The basilica of Saint Euphemia in Grado and the Schism

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I like to think that in Grado, once upon a time, the bells tolled slowly, like mystical emanations to the rhythm of the lagoon sea. From the thuribles of the basilica of Saint Euphemia the incense wafted to the square, while the delicate smell of saltiness faded for a moment. The motifs of the Byzantine mosaics in the church evoked sensations of the Orient and a silent stillness took hold of consciousness. There, amidst the dancing fire of candles in the twilight, an arcane feeling was awakening, that profound nostalgia that we only feel before the sacred.

Basilica of Saint Euphemia
Basilica of Saint Euphemia

The schism

However, torments of faith afflicted the Christians of Grado when Elijah dedicated the most important building of worship on the Island to Saint Euphemia, martyr of Chalcedon. It was September 3rd, 579 [1], many had shouted “schism!” and some had actually made it; above all, it was the time of great theological disputes. On one side were the Monophysites, who claimed that Christ had a single nature, physis as the philosophers say. On the other side were the followers of Nestorius, who argued for the Savior’s dual nature, human and divine, but as if he had two distinct persons in himself.

The issue ended with a few councils: at Chalcedon (451) the Monophysites were accused of heresy, but some time later, far from being eliminated, they convinced Justinian to condemn the Nestorians. With the edict of the Three Chapters [2], the Emperor attempted to soften the Church’s stance towards Monophysitism (543-544), to which, moreover, his wife Theodora [3] belonged. When even Pope Vigilius was forced, under threat, to sign the condemnation of the Three Chapters (553), the schism was determined. Many people stood at odds with Rome and Constantinople, disagreeing with the edict and, among them, the bishop of Aquileia, Paulinus I, who proclaimed himself as patriarch. Then, as if by divine intervention, the Lombards invaded Italy (568) and, to escape Alboin, the Church of Aquileia was transferred to the Byzantine territory [4]. Christe eleison, that is how the schism came to Grado.

Patriarch Elijah and the Basilica of Saint Euphemia in Grado

In the Anno Domini 571 Patriarch Elijah was elected; just eight years later he consecrated the new city basilica, which he had commissioned. The naming of the building in honor of Saint Euphemia of Chalcedon carried an explicit message: he wanted to emphasize fidelity to that Council which, from the perspective of the schismatics, was forgotten [5]. Since then, neither the dedication nor the architecture of the Basilica changed, not even when, in 607, the Patriarchate of Grado broke away from Aquileia to return to Catholic orthodoxy.

basilica of Saint Euphemia
Basilica of Saint Euphemia and the Baptistery

The pre-existing architecture and the chapel of Petrus

However, the basilica of Saint Euphemia was not built de novo, but on a pre-existing church, probably a cemetery parish church, which dated back to the years when Attila had besieged and destroyed Aquileia (452). Even then, the refuge of the Aquileian episcopate had been the island of Grado. Thus, Bishop Nicetas had the series of sarcophagi and funerary chapels, that had stood in the town square, incorporated into a larger building. A chapel was later added in the early 6th century to host the burial of a certain Petrus, son of the Jew Olympius; it can still be traced today thanks to an inscription at the bottom of the Basilica’s nave:

Hic requiescit / Petrus qui Papa/rio fil(ius) Olimpii Iu/daei solusque / ex gente sua ad Chri(sti) meruit / gratiam perveni/re et in hanc s(an)c(t)am / aulam digne sepul/tus est sub d(ie) pr(i)d(ie) / id(us) iul(is) ind(ictione) quarta

G. Brusin, Grado. L’epigrafe musiva di ”Petrus”, Notizie degli scavi di antichità, 1947

Elijah reworked the building constructed at the time of Nicetas: he added an apse with prothesis and diakonikon, required the opening of two orders of monofora windows along the perimeter walls and arranged the spaces as we see them today. The nave and two aisles of the basilica building were delineated by ten pairs of polychrome marble columns, surmounted by capitals carved with phytoform motifs dating from the 4th-5th centuries.

The mosaic floor of Saint Euphemia

Then, Elijah had the floor of the basilica elevated, placing the new tessellated floor about a metre above the ancient opus signinum. From the chancel of the church, surrounded by plutei decorated with the Chi Rho and the peacock, a metaphor for Christ, a soleas probably started towards the nave.

basilica of Saint Euphemia
The interior of the Basilica

The fine mosaics of Saint Euphemia are characterized by marine and geometric motifs, including the well-known symbolism of Solomon’s Knot. This is no coincidence, since the knot expresses, in the early Christian context, the inseparable union between God and man. Hence, it symbolizes the two natures of Christ, terrestrial and heavenly, converging into a single person. As such, the Basilica’s mosaic floor emphasizes the theological position that was the basis of the schism, and for which Elijah dedicated the building to Saint Euphemia. Moreover, the patriarch’s work is attested in the figurative centre of the mosaic, where a large clypeus with the inscription appears:

Servus Iesu Christi Helias episcopus Aquileiensis, Dei gratia auxilioque fundator ecclesiae huius, votum solvit“.

In the mosaic of Saint Euphemia, some of Solomon’s knots.

The chancel frescoes and the Golden Pall of Grado

The precious fresco in the apse basin (15th century) shows a Christ Pantocrator seated in a mandorla. On its sides are figures of saints and a representation of the Tetramorph.

basilica of Saint Euphemia

A little further below, the Golden Pall of Grado shines with refined beauty. By an unknown authorship, the precious artifact is made of gilded silver, using an embossing technique, on three superimposed registers. The panels, enclosed in polylobate frames, still contain a Christ Pantokrator, Saint Mark, an Annunciation, and the four Evangelists. A Venetian nobleman, Donato Mazzalorsa, donated the Golden Pall to the church in 1372.

The basilica of Saint Euphemia and its pulpit

Located on the left side of the nave, the high pulpit was carved in the 11th century, but some stylistic motifs suggest later additions. The ambo rests on six slender columns, two of them twisted, surmounted by capitals with plant motifs. Five convex panels, of admirable artistic workmanship, shows the symbols of the evangelists and a patent cross in relief.

A dome, evocative of Moorish architecture, covers the structure surmounted by sinuous arches. Among the decorative motifs in red and white, and the geometric alternation typical of the chessboard, the Flower of Life stands out. It is the Christian symbol of resurrection, like the daffodil that, with the arrival of spring, is the first to bloom in the Alpine valleys.

The facade of Saint Euphemia and the Baptistery of Grado

A brick, tripartite, salient facade opens through two portals and three wide monofora windows. The cusped bell tower on the right dates to the 15th century.

Just north of the Basilica, on the left, the early Christian Baptistery, made of terracotta, faces the square, bare of superfluous ornamentation and architecture. It is octagonal in shape, as was the custom at the time, and eight windows open outward. This is a symbolic reference to the day of eternal life, which follows creation and its seven biblical days. The original entrance to the building has been lost, as has the portico, which once welcomed catechumens approaching baptism.

A deep apse enriches the interior of the Baptistery; in front of it stands the high altar enclosed by plutei and, on its axis, the hexagonal basin with marble facing.

The Baptistery of Grado

The entire floor surface of the Baptistery is covered with mosaic, but this is mostly a reconstruction since only a few perimeter portions of the 6th century original have survived. These include four-petaled flowers, Solomon’s knots, peltas, and whorls [6].

Some original portions of the mosaic floor

The construction works of the baptistery were begun by Probinus (569-571), as attested by a monogram carved on the marble altar [7]. Then they were completed by the well-known patriarch Elijah.

The Basilica della Corte

At the time of Elijah, when the patriarch decided to renovate the ancient basilica of Saint Euphemia, older churches already existed, here, in the ancient Roman castrum of Grado. The basilica della Corte, the remains of which can be found in today’s Piazza della Vittoria, was built in the second half of the fourth century [8]. When some citizens of Aquileia came to Grado to escape Alaric’s invasion (early 5th century) – they called the island ad aquas gradatas [9], a nice description of the gentle sandy slopes projecting into the lagoon to the north – the church became an episcopal seat. The Basilica della Corte, originally with a single nave and rectangular plan, later enlarged, was destroyed by repeated fires. Today only ruins remain, including some portions of the mosaic floor.

Remains of the basilica della Corte

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Instead, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was probably built in the 5th century, as attested by a portion of the mosaic extending on a lower level near the right aisle. Nonetheless, it was soon subjected to the extensive architectural reconstruction commissioned by Elijah. Certainly the building, located on the Campo dei Patriarchi near Saint Euphemia’s, was renovated after 579 [10] and only then did it assume its present form, with a square plan, a nave and two aisles.

The presence of the iconostasis in front of the chancel acts as a sacred limen, demarcating the space reserved for the priest. It is similar to the drape that in the Debir of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem hid the Ark of the Covenant. On the mercy seat of that precious relic, on the day of Yom Kippur, the Israelites poured out the blood of a worship sacrifice, of the scapegoat, so that Yahweh could grant them forgiveness for their sins. Now, however, there is no longer any need for sacrifice: Christ is the lamb without blemish, the one who redeems all mankind on the Cross. Christ, true God and true man in a single hypostasis.


[1] Andrea Dandolo, Chronica per extensum descripta, VI, 1, 10

[2] The work of the Antioch theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia, master of Nestorius. Some writings of Theodoret of Cirrus. A missive from Iba of Edessa to the Patriarch of Persia Mari.

[3] Charles Diehl, Teodora: Imperatrice di Bisanzio (trad. di Angelo Fattorini), LIT EDIZIONI,

[4] Paolo Diacono, Historia Langobardorum, II, 10; Bertacchi, 1980

[5] Attilio Previtali, Vicenza paleocristiana: cenni storici, Vicenza, 1991

[6] La pavimentazione musiva del battistero di Grado: schemi geometrici e motivi riempitivi, di Giovanna Ferri, in Antichità Altoadriatiche, vol. XCII, Editreg Trieste 2020. Link

[7] P.L. Zovatto, Il battistero di Grado, RivAC 23-24, 1947-1948

[8] L. Bertacchi, Grado, in Da Aquileia a Venezia (Antica Madre), Milano 1980

[9] Andrea Dandolo, Chronica per extensum descripta, V, 1, 12: “ad aquas veniunt gradatas: et in litore castrum spectabile construxerunt, quod ab aquarum nomine Gradus appellatur“.

[10] L. Bertacchi, Le origini del duomo di Grado, Aquileia nostra 42, 1971

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