Santa Maria delle Grazie, Varallo
The Church of Our Lady of the Graces (Italian Santa Maria delle Grazie) is a Gothic-style, Roman Catholic temple in Varallo Sesia, province of Vercelli, region of Piedmont, Italy. The church was built, together with the adjacent Franciscan convent, by padre Bernardo Caimi between 1486 and 1493. At this time, the construction of the Sacro Monte was also beginning. In December 1931, Pope Pius XI gave the church the title of Minor Basilica.
The interior is subdivided into spaces for the general public and for the friars, separated by a partition wall (tramezzo), supported by three round arches. The central arch opens to a hall reserved for friars, while the two lateral arches lead to two chapels. The fresco cycle scheme of the wall is traditionally attributed to Bernardino of Siena, and painted in 1531 by Gaudenzio Ferrari.
Similar decorative structures, with a partition wall entirely decorated with frescos of the Life of Jesus, were typical of the religious and artistic culture of the Friars Minor in Piedmont and Lombardy between the 15th and 16th centuries.
By the end of the 15th century, the Franciscan convent was much larger than today. The ancient building consisted of two cloisters, the friars' cells, a refectory, a library and kitchens. The monks vacated the convent by the early 20th century, and restorations began. From 1953 the complex host the nuns Suore Missionarie di Gesù Eterno Sacerdote.
Gaudenzio Ferrari's wall
As common for franciscan churches, the bare façade does not hint at the rich fresco decoration inside. In the cosy atmosphere of the church, with the gothic arches sustaining the ceiling trusses, the wall of frescoes by Gaudenzio Ferrari are one of the masterpieces in the Renaissance painting in Piedmont and Lombardy. They depict Life and Passion of Jesus Christ on a surface of 82 m²: twenty equal frames narrate the main facts told by the gospels from the Annunciation to the Resurrection, working as Biblia pauperum. The Crucifixion, as the most important narrative scene, occupies the center with four frames.
The painter from the Valsesia completed the frescos in 1513 (as it is written on the wall by the author himself "Gaudenzius Ferrarius Vallis Siccidae pinxit"). He was working in Varallo, at the Sacro Monte, since ten years. He already painted the Polyptych of St Anne.
Ferrari's influences, for example in his orientation of the Last Supper include da Vinci's famous fresco in Milan. Ferrari's landscapes also recall Leonardo's style. But Gaudenzio had traveled to Rome, and met or saw the work of Bramantino in Milan or Perugino in Rome.
Despite the importance of his models, Gaudenzio also painted some figures (such as armors, horse heads, halos) in relief to give them particular prominence; an innovation perhaps prompted by the three dimensional tableaux of the Sacro Monte chapels.
Other artworks in the church
Despite the visitor obviosely concentrate on Ferrari's wall, there are other important artworks in the church.
The two chapels under the partition wall preserve other frescos by Gaudenzio Ferrari, who painted here before the wall. This frescos are important to understand his artistic development. The Saint Margaret chapel was painted in 1507 with two evangelical scenes (Presentation at the Temple and the Debate with the Doctors) and grotesque.
On the right there is the Graces chapel with frescos, dating back to 1491, of the studio of the Milanese painters Giovanni Scotto, where Gaudenzio Ferrari was an apprentice. The paintings represent the Birth of Virgin Mary, the Marriage of Virgin Mary and the Adoration of the Magi. The chapel also preserve the wooden statue of the Virgin with baby Jesus standing on her knees, very dear to the local devotees.
In the aisle there is a fresco on the left wall, near the pulpit, by Fermo Stella, apprentice of Gaudenzio Ferrari, who worked with his maestro at the Sacro Monte. The painting represents a rare scene Jesus bidding his Mother farewell inspired by a homily by John Chrysostom.
Giovanni Scotto's studio, Adoration of the Magi, fresco, ca 1491
Fermo Stella, Jesus bidding his Mother farewell, fresco
- Alberto Bossi, La Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie e la grande Parete Gaudenziana di Varallo, Tipografia di Borgosesia;
- Giovanni Testori, Promemoria gaudenziano, in "Bollettino della Soc. Storica Piemontese d'Archeologia e Belle Art", VIII-IX, 1954–57;
- Vittorio Viale, G. Ferrari, Ed. ERI, Turin, 1969;
- Edoardo Villata, Simone Baiocco Gaudenzio Ferrari, Gerolamo Giovenone: un avvio e un percorso, Allemandi & C., Turin, 2004
- Catrholic.org. Basilicas in Italy
- A. Nova, I tramezzi in Lombardia fra XV e XVI secolo: scene della Passione e devozione francescana, in "Il Francescanesimo in Lombardia: storia e arte", Silvana Editoriale, Milano, 1983.
- E. Villata, Gaudenzio Ferrari. Gli anni dell'apprendistato in E. Villata, S. Baiocco, Allemandi & C., Turin, 2004