Couple

Another is of a better dressed bourgeois couple simply out for a stroll. This follows the idea from many pre-Renaissance frescoes that Death had no respect for class.

Santa Grata - Bourgeois Couple

Santa Grata – Bourgeois Couple

One is of a drummer dressed in the uniform of the National Guard and another of a carpenter, walking to a job with the tools of his trade.

Santa Grata - Drummer

Santa Grata – Drummer

Santa Grata - Carpenter

Santa Grata – Carpenter

Of the last two one depicts a couple of priests (they were more than likely destined for Hell after their death) and what is considered a ‘self-portrait’ of Bonomini, an artist standing at an easel painting Death, with his wife on one side and an assistant on the other.

Santa Grata - Priests

Santa Grata – Priests

Santa Grata - Artist

Santa Grata – Artist

I like these paintings because they are different and not something I seen many times although there is a small collection, with the same idea of embracing everyone regardless of class or status, in the Adriano Bernareggi Diosesan Museum of Sacred Art.

These are, for me, the main reason for visiting this church but there are a few other points of interest. There’s what looks like a recently re-discovered fresco of a breast-feeding Madonna to the right of the altar.

On my last visit I was also directed to what I assume is the sacristy (the room where the priest prepares for the mass). This has a painted, mock wood ceiling and around the top of the walls are representations of the Virtues as well as one of Death castigating some poor individual. I’ve not been able to find out anything more of these paintings, i.e., by whom or when they were created. Next door was what can be only described as a store-room of church paraphernalia – statues of the Madonna, angels, crucifixes and other material that would be used on feast days or other special occasions.

Outside, to the left of the main entrance, fixed to the wall of the church is a war memorial. Originally placed there to commemorate the fallen in the First World War two additional plaques were added after 1945. What is interesting about these plaques is that the majority of those who didn’t return to the parish were killed or went missing on the Eastern Front, at the hands of the Soviet Red Army.

Location: in Via Borgo Canale, opposite the steps of San Gottardo.

Access: I was told, by one of the women who was preparing the flowers for a special service that coming weekend, that the church is open to visitors every Sunday from 08.30 to midday. The Tourist Information Office told me something else (which wasn’t even close to reality) and a local shop keeper gave another suggestion which didn’t seem to fit the facts either. However, if you’re not around on a Sunday see if anyone is moving around in the courtyard to the left of the church – there’s a very substantial iron grill at the street side. Begging might get you entrance. To the best of my knowledge they don’t charge. A book has recently been produced (€10) which provides more information about the church and its decoration (which I didn’t buy).

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The Adriano Bernareggi Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art

Saint Lucy

Saint Lucy

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The Adriano Bernareggi Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art

The Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra Adriano Bernareggi (Adriano Bernareggi Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art) is only a short distance from the Cittá Alta. Based on the collection of a Bergamo Bishop (who gives his name to the museum) from the 1930s onwards it contains exhibits not really seen elsewhere in the city.

Located in one of the old palazzos it has a somewhat eccentric arrangement of rooms but if you try to visit the rooms in their numbered sequence you should see all there is. There was obviously no specialisation in the collecting process – basically if it was religious it was in. There are the normal objects and paintings that you might have seen in other Italian museums but there were a few objects that were either new to me or which I consider worthy of mention due to their unusual characteristics or a piece of information that made me think in a slightly different way.

Before mentioning them there’s one point I’d like to make. The collection is curated in a way so that it’s a theme that dominates a room, not the period or even the type of object. To the entrance of the room there’s an introduction to the theme then you’re left on your own. There’s no information about the exact period, if a known artist or any guidance of what the object might be depicting. To get a better understanding of the collection you need to call on your own knowledge or experience.

In the room of the Saints there are paintings from different epochs but what they all have in common, that is if the Saint had died a martyred death, is that they either appear holding the instrument of their demise, almost always with a serene look on their face, or else an almost surreal depiction of the ordeal they went through. Whenever I see them, or indeed Christ on the cross, I think of the comments on this idea of remembrance by the deceased American comedian Bill Hicks. He used to wonder what Christ think if, on the second coming, he was surrounded by people with images of his torture around their necks.

As neighbours on the wall were a small group of female saints. Saint Barbara (or it could be Saint Agatha – misogyny in the early – and not so early – Catholic Church meant that female saints suffered a litany of tortures before their end), during her ordeal, had her breasts cut off and she is depicted with a pair of breasts, looking more like the polenta e osei sold in the cake shops in Cittá Alta, defying gravity and sticking to a bloodied sword.

Saint Barbara

Saint Barbara

In the same group is Saint Lucy who had her eyes gouged out and they are depicted threaded onto a stiletto like knife which she herself holds. A third in the group, at least the ones I thought I recognised, was Saint Agatha (or Saint Apollonia) who was recorded as having her teeth pulled out. It really gets quite confusing and some indication of the intention of the painter, at least, would have helped.

One thing I learnt in my visit to this museum was the fact that the cross, and more especially the crucifixion, as a representation of Christ was something that developed in the 4th/5th centuries as the religion became more organised, more structured, more hierarchical. Before that the early Christians had used symbols such as a fish (which I knew about before as a Catalan friend had brought that to my attention), doves or loaves of bread to represent God/Son/Holy Ghost. As the religion was supposed to one of peace and the love of mankind these images make much more sense and even give an impression of caring. However, they lost out to the failing Roman Empire which hitched its horse to a rising movement and, effectively, took it over and slotted in an imperial structure and bureaucracy. It worked. It’s still there in Vatican City.

Something I’ve only seen in Bergamo (although I’m open to the fact that they appear elsewhere) is the so-called ‘macabre’ paintings. These are basically paintings of skeletons in various forms of dress as it they are, perhaps not living in the sense that’s generally accepted (before the banal vampire films and TV programmes became ubiquitous) but at least taking part in daily life. In Room 15 there are 8 large paintings covering all social classes, but with an emphasis on the rich and powerful, including kings and popes, presumably with the argument that death is the only true leveller but society would be a more civilised if we did the levelling prior to the appearance of the Grim Reaper. The only other place I’ve seen these ‘macabre’ paintings is in the church of Santa Grata Inter Vites, also in Bergamo, in Borgo Canale.

'Macabre' Pope

‘Macabre’ Pope

I must have now seen hundreds of Romanesque, painted, wooden statues of the Madonna and Child. They are charming and always interesting as their evolution from the early Romanesque period up to the Renaissance shows a re-learning of the skills lost with the too rapid destruction of the Roman Empire. The small group of wooden statues in Room 17 are unique as far as I’m concerned.

The information supplied by the museum stresses the fact that these statues were massed produced but most of them must have ended up as fire wood as I’ve never come across them before. They are incredibly modern. Although the Madonna is dressed in the fashion of the 18th/19th centuries they have aspects that wouldn’t look out of place today.

They are, roughly, two-thirds life-size, standing (which was very rare in the Romanesque period when these statues had their heyday) and very life-like. As well as the dress the hairstyles were of the period so it seems an attempt to place the Madonna in the ‘now’ and not making her something apart from ordinary women. In a way going back to the ideas of the early Christians before the religion was formalised.

And sexy – in the Jessica Rabbit sort of way. One, in particular, has a very slim waist and curves that were emphasised in fashion models – before ‘size zero’ and androgynous became the norm.

For people new to such a museum I’m sure they would find more of interest. By now I’ve seen a lot of this art and, perhaps, am becoming too blasé.

A smallish but nonetheless interesting and worthwhile place to visit if in Bergamo.

Practical Information

Address: Via Pignolo, 76

Opening hours:

Tuesday – Sunday 09.30 – 12.30 and 15.00 – 18.30

Closed Monday


General €5

65 plus (with ID) €3

Free entry with the Bergamo Card.

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Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

The Bergamo Skyline

The Bergamo Skyline

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Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy. What to do? Where to go? What do you need to know? How much will it cost? From the links below you will be able to find the information, practical hints, tips, suggestions of visits and food, etc., to make a full three day visit to the northern Italian city, in the foothills of the Orobie Alps and about 45 kilometres to east of Milan, an enjoyable experience.

Most of the principal tourist historical, cultural and artistic attractions are to be found in the Città Alta (the High City, also known as the Old Town – although there is evidence of ancient settlements where contemporary development is taking place)) the walled mediaeval city built on the top of one hills that commanded the trade routes in times past. The old city got its Venetian Walls during the 16th century and they dominate any aspect from afar. As the politics of the country changed (especially after Italian Unification – Risorgimento – of the 1860s) more expansion took place below the hill and this is where you’ll find locations dominated by 19th century architecture, including some of the most important art galleries such as the Accademia Carrara, the Museo Diosesano Adriano Bernareggi and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo (GAMeC). Also in this area you’ll be able to see the Monument to the Partisan, by Giacomo Manzù, and the Teatro Donizetti, the local opera house.

In Città Alta you’ll find: the Duomo (Cathedral); the Colleoni Chapel – the mausoleum of the mercenary Bartolomeo Colleoni; the Campanone (The Big Bell) and The Gombito, two towers dating back to mediaeval times; the Contarini Fountain; the Baptistery, dating back to the 14th century – but not in the same place; the library; locations connected to the life of Gaetano Donizetti (the bel canto opera composer); the Palazzo della Regione; a number of interesting churches, including the Romanesque San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, with its frescoes, the church of Santa Grata Inter Vites, with its macabre paintings behind the main altar, the tiny church of Santa Croce and the huge Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore – which challenges the Cathedral in its decoration and splendour; as well as a number of comic, interesting, sometimes bizarre and unusual examples of ‘street art’ – long before Banksie people were painting the outsides of buildings just for the sake of it and as a relief to the mundanity of their lives.

The old city is tiny and the only way to see it, and that’s because there’s no alternative transport to take you through the narrow streets and alleyways, is on foot. However, it’s not a logistical problem to get around the more dispersed attractions of the new town and guidance will be provided about how to do that in the most convenient and cheapest way possible. This will include the quaint funicular railway which takes some of the pain out of climbing the steep hills and allows you to get to the highest point in the old city at the Castello di San Vigillio.

Eateries exist in the Città Alta but they are almost exclusively directed towards the tourist trade and may not, for that reason, most may not be particularly good value for money. However, I went to one restaurant in the new town and one in the old town. One day I choose snack food and a picnic at San Vigilio.

Accommodation reports will be limited to one. I am staying at the Nuovo Ostello della Gioventu di Bergamo, part of Hostelling International to which the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) of the UK is affiliated. Although on the outskirts of the new town there’s a couple of very convenient bus routes (the 6 and the 3) that can get you to both the old and the new town without a lot of pain, the No 3 to the Citta Alta having its terminus at the bus stop immediately outside the hostel. If you don’t mind sharing dormitory accommodation for a few nights it provides all you really need, a clean, comfortable and convenient place to lay your head.

Bergamo easily has enough to keep someone with wide and catholic tastes busy for a full three days. More than that you might find yourself retracing your steps a bit too often. However, generally it’s a pleasant location and it’s not too bad a choice as a base to explore some of the surrounding historic towns such as Brescia or Carravaggio or even for a swift day trip to Milan.

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