Key to Umbria: Perugia

San Bevignate (1256-83)

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A community of Knights Templars was recorded at an oratory dedicated to St Jerome on this site in 1243.  They began the construction of the church and the adjacent monastery under the direction of Bonvicino d’ Assisi, who was Chamberlain at the papal court. 

The site seems also to have been used by hermits from an early date.  In ca. 1260, these included Raniero da Fasoli, the instigator of the cult of “St” Bevignate in Perugia and of the flagellant penitential movement.  The ideas of penitence and crusading were closely linked, and it seems that the Templars' church became the point of assembly for the great penitential processions of the period.  

Brother Bonvicino and the Templars were associated with the efforts of the Commune to secure the canonisation of “St” Bevignate in the 13th century.  For example, while William of Beaujeu, Master of the Temple was at the court Pope John XXI at Viterbo in 1277, the Commune sent an ambassador there to press the case.  This and other attempts came to nothing, but the new church was nevertheless consecrated to “St” Bevignate in 1283.  In 1285, the Commune ordered a search of San Bevignate in order to secure the relics of Bevignate, doubtless because there was still hope of his canonisation.  (As noted on the page of “St” Bevignate, the campaign continued into the 15th century, but never succeeded.)

The Templars' first settlement in the region had been at Abbazia di San Giustino d’ Arna, outside Perugia, which  Pope Gregory IX had given them in 1237.  When they
were evicted from San Giustino d’ Arna in ca. 1283, San Bevignate became their principal settlement in the region.  Indeed, it soon became the most important Templar establishment in central Italy.  A large monastic complex developed to the south of the church, probably enclosed within a perimeter wall.

When the Templars at San Bevignate were accused of heresy in 1307, as part of the wider attack on their order, the friars of San Francesco al Prato were appointed to act as Inquisitors.  The Templars were savagely suppressed in 1312, and San Bevignate (like many of their possessions) passed the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. 

In 1324,  the Grand Master, Hélion de Villeneuve ceded the complex to the rich Perugian, Ricco di Corbolo, who wished to establish a nunnery for 25 nuns under the auspices of the knights.  (Ricco di Corbolo was active as a merchant and banker at the papal court at Avignon).  Pope John XXII approved of this establishment in 1325, and intervened to prevent interference by the Commune in 1327.

The exposed site of the nunnery left it vulnerable.  For example, the complex was damaged by papal soldiers of Ceccolo Broglia and the Count of Carrara in 1398 during the siege of Perugia that followed the murder of Biordo Michelotti.  The nuns survived this and other ordeals, but their number declined precipitously: there were only eight nuns at the chapter held in 1416 and this number remained broadly stable throughout the 15th century. 

The discipline of the nuns declined along with their number as it became the preserve of a small number of noble families, with the Montesperelli prominent among them.  The nuns were expelled at some time after 1507, and the complex passed in commendam to Benedetto Montesperelli. 

The Knights of St John of Jerusalem retook possession of the complex in 1517 and retained it until 1566, when it reverted to the Holy See. 

The supposed relics of St Bevignate, which had received papal recognition in 1605,  were transferred from San Bevignate to the Cappella di Santo Stefano in the right transept of the Duomo in 1609. 

The complex was secularised in 1860 and the ex-nunnery is now in private ownership.

The church, which was restored in 2007-8, and the excavated area below it (see below) are now operated as a museum by Sistema Museo.



The facade has a lovely travertine portal, with interesting detail particularly on the right, and a rose window above.

The huge square pillars along the sides of the church are similar to those of the nearby Santa Maria di Monteluce.

The monastery (later nunnery) originally extended around a rectangle with the church at its  front left-hand corner.  However, the wing to the right of the church and part of the wing behind it were subsequently demolished. 


The church has a rectangular plan, with a triumphal arch that opens onto the elevated square apse above the crypt.  The single nave is split into two areas by the columns that support the vaults.

[A fountain in front of the altar gave sustenance to St Bevignate when he lived as a hermit here, and its water is held to have miraculous properties.]

The frescoes on the walls are among the most important surviving examples of 13th century art in Perugia.

Frescoes (1260s) on the Altar Wall

High up on the back wall is a large cross with two smaller ones, surrounded by nine stars, which is typical of Templar iconography.  The nine stars are thought to represent the nine founders of the Order of the Temple. 



Frescoes flank the bifore window in two registers:

  1. those in the upper register depict:

  2. the Madonna and Child enthroned with angels, on the left; and

  3. three Apostles, on the right (which include St Barnabas, whom the Templars regarded as the 13th Apostle; and

  4. those in the lower register depict the symbols of the Evangelists.  The symbol of St Luke on the left is partially obscured by a fresco (1280s) of St Paul (see below).  

The window intrudes into the upper part of an earlier fresco of the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist.


This last fresco is flanked by two scenes from the life of “St” Bevignate:

  1. the Bishop of Perugia grants him permission to live as a hermit (damaged by the opening of a door on the left); and

  2. the Bishop gives him a hermit’s cowl (on the right).

Fresco (1260s) on the Left Wall of the Apse

The surviving fresco high up on the wall depicts the Last Supper.  Unusually, Christ and St John the Evangelist (who has his head placed affectionately on Christ’s shoulder) are depicted at the right end of the table. 

Frescoes (1260s) on the Right Wall of the Apse


The main scenes on this wall (illustrated above) depict the last Judgement: 

  1. Christ is enthroned at the centre, surrounded by angels in two registers. 

  2. Friezes at the bottom contain:

  3. a series of praying penitents (badly damaged); and

  4. a series of coffins, some of which contain dead bodies returning to life.


The frescoes below depict a series of flagellants.  These frescoes are interrupted by a later one of St Bevignate (identified by inscription) with a kneeling donor.

Frescoes on the Arch of the Apse (13th century)


The frescoes above the arch are mostly decorative, although they contain two damaged narrative scenes that are difficult to interpret.

The damaged scene to the left of the arch depicts the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist to the sides, angels above and St Mary Magdalen at the foot of the cross.

Frescoes (late 13th century) on the Counter-Facade

The frescoes to the left of the rose window depict:

  1. pilgrims in a boat destined for the Holy Land); and

  2. a curious scene in which a large lion climbs a palm tree and holds out its paw towards a group of monks in white who stand in a loggia.   (The leading monk might represent St Jerome, who famously removed a thorn from the paw of a lion). 

The damaged frieze below the window depicts scenes from a battle between the Templars and a Saracen army, possibly the Battle of Nablus (1242).

Apostles (1280s)


                                   St Peter                                      St Paul                     St John the Evangelist (?)

his series of figures, each of which holds the Templar cross, extends along the walls of the nave.  The series includes these figures of St Peter and St John the Evangelist (?) near the arch of the apse and the figure of St Paul in the apse itself (see above).

Frescoes (13th century ?)

These frescoes on the left wall (next to one of the Apostles from the series above) depict:

  1. St Barbara; and

  2. a male and a female mendicant saint.

Art from the Church

Marzolini Triptych (ca. 1275)

The triptych, which is the autograph work of the Maestro del Trittico Marzolini (or Maestro del Trittico di Perugia), was probably confiscated in 1307, when the Templars were accused of heresy.  The Franciscans of San Francesco al Prato, who were appointed to act as Inquisitors at San Bevignate probably acquired it, and it subsequently found its way to the Franciscan nunnery of Sant’ Agnese.  In 1907, when the triptych was exhibited in Perugia, it was recorded as the property of Monsignor N. Marzolini.  It passed to the Galleria Nazionale shortly thereafter.
The triptych depicts:
  1. the Madonna and Child in the central panel;

  2. scenes from the life of Christ on the left; and

  3. scenes from the Passion on the right. 

The fact that the Templars commissioned the work is evidenced by an altar cloth in the scene of the Presentation at the Temple (in the middle of the left panel) , which is decorated with their distinctive red cross. 

The nuns of Sant’ Agnese probably commissioned the later paintings of SS Francis and Clare on the outer sides of the covers.  

Excavated Area

Steps to the left of the nave lead down to the archeological excavation that was carried out under the pavement during the restoration of the church in 2007-8.  The excavations revealed the remains of a Roman domus (1st century BC) and a fuller’s workshop that was subsequently built over part of it.  Finds from the site included part of the mosaic floor of the domus and Roman coins from the Republican to the late Imperial periods. 

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