Former Cathedral Santa Maria delle Grazie in Massa Centro

Former Cathedral Santa Maria delle Grazie

Position: Massa centro

The ancient cathedral of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the adjoining episcopal palace characterize, with their elegant eighteenth-century lines, the square of Massa Lubrense, a city that was a bishopric since the eleventh century. Only with the Concordat of February 16, 1818 between the King of Naples and the Roman Court, together with the dioceses of Vico and Capri, it was incorporated into the Sorrento Archdiocese.

The location of the Cathedral

The location of the Cathedral followed, hand in hand, the alternation of the various and complex historical events of the city: first housed in the early Christian church of Fontanella (in Marina Lobra), it was then moved inside the walls, in the village Annunziata, for security reasons.

The destruction of the “Corpus Civitatis” in 1465 by Ferrante II caused a further relocation of the Cathedral, which for a short time returned to the church of Fontanella: this ecclesial building was, however, in conditions of serious neglect, so much so that in 1489, while the restoration work had already begun, the bishop Giacomo Scannapeco moved to the Schiazzano village.

It was only at the beginning of the 16th century that the hypothesis for the “construction” of a new church, to be used as the seat of the cathedral, began to be contemplated: despite the opposition of the citizens of the higher hamlets, the place formerly known as “Palma” (where the aristocratic family of the same name lived) was preferred as the location, due to its proximity to the new political and administrative center of Massa, Guarazzano.

The place was also chosen for the presence of the restoration of Sant’Erasmo, a small church founded and maintained by a brotherhood that had dedicated it to the first patron of Massa Lubrense: on March 25, 1512, Mons. Geronimo Castaldo, with all the clergy and the representatives of the City, attended the “ceremony of laying the first stone”. After long and complex works, the church was solemnly inaugurated in 1543: Msgr. Pietro Marchesi, in a solemn ceremony, dedicated it to the Madonna delle Grazie.  

Renovations and restorations

The various Bishops who took turns in the diocese brought numerous renovations and restorations to the entire building: Msgr. Maurizio Centino (1626 – 1632), in fact, in 1628, placed the organ on the main door of the church, erected the elegant wooden pulpit and carried out some restoration work.

To continue his work were Mons. Giovan Vincenzo De Juliis (1645 – ’72), Mons. Giovan Battista Nepita (1685-1701), Msgr. Giacomo Maria De Rossi (1702 – ’38), and, finally, Msgr. Giuseppe Bellotti (1757 – 1788). The latter not only introduced major transformations to the original system but also provided for the construction of the Episcope on the foundations of an ancient and dilapidated pre-existing building.

The current church, therefore, is the result of the whole series of reconstruction and adaptation interventions conducted over the centuries, with the main direction of Mons. Giuseppe Bellotti, who shows his work with the affixing of his coat of arms on the main entrance to the building.

And the interior is full of “Bellottian” references, testifying the strong modernizing activity of the Bishop who had deep ties with the Neapolitan Fabbrica of the Chiajese family. His coat of arms with “a golden lion rampant towards a green tree, with four doves nestled on top” is reproduced almost everywhere. Also as a cymatium of the wooden confessionals, a connecting element for the scrolls placed to decorate the two splendid holy-water stoups with the characteristic shell-shaped basin resting on a small base, and central fulcrum of the beautiful majolica floor. The floor was installed by the skilful hand of Ignazio Chiajese, between 23 April and 7 June 1780, and in 1970 it was replaced by a faithful reproduction commissioned by Don Costanzo Cerrotta and Don Giuseppe Esposito.

Capitals with acanthus leaves dominate the pilasters placed to decorate the pillars, providing the system with a slight airiness interrupted by the grafting of the “Bellottian” pulpit in sandstone, leaning against the right pillar. Four fluted columns support the polygonal base, surmounted by a wooden canopy.

The deep apsidal basin, whose cap is decorated with simple stucco mirrors, houses the high altar. This work, which can also be written in the “Bellottian” period, has a purely eighteenth-century layout, articulated on three steps: below the table, the polychrome marble decoration is dominated in the center by a cross in relief and in the corners at the base by the coats of arms of Bellotti. The Neapolitan bishop himself was also responsible for the creation of the chair, resting on a three-step predella, in polychrome marble, joined on both sides by a marble slab that unrolls generating scrolls. At the base of the chair an epigraph surmounted by the coat of arms, engraved on a plaque, indicates the tomb of Msgr. Giacomo Maria De Rossi.

The presbytery

The presbytery, raised above the floor of the naves, is still today decorated with the ancient majolica floor, albeit in a precarious state of conservation: the continuous footfall, especially in the so-called “sailors” chapel, risks making it disappear one of the last depictions of “Porta di Massa” in Naples, the place of landing and daily arrival of all the people of Massa who in the past traded with the capital.

The paintings

Many of the paintings preserved inside the former cathedral testify to what was the great artistic fervor present in the Lubrense territory between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which welcomed remarkable pictorial experiences compared to what was happening in the Neapolitan capital, within prestigious contexts.

Striking examples of these statements are both the tablet depicting the Madonna delle Grazie, located on the main altar and a work dated to 1527 by the painter Marco Cardisco, and the table of the Baptism of Christ dating back to 1590 and attributable to Girolamo Imparato, a well-known Neapolitan painter who brought to Massa the experiences of the Flemish painting of Teodoro d’Errico.

In addition to these, there are many works preserved in the former cathedral and datable to the 16th century, therefore referable to the first decorative arrangement of the building: The Madonna of Constantinople with Saints and Andrew and Stephen (located in the second arch of the left transept), attributed to Leonardo Castellano; the panels depicting Santa Lucia and San Leonardo, today in the Chapel of San Giuseppe (or also known as the “sailors”), to the right of the apse, but once part of a polyptych exhibited in the current chapel of San Cataldo.

The sacristy

But decorative tastes changed, earthquakes left their marks, causing a series of renovations and restorations, the ambitions of the bishops who alternated and the desire for affirmation of many local families determined the current decorative apparatus of the church, which has in the large sacristy its element of uniqueness.

Carried out during the Bellottian refurbishments, the sacristy preserves one of the largest and most detailed bishop’s “galleries” in the South: the walls, in fact, are adorned with portraits of the Bishops who held the Lubrense chair inserted in oval frames surmounted by a scroll bearing the name and the dates of the beginning and end of the “mandate”, while in the wooden altar (dating back to the 1600s) there is a reliquary bust of San Gennaro.