This is an excerpt from the book “Umbria“
In enchanted places where nature and art tell the story of the piety of the Saint of Norcia.
Today more than ever, Benedict, proclaimed Patron Saint of Europe in 1958 by Pope Paul VI, provides us with an example of deep spirituality and positive commitment to the community.
With his invitation to prayer, ora et labora, the Saint maps out an extremely concrete and sound “itinerary” for an authentic spiritual experience. A path of prayer which leads to Norcia, his place of birth, where, despite the fact he only lived there for a few years, the solid moral values of its inhabitants taught the young man to lead a simple and austere life, based on the family and work.
It was in these valleys that Benedict was introduced to the remarkable ascetic way of life which the eastern monks, who had arrived from Syria in the 4th century, were leading in grottoes and isolated retreats, in search of a deeper, more genuine contact with God. The young Saint treasured this experience, and it was to find a new and revolutionary expression in the Benedictine Rule, in which the spiritual quest and material commitment were made a concrete reality within the monastic community.
With the passing of the centuries the monks abandoned their austere seclusion in the abbey to move closer to the people living near the monastery, for whom they became a spiritual, cultural and economic point of reference. The Benedictine monks were mainly responsible for evangelising Europe and made a decisive contribution to the moral and cultural regeneration of the continent after the Barbarian invasions.
Legendary caves, isolated grottoes and sacred woods give a unique character to the lands of St. Benedict, where the silence and beauty of the landscape invite meditation and closeness to God.
The first forms of asceticism practised by various Syrian monks in Val Castoriana (near Norcia) from the 4th century on, gave birth to the western monastic movement, founded by St. Benedict.
The itinerary calls at villages and abbeys with a thousand-year-old history, where the close interdependency of man and nature has always distinguished the religious and cultural experience of the inhabitants.
Benedict was born in Norcia in 480 A.D. and it was here, on the site of ancient Roman edifices and the house where the Saint was born in particular, that the great Basilica of S. Benedetto was built.
The priorship of S. Benedetto di Norcia was subject to the nearby Abbey of S. Eutizio and, as a result of the various ups and downs which culminated in the separation of the two churches, in 1369 they were given an abbey title in common, in compliance with the monastic Rule. Just a hundred years later the two Benedictine communities were separated for good and granted their independence. Not far from Norcia is the church of S. Scolastica, built on the place where the Saint founded the second Benedictine order and where she lived until a few years before her death, when she moved to Cassino to join her brother Benedict.
Among the ancient possessions of the Abbey of S. Eutizio, was the church of S. Salvatore di Campi, under the title of “parish church of S. Maria”. In around the 12th-13th century, this church gradually lost its religious prestige and interest as a result of the uninterrupted development of the new castle in Campi, until such time as the prodigious miracles worked by a large image of the Crucifix attracted the devotion and piety of the faithful once more.
Proceeding down to the valley and leaving the fortified villages of Cerreto and Vallo di Nera behind, you will come to the small center of Castel S. Felice in a defensive position on top of a small rise. On its slopes stands the Abbey of S. Felice with its beautiful Romanesque facade, silhouetted against the dazzling green woodland.
Beneath the majestic apse, relieved by pilasters and small hanging arches, the river Nera flows peacefully and lazily by like a sleeping giant as if “asking forgiveness” for the disastrous floods which, before the arrival of the Benedictines, swamped the surrounding valley, destroying the farmers’ harvest and creating vast marshy areas where malaria was rife.
The itinerary continues in the direction of Terni, pausing near Ferentillo at the large Abbey of S. Pietro in Valle, built on the burial site of two eastern hermits, Lazzaro and Giovanni, at the behest of the Longobard Duke of Spoleto, Faroaldo II. Having crossed the mountains which separate the Valnerina from the Valle Spoletina, the road goes up towards Monteluco, where there are a number of secluded settlements founded by Syrian monks, including the hermitage of S. Antimo. The hermits of Monteluco, although maintaining their isolation in small grottoes scattered over the mountainside, were subordinate to the nearby Abbey of S. Giuliano, built in this period and assimilated into the Benedictine orbit after the death of its founder, S. Isacco. In the course of the 16th century, the body of S. Isacco, who died in around 552 A.D. and was buried in the church of S. Giuliano, was moved to the crypt of the church of S. Ansano in Spoleto. In the town of Spoleto the Benedictine itinerary winds its way among ancient buildings of worship, including the church of S. Paolo inter vineas, dating back to the 10th century and the Basilica of S. Eufemia, annexed to the old Ducal residence (now the Archbishop’s Palace) and the only sacred building in Umbria to have a women’s gallery.
As early as the 11th century, the church of S. Nicolo’ was subject to the Abbey of S. Eutizio in Preci; the ancient church of S. Gregorio Maggiore was also Benedictine, and was built on a cemetery where the bodies of martyrs were buried who had been torn to pieces in the nearby Roman amphitheatre.
Just outside the city walls stand two ancient Christian edifices, impressive in their architectural structure and elegant in their plastic decorations: the Monastery of S. Ponziano and the Basilica of S. Salvatore dating back to the early Christian period.
The route now crosses the pleasant Spoleto valley, in the direction of the Abbey of S. Felice di Giano on the Monti Martani, amidst breathtaking scenery which inspired St. Francis’ well-known phrase “Nihil jucundius vidi valle mea spoletana” (Never have I seen anything more agreeable than my Spoleto valley).
The Monti Martani, evangelised as far back as the 4th century A.D. by the first Christians, who were making their way along the ancient route of the Via Flaminia, were familiar with the Benedictine organisation thanks to two important abbeys built on the foundations of Roman edifices: the Abbey of Saints Fidenzio and Terenzio and the Abbey of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana.
Of the numerous Benedictine sites which enrich Umbria, worthy of particular mention are the ancient Abbey of S. Benedetto al Subasio, in everlasting proof of the friendship between Franciscans and Benedictines, and the Abbey of S. Silvestro di Collepino, founded by Benedict himself, but which later became Camaldolese. Near Foligno, from the little road which crosses the narrow valley of the Renaro torrent, the ancient fortified Abbey of S. Croce in Sassovivo is visible, rising majestically on the steep slope of the gully.
On the trail of the Benedictine presence in the Terni district, the itinerary sets out from the ancient church of S. Alè of Terni and calls at villages and castles steeped in history; in some cases the route leads to complexes built within fortified historic centers, such as S. Niccolo’ di Sangemini, although more often, it stops at abbeys built outside the city walls and in the vicinity of the ancient path of the Via Flaminia.
Among the latter are the splendid Abbey of S. Cassiano di Narni, founded as early as the mid-6th century and fortified with mighty walls to defend the Via Flaminia, the church of S. Michele Arcangelo at Schifanoia and the nearby Abbey of S. Prudenziana.
In the vicinity of the built-up area of Taizzano, in the heart of the countryside round Narni, stands the Abbey of S. Angelo in Massa, on the ruins of an ancient Roman villa. There are two ancient Benedictine monasteries on the way up to Stroncone, and despite having been slowly and gradually deserted, pilgrims still find their austere Romanesque vestiges conducive to meditation and prayer: the Abbey of S. Benedetto in fundis and the Abbey of S. Simeone.
Following in the footsteps of St. Benedict, the itinerary suggests a concentrated, albeit geographically limited, journey, worthy of being extended to the whole of the Umbria region, where each pilgrim, treading a path amidst faith, art and nature, may come to realise that his quest in the earthly life will lead him to a higher destination, to the light which infuses every man who draws near; it will lead him to God.
Basilica of San Benedetto da Norcia – Norcia
Tradition has it that the Basilica of S. Benedetto stands on the site of the house which belonged to the Saint’s father, a descendant of the noble Anicia family.
The pitched facade, terminating either side with two pilasters, dates back to the 14th century and is characterised by the splayed door, whose lunette houses the sculpted group of the Madonna and Child with two adoring angels. The niches either side of the door contain sculptures depicting St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.
The majestic rose window at the center is surrounded by the symbols in relief of the four Evangelists.
The Latin cross interior with a single nave over the crypt is the result of the 18th-century “restoration”. In the left arm of the transept is a large and rare canvas by Filippo Napoletano, depicting Saint Benedict and Totila. Above the altar in the right-hand transept is a canvas by the Roman artist Vincenzo Manenti, showing the Madonna and Child with Saints.
The crypt is divided into three small naves, the central one being the widest, with a lowered arched vault above. Constructed on a Roman public building of the 1st century A.D., it was converted into St. Benedict’s first oratory and can be identified with the small chapel described by the monk Adrevaldo da Fleury in the 9th century. The small left-hand apse is entirely painted with 14th-century frescos and tradition equates it with the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica.