Church of San Leo


Bova - Santuario San Leo-Collage 1

The Church of St. Leo was built at the end of the eighteenth century on ruins of a previous building. Inside there is a chapel of relics. Some of them, the bones of a hand, of the feet and the skull, are kept in Bova. Others were removed to Africo when flooding struck Bova in 1951.

The single nave is flanked by side chapels, its walls decorated with precious nineteenth-century stuccoes.

Principal works of art

The sculpture in marble of St. Leo, housed by the Sanctuary of the name in Bova, is the oldest existing image of the saint. The marble statue, placed upon the altar, depicts the saint with a flowing beard and curly hair, holding an axe in his left hand, and a ball of pitch in his right. Contrary to what is believed about the saint by tradition, that is, that he was a Basilian monk, here he is portrayed wearing a floor-length monastic scapular typical of the western orders. According to Giorgio Leone, this change in the iconographical representation of St. Leo may be explained in terms of the reform the Basilian congregations had to undergo, in 1578, under Pope Gregory XIII, and which obliged the ancient eastern order to don a new western habit, based on that of the Benedictines. The scapular (a long, hoodless, sleeveless garment, open at the sides) is also present in the reliefs on the plinth, depicting two episodes from the life of the saint, not easy to identify but of fundamental importance when trying to reconstruct the iconographical history of this little known Italo-Greek saint. In the left-hand scene, St. Leo is standing before a man on bended knee who holds a stick in his hand. This may be a shepherd who has just witnessed a miracle involving his haversack. In the relief on the other side, the saint is at the foot of the bed of a sick man whose hands are folded across his chest. This seems to refer to one of the many miraculous healings that helped qualify the saint as a miracle worker. An inscription on the base states that the patrons of the statue were the archbishop of Reggio, Gaspare del Fosso, the bishop of the diocese of Bova, Marcello Franco, and the mayors of the town of that period of whom only one name is decipherable, that of Nicodemo Alagna. The date is given as, 3 MAII (3rd May) 1582. The work is usually attributed to the artist Rinaldo Bonanno (Raccuja, 1545 – Messina, 1600), who studied in Florence with Montanini before moving, in 1564, to Messina, where he collaborated with Andrea Camalech (Carrara 1524 – Messina 1589). A small number of critics believe, to the contrary, that the statue was the result of a collaborative effort by Bonanno and Pietro Bernini (Sesto Fiorentino 6th May 1562 – Rome, 29th August 1629), whereas, a more recent hypothesis holds it to be the work of Michelangelo Naccherino (Florence, 6th March 1550 – Naples, February 1622).

According to Giuseppe Fozzi, (1668) the reliquary bust of St. Leo, in the homonymous sanctuary in Bova, in the Province of Reggio Calabria, was commissioned by the archbishop of Reggio Calabria, Annibale D’afflitto (1593-1638). This silver artefact stands in a niche locked behind wrought-iron railings, probably part of the work commissioned in 1730 to embellish the so-called Chapel of the Relics, at the behest of Anthony Marzano, Procurator of the cathedral of Bova, and brother of Domenico Marzano, bishop of the same diocese between 1735 and 1752.

Thanks to the hallmark on the bust, we know it was made in Messina in 1635, probably by Santo Casella or by a member of either the Corallo or Campagna families of silversmiths. The particular configuration of the bust, with its three-quarters-length, front view of the saint, is typical of an innovative style adopted by Calabrian silversmiths at that time, a solution halfway between the traditional sixteenth-century waist-up model and the later full-length one typical of the eighteenth century. In any case, the work may be considered as one of the most significant testimonies of the Italo-Greek Calabrian artistic canon, as it seems to confirm the persistence of patronage and silversmiths, still capable of providing stylistic solutions compliant with Byzantine norms. In keeping with the iconographic tradition, St. Leo is portrayed with a silver axe in his right hand (added in the middle of the eighteenth century) and in his left a ball of material soaked in pitch. The saint is wearing a tunic embellished with decorative rosettes of different sizes, with a chiseled motif recalling the weave of the habit. The habit, gathered at the waist by a belt, is partially hidden by a monastic scapular adorned by stylized acanthus racemes, contained inside a straight border, running along the edge of the garment.

At the centre of the fabric, falling rigidly to cover the chest and shoulders entirely, the ornamental pattern is repeated as a more complex form of embroidery, suggesting a chain on the end of which hangs a medallion.

The high stiff collar around the saint’s long neck, is fastened at the centre by two buttons, which was the style of the late sixteenth century, as can be seen in many of the region’s contemporary funerary monuments. The bust is anchored to the urn standing below it, which is also in embossed silver and shaped like a double, inverted, truncated pyramid. The case is composed of two pairs of different-sized sloping panels; at the centre of each one there is a central glass window designed to permit people to view the relics. Each little window is surrounded by a frame with a pitted motif acting as the background to jutting acanthus spirals, which unfold symmetrically to the sides. The upper section of each panel contains a floral motif encircling a coat of arms surmounted by a crown and a cross placed obliquely at the centre. The lower edge of the cornice bears the date 1855 and the name Antonio Marzano, who probably commissioned this work as an ex voto [votive offering] in thanksgiving for having been pardoned by the Bourbons despite his involvement in the riots of 1848. The vara [float] in wood comprising four angels holding a crown, was commissioned in the Naples area in 1859, by Giuseppe Autelitano, who was theologian of Bova Cathedral, before being nominated bishop of Nusco, in the province of Avellino.

On the 5th of May, the official feast day of the saint, after the bishop has administered the Sacrament of Confirmation, the bust is carried in procession through the streets of the historic centre on an imposing “vara”.

The description of these works is by Pasquale Faenza.


Tipo Risorsachiese

how to reach us

Da Reggio Calabria, percorrere la SS106, raggiungere in direzione Sud l'abitato di Bova Marina ed imboccare la strada che conduce a Bova.


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