Coming into the Light

Written by  Angelo Andreotti

Some observations on the Temple of San Cristoforo alla Certosa after its restoration.

Entering the Temple of San Cristoforo alla Certosa the first impact comes from the architecture, intended in its most precise sense as the place to occupy, to explore with one’s gaze and one’s body. A unique nave lies ahead of us, while there behind extends the depth of the apse just interrupted by the bulk of the Ciborium, majestic despite the incompleteness of its ornamentation thanks to the abuse of arrogant meddling. Thankfully the works by the Carracci brothers which were removed were preserved, deposited in the National gallery in the Palazzo dei Diamanti where they are still displayed today. Beside us by contrast open out the vast spread of the side chapels, which under the right conditions alternate between different kinds of light coming through the huge windows, high up above, which admit the enlivening sunshine which, above all to the left, warms the restored green of the plasterwork with an orange-yellow glow. Each of these chapels conserves a scene from the life of Jesus, painted by Nicolò Roselli and framed by Ercole Aviati, as ordered by the Carthusians in 1565. Only one of these episodes is missing, the Ascension of Calvary from the fifth chapel on the right, which was lost during the bombardment of 1944. On the walls of these chapels and of the transept as well as in the Cappella del Vestiario (Vestry Chapel) are paintings by Bastarolo, Scarsellino, Giovan Battista Cozza, Giuseppe Venturini, Tommaso Laureti, Giuseppe Avanzi, Niccolò Pisano, Francesco Naselli, Giacomo Masi, Giacomo and Francesco Parolini, Agostino Ridolfi, Lucio Massari, Carlo Bononi, Bartolomeo Cesi, Alberto Mucchiati and Giuseppe Ghedini; some were commissioned by the Carthusians, others brought in during the nineteenth century refurbishment. And then there are the altar frontals, precious examples of seventeenth century craftsmanship which, using just gesso, mimic marble inlay with an exceptional realism, badly reproduced in the Twentieth Century remake of three of them, which had been damaged beyond repair.

Passing slowly along the nave one reaches the crossing of the transept. Slowly paintings and the choirs are revealed, and already the visitor will be impressed, when the spectacle reaches its height with the altars, with the stupendous altar pieces by Bastianino and Ercole Aviati. They could be seen just as they are today up until two hundred years ago before the Bastianino work became part of the Brera collection (whose Superintendent has now returned it on permanent loan) and then, more recently, Aviati’s cornices and surrounds were also separated from Bastianino’s extraordinary tempera depictions of the sibyls, prophets, archangels and prophetesses. Let us halt a moment in front of this view. Perhaps we will return here several times over the course of the day, or on different days or times of day. San Cristoforo is to be admired under many lights. In the right-hand transept, for instance, the gold of the altar piece glitters at certain times of day; at others the light is not quite right to catch the work with its slightly undulating panels and create opulent reflections. But no matter, this is not a museum but rather a place which experiences life as it comes, communicating in an extraordinary fashion with the outside world, with the seasons, obliging the viewer to move around in order to find the perfect orientation,and perhaps discover different and unrepeatable colours.

It demands not haste but slowness; it cannot stop time but it feels as though it does. The same effect is created for the altar piece in the apse, set in its own cornice. Bastianino’s enchanting figure of Saint Christopher is at its best in the morning, when the great lateral windows admit the light to irradiate the church, softly bathing the curves of the apse to suffuse the canvas and reveal the artist’s vision. Let us turn back a little to the crossing at the centre of the church. To our right and left are the altarpieces with the paintings of Bastianino, and on the walls the lovely paintings of Massari, Scarsellino and Cesi. Ahead is the ciborium and there at the end the gigantic Saint Christopher. Let us try to imagine the two huge paintings of Avanzi (an erratic but exceptional artist) on the walls of the presbytery, each forty square metres of quality painting, and then let us imagine once more upon the walls of the apse the inlaid choir which was brought to San Cristoforo from the church of Sant’ Andrea in 1875. Now at last we see the church as it shall be seen one splendid day in 2008.



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