A Crypt of Many Martyrs: Cagliari Cathedral

The beautiful crypt below the altar of the Cathedral – the Shrine of the Martyrs – was built under the auspices of Archbishop Francesco Maria de Esquivel in 1618.  He is buried at the top of the staircase and bears an uncanny likeness to George Michael.

Tomb of the Archbishop of Cagliari, Francesco Maria de Esquivel, 1624, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Detail from the tomb of the Archbishop of Cagliari, Francesco Maria de Esquivel, 1624, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Divided over three chapels there are 179 niches which contain relics of martyrs that were found in the eager excavations that took place around the Basilica of St Saturnino.  And why this sudden need to re-house these martyrs?  Well…

Inside the Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

The story starts in the general scheme of the 17th century, when finding yourself some new martyr bones was the height of cool.  The eager Catholics of the south Mediterranean were particularly guilty of this, and it’s not surprising that there were many newly credited saints in this period.  What is interesting, however, is the fact that these finds were not automatically accepted by Rome.  There were many highly educated and intelligent people around the Pope who routinely shot down the unacademic work of overly eager (and manipulative) guys who tried to introduce a new martyr into the mix.  

As well as just lovin’ new relics, the Archbishop had another reason for his campaign.  The city of Cagliari had a bad relationship with Sassari, a city at the north of the island, which had its own Archbishop and its own agenda.  The two centres were desperate to be named the Primate of Sardinia and Corsica – a purely honorific title which would create closer relations with Rome.  They also wanted to gain the favour of the court in Madrid, since the island was still under Spanish rule.

So, on the 10th June 1614, the Archbishop of Sassari, Gavino Manca de Cendrelles, ordered excavations to begin in the seaside town of Torres (now Porto Torres).  By the 22nd workers had discovered the relics of the paleo-Christian martyr Gavinus and his companions, Protus and Januarius.  They also discovered a ton of inscriptions and grave goods, but most importantly, there were other human remains.  These were gleefully proclaimed to be the relics of martyrs.

Cendrelles milked the event for all he could.  He published a short pamphlet on his finds and sent a copy to the King of Spain, Philip III.

The steps leading down to the Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

The news of these relics spread.  Down in Cagliari, Esquivel was plotting his next step.  On the morning of the 6th November 1614, excavations began around the site of St Saturnino.  By the early afternoon, the workers had found bodies – and immediately assumed they were martyrs.  This seemed to be backed up by a partial inscription found the next day which was interpreted as reading: “Sancti Innumerabile”, which insinuated that all those buried around it were martyrs.  All 338 of them.

As well as building a nice new home for these relics under the Cathedral, Esquivel published a lengthy treatise on these amazing finds, which underlined the extraordinary, pious heritage of Cagliari.  He sent his book to Philip III and Pope Paul V.

Judging by the lukewarm reception from Rome, neither Cagliari nor Sassari fared well in this war of martyr-excavations.

The staircase, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

But on the plus side of all this rivalry we have been left with a very pretty space to explore.  Its prettiness is in the details, and so, predictably, it doesn’t photograph as well when taken as a whole.  It feels a bit like a Roman bath-house from Pompeii and it’s really quite dark, so it takes a while for the eyes to adjust.  Once they do, you really see just how much is going on here – you have the stone, marbles, painted details… and martyr after martyr enduring nasty deaths.  It’s all awfully pretty, and really fun to explore.

St Elias and St Gracianus, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

St Maurus, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

St Hierus, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Light falling on the stucco and inlaid marble, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

St Beneria, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

The ceiling of the Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Looking through rooms of the Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Peering into the Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

On the right, as you descend the stairs, is the Chapel of St Lucifer, dedicated to the first bishop of Cagliari, who is buried under the altar.  At the other end is a Roman sarcophagus which holds the bones of St Antioch.  

Looking at the altar of St Lucifer in the Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

A plump and smug cherub, Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

St John, Shrine of the Martyrs, Chapel of St Lucifer, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Detail of St John, Shrine of the Martyrs, Chapel of St Lucifer, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy. You can see traces of red along his neck.

St Felix, Shrine of the Martyrs, Chapel of St Lucifer, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Rows of martyrs, Shrine of the Martyrs, Chapel of St Lucifer, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

St Pompeianus, Shrine of the Martyrs, Chapel of St Lucifer, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

St Speratus, Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

There is also a fine monument to Marie Joséphine of Savoy, the wife of Louis XVIII of France.  She died in exile in Hartwell House in England and was actually buried at Westminster Abbey in 1810.  However, a year later she was moved to Cagliari Cathedral, where her brother, King Charles Felix of Sardinia, erected a simple, classical monument to her.

Chapel of St Lucifer with the monument to Marie Joséphine of Savoy, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

The monument to Marie Joséphine of Savoy, with a Roman sarcophagus behind, Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

The other end of the Roman sarcophagus, Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy. You can see clearly on this side that they are philosophers on the top panel. It’s also funny that there is a fully intact herm on the left hand side – a somewhat incongruous sight in a church.

The ceiling decoration of the Chapel of St Lucifer, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy,

Moving across the hall, we get to the Chapel of St Saturnino, which contains the relics of the saint in a 2nd century Roman sarcophagus.  There is a second Roman sarcophagus which contains the relics of 10 saints, while a third contains 9.  There is also a memorial to Victor Emanuel I of Sardinia’s son Carlo Emanuele who died of smallpox at the age of two in 1799.

Roman sarcophagus holding the relics of martyrs in the Chapel of St Saturnino, Shrine of the Martyrs Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Detail of Cupid and Psyche, from the Roman sarcophagus holding the relics of martyrs in the Chapel of St Saturnino, Shrine of the Martyrs Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Detail of the portrait on the Roman sarcophagus holding the relics of martyrs in the Chapel of St Saturnino, Shrine of the Martyrs Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Sarcophagus of dancing cupids, which now holds the relics of martyrs, Chapel of St Saturnino, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Reused sarcophagus above the door of the Chapel of St Saturnino, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

The exotic east depicted on the ceiling of the Chapel of St Saturnino, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

Saints Dorothe, Theodosia and Eugenia, Chapel of St Saturnino, Shrine of the Martyrs, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy.  With Haribo hearts.

St Restuta, Shrine of the Martyrs, Chapel of St Saturnino, Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, Italy

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