The Monastery of St. Benedict in Subiaco enshrines the cave (Sacro Speco) in which St. Benedict lived as a hermit before he organized his first monastic community. Subiaco is located southeast of Rome and makes a convenient day trip either from Rome (1 hour) or Anagni (45 minutes).
Located amid spectacular natural scenery, the monastery is still active but welcomes visitors to pray at Benedict's cave and explore the church covered in beautiful medieval frescoes. Among the many fascinating frescoes is a portrait of St. Francis of Assisi painted during his lifetime.
History of Subiaco Monastery
The area around Subiaco was inhabited by the Aequi people until they were defeated by the Romans in 304 BC. Under Roman rule, four aqueducts were built to bring the water of the Anio River to Rome. Later, Nero had the river dammed to form three artificial lakes and built a villa for himself next to them. The area was named Sublacus ("below the lakes"), which later became Subiaco.
St. Benedict was born and raised in Norcia (near Spoleto) in 480 AD. He went to university in Rome, but was so horrified by the immorality in the big city that he left soon after. He sought solitude on the forested slopes of Mount Taleo near Subiaco, where he met a monk named Romanus.
A monastery was already established in the area, but Benedict chose to live alone in a cave (the Sacro Speco) for three years, sustained only by scraps of food lowered in a basket by Romanus. He frequently fought temptation, famously casting himself naked into thorn bushes to combat lust.
Benedict was eventually discovered in his cave and invited to become the superior of the nearby monastery of Vicovaro. However, the monks soon found his rule so unpleasantly strict that they tried to poison him. Benedict returned to his cave, but by then had attracted so many followers that he could no longer pursue the solitary life.
So St. Benedict organized his first monastic community at Subiaco, dedicated to St. Clement of Rome and housed in part of Nero's old imperial villa. Benedict lived there for 20 years, during which time he founded 12 daughter monasteries and wrote his famous Rule that would become the standard guideline for western monasticism.
In 529 Benedict left Subiaco for Cassino, where he converted the population from paganism and built the famous Montecassino Monastery. It was there that he completed the final version of the Benedictine Rule and died on March 21, 547.
The Subiaco monasteries continued to flourish in the following centuries, despite a great deal of turmoil in the area. The Sacred Cave (Sacro Speco) in which Benedict spent three years meditating was not one of the 13 monasteries he founded, but it quickly became a place of pilgrimage.
Some building took place at the cave in the 10th and 11th centuries, but very little survives from this period. Regular monastic life began at the Sacro Speco around 1200, under the control and patronage of Santa Scholastica further down the hill. The two monasteries are still united under a single abbot. Most of the buildings and frescoes at San Benedetto date from the 13th and 14th centuries and are designed in the Gothic style.
What to See at Subiaco Monastery
Simply constructed of brown-hued stone, the Monastery of St. Benedict clings to a forested mountain cliff. In front of the entrance is a graveled platform with fine views of the monastery, its well-tended garden, and the valley below. The oldest parts of the monastery are the lowest levels.
The entrance door, decorated with a 13th-century mosaic cross, leads into a passageway formed by the rocky cliff on one side and a stone wall with large windows on the other.
At the end of the passageway is another door, which has a Latin inscription on the architrave: "Sit pax intranti, sit gratia digna precanti. Laurentius cum Jacobo filio suo fecit hoc opus." Above the door is a 15th-century painting of the Madonna and Child by the Umbrian school; paintings on the vault are of the same date and school.
Through the door is the Old Chapter Room, with frescoes of the Four Evangelists and the Virgin and Child on the left wall. These are believed to be by the school of il Perugino from the early 16th century. Especially charming is the depiction of Matthew, whose angel symbol holds the inkpot for him.
If you continue straight on, you reach an even smaller stone passageway, where you must duck under a low vault. Look for a small fresco of a devil on the left wall, who can be viewed through a small window in the Upper Church.
Taking a right from the Old Chapter Room, you emerge into in the magnificent, single-aisled Upper Church. The first half of the nave is much taller than the second. It is also older, being a 14th-century adaptation of a 13th-century structure. All the frescoes in this section were painted by the Sienese school in the 14th century. Filling the front wall that divides the two parts is a magnificent fresco of the Crucifixion, with a crowd of lively figures at the base of the three crosses.
On the vault are the Four Doctors of the Latin Church with busts of the Four Evangelists atop their thrones. The buttresses of the vault are decorated with 24 angels and the arch above the Crucifixion bears portraits of prophets and weeping angels. The other frescoes of the first half of the Upper Church are laid out as follows:
The second halfof the Upper Church has frescoes from the early 15th century relating to St. Benedict. On the front wall is a portrait of Benedict seated on a throne and dressed in pontifical garments, accompanied by saints and members of his family. His mother can be seen kneeling on the left and his father on the right. The frescoes on the left wall are badly damaged due to the moisture of the hillside, but on the right wall are two interesting scenes in good repair: the Attempt on the Life of St. Benedict and the Cure of the Slothful Monk.
The frescoes in the transept of the Upper Church were painted by the school of Umbria and the Marches, most of which center around the theme of virtuous death. On the right is a cheerful scene showing St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica at their last meeting. Scholastica prayed for rain and her prayer was answered, forcing her brother to remain with her throughout the night. Pouring rain and a dark sky are shown at the top of the scene. On the opposite wall, St. Benedict watches from a tower as the soul of his friend Germanus ascends to heaven.
Other frescoes in the transept and its small side chapels include: the Death of St. Scholastica; the Death of St. Maurus; the Beheading of St. Paul; a lovely portrait of St. Agnes holding her lamb symbol; the Martyrdom of St. Placid by beheading (including a horrifying scene of a monk having his tongue pulled out); and the Miracle of Sts. Peter and John near the beautiful gate of the Temple.
Stairs in front of the High Altar lead down into the Lower Church, decorated with frescoes of the 13th century. On the east wall is a large "parchment" with the Latin text of the bull by which Pope Innocent III (d.1216) donated revenues to the monastery in 1203. The parchment is held up by St. Benedict and Abbot Romanus (d.1216) on the left and Pope Innocent III on the right (part of his head is missing, but you can still see the square halo indicating he was alive at the time of the fresco).
Above the parchment is a larger portrait of Pope Innocent III, which was painted later in the 13th century by Master Conxolus, of the Roman school. This painter contributed nearly all the frescoes in the Lower Church and his signature can be seen on the other side of the stairs on the east wall, next to a painting of the Virgin and Child with Angels: "Magister Conxolus pinxit hoc opus."
Looking east towards the stairs, the paintings on the left wall show early events in the life of St. Benedict including the Miracle at Affile (his nurse accidentally broke a sieve and Benedict repaired it by prayer); the Meeting with St. Romanus; and the Withdrawal into the Cave. On the right wall are shown the Funeral of St. Benedict; the Miracle of the Goth (in which Benedict miraculously rescues a metal hook from the lake for a fisherman); and the Miracle of St. Placid (who fell in a lake).
The frescoes on either side of the west window depict Florentius' Attempt to Poison St. Benedict. On the left, a woman dressed in pink delivers a poisoned loaf of bread to St. Benedict in a cave. On the right, Benedict directs his raven to carry the poisoned loaf away where it can do no harm.
A chapel on the left side of the Lower Church contains the holiest place in the monastery, the Sacred Cave (Sacro Speco) of St. Benedict. Here Benedict lived alone as a hermit for three years around 500 AD. Twelve red lamps hang over the cave, representing Benedict's twelve monastic foundations at Subiaco. The chapel contains an altar with a 13th-century Cosmatesque frontal; in the cave itself is a soulful marble statue of the saint by Antonio Raggi (1657), disciple of Bernini. Benedict is shown as a young man, his arms folded across his chest while he meditates on the cross.
A spiral stairway leads from just outside the Cave Chapel up to St. Gregory's Chapel, which contains some of the oldest frescoes at San Benedetto. The frescoes date from the early 13th century and were done by Byzantine-influenced Roman painters.
Protected under glass in the corner is a magnificent full-length fresco portrait of St. Francis of Assisi. It is labeled Fr. Franciscus and the saint is shown without the stigmata or a halo, indicating it was painted during his lifetime, before 1224. The eastern influence of the chapel's painters can especially be seen in this portrait - Francis is shown facing front and with one eye larger than the other, recalling the famous icon of Christ at St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.
A fresco to the left of the window shows Cardinal Ugolino (later Pope Gregory IX) consecrating this chapel. A friar is standing behind him, who appears also to be St. Francis; if so, this means he was present at the consecration.
Other frescoes in the chapel depict the Apparition of the Angel to Fr. Oddone; St. Michael the Archangel; the Crucifixion with Longinus, the sponge-bearer, the Virgin and St. John; the Savior Blessing; St. Peter and St. Paul; and the head of St. Onufrius. The vault is decorated with the Symbols of the Four Evangelists and Four Cherubim. The mural of the wounded Christ to the right of the window is an ex-voto of the 15th century. Outside the entrance is a fresco of St. Gregory the Great and Job, by the same school as the interior of the chapel. The vault in the entrance hall is decorated with peacocks and white swans.
From St. Gregory's Chapel, the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa) lead down to Our Lady's Chapel. The walls of the stairway are decorated with large frescoes by the Sienese artists who adorned the first half of the Upper Church. Death is the main theme here, probably because the stairs led to the monks' cemetery.
On the right wall is Death himself, a skeleton with flowing hair riding a white horse. Against a dark yellow background, he strikes an unsuspecting young man with his spear and tramples bodies of those he has already taken. Behind him, impoverished old people plead for death but are ignored. Above this unhappy scene, a peaceful forest of green trees has been painted on the uneven surface of the natural rock.
On the left wall of the stairs, the hermit St. Macarius nonchalantly shows three young men the three stages of decomposition after death. Further down on the right is an especially heart-wrenching Slaughter of the Innocents. On the pillars and arches are portraits of martyred saints, including John the Baptist, Onofrio, Scholastica, Anatolia, Stephen, and Lawrence.
At the bottom of the Holy Stairs is the Chapel of Our Lady, featuring a Cosmatesque floor and fine frescoes of the Virgin Mary's life and death. The chapel's altar enshrines the relics of St. Lawrence Loricatus, who died in 1243 after years of severe penance.
The back wall shows the Nativity of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi. In the latter, the first king has removed his crown and reverently kisses the foot of the Christ Child, who plays with his hair with one hand and blesses him with the other. Meanwhile, the other two Magi have a lively discussion.
The right wall shows the Death of the Virgin surrounded by the apostles and the Assumption of the Virgin, supported by angels and accompanied by her son. The four bays in the vault depict the usual scenes - Annunciation; Presentation of Christ; and the Coronation of the Virgin - and a more unique one, showing Mary as Mother of the Church, sheltering believers beneath her outstretched mantle.
Yet another flight of stairs leads from Our Lady's Chapel to the Grotto of the Shepherds, where tradition says St. Benedict converted and instructed local shepherds in the Christian faith. A smear of plaster on the rock wall bears the remnants of a precious 9th-century Byzantine fresco depicting the Virgin and Child with two saints. The saints are labeled S. LV... and S. SIL....
From here a door leads outside to where the monks' cemetery was until 1870 (with a faded fresco of a Pieta on the rock wall) and onto a terrace that is home to the Rose Garden of St. Benedict. A fresco demonstrates its significance: St. Francis is grafting roses onto the thorn bushes into which St. Benedict threw himself to avoid temptation. The terrace offers a a fine view of the valley as well as the exterior of Our Lady's Chapel, which bears early 13th-century frescoes: the Savior with Two Angels; and St. Benedict.
Quick Facts on Subiaco Monastery
|Names:||Holy Grotto · Monastery of St. Benedict · Sacred Cave · Sacro Speco · San Benedetto · Subiaco Monastery|
|Dates:||early 13th cent.|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.916976° N, 13.118159° E|
|Address:||PP. Benedettini, Monastero S. Speco|
|Hours:||daily 9-12:30, 3-6|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Subiaco Monastery|
- Personal visit (April 14, 2008).
- Monastery of St. Benedict: History-Art by the Benedictine monks of Subiaco.
Map of Subiaco Monastery
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