The wonderfully decorated Suardi Oratory was built for the powerful aristocrat Battista Suardi, who wanted to show his loyalty to the Church of Rome during a period characterised by the Protestant Reformation and mercenary raids. The frescoes painted on the main walls represent the histories of Saint Barbara and Saint Brigid from Ireland and on the back wall you will and the episodes of the life of Saint Catherine, a martyr from Alexandria and of the redeemed Mary Magdalene, writes Katherine Mezzacappa
The people of Trescore, a small spa town near Bergamo in Northern Italy, are justly proud of the Suardi Oratory, built by a noble family in 1524 and covered inside with breathtaking wall-paintings depicting the lives of St. Barbara – and St. Brigid of Kildare.
Barbara was a popular subject for painters and patrons in Italy throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but it is much rarer to find images of our own ‘Mary of the Gael’.
These paintings were commissioned by Battista (John the Baptist) Suardi, a wealthy Lombard nobleman, for the chapel of his country residence. Battista seems to have been a cultured man, a poet and an essayist, and generous to the needy. At various times he held the office of president of the local Misericordia, a prototype ambulance association which exists in Italy to this day.
Painted on the chapel wall is a sonnet Battista himself wrote in praise of the Irish saint, in which he describes Brigid’s miracles “filling the blind with light”, “bringing forth flowers from dry dead wood”, “turning water into another drink entirely”, and “holding back tempests from heaven.”
Brigid was born probably at Faughart, near Dundalk, in around 450, and is said to have been the daughter of a slave and a king, her master. She is patron saint of illegitimate children, as well as of brewers, dairy-men, cattle, chicken-farmers, fugitives and mariners.
Refusing marriage, Brigid took the veil from St. Macaille and established her first small community of religious women at Croghan Hill, followed by her foundation of a double monastery at Kildare, becoming abbess of the convent, the first female congregation in Ireland.
The school of art she founded at Kildare became famous for its manuscript painting. Many miracles are attributed to her, some of which appear on the walls of the chapel in Trescore. Some historians have seen links between her story and that of earlier pagan deities, and it may be that the reed cross that adorns so many Irish homes has an earlier origin than the saint herself.
So, why was her story chosen for this private chapel so far from home? Astrologers across Europe had warned that in 1524 floods would overwhelm the earth. In London alone some 20,000 people fled their homes to avoid it.
There was also the threat of Protestantism arriving from the countries to the north of Italy, with Martin Luther teaching that salvation was possible only through faith, not through good deeds. His writings were already circulating elsewhere in Lombardy, in Milan and Pavia.
St. Brigid was famed as a miracle worker (including being able to command the weather), and for her acts of charity, so in the very year in which the floods were expected, Battista Suardi commissioned the Venetian artist Lorenzo Lotto to paint her story, hoping for divine mercy in the face of catastrophe.
The episodes of St. Brigid’s life are told in almost comic-strip form. Firstly, she is shown taking the veil – but in the presence of members of the Suardi family. A small child pulls his father’s hand to show him that the wooden floor where St. Macaille stands is sprouting leaves.
Through a break in a wall to one side of the altar Brigid is shown on a hillside giving milk and bread to a group of poor people. Then in the next scene we see her with a woman whose apron has remained miraculously unstained, even though she had been using it to carry raw meat. Her companion looks with astonishment at the saint, for the two pails of water she was carrying have mysteriously been turned into beer!
Then we see Brigid curing a man who was born blind, and a shepherd running away from a boar which is terrorising his flock of sheep. Unperturbed, Brigid blesses the beast, which then joins the sheep to quietly graze with them. To the right of this scene, a group of peasants labour to bring in the harvest, whilst Brigid holds back the hailstorms that threaten to destroy their crops.
In the final section of the wall Brigid is shown giving a silver vase to three lepers. She asks a silversmith to divide it into three equal parts, but when he is unable to do so, she simply throws it on the ground and it breaks into three perfectly even pieces at the lepers’ feet.
Then we see Brigid trying in vain to persuade nine bloodthirsty men not to murder a common enemy. They don’t listen, but she nevertheless manages things in such a way that they attack only his shadow, whilst their intended victim is able to get away unharmed.
Quite a lot is known about the artist who painted these pictures. A sometimes solitary and difficult individual, Lorenzo Lotto left his native Venice quite early, apparently feeling that there was too much competition in that city for a painter. Probably the years he spent in Bergamo were his happiest and most productive, but he also worked in the Italian Marches, at Ancona and Recanati, and briefly in the Vatican, mainly painting religious, but also mythological, subjects and portraits.
Though kept busy, his account books tell a tale of money worries and difficult to please patrons. It is to be hoped that Lorenzo found some peace at the end of his life, for he spent his last few years as a lay brother at the Holy House of Loreto, where he died in 1556, aged about 76.
When Brigid died in 523 she was buried initially in Kildare, only to be moved to Downpatrick in the 12th century. During the 16th century her tomb was destroyed, though her skull was rescued and taken to the continent, ending up in Lisbon.
In 1928 two Irish priests requested a piece of the skull for the church dedicated to her at Killester. One of those priests was Fr. Timothy Traynor, a close friend of Frank O’Connor. Fr. Traynor was the original of Fr. Gerry Fogarty, who appears in a number of O’Connor’s short stories.
I shall have to go back to Trescore, as I have promised the volunteers who open the oratory to the public that I shall bring them a St. Brigid cross.