A Sacred Place. An Exhibition at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard opening October 5, 2019


This group of photographs from a larger collection highlights an assemblage of small Romanesque churches gathered under the name, Basilica of Santo Stefano, in the northern Italian city of Bologna. Every spring for the past decade, my wife and I have travelled there for a few days, she for business, me to photograph and immerse myself in a city of friendly people, gritty cosmopolitan energy, remarkable art and architecture, and exceptional food and wine.

While I am no longer a practitioner of the faith of my childhood, the long, intense exposure to it has left a lasting familiarity with its history and symbols. These few photographs attempt to convey a small part of my time spent in this physical manifestation of them.

The church complex dates to the 5th Century and was founded at the location of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose worship was brought to the north of the Italy by the Romans. Since its founding, but especially during the Crusades, the site has been a destination for pilgrims. It was once known as “Jerusalem in Bologna” because many religious symbols built into the architecture of the site, as well as the religious artworks collected there, represented sacred places in the Holy Land. In the 12th Century, the various small churches, some built with Roman and Greek era columns were incorporated into a single complex in the Romanesque style of the period. Renaissance and Baroque styles influenced later additions and renovations.

Sitting low at the narrow side of the uneven triangular piazza that bears its name, modest Santo Stefano is open to the sky in the neighborhood in which it is located. This place of worship has been at this location for over 1500 years and for centuries before was a place of worship for practitioners of pre-Christian faiths. When I first encountered it, I felt the pulse of its history and culture. I was enthralled. My first impressions of the setting are captured in two photographs; “Mysteries of Faith” and “Spirito Santo” from 2009. They took over a year to find their ultimate photographic expression as I repeatedly recalled and relived their initial impact. Other expressions of my experiences there took shape more quickly though each photograph is infused with my fascination with the place. Selective and soft focus, overlayered textures and variable camera angles are some of the ways I have photographically interpreted my experiences there.

Over centuries, the people of Bologna and pilgrim visitors have engaged in acts of preservation and reconstruction of the symbols that comprise the story of their faith. Santo Stefano has been made and remade by the devoted and skilled hands of these people.

Michael R. Stimola, October 5, 2019

  • Across Centuries

    Across Centuries

    Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Roman era and 11th century columns. Some brick columns were part of the Roman 5th century site of a temple to the goddess, Isis.

  • Altar and Pulpit

    Altar and Pulpit

    The 11th century Church of the Holy sepulcher alter and pulpit.

  • Pilgrim's Gate

    Pilgrim's Gate

    A view from a small devotional side chapel into Pilate's Courtyard.

  • Chapel Reflections.jpg

    Chapel Reflections.jpg

    A chapel visitor is reflected in a chapel door along Pilate's Courtyard.

  • Church of Santa Croce

    Church of Santa Croce

    11 Century origins. The cruciform design of this small church, once known as Calvario, represents Calvary and purportedly once housed a fragment of the Holy Cross in the space above the altar.

  •  Holy Crucifix Church

    Holy Crucifix Church

    Church of the Holy Crucifix. Once known as the Church of Saint Stephen, it's original 8th century form was redesigned in the 11 century. It's principal feature is the 17th century crucifix hanging over the main altar.

  • Cloister and Well

    Cloister and Well

    The 11th century Cloister of the Celestines. The origin of the well is undocumented, but is thought to be the site of the original source of water for the church. It may also be the location of the original temple to Isis, a water goddess, that was at the location prior to the 5th century. It may also symbolize the river Jordan in the Holy Land.

  • Cloister Shadows

    Cloister Shadows

    Visitors walking under the porticoes of the 11th century Cloister of the Celestines.

  • Column and Cross

    Column and Cross

    The Cross of Saint Agila from the 6th century and an 11th century Medieval Column in the Church of Saints Vitale and Agricola.

  • Holy Sepulcher Cross

    Holy Sepulcher Cross

    The high altar cross in the 11th century Church of the Holy Sepulcher

  • Holy Sepulcher

    Holy Sepulcher

    This crypt represents the the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It once contained the remains of Saint Petronious, the patron saint of bologna. It is reported that for centuries, pregnant Bolognese women circled the tomb 33 times, the age of Christ, in a ritual designed to bless their unborn child. They would then visit the nearby Madonna Chapel to offer prayers to complete the ritual.

  • Honoring Saints

    Honoring Saints

    Built to honor two Roman-era Bolognese martyrs, the 8th century Church of Saints Vitale and Agricola was filled in with debris by a 15th pope who was angered by rumors that the remains of Saint Peter were buried there, which attracted pilgrims away from Rome. The church was restored seventy years later.

  • Madonna Chapel

    Madonna Chapel

    This 11th century chapel is the terminus of the early Holy Sepulcher ritual by pregnant Bolognese women and is still devotional site.

  • Mysteries Of Faith

    Mysteries Of Faith

    11th Century Basilica Santo Stefano from the west end of Piazza Santo Stefano.

  • Pagan Altar

    Pagan Altar

    A pre-Christian altar in the 8th century Church of Saints Vitale and Agricola.

  • Piazza Santo Stefano

    Piazza Santo Stefano

    Basilica Santo Stefano from the 15th Century Palazzo Isolani.

  • Pilate's Basin

    Pilate's Basin

    An 8th Century Lombard stone basin resting on a 16th Century pedestal in the 11th Century Pilate's Courtyard.

  • Pilate's Courtyard

    Pilate's Courtyard

    The view west toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Pilate's Courtyard.

  • Sacred Tree

    Sacred Tree

    An olive tree, a symbol of faith and peace and reconciliation outside the the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

  • Saint Peter's Rooster

    Saint Peter's Rooster

    The symbol of Saint Peter's Denial under the porticoes of Pilate's Courtyard.

  • Spirito Santo

    Spirito Santo

    A symbol of faith above the Churches of the Holy Crucifix and Holy Sepulcher.

  • Veiled Priests

    Veiled Priests

    Priests walking along the Cloister of the Celestines behind a construction debris screen.