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St Messalina (23rd January)

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St Messalina (1904)

Detail of the mosaic on the main facade of the Duomo

According to the legend of St Felician (BHL 2846-51), the young Messalina visited him in prison before he was taken from Foligno to Rome for execution.  She was recognised as a Christian and consequently clubbed to death.  

According to Ludovico Jacobilli (referenced below, at pp. 41-2), the relics lay forgotten for centuries, until Bishop Marcantonio Bizzani decided to look into the matter.  He assigned a priest to search for them, and they were duly found on 13th December 1599 in an ancient marble sarcophagus in a small chapel, below the inscription “Hic subtus iacet corpus sanctæ Messalinæ”.  Bishop Porfirio Feliciani officiated at the formal recognition of the relics on the 19th January 1613.  As discussed below, this chapel was at the foot of the campanile, reached be a door on the left wall of the nave of the Duomo, just before the crossing.

Gabriele Metelli (referenced below, at p. 184, item 7) reproduced archival material relevant to the construction of a new chapel that replaced the chapel in which the sarcophagus had been found:

  1. “In 1615, while preaching in the Duomo, the Capuchin Fr. Bonifazio d’ Ascoli introduced devotion to the translation of the holy house at Loreto, following which a chapel was erected in honour of the Madonna di Loreto.  [It was built on the site of the  earlier] Cappella di San Biagio, where, on 13th December 1599, the relics of the glorious protomartyr of Foligno, St Messalina, had been found in an ancient marble sarcophagus” (my translation). 

Bishop Mario Antonio Maffei moved the presumed relics of St Messalina into a silver reliquary on 23rd January, 1753 and translated them to the 1st chapel on the right in the Duomo.   The altarpiece (1850) of that chapel, which depicts the martyrdom of St Messalina, is by Enrico Bartolomei.  [Is the new reliquary still in this chapel ??]

Sarcophagus (2nd century AD)


                            Sarcophagus (2nd century AD), from              Sketch (1613), from

                                     L. Sensi (1985, Figure 1)                        L. Sensi (1993, Figure 68)

The sarcophagus discovered in the search of 1599 mentioned above is still visible in a small space behind the back wall of the Cappella della Madonna di Loreto, at the base of the campanile.  Luigi Sensi (referenced below, 1985, at pp. 306-11) published an important analysis of the significance of the sarcophagus itself, its location and the associated documentation.  He illustrated:

  1. what can still be seen of the sarcophagus in situ as his Figure 1; and

  2. a sketch that had been included in the documentation of the process of 1613 that led to the formal recognition of the relics of St Messalina, which showed the whole sarcophagus in this location (in his article of 1993, as Figure 68).  

The sides of the sarcophagus were strigillated (covered with carved fluting that resembles the curved Roman grooming tool known as a strigil).  Unfortunately, it had obviously been truncated when the new Cappella della Madonna di Loreto had been built.  The surviving sketch (above) shows  that it had had a representation of the head of a deceased lady at the centre, a standing putto at extreme right, and a pilaster at the extreme left.  Luigi Sensi deduced from the asymmetry of this arrangement that it had been recomposed from two Roman sarcophagi, which he dated to the 2nd century AD.   

Relics in the Sarcophagus

Luigi Sensi argued (at p. 310) that the aedicule that housed the composite sarcophagus was probably contemporary with the construction of  the campanile, which had formed part of the second phase of construction that started in 1133.  He suggested that the relics of the saints that were venerated by the local church had probably been deposited here at this time.  The use of this Roman sarcophagus for the purpose would have added an element of credibility to the claim for their status as the relics of ancient martyrs.

Part of the surrounding aedicule also survives.  Luigi Sensi transcribed (at p. 309) an inscription on its archivolt:

S(anctus)/ ETI[...]/IUS

He asserted (at p. 309) that:

  1. “We are certainly dealing with an inscription that, like the surviving decoration [of the lunette], might have been made around the 12th-13th century” (my translation).

He suggested that it identified one of the saints that had originally been represented in the lunette, and suggested (at p. 309) a particular candidate:

  1. “Euticius, [who was] the master of St Florentius, whom the church of Foligno had still venerated in the 12th century, whose relics were placed on an altar of the Duomo [in 1613?  where was the altar ??]

(For the background, see the page on SS Eutychius, Spes and Florentius of Norcia).

Luigi Sensi concluded (at p. 311) that:

  1. “... the construction of the new cathedral in 1133 ..., was the moment when the relics of the saints venerated by the local church were recovered, among which were probably those of St Florentius.  Cult changes and changes made to the internal structure of the Duomo, meant that the location of the relics was forgotten ... [until] the late 16th century, ... [when] the search for the relics of ... St Messalina led to the discovery of the [sarcophagus], which, on the basis of a nearby inscription (15th century) under a fresco of St Bernardino, was identified as the sarcophagus of St Messalina” (my translation).

Read more:

L. Sensi, “Le Testimonianze dell’ Antico”, in

  1. G. Benazzi (Ed.), “Foligno A.d. 1201:  La Facciata della Cattedrale di San Feliciano”, (1993) Foligno, pp 81-8 

L. Sensi, “La Raccolta Archeologica della Cattedrale di Foligno”, Bollettino Storico della Città di Foligno, 9 (1985) 305-26

G. Metelli, “Spigolature d' Archivio: la Quadreria Roscioli; le Cappelle e gli Artisti nella Cattedrale di Foligno”, Bollettino Storico della Città di Foligno, 5 (1981) 123-87

L. Jacobili, “Vite de' Santi e Beati di Foligno”, (1628)

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