The Romanesque Pieve di S. Giorgio in Brancoli was built over the ruins of a pagan temple dedicated to the god Apollo in the early Middle Ages. Situated on the impervious slopes of the Pizzorne mountain range, it was first mentioned in a manuscript dating back to 767, currently conserved in the Archbishops’ Archives in Lucca. In the manuscript, one Ausolo di Brancoli bequeaths all his assets to the church or monastery of San Giorgio in Generiano. Tradition has it that the Church of S. Giorgio, as it stands today, was built by Countess Matilde di Canossa, whose effigy can still be seen on the north side of the Ambon. Both the exteriors and the carvings inside this masterpiece of Romanesque art survive intact, providing a typical example of high mediaeval austerity. The crenelated bell tower is also pure Romanesque, pierced with single and double lancet windows. The entire edifice is composed of square marble blocks. The imposing interior of the church is split into three aisles by powerful columns and pillars topped by classical capitals. The wealth of fine artworks is immediately apparent, particularly the finely decorated octagonal baptismal font and the marble pulpit. On the right is a 15th century glazed terracotta panel depicting St George slaying the dragon. The altars are worthy of note: the main altar features carved materials drawn from the Middle Ages, while the one in the right aisle is an original 11th century piece with polychrome decoration. The altar is surmounted by a huge 13th century painted wooden cross (School of Berlinghieri), while the ancient frescos on the wall have almost all been lost, with the exception of Giuliano di Simone’s Annunciation. The exterior features the mysterious Brancolino – a bas-relief depicting a stylised man with huge hands, arms akimbo, atop the lintel of the south door. Its significance is still a matter of debate.
The octagonal baptismal font is one of the oddities of the Pieve. Its symbolism is clear: Christ rose again on the eighth day. Its location, on the left side of the nave, near the entrance, is a reminder that it is through baptism, physically and symbolically, that one becomes part of the community of God’s children, i.e. the Church. The upper part of the font features a finely carved border with heads of people and animals at each of the eight corners.
Dated to around the 14th century, is the work of the Luccan painter Giuliano di Simone. The scene is dominated by three figures, the Virgin Mary, the Angel and the Holy Spirit, the latter represented in the shape of a dove. Despite the inevitable ravages of time, the play of looks and the intensity of the painting still have considerable impact. Located at the chancel entrance, at a transit point for the congregation, it is undoubtedly one of the church’s most treasured pieces.
The Ambon, with its four columns, is one of the most distinctive features of the Pieve. The front columns are supported by two splendid lions, one fighting a dragon and the other a warrior, symbolising the triumph of the Church against its earthly foes. The lectern rests on an eagle, the symbol of St John the Baptist, beneath which is a seated figure, probably Countess Matilde, benefactress of the Pieve. The Corinthian and Lombard capitals are also worthy of note.
The splendid 13th century crucifix is attributed to Berlinghieri. The style of the extremely dramatic Christ figure predates yet is reminiscent of Giotto, while bearing some of the hallmarks of Byzantine art, in the drapes and sinuous shapes, for example. On either side are the Virgin Mary and St. John, silent witnesses to the Passion, and a handful of soldiers. The work is surmounted by a benedictory Redeemer bearing the words “I am the light of the world, he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness”.