The Romanesque church of San Silvestro (St. Sylvester), or of the Disciplini della Santa Croce (Disciplinarians of the Holy Cross), overlooks the north side of the sacred area of the baptismal church of Sant’Andrea (St. Andrew).
It is likely that in late medieval times the church was part of a complex of several buildings, the property of the episcopate of Brescia, and was the private chapel of the bishop when visiting Iseo. In the Designamentum terrarum (Land Register) in 1296, contained in the Registers of the Mensa Episcopalis (property of the church) of Brescia, the church is in fact cited with a magna domus and a turris. The remains of the façades of these square stone buildings are located in front of the church, on the west side, and retain two portals, one of which still has the full original round arch. The most recent building was built after 1150: this is confirmed by the finding of a coin from the Cremona mint dating back to the period between 1150 and 1250, in the foundation of the wall.
The church was the seat of the Disciplinarians of the Holy Cross brotherhood from the 16th Century until 1797, when the brotherhood was suppressed. In the 20th Century this deconsecrated church became a warehouse and then a joiner’s workshop. Today it is only open for tourism purposes.
The Church of San Silvestro (St. Sylvester) provides substantial evidence of the Romanesque structure: masonry walls made of well levelled limestone blocks, laid in horizontal courses of various heights. The semicircular apse is interspersed, in the lower 13th Century section, by vertical pilar strips within three recessed panels, each with a lancet window and decorated at the top by blind arches resting on bracket-type corbels. One pilar strip divides the north side in two parts in which there are arched windows; the south side is covered by the building that was leant against the church in the 17th Century and extended in the 18th Century. This building was built to allow the Disciplinarians to attend the functions thanks to an opening on the first floor, which nowadays is closed.
The church has a single nave, oriented east-west, and consists of two rooms built one on top of the other simultaneously. The bottom room was at the level of the small courtyard in front of the bishop’s palaces, the top, used as the actual church, was at the level of the churchyard of the baptismal church.
The Romanesque entrance opened onto the churchyard consisting of a portal with a trilithic cornice, visible inside the Disciplinarians building. The level of the small courtyard in front of the west side was subsequently raised, burying the access door to the underground room and the actual entrance portal dated to the second half of the 16th Century was built.
The bottom room was called the Carnerio from 1647 onwards because the remains of those who had died of the plague in 1630 were transported here through a trap door in the floor of the top church.
In the 18th Century the church was raised and the entire roof was rebuilt.
The most significant element inside is the Dance of Death, which was found in 1985 along the lower section of the apse. The brown and ochre painting, mutilated at the ends, dates back to the late 15th Century and early 16th Century covering two older works of art. The subject is to be related to the works of mercy which the Disciplinarians were dedicated to, in particular the Christian preparation for death and the funerals.
Eight panels, framed by twisted columns and segmental round arches, show a dancing corpse accompanying various characters divided according to social class. The skeletons show signs of vandalism: the eyes were dug out to eliminate their gaze.
The fresco was performed in one single day and probably the main source of the anonymous artist were the engravings of a dance of death des hommes et des femmes in the Livres d’Heures à l’usage de Rome, printed in 1488 by Philippe Pigouchet. It remained visible for only a few years: it was covered by a layer of lime, perhaps following an outbreak of the plague.
The Finding of the True Cross in the apsidal conch, and the Baptism of Constantine on the vault of the single nave date back to the second half of the 17th Century.
For more information:
1990 Breda A., Valsecchi A., Il volto urbano di Iseo, in Bino T. et alii, Iseo e le Torbiere, Brescia 1990, pp. 23-29.
1990 Sina F., La danza macabra in S. Silvestro, in Bino T. et alii, Iseo e le Torbiere, Brescia 1990, pp. 30-31.
1993 Archeologia urbana in Iseo, a cura di U.S.P.A.A.A., Rodengo Saiano 1993, pp. 31-41.
2002 Sina F., L’impiego delle pubblicazioni a tema macabro d’oltralpe quale fonte d’ispirazione nell’arte italiana del XV e XVI secolo: la “Danza Macabra” in San Silvestro ad Iseo, in Noi spregieremo adunque li denari: danze macabre, trionfi e dogma della morte, a cura di M. Scandella, R. A. Lorenzi, G. Ferri Piccaluga, G. Martinenghi Rossetti, L. Moreschi, F. Sina, Pisogne 2002, pp. 57-66.
2004 Burlotti A., Valsecchi A., La Disciplina della Santa Croce, Chiesa di S. Silvestro, Iseo, in Le discipline del Sebino: tra Medioevo e età moderna, Brescia 2004, pp. 130-136.
2011 Valsecchi A., Archeologia urbana in Iseo, in Casa abitationis nostre: archeologia dell’edilizia medievale nelle province di Bergamo e Brescia, atti del seminario di studi, Brescia, 8 giugno 2009, a cura di M. Sannazaro e D. Gallina, Bergamo 2011, pp. 154-157.