The Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria in Solario was built in around the mid-12th century; it is square in plan and the octagonal upper portion has a closed loggia with reused Early Medieval columns and capitals. The facade of the medieval church of Santa Maria in Solario faces onto Via Musei. It is Romanesque in style and was built in the mid-12th century as the nuns’ chapel.
The lower room is square in plan, with massive ashlar walls in local limestone which incorporate fragments of Roman inscriptions. The octagonal vaulted upper chamber is girdled by a decorative gallery of small Early Medieval columns and capitals (8th-9th century AD). An atmospheric staircase built inside the wall connects the two floors of the church. The central pillar of Santa Maria in Solario’s lower chamber rests on a Roman altar, reused in the 12th century. The nuns kept the monastery treasure in this room.
On the ground floor, a large Roman altar is re-used as a central pillar and precious objects dedicated to the cult of sacred relics, the monastery’s treasure, may be seen: the Lipsanoteca, a carved ivory box (4th century AD) and a reliquary cross of gold, pearls and semiprecious stones (10th century AD).
The upper floor, which has a more intimate atmosphere, was used for the most important ceremonies of monastic worship. Under the starry vault, frescoed – like the walls – by Floriano Ferramola between 1513 and 1524, visitors can admire the Cross of King Desiderius, a rare example of metalwork from the early Carolingian era (9th century AD), decorated with a total of 212 gems, cameos and glass paste ornaments, some dating from the Roman and Lombard periods. The upper chamber of Santa Maria in Solario, a chapel reserved for the nuns, was frescoed by Brescian artists Floriano Ferramola and his workshop in the early 16th century.
The Cross of Desiderius, recto (Early 9th century AD)
This masterpiece of early 9th century AD Carolingian gold-working, known as the Cross of Desiderius, is particularly large and richly decorated. Set into the cross are 212 gems dating from the Roman period to the 16th century, including a medallion showing a Roman matron and her children. The “Male portrait with helmet” dating to the second half of the 1st century BC is one of the onyx cameos that decorate the cross.
Desiderius’ Cross is a processional cross that used to be carried on a tall staff by hand or on carriages. Considered its use, it was built in wood and covered with golden metal plates. Tradition recounts that it was a gift to San Salvatore and Santa Giulia monastery from the Longobard king Desiderius, who founded it between 753 and 760 together with his wife Ansa.
Among the examples of crux gemmata survived to the present day, this is the largest and it is covered with 211 gemstones set on the four arms. As unique case for this type of decoration, the goldsmiths here reused numerous ancient gems – about 50 – many of which came from other decorative pieces.
Where the arms cross there are two large medallions: the front shows the embossed figure of Christ Enthroned, possibly a 9th-10th century work, surrounded by four miniatures (10th-16th centuries AD). On the reverse side there is the figure of Christ Crucified added during the 16th century. The stones from the Imperial and Late Antiquity ages can be found especially on the reverse of the cross and their large number witnesses the remarkable availability of high quality material possibly derived from ancient imperial treasures.
The stones tell mythical and fantastic stories such as: a sardonyx cameo with the Muses and one with Pegasus (the winged horse) and Bellerophon; a chalcedony in two layers with the fight between Hercules and Omphale, the queen of Lydia; a cameo depicting a Victory crowned with a laurel wreath, similar to the winged Victory exhibited in this museum; a cameo with a hawk, which in Medieval times was probably interpreted as symbol of Christ, and an onyx portraying a princess from the Julio-Claudian dynasty. On the front, where the medieval gemstones prevail, the famous vitreous medallion with gold leaf portraits stands out, from the half of the 3rd century AD. On the medallion there is a family: a mother with her two sons, and a line in Greek characters probably referring to the head of the family, Vunnerio Cerami.
The pieces belonging from the High Middle Ages are highly important because of their number and probably their origin, contemporary to the creation of the cross itself. Among them, two are particularly relevant: the double-layered pseudo-cameos from the half of the 8th century to the 9th AD, and eighteen vitreous gemstones with stamp decoration, all coming from the same artisan shop. The pictures are portraits echoing the classical style in blue and green shades, the latter of which recalls the overall colour of the cross decorations. It is unusual though that there are no sacred pictures. Other rarities inserted in Desiderius’ cross are a portrait of Frederick II of Swabia (13th century AD) and two unique gemstones carved by North-European artisans, of which only seven pieces are in Italy. Of these, six can be found in Brescia: they are the so called Alsengemme, of which two are in Desiderius’ Cross and the remaining four are in the Croce del Campo preserved in the Old Cathedral.
This masterpiece from High Middle Age goldsmiths, dating back to the second half of the 9th century, is still in perfect condition but over time it has been restored several times, probably because it was often used during processions. Many of these interventions are documented, such as in 1812 where seventeen new stones replaced some ‘pagan’ gemstones taken away by nuns, because they were considered offensive for Christians.
The cross is located inside the upper floor of Santa Maria in Solario Oratory, a Romanesque style building dedicated to the religious functions of nuns, where in ancient times was probably preserved the monastery treasure. From here the abbess on Good Friday took the cross in the Nuns’ Choir and then on the main altar of San Salvatore church to be worshipped.
The cross was still exhibited in Santa Maria in Solario at the end of the 18th century “upon an altar in the middle of burning torches”, but in 1798 the Government of the Cisalpine Republic eliminated the religious order and the monastery treasure was therefore dispersed. Some of the most precious pieces (the Cross, the Purple Gospel book known as Evangelario Purpureo and the Brescia Casket or Lipsanotheca) were transferred to the Queriniana Library, where the Cross was preserved until 1882, when it was further moved to the Museum of the Christian Era in Santa Giulia and again to the Tosio Martinengo Art Gallery. Only in 1993 did the Cross return in Santa Giulia museum, its original collocation.
Sober as a classical work, but evocative according to the canons of early Christian art, the lipsanoteca, preserved since 1999 in the Romanesque oratory of Santa Maria in Solario, was part, together with the Croce di Desiderio, of the so-called Treasure of Santa Giulia, a collection of rare liturgical objects dating back to the origins of the monastery, which have accompanied the life of the monastery over the centuries. The lipsanoteca looks like a historiated box, which was to be used as a custody of precious relics, as can be seen from the same etymology of the name, of Greek origin, composed of leipsanon , which means relic, and théke , or container. Made of ivory, rectangular in shape, it was carried out by a workshop in northern Italy, probably Milanese, in the second half of the fourth century, under the episcopate of Sant’Ambrogio.
The religious inspiration that permeates it, in fact, can be seen from the interpretation of the scenes depicted in the bas-reliefs which adorn the sides and the lid of the lipsanoteca along three levels and which, although not all easy to understand, are inspired by the biblical episodes more significant of the Old and New Testaments.
Jonah swallowed by the whale, Daniel in the lions’ den, the thaumaturgic Christ who raises Lazarus, together with the most significant scenes from the life of Jesus, are just some of the symbolic episodes that appear in the bas-reliefs, according to a precise religious popular program. These are significant examples of early Christian art, however rendered according to a still classical stylistic register, therefore pagan (recognizable in the draperies, in the plasticity of the figures and in the measured composure of the scenes). Furthermore, on the finely chiseled pilasters that adorn the corners of the lipsanoteca there is a game of continuous references to the sacred symbolism, enclosed in the fish (which represents Christ), the rooster (the Resurrection), the tree (the knowledge of the good and the badly), the tower (or the Church) and the doves, in which the community of the faithful had to recognize itself.
Around the casket, object of special veneration, there were many widespread legends, such as the one according to which it had to contain a stone perhaps from the Holy Sepulcher, which according to the documents of the monastery was held in the hands of a nun during the Easter mass and offering in vision to the other nuns. Hence the appellative sepulcrum eboris , ivory sepulcher, reserved for the reliquary.
The history of the lipsanoteca, moreover, was quite troubled: protected within the walls of the monastery of Santa Giulia until 1798, with the suppression of the cenobium wanted by Napoleon it was transferred to the Queriniana Library, and subsequently to the Christian Museum in Santa Giulia, in 1882. The work was also reduced to a cruciform plaque, in an unidentified period, before being returned, in 1928, to its original box-shaped form. A further subsequent addition is that of the silver lock on the front, perhaps from the 8th century.
Santa Giulia museum
The Museum of Santa Giulia is the main museum in Brescia, located in via dei Musei 81 / b, along the ancient decumanus of the Roman Brixia. It is housed inside the monastery of Santa Giulia, built by King Desiderio in the Lombard era and variously enlarged and modified in more than a thousand years of history. The City Museum, unique in its design and location – a monastic complex of Lombard foundation – and with display areas covering 14,000 m², offers a journey through Brescia’s history, art and spirituality from prehistoric times to the present day.
The Benedictine convent of San Salvatore – Santa Giulia was founded in 753 by the last Lombard king, Desiderius, and his wife Ansa and occupied a role of great religious, political and economic importance, which continued after the Lombards’ defeat by Charlemagne. According to tradition, the dramatic story of Ermengarda, daughter of Desiderius and rejected bride of the Frankish emperor, was played out here; it was recounted by Manzoni in Adelchi.
The area below the Museum is rich in archaeological finds from various eras, mostly belonging to the Roman era and well preserved, in particular the Domus of Ortaglia. The museum includes all the structures of the ancient monastery, including the church of Santa Maria in Solario, the choir of the nuns and the church of Santa Giulia. The site is composed of parts from many different epochs: a stratification of memories and a continual source of unexpected discoveries. The complex was built on the ruins of impressive Roman town houses and includes the Lombard church of San Salvatore and its crypt, the Romanesque Santa Maria in Solario, the Nuns’ Choir, the sixteenth-century church of Santa Giulia and the monastery cloisters. It is the perfect location for the City Museum and the natural focal point for a visit to Brescia.
The Museum’s special distinguishing feature is the close relationship between the historic buildings and the objects on display, which number about 11,000 and include Celtic helmets and horse harness ornaments, Roman portraits and bronze sculptures, Lombard items, grave goods, frescos, an applied art collection and artefacts dating from the medieval period to the 18th century AD. The Winged Victory, the city’s symbol, is a large bronze statue from the Capitolium. Recent studies have shed new light on the sculpture’s history and the life of ancient Brixia.
Thousands of objects and works of art from the Bronze Age to the nineteenth century are preserved in the museum, mainly from the city context and the province of Brescia, which make it a real city museum, whose in-depth themes mainly concern the history of the city of Brescia and its territory. The numerous works of art include the Winged Victory, the Desiderio Cross, the Lipsanoteca and the “Collectibles and Applied Arts” sector, where all the private collections donated to the museum between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are kept.