The early medieval Church of San Nazaro (St. Nazarius), renowned for the important cycle of paintings dating back to mid 11th Century, rises west of Sarnico, at the suburbs of the ancient inhabited centre of Castione that was ruled by Villongo Sant’Alessandro until 1724. In this point, Val Calepio (Calepio valley) meets the Lake Sebino, an extremely rich area of historical, archaeological and artistic findings dating back to the Middle Ages, thanks to the strategic position in controlling the boundary with Brescia. Zucchelli fortress was rising a little further north of the church, on a hill ruling the southern part of Lake Sebino, known since the 14th Century.
The church, documented only from 1320, faces East and South and is annexed to a portico: from here, the portal with round arch that was the only access to the church and a lancet window can be viewed, both belonging to the original layout. The façade allows observing the masonry technique, in slightly rough hewn blocks made in Sarnico sandstone, different from the regular Romanic layout, and dating back between Early Middle Ages and late 10th Century. The portal (dated) and oeil-de-boeuf that replaces the original lancet window, still visible, were built in 1627.
Inside, the irregular walls allow to immediately spot the ancient structures of the nave: in this point, significant traces of a cycle of wall paintings was discovered, likely depicting the martyrdom of Saints Nazarius and Celsius, beheaded in Milan in 304, and perhaps stories of the True Cross. The adornment consisted of an upper end border with geometric meander with figures (see the marvellous detail of the crow), a pearl frame on purple background and a frame with vertical interlaced borders that separate the scenes. At the bottom, the adornment was closed by another pearl frame and a faux marble face. It is not possible to establish if the scene sequence was proceeding from the façade towards the apse in parallel on two walls of the single nave (like for example in the modern adornment of San Zeno di Bardolino (St. Zeno of Bardolino) on Lake Garda) or in a single ring layout as in San Salvatore (St. Salvator) in Brescia.
Nothing was preserved from the north wall; on the inside façade of the Romanic cycle, there is the fragment of a blessing figure on the right, and a complex scene on the left: a crow guided by a bishop or a woman faces a bejewelled cross; on the left, a man is seated and at the top, two bejewelled crosses can be seen; perhaps the scene depicts the finding of the True Cross by Helena and the man seated could be Constantine.
On the south wall, left of the portal, a small fragment depicts a seated figure holding a sceptre; on the left of the lancet window, only a city background fragment is preserved and part of a man facing left; on the right, the scene is fairly complete: a gaoler wearing a short outfit and with a big sword, beheads a man with kneeling body and hanging arms in the foreground, before a weeping lady.
In view of the stylistic and executive characteristics, the paintings depict a late re-elaboration of the Ottonian language from mid to the third quarter of the 11th Century.
In late 14th Century, two votive paintings were executed on the south wall: the Madonna and Child and St. James and Saints Martin and Anthony the Abbot that, in view of the fine strokes and gentle shapes, fall within the long Lombard elaboration stream of Giotto’s model, comparable with the works in Bergamo, by Maestro di San Nicolò ai Celestini (Master of St. Nicholas of Celestines). On the main panel, the coat of arms with a castle on a hill suggest that it was ordered by Giacomo da Castello, one of the most influential land owners of the area of Sarnico and Villongo, remembered in documents of 1381. Realised later on and of lower quality, St. Anthony the Abbot is depicted on the inside façade and belongs to a Sacred conversation destroyed with the door opening.
The altarpiece dates back to the 18th Century.
At the exterior, Madonna and Child (1510) and Madonna with Saints Roch and Sebastian (1530) are likely related to the presence of an altar under the portico, documented in 1575.
For more information:
LORENZI M., PELLEGRINI A., Sulle tracce del Romanico in provincia di Bergamo tra storia, architettura e paesaggio, Bergamo 2003, pp. 204-205.
BOSKOVITS M., Secoli X-XII, in I Pittori Bergamaschi. Le origini, Bergamo 1992, pp. 3-7.
TOGNOLI BARDIN L., scheda 9, in I Pittori Bergamaschi. Le origini, Bergamo 1992, pp. 35-38.
BENEDETTI T., Le pitture altomedievali della chiesa dei Santi Nazaro e Rocco a Castione di Sarnico: indagini iconografiche, in “Bergomum”, 2013, pp. 7-22.