The first church dedicated to St Michael Archangel was originally built on the place of the Royal Palace chapel in the Longobard period, thanks also to the monks of St Columbanus of Bobbio
(the lower part of the bell tower dates back to this period), but it was destroyed by a fire in 1004. The present building started about at the end of the eleventh century (in particular the crypt, the choir and the transepts) and it was completed in 1155 (with an interruption due to the big earthquake of the 3rd of January 1117). The vaults of the central nave, at first provided with two coarsely square cross spans (or, according to some historians, with a domed vault as the models of the Romanic-Byzantine basilicas like San Marco of Venice), were rebuilt in 1489 by Agostino da Candia, with a plan of four rectangular spans, to guarantee a better static efficiency of the architectural complex.
The basilica of San Michele is considered the prototype of many Medieval churches of Pavia, the most famous are San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro and San Teodoro.
Paolo Diacono already attests to the existence of a church dedicated to St Michael at the time of the Longobard king Grimoaldo in the seventh century; near the royal palace, this building was acting as palatine chapel. When Pavia was the capital, it was the place of the coronations: we can remember those of Berengario I, Berengario II, Adalberto II, Arduino d’Ivrea, Enrico II, and finally Federico Barbarossa after the reconstruction of the church in Romanic style (1155). This prestigious role involved the choice of a stone covering similar to that of the imperial cathedrals in the transalpine countries: the material, a tender sandstone with golden glares, was found in the hills of Oltrepò. The gabled façade is framed by massive buttresses and divided in three parts by elegant pilasters. The portals are bordered by carved arched lintels; the system of windows (with one or two lights, oculus and cross-shaped) ends with a blind loggia. Decorated with sculptures on parallel friezes, the façade was at first completed by polychrome ceramic bowls (their cavities are still visible). The colour was more extended than it can be thought and it covered also the sculptures; tracks of colour were discovered on the lunette of the northern portal. The figure of St Michael Archangel rises above the front entrance and dominates the entire façade; at his feet, the beaten devil is shaped like a dragon. The other two sculptures on the side portals represent Ennodio and Eleucadio, two saint bishops, whose relics are inside the church. The first, bishop of Pavia, was the ambassador of the pope at Constantinople, with the emperor of the Roman Eastern Empire (in 515 and 517); the second, archbishop of Ravenna, was the St Apollinare’s successor (second century).
The plant is a Latin cross, with three naves of four spans, each covered with cross vaults. The projecting transept is barrel vaulted and, on the cross, there is a dome, masked outside by the octagonal lantern. Above the aisles there are the women’s galleries, accessible through narrow
stairs inside the wall thickness. After the Council of Trento, also the four side chapels were built, knocking down the walls of the intermediate spans and exploiting the depth granted by the buttresses. On the floor of the central nave, the inscription surrounded by four black marble circles points the site where, according to the tradition, the kings were crowned.
Under the presbytery, there is a crypt, divided in three naves, dedicated to St Carlo in 1614. Here there is the funeral monument of the blessed Martino Salimbene, commissioned in 1491 by the College of Notaries, attributed to the Amadeo’s circle and coming from the church of San Giovanni in Borgo.
The deep and raised presbytery is defined by transennas due to the nineteenth-century restoration works. On the apsidal basin, the fresco with the Coronation of the Virgin, emphasized by the grand throne with the architectural dossal in Late-Gothic style, was painted by Agostino and Giovanni da Vaprio in 1491. On the beam the Crucifix and the sorrowful figures of the Virgin and John are work of art of Urbanino da Surso (second half of the fifteenth century). The stone table, consecrated in 1383, carries the central imagine of St Michael (with the balance to weigh the souls), and besides the saint bishops Ennodio and Eleucadio. In the back there are two dedicatory inscriptions, one of 1383, the other of 1592 (new consecration). The big “majesty” shaped as a temple made of gilt wood dates 1606. With a central plant, it’s composed by three levels, with balconies, niches and statues.
The floor mosaic
In 1972, the backing of the altar allowed to discover important parts of a Romanic floor mosaic, dated back to the first half of the twelfth century. In the middle of the arcs, the figure of the Year on throne is flanked on the left by the months of February, March blowing on the horns and April carrying flowers, on the right by May with the sickle, June and July harvesting the wheat. Under, there is a portion of a labyrinth, organized in a geometrical way with concentric circles. Thanks to a drawing of the Vatican Library, we know that in the central circle there were represented Theseus and the Minotaur and down left (north-west corner) there were David and Goliath, symbolizing the victory on the evil. The theme of the labyrinth is often represented on the flooring of the Romanic and Gothic churches and it’s a symbol of the difficult way the believer must go to ascend to God.
The capital with the Death of the Just Man
The carved decoration is widely present outside (mouldings of the portals and friezes on the fronts) and inside (string-courses and capitals). Almost all erased the polychromy, the extraordinary variety of figurations still remains: vegetable(leafs, palmettes, volutes), animals (eagles, horses, lions, fishes), monsters (dragons, sphinxes, sirens, winged horses), human figures, but also narrative scenes, like Daniel in the lions’ den. The capitals, in “strict symbiosis with the architecture”, “must be considered among the higher demonstrations of the Lombard Romanic sculpture” (Peroni 1967). On the famous Death of the Just Man, St Michael as conductor of the souls (psychopomp) holds off the devil with the spear taking the soul of the just man (shaped as a child) to lead it to the Heaven.
The Teodote’s crucifix
It’s a precious tenth-century work of art, made by wood recovered by a silver layer with gildings (and eyes made by glass paste). At the ends of the arms of the cross, there are two clypeus with the sun and the moon (upper part), the Virgin Mary and St John (on the sides). At the Crucifix’s feet, there is the sorrowful Magdalena with the little figure of the commissioner abbess, identifiable as Raingarda. The crucifix comes from the abolished monastery of Santa Maria Teodote (end of the eighteenth century) and boasts a legendary ancient origin, hardly believable but very intriguing, from Abgaro king of Edessa, in the same year of the Christ’s death: “Abgarus Assiriorum rex/ hanc prodigiosam imaginem/ fecit/ anno in quo Christus mortus est”.
The relief with St Ennodio
In the upper part of the wall of the transept, there is the bass-relief with a figure of a bishop, maintaining the ancient polychromy (twelfth century). Magno Felice Ennodio, probably born in Arles about 473 or 474, left an orphan, had to move to Pavia, where he was grown by an aunt. In 493 he met the bishop Epifanio, who received him into the clergy of Pavia. At the Massimo’s death, the Epifanio’s successor, he was chosen as bishop of the city. Pope’s ambassador in Constantinople at the Roman Eastern emperor (in 515 and 517), he was put into a disarmed boat at the mercy of the sea, but he survived by miracle. The pope granted him and the diocese many privileges, among which the right of wearing the pallio (a white, long and narrow stole decorated by six crosses, reserved to the popes and archbishops). He died in 521; the presence of his relics, put inside the main altar in 1573, makes him the patron of the church, with St Eleucadio, archbishop of Ravenna with eastern origins and St Apollinare’s successor (second century). That’s the reason why the two bishops are often represented together: on the frontal of the altar, on the fresco with the Barbarossa’s coronation and on the façade of the church, above the side entrances.
St Anna’s chapel
At first entitled to the Virgin’s Immaculate Conception, from the half of the seventeenth century it appears to be dedicated also to St Anna, who is the only patron from the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the Bellisomi family provided with the renewal of the chapel. The altar has black marble columns supporting a moulded architrave, overlapped by diverging volutes carrying two angels with golden wings. The altarpiece with the Holy Family and St Anna is a work of art painted by Pietro di Pietri from Premia (1663-1716). The elegant stuccos have recovered the original shade of colours thanks to the recent restoration works (2006). On oval medals, gilt to simulate the bronze, there are represented the Descent of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin’s Death.
St Lucia’s chapel
The painting on canvas, attributed to Guglielmo Caccia called Moncalvo (1618-19), depicts St Lucia’s Martyrdom. On the altar, inside a urn made of silver and crystals, there are the relics of St Brizio, bishop of Tours. On the preceding vault, Pacifico Buzio painted in 1866 the Genius revering God, represented by four personalities of the cultural word: Dante “theologus”, St Tommaso d’Aquino “scholarum doctor”, Severino Boezio “senator romanus” and finally the jurist Lanfranco of Pavia, archbishop of Canterbury (the church of San Michele preserves one of his relics). The representation of Boezio allows to explain two famous monuments of Pavia: on the band edging the vault, two little circles contain the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (that preserves in the crypt the relics of the saint philosopher) and the famous tower ( destroyed at the end of the sixteenth century) where Boezio was imprisoned.
Chapel of St Mary’s Life
The altarpiece, depicting the Virgin with the Child between St Sebastian and Rocco, was painted in 1601 by Guglielmo Caccia called Moncalvo. The frescoed decoration of the chapel, work of art by Giovanni Francesco Romani, dates 1606. In addition to the prophets David and Salomon, there are four episodes of the Virgin’s Life (Visitation, Christ’s Nativity, Adoration of the three Magi and Flight into Egypt) and the Virgin’s attributes come from the litanies (well, source, temple …). On the preceding vault, there are the four Doctors of the Church and the four Evangelists’ symbols inside circles, painted by Bernardino Lanzani from San Colombano about 1508.
Our Lady of Sorrows’ Chapel
In the rich polychrome marble frame of the eighteenth-century altar, the terracotta group representing the Pity is a work of art by the Milanese Giovanni Santi (eighteenth century). On the wall, the angels carrying the instruments of the Passion are work of Osvaldo Bignami. On the vault of the preceding span, Paolo Barbotti painted in 1866 four Blessed of the Savoia family (Umberto III, Margherita, Amedeo IX and Lodovica), with four coats of arms of the original family domains: Moriana, Savoia, Chiablese and Aosta, painted by Giuseppe Tacconi.
The wooden Crib
The polychrome nativity scene by Baldino da Surso, datable 1473, is the only part remaining of a little closable altar, where there were also St John the Baptist and St John Evangelist (Piretta, 2005).
St Stephan’s polyptych
In the chapel next to the presbytery, inside an eighteenth-century marble frame, there is a polychrome wooden polyptych in relief, dated in the sixteenth century and organized on two orders marked by pilasters separating three arcs for each level. In the central upper part, the Christ’s Pity between the pope St Stephan and St Barbara; in the lower central part, the Virgin with the Child showing the cross to St Stephan martyr, between St Lorenzo and Augustine.