San Giorgio (in depth)
During the Middle Ages, Soave’s majestic castle was built on the hill above it, with walls enfolding the city. The castle’s drawbridge, etched with a relief of the Holy Warrior, connects it to a small church outside the historic center, dedicated to him… the church of Saint George, possibly built by Franciscan friars. Also here in fact, a roughly cut, stone bas-relief clearly shows George on his horse, in the act of killing the dragon to save the princess.
Under the sculpture is a small coat of arms showing the arm of a friar clutching three spindles. It might be a reference to wool working, which was carried out by the lay Order of the servants of Mary to whom the church was later given, though we do not know for certain if this was their symbol.
It is an austere and rough church, probably begun in the eleventh century, which now stands in the Coverginino neighborhood, which takes its name, it would seem, from the “conventino” – the little convent which used to be attached to the church, and which was abolished September 15th, 1657. It is a church, that despite its Franciscan poverty, was once well-known, so much so that it was listed in 1760 among famous churches, thanks to a wooden Madonna that was said to be miraculous, which disappeared at the beginning of the last century. Unfortunately, the church later experienced a period of abandonment, which contributed to its decline, along with damage during the terrible epidemics, when it was used as a lazaretto outside the city walls and the local infected population was brought there to die.
San Giorgio3 In 1805 Pope Pius VII granted this church the plenary Portiuncola indulgence to be gained every August 2nd, as the plaque on the façade commemorates, but the small church still languished until 1987 when it was reopened for worship.
Since then, the liturgical activities have continued intensely, animated by a deep spirit of devotion: every Friday mass is celebrated, as are the touching Stations of the Cross at Easter, while on Palm Sunday a very popular procession commemorates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. A solemn mass is also held in memory of Saint George on April 23.
During the month of May, the rosary is recited every evening. The veneration of the Madonna del Carmine, whose statue is the object of fervent prayers, culminates with a procession July 16th. The “steps of the forgiveness of Assisi” are also of note, through which one still gains the plenary indulgence of the Portiuncola the 2nd of August…
With the passing years, despite the conservation work carried out at the end of the 1980s, the church of San Giorgio seemed like it might be lost, seemingly crumbling day by day in front of everyone’s eyes. This thousand-year-old jewel of art and history needed to be saved in order to bring it back to life and give it back to the community of Soave.
Finally, after many months of patient restoration, towards the end of 2004, the church of San Giorgio returned to its primitive beauty, which has its roots in the Romanesque of the Longobards.
In fact, the excavations carried out inside, have revealed traces of older flooring, which opens the possibility of a much older dating, possibly as far back as the Roman period. The results of these excavations, protected by a railing, show building materials and techniques (such as opus signinum, or cocciopesto) which were usually used to fight humidity in the most opulent buildings. Some objects found, such as fragments of styled glass and bowls of refined quality point towards a certain previous wealth, which contrasts with the simplicity of the current church of Franciscan roots.
On the left wall, faint traces of a Last Supper are visible. The background of the painting shows a wide, pane glass window (the same leaded glass as the original two windows on either side of the altar). Several apostles stand out, particularly after the restoration, for what remains of the vividness of their features.
At the back of the church, the original basin for holy water is visible, the position of which confirms the thesis that at some point over the centuries, the orientation of the church was literally flipped. On the opposite wall, closer to the current façade, clearly visible and vibrant after the restoration, are the vivid paintings of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lawrence, the patron saints of Soave. Under the ceiling, near the current entrance to the church, one can see the structure of the triumphal arch through which one entered the presbytery when the church was reversed. Above the arch are traces of Christ Pantocrator, while on the arch itself are faces of prophets with the painted banners where one of their prophecies would have originally been written.
Soave-10 Taken together, this must have appeared marvelous: a densely frescoed interior, probably by Giolfino, which attested to the high value of the devotional message expressed. The patient restoration work has indicated that under these paintings were earlier frescoes, which are not recoverable. Looking at the same wall, a small niche stands out, which came to light in the most recent restoration work. It probably held relics or votive images. The bright yellow ochre stands out around a palely evanescent cross. Also visible is an archway, possibly for an altar, mirroring that on the other wall, which frames the most venerated statue, that of the Virgin of Mount Carmel. The statues has a hint of a timidly sweet smile, almost in contrast with the richness of her clothes. The statue currently sits on a slab of glass that protects the excavations.
The central altar, which dominates the single nave, is made of unrefined stone with few decorations. Today only a trilobate cross can be seen painted on the front. Its base is made of stone and brick, with two steps.
To the side a very simple ambon has been added, for the reading of the scriptures. In front of it is a representation of Calvary made with white stones from Lessinia. To the sides of the altar are two statues: one is of Saint Francis of Assisi which, with its sober simplicity reminds one of the origins of the small church. The other represents Saint Joseph.
The two tombstones are interesting: on one of them an inscription speaks of the burial in 1583 of friar Girolamo Filippi and of his “paternal sister” Lucia. The other, also with the date 1583, covers the tomb for the Brotherhood of the Blessed Virgin, supported by nobleman Sir Tura de Pacto, a family line which has now disappeared in Soave.
Soave-9 The neatness of the tombs gives value to the terracotta floor, which even though it is not the original, combines well with the warm and dark wood of the ceiling beams. It is surprising to see the prehistoric rib of a gigantic creature from the Miocene epoch hanging here. This bone seems to be connected to the medieval tradition of displaying in church a symbol of Evil, which has been conquered by the Resurrected God. An example of this tradition is the crocodile in Santa Maria delle Grazie near Mantua.
On the outside, a tiny bell tower hugs the corner of the church, just next to the current entrance. It has a typical small cupola in terracotta and coarse double windows separated by crutch shaped columns. The windows open onto a small bell with an ancient sound.
The current structure is notably different from the original. We are sure that it used to be flipped, with the aps where they current entrance is. The old entrance used to face the Tramigna river. The sloping land under the cobble stones was discovered to be sloping downwards, pointing to the hypothesis that a staircase led to the entrance of the church, a feature that usually adorned solemn and imposing churches, certainly not small and poor countryside churches.
The orientation of the church may have been reversed to protect against the damaging floods of the river. This would also explain the mud found under the flooring and the high level of humidity which in large part caused the damage to the church’s frescoes.
In conclusion, we can say that the restoration, begun in June 2003, and finished in August 2004, was conducted not merely to conserve the structure and to return the architecture to its original appearance, but above all to give life back to a historic space. This is another piece of the ongoing process of reappropriation of the ancient heart of Soave.