14th c. frescoes found in Franciscan church

A series of frescoes hidden for centuries have been unveiled in the convent Church of Santa Croce in the hilltop village of Verucchio, 10 miles from Rimini in northeastern Italy. More research is needed, but experts believe the frescoes were created around 1330 by the Giotto school of Pietro da Rimini.

The frescoes were discovered by Brother Federico Rovarin entirely by accident in the summer of 2021. While working to repair an unused light source on the wooded choir, he spotted something that looked like the edge of an arch framing a niche. He thought it might be walled up window, but he couldn’t see it well because it was covered by the choir, so he lowered his cell phone with the camera and flashlight into the gap between the wall and the choir. With a second phone connected to the first, he watched live as the camera captured a beautiful fresco of Christ in Pietà painted in a pointed niche. Even the small glimpse of it captured by the camera indicated the fresco was of exceptional quality.

A team of friars, architects, art historians, restorers and regional culture authorities worked together to come up with a plan to explore the fresco without damaging its fragile surface. In May of this year, the wooden choir was carefully dismantled revealing the remains of frescoes continued outside the niche and onto the adjacent wall.

The iconography of Christ in Pietà, says [art historian Alessandro] Giovanardi, “follows the traditional scheme, which arose in the East at the transition between the 11th and 12th centuries and was reinterpreted several times by 14th-century Rimini, Bologna and Venetian masters; this canon involves the half-figure representation of the dead Christ with his arms composed who, marked by the wounds of sacrifice, rises from the sarcophagus against a monochrome or gilded background of metaphysical effectiveness, sometimes marked by the presence of the Cross. Despite the fact that Christ deposed from the scaffold, mourned and ready for burial, is intended here, the image has nothing narrative, tells nothing, but exposes the tortured body of the Savior to the eyes, devotion and intelligence of the believer, arousing both a feeling of shared piety and evoking theological and Eucharistic meanings. In the Byzantine church, the icon is called Supreme Humiliation (because it designates the divine Word at the utmost point of his despoliation), but also, by antithesis, King of Glory (with reference to the Orthodox Easter liturgy), whereby it is reminded that that plagued and slain body is that of the immortal and savior Son of God.”

For Giovanardi this is an “amazing find” that “marks an unprecedented path of discovery in fourteenth-century Rimini painting and probably offers us a unique episode in Franciscan history and spirituality. The ancient Santa Croce could unveil itself today as one of the most relevant centers for artistic, liturgical and theological culture between the 13th and 14th centuries, in Romagna and in Italy.”

The frescoes were found in precarious condition when the choir was removed. The plaster had become detached from the wall and the paintings were in danger of collapse. Between May and September, conservators worked quickly to stabilize the works while keeping them out of view of the faithful behind a white wooden wall. Conservation is still ongoing.

While only the original frescoes on the lower wall have been revealed thus far, they would have originally covered the whole apse. They may still be there, hidden behind white plaster applied in the 19th century. The discovery has also revealed important elements of the original architecture from which archaeologists hope to determine the first configuration of the Franciscan convent church before it was extensively altered.

Founded in 1215, the Franciscan convent in Verucchio is the oldest in the region of Emilia Romagna. It is famed for having hosted the order’s founder himself, St. Francis of Assisi. Legend has it he planted his walking staff in the ground of the cloister and it miraculously grew into a cypress that is still standing today, surviving the depredations of Napoleon’s army, Nazi occupiers who used it for firewood and one particularly violent storm that broke off the main peak 30 feet high.