An unusual looking church with a resounding name. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, stands near the river Arno and speaks of Pisa’s ancient connection with the Holy Land.

The secret history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (San Sepolcro) in Pisa was mentioned for the first time in a document dated 1138, as an annex to the complex that hosted the Knights Hospitaller. Later known as the Order of Malta, this was a lay military religious order whose convents and hospitals had the task of “nurturing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick”.

The octagonal shape that looks curious today was relatively common at the time of the Crusades, when all around Europe churches were following the model of the “real” Saint Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the mausoleum built by the Emperor Constantine in 336 after he found the place where Jesus was buried. The eight sided construction also evokes a spiritual meaning. Eight is a Christian symbol of resurrection, whereas the round shape signifies God, the infinite.

The church has an octagonal floor plan with an altar at its centre. The northern and southern entrances have beautiful animal motifs from the 12th century, and are typically Romanesque. The bust on the western door is a 19th century portrait of the architect Diotisalvi.

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Inside the church there is a beautiful 14th century tablet depicting the “Madonna with Child”. There are many epitaphs on the church floor, including Maria Mancini Colonna, the niece of cardinal Mazarin and the lover of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. The well by the vestry is said to be the one from which Saint Ubaldesca retrieved her miraculous water.

Did you know? The Order of the Knights Hospitaller

The birth of the Hospitaller Order of St. John dates back to around 1048. This brotherhood built a church, convent and hospital in Jerusalem, to care for pilgrims of any religious faith or race. Their work soon grew in fame and in 1113 the Pope officially recognised the monastic community as a lay religious order. The Hospitallers were bound by the three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Order then proved very useful, taking on the military defence of Jerusalem, and guarding its medical centres and main roads.

As time went on, they adopted the white eight-pointed cross that is still its symbol today. After the fall of Jerusalem, their base became Rhodes and then Malta (from 1530). The cross of the Order of Malta recalls the number 8. A symbol of infinite, perfection, resurrection, and the spiritual path its members were on.