The historical context
The monastery was founded in troubled times, when existence itself was a primary need, but that was however evolving to the new Communal society. A dynamic era based on materialism but also of deep spirituality which would witness the Evangelical work of important figures of the Church history such as Saint Dominic.
The 13th century saw the end of the Feudalism and the beginning of the Communal freedom in a usually armed competition between the declining and the new rising powers, the former being representative of an Empire who was falling into pieces, the Carolingian Empire, the latter expression of a new emerging society, more and more self-conscious, the so-called homines novi.
During the Middle Ages the monasteries were not only islands of peace and spiritual elevation, but also centers of cultural diffusion, which kept and transmitted knowledge through their own scriptoria. The works of art they owned, sometimes naive but often expressions of a mature art and so much admired in the present, were a constant recall to the spirituality, not only of the humble people, and an effective description of Gospel and religious stories.
During the second half of the 13th century, from the large womb of the Dominican movement, the Monasterium Sanctae Mariae Matris Domini (Monastery of Saint Mary, Mother of the Lord) was born and put in care of the Sorores (sisters). There is no certain date for the foundation, probably during the bishopry of Algiso da Rosate or Erbordo Ungano, while it is certain that its church was consacrated on March 25, 1273 by the Bishop Guiscardo Suardi.
Since its beginning the monastery witnessed continuous development and an enlargement of its community. It was rebuilt in 1359 and was enlarged in the 16th and 17th century but, during modern times it fell victim to the Napoleonic suppression and, in contemporary times, it was converted into a Nazi prison during the German occupation of Italy.
…to the care of liturgy and prayer, to the formation, to the sharing of spirituality and to the collaboration with the other branches of the Dominican Family.—ex documentation Matris Domini
The small museum, so far not as well known as it would deserve, is an art jewel that keeps and permanently displays a rare series of frescoes which are among the oldest in Lombardy, coming from the monastery hosting it.
The convent complex, although being in a very central location, is half-hidden and suffocated by modern buildings which oppress its structure and perhaps its sacrality.
Its sometimes random discovery offers an artistic surprise which fascinates the visitor. The vision of the frescoes, keenly displayed in an interplay of light and shade, the almost surreal atmosphere move the guest in a far away time, the Middle Ages. An era of violence and sopruse, but at the same time full of those stimuli and dynamism which would lead to the formation of the Western Europe national states as they're known today.
The monastery displays in ad hoc premises masterpieces of the Bergamese Romanesque art, thus constituting the Matris Domini Museum. The frescoes, originating from the same monastery, where they were decorating different sites of the original structure, have been saved from degradation by detaching and transferring them on ad hoc substrates.
Dating from the 13th and the 14th century, they are among the earliest examples of the fresco painting art in Lombardy, some of them are among the most ancient altogether. A skilled restoration has offered them back to the pleasure of their vision and the lovely care put by the nuns allows their conservation and display.
They are very fine frescoes, expressing an intense and profound religiosity, with the goal of helping the praying in their own path of spiritual research.
Some frescoes stimulate strong emotions because of the delicate representation of a scene which is sacre but, at the same time, has deeply human aspects. It is hard not to get moved seeing the fresco of the Visitation where surprise and complicity transmit in a sublimely human way the intensity of a meeting in such an intimate and particulare time of a woman's life, especially if this woman is the mother of Jesus.
The simplicity and the prettiness of the faces leave people astonished, within their looks one can read marvel, fear and satisfaction.The composure and the naturalness of the hug express discreetly the intimacy of the meeting, the eyes turned towards the observer are a mute interrogation, one reads there the questions, the hopes the fears of the waiting. This fresco, with the help of the dim lights, covers and wraps the observer stimulating forgotten emotions: within it contains
all the painting world of Matris Domini. A world connected with its own time and outside it, because like all the worthy cultural manifestations it has no past, present or future but contains and recalls to itself turmoils, annotations, data which repeat, renew and change themselves inefinitely and without time or land limits.—Rosalba Tardito, Il Monastero Matris Domini – Vicissitudini degli affreschi
Together with the Visitation, other frescoes are displayed, some of them exceptionally well preserved. One can distinguish the Just, the Blessed, two Angels with a trumpet which amaze for their sweetness, Saint Peter on the throne, the Hell, all attributed to the Master of the Life Tree.
Other frescoes delight the visitor, such as Jesus among the Doctors, the Baptism of Jesus, the Virgin Mary on the throne with the Child, the miracle of the wheel by Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Martin with the pauper, Jesus entering Jerusalem, the Young fallen from a horse, which shows the miracle of Napoleone Orsini's reanimation by Saint Dominic. This works, together with the Visitation, have been attributed to the First Master of Chiaravalle.
The setting, the frescoes, the lights and shades create a magic (or better, spiritual) atmosphere which affects the visitor by forcing him to his own memories and to his most hidden emotions.
The glass circles
In an area privileged by natural light five magnificent polychrome glass circles are displayed, originating from the 14th century stained glass window which decorated the apse of the old church. Perfectly preserved, they are the oldest vitreous work in Lombardy.
The largest displays the Virgin and Blessing Child and shares with the two circles depicting the angels the peculiarity of the face and the hands devoid of colour, to highlight the spirituality of the images. The other two circles show, respectively, Saint Dominic Blessing and Saint Peter Martyr, the first Dominican saint.
These circles also contribute with their polychrome transparencies to make the atmosphere pervading the exhibition more absorbing.
Next to the museum, always within the convent complex, lies the church, consecrated in 1273 and formed, following the female monasteries tradition, by an internal chapel constituted by three naves and by the external church. The latter was radically transformed in the 17th century into a well-lit baroque environment, embellished by stuccoes by the Portas and Angelo Sala, by frescoes, among which particularly relevant are the ones by Pietro Baschenis and by several altar pieces situated in the side chapels.
Above the main altar are located the 17th century altar piece of the Annunciation by unknown; at its sides there are the altar piece of the Adoration of the Shepherds (unknown author) and the altar piece of the Massacre of the Innocents by Pietro Ricchi.
The chapels are decorated by marvellous altar pieces dating from the 18th and 19th century. The tryptic of Saint Peter Martyr is missing from the church, since it was stolen during Napoleon's era.
Within the museum one feels the attention and love with which the Sorores keep and protect this jewel, in whose beauty they read the signs of a still present spirituality. Art as an expression of religiosity, beauty as a means for ascesis.
But this activity has also an important civil and education meaning, open the doors to the enjoyment of these works makes their action even more worthy and their seclusion closer to the world.
- Angelini G.B., Descrizione del venerabile Monastero di Santa Maria Mater Domini di Bergamo. Bergamo, 1750.
- Angelini L., Affreschi trecenteschi in Bergamo. Bergamo, 1953.
- Garin, Eugenio, Medioevo e Rinascimento - Laterza 2005 Bari - ISBN 88-420-7669-4
- Garin Eugenio a cura, L'uomo del Rinascimento - Laterza 2000 Bari - ISBN 88-420-4794-5
- Huizinga Johan, L'autunno del Medioevo, Newton, 1997 Roma - ISBN 88-8183-898-2
- Perdichizzi M. Il Monastero di Santa Maria Matris Domini in Bergamo durante il secolo XVI - Tesi di Laurea, Università Cattolica di Milano.
- Piccinni G. - I mille anni del medioevo - Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 1999, ISBN 88-424-9355-4.
- Zanella V., Di quaranta e più monache capace in Il monastero Matris Domini in Bergamo. Monumenta Borgomensia, Bergamo 1980.
- Tardito R., Vicissitudini degli affreschi in Il monastero Matris Domini in Bergamo. Monumenta Borgomensia, Bergamo 1980.