Church of Santa Maria degli Angioli

Cities & Monuments

Located on the lakeside promenade of Lugano, the church of Santa Maria degli Angioli hosts an early Renaissance masterpiece, reputed as being the most famous fresco of that period in Switzerland. The work is a portrayal of the ‘Passion and Crucifixion’ by Italian artist Bernardino Luini (1480 - 1532), a disciple of Leonardo. The large, lively fresco covers most of the wall with many faces and figures: more than 150 in all, including soldiers on horseback and a throng of people. It is advisable to combine the visit with the tour of the historic centre.

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The church of Santa Maria degli Angioli, built between1499 and 1500, was once part of the monastery of the Order of Franciscan Friars (Friars Minor) founded in 1490, which starting from 1602 became the Order of Reformed Friars Minor of the province of Milan. Although its sober facade facing over the lake is not as rich as that of the cathedral of San Lorenzo, the church houses one of the great, early Renaissance masterpieces: the fresco of the ‘Passion and Crucifixion’ by Bernardino Luini, a disciple of Leonardo, who initiated his career at the Abbey of Chiaravalle.

The visit


On entering the church, your eyes will alight on a vast wall featuring a close-up of the crosses of Christ and the two thieves. The painting is very accurately described in the "Guida d’arte della Svizzera italiana" (Guide to Italian Swiss art) by the Società di storia dell’arte in Svizzera (the Society for the Art History of Switzerland): “at the foot of the Cross, Saint John and the kneeling Mary Magdalene; to the left, a group of pious women comfort the Virgin; on the opposite side of the cross, Roman soldiers throw the dices for the garments of Christ; all around, soldiers on horseback and a large, excited crowd of people. Two loggias on columns are painted in the background depicting episodes of the Meeting with doubting Thomas and the Derision; among these, Christ Carrying the Cross and the Lamentation of the dead. In the background: on the left, Prayer in the Olive Garden; at the centre, a landscape and, on the right, the Ascension".

The large fresco, which can be admired on entering the church, is characterized by the vibrancy of the scene. In fact, rather than being limited to the representation of the three crosses, it is emboldened by a frenzy of figures. Overall, it features 153 heads alternated with soldiers on horseback and a throng of excited people. In the upper part of the scene, viewers can admire the Meeting with doubting Thomas and the Derision, while the lower part is frescoed with saints. The centre vault shows Saint Rocco and Saint Sebastian while the prophets can be seen above the arcade.

Santa Maria degli Angioli houses two other works by Luini: the painting of the Last Supper on the left wall of the nave (originally hosted in the old refectory of the monastery) and a fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saint Giovannino in the first side chapel.
Also particularly noteworthy is a portrayal of Saint Francis painted in 1728 by Giuseppe Antonio Petrini which can be admired in the second chapel.

(Text adapted from "Il Ticino contemplativo - La contemplazione artistica" - Ticino Turismo)

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