Reached by a shady 2km walk out of town, San Pietro in Spoleto is a medieval church with fascinating sculptures covering its facade. Illustrating biblical stories and medieval themes, they are among the best Romanesque carvings in Umbria.
History of San Pietro
San Pietro was first built in the 5th century over an ancient necropolis and served as the cathedral of Spoleto until 1067. It was reconstructed in the 12th and 13th centuries and again in 1393. The famous reliefs of the facade date from the 12th century.
What to See at San Pietro
Despite its proximity to a major highway, San Pietro occupies a scenic location on a forested hillside. It is approached by a monumental stone staircase dating from the 17th century. The interior of the church was remodelled in 1699. There are some 16th-century votive frescoes on the west wall and the font dates from 1487, but the interior is otherwise not remarkable (and was closed for renovations when we visited in April 2008) - the attraction of San Pietro is almost entirely the magnificent facade.
Dating from the 12th century, the Lombard Romanesque facade is divided into three horizontal bands of reliefs. The topmost band has four panels containing high reliefs of St. Peter, St. Andrew and two bulls. The middle band has a Cosmatesque oculus surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists.
The bottom section of the façade has the most beautiful and interesting work, which seems to belong to two different periods. The carving around the door is delicate Byzantine-inspired work; the rest is plainer and less carefully executed. The portal has Cosmatesque decoration, reliefs of eagles, and a running scroll of foliage symbolizing Paradise.
Flanking this scroll are two strips of seven panels with delicately carved colonnettes. The flat spaces between the colonnettes on the right side are decorated with rosettes, while those on the left side are mostly left empty, except for some plants, an eagle and a rampant lion. Above the colonnettes on either side is a relief of a peacock, an ancient symbol of immortality, pecking at a bunch of grapes.
At the bottom is a scene of a man driving a yoke of oxen, while a dog jumps barking before them. This represents earthly life and work or, more specifically, the results of the Fall: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground" (Gen. 3:19).
This is paired with a scene representing immortality and eternal life: a stag with a serpentin its mouth. Unlike the stags in ancient catacomb paintings, which drink from a pool based on a Biblical passage, this stag is based on the medieval bestiary (a collection of symbolic and moral legends about animals). In the Greek and Latin Physiologus and the Romance bestiaries, the stag is the enemy of the snake or dragon. After eating the snake, the stag runs to a fountain and drinks, making himself young again and shedding his antlers. This symbolizes the Christian's access to the fountain of life and regeneration through Christ.
On either side of these panels are two series of five scenes each, some portraying New Testament stories. On the right is Christ washing Peter's feet and the calling of Peter and Andrew, who are in a boat with Christ beckoning to them from the shore. The two panels on the left depict the death and judgment of the righteous and of sinners.
The three lower scenes on each side illustrate more bestiary legends. The first one on the left shows a lion with both feet caught in the cleft of a log, with a man standing over the log and holding in his hands an axe. This is likely variant of the "ungrateful animal" group of medieval stories.
By car, cross the SS3 highway at the southeast end of town and you will see the church up the hill. It is usually possible to park at the church. On foot, San Pietro can be reached by a lovely walk across the Ponte delle Torri (the medieval bridge) from the Rocca, then downhill on a wooded road.
Quick Facts on San Pietro
|Names:||Chiesa di San Pietro · San Pietro · St. Peter's Church|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||42.726855° N, 12.737961° E|
|Address:||Via Giro del Ponte|
|Hours:||Closed for major renovations when we visited in April 2008.|
|Lodging:||View hotels near San Pietro|
- Personal visit (April 19, 2008).
- Alta Macadam and Ellen Grady, Blue Guide Central Italy with Rome and Florence, 1st ed. (Somerset: Blue Guides Limited, 2008), 557.
- Giovanna Mariucci, Unforgettable Umbria: A Guide to 100 Masterpieces (Florence: Scala, 2007), 184.
- Symbolic Animals of Perugia and Spoleto - public domain article republished by Bill Thayer
- The Rough Guide to Italy 7 (May 2005), 652-53.
- Photos of San Pietro - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of San Pietro, Spoleto
Below is a location map and aerial view of San Pietro. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.