You probably won’t examine each and every one of the nearly 200 niches containing the relics of saints, but your visit to the crypt of the Santa Maria Cathedral, located in Piazza Palazzo in Cagliari, will be unforgettable. Truth is, no other church in Europe can boast anything like it. Aside from admiring the sheer elegance and splendour of the Baroque decorations, you’ll also be amazed at what brought about its construction: an archbishop-archaeologist wanted to be the primate of the Sardinian Church. Throughout history, relics have always been objects of deep veneration and great prestige. This was true for the early 1600s as well. The archbishop of Sassari could boast those of saints Gavino, Proto and Gianuario in the basilica of Porto Torres, thus claiming the title of Primate of the Sardinian Church. But the archbishop of Cagliari, Francisco d’Esquivel, from a noble Spanish family, disagreed. So, he searched and found the burial places of all the saints of Cagliari. In order to preserve and venerate them, he had the Shrine of the Martyrs built, a crypt dug into the rock under the cathedral’s presbytery. In 192 separate niches he placed the relics of the martyrs, each with a marble plaque bearing their name and the symbols of their martyrdom in bas relief.
The sanctuary was inaugurated in 1618 and adorned with polychromatic marble, some 600 rose windows and renaissance, baroque and neoclassical works of art. The marble sarcophagus of the archbishop, and a 17th century painting portraying the Crucifixion, sit on the landing. The crypt comprises three chapels. In the Madonna dei Martiri chapel there are 66 niches. Above the altar is a statue of a Madonna with Child, between San Giuseppe and Sant’Anna. In the San Lucifero chapel, named after the 4th century bishop of Cagliari, are another 80. The bones of the saint are under the top of the altar, upon which sits a statue of him. There is also a Roman sarcophagus that holds the bones of Sant’Antioco, and the white marble mausoleum of Maria Giuseppina of Savoy, wife of France’s King Louis XVIII. The chapel of San Saturnino, dedicated to the patron saint of Cagliari, dates to 1620 and contains 33 niches. Above the altar is a Roman (2nd century BCE) sarcophagus that was found in the basilica of San Saturnino. His relics rest inside. Two other sarcophagi house another 19 saints. At the back you’ll find the mausoleum of Carlo Emanuele of Savoy, who was 2 when he died, made in 1799 by Antonio Cano. Two marble lunettes dating to the early 1700s depict San Pietro and the Madonna del Carmine.