Martinengo, Bergamo, Italy

Within the scope of the redevelopment and extension works on the Francesco Balicco retirement home in Martinengo (Bergamo, Italy) lies the construction of a small internal chapel.

The projects adapts itself to the nature of the lower ground areas dedicated to the sacred space of the church, finding its underpinning principles in the guidelines of the II Vatican Council and in the recent studies of the evolution of public worship space.

The purpose of the project is a construction of a small church permeated by humaneness, by discretion, by the inner being of architecture and worship. The sacral building and the ornaments will need to be very beautiful and symbolic, and the decorations and the utensils will need to express beauty and dignity, and be made of particularly precious materials.

The fundamental problem is to translate into a concrete reality the effective subordination of the space ad the objects thereof to the people. To build to a human scale and, above all, to create a space that prefers the unity of participation of the entire congregation – the priests and the faithful – through the various stages of the liturgical celebration.

The entry form the outside is on the east end and there is another lateral entry from the retirement home.

The church has a single nave and a presbytery. The ceiling structure is flat although articulated with a false ceiling that conceals the air conditioning services and the lights.

In the Eucharist celebration the sense of collective participation is encouraged. For this reason the hall needs to seek a layout that brings the congregation to a conscious, active and full participation. But if it is true that the gathering of the assembly around the altar seems to be the more accurate description of the Council data, it demonstrates a certain inadequate response with regard to the specific needs of the liturgy of the Word. In addition, the dimension of the church is a given and thus the assembly configuration aligned along the longitudinal axis of the church appears as more appropriate.

The altar needs particular attention since its position, its proportions, the quality of its presence largely determine everything else. It is collocated in the presbytery, in a central position in relation to the longitudinal axis of the church, so that it becomes the centre toward which the attention of the assembly is spontaneously drawn.

The altar is detached from the altarpiece and placed in the centre of presbytery, raised by a step, to emphasise the role of its centrality to the assembly, of a natural fulcrum of the presbytery, and to give the priest the possibility to celebrate mass facing the people. The altar represents the focal point of the liturgical life; it is the nucleus of the church and the reason for being of the building. From Latin altar, “place of sacrifice”, the altar is the symbol of Christ, the true altar of the Holy Communion. It is of a square shape, as were the early Christian altars; fixed so as to signify the permanent sacrifice of Christ and built of  “bare stone”. Five crosses are to be engraved into the top surface, one in the centre and one in each of the four corners to represent the five wounds of the Lord. In the Augustine cosmology, the square symbolises Christ: because the square is “a measure multiplied by a measure”, as the Second Person of the Trinity proceeds perfectly from the First.

Given that the mass is intrinsically and inseparably connected to the crucifixion, the principal icon of liturgy together with the altar, is the cross. The cross, representation of the Body of the Lord on the cross, symbolises the entire meaning of the mass. The liturgical use of the cross aims to position the mass within the context of the sacrifice of the Lord. Therefore it is positively correlated to the altar as the reference point. Placed on the lateral presbytery wall, it is envisaged in its essential form in bronze. The same symbol of reduced dimensions is planned for the east wall, frontal to the priest ministering to the people, above the entry, as well as one on the wall outside the entryway.

The seat for the celebrant (cathedra) symbolises Christ, who is sovereign, judge and master. It is important that the seat does not have an appearance as a throne, which is required for a bishop that governs the diocese. The seat of a priest must communicate the idea that he is serving, not governing, the congregation. To secure all this architecturally, the seat is not positioned in the centre of the presbytery but in a lateral position in relation to the altar and is flanked by two stools (sedilia). The seats are planned in wood, of a straightforward design: a noble simplicity that reflects authentic art.

The liturgy of the Word that culminates in the proclamation of the Gospel is the necessary and the integrating part of the entire mass. The pulpit is positioned near the congregation and therefore level with the hall. The pulpit needs to be in a positive relation with the altar but remain subordinate to it. It is fixed and built in the same kind of wood used for the seats and lined with bronze, on the basis of the same straightforward design that characterises all the sacral furnishings.

The Eucharist is the body and the blood of Christ authentically and indeed present under the emblems of bread and wine and is kept in the church tabernacle (tabernaculum). The dignity of the tabernacle requires its pre-eminence and can find place either in the presbytery or a separate chapel.

The project accommodates and re-elaborates, in a contemporary key, the ancient solution that associates the tabernacle with the altarpiece. From the late XV century the tabernacle has become part of the altarpiece. At times it was an elaborate structure integrated into the altar itself, oversized and overly decorated; in other instances it was a simple cabinet lost in the great structure of the encompassing altarpiece.

This proposal provides for the collocation of the tabernacle within a modern altarpiece, positioned behind the altar, which is the backdrop to the presbytery.


Massimiliano Gamba


Fondazione Francesco Balicco


Project: 2008

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