The transcendent silence of Fossanova Abbey

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Except for the soft echo of footsteps walking among the pews and kneelers, nothing else can be heard between the aisles of Fossanova Abbey. There is a powerful, mystical atmosphere in this place. It permeates every essence, a transcendent hierophany that is beyond the limits of human comprehension. There is no word, no gesture that could adequately express the state of mind of one who glimpses the divine. It is the silence of reason before revelation, the sense of mystery that overwhelms and shocks the depths of existence.

Fossanova Abbey
The interior of Fossanova Abbey

The abbey of Fossanova was the place where St Thomas Aquinas died. He was the one who, more than any other man, had dedicated his life to investigating the mystery by reason, but who had now taken refuge in a mysterious and peremptory silence.

«Raynalde, non possum… non possum quia omnia quae scripsi videntur mihi palae respectu eorum quae vidi et revelata sunt mihi»

«Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me».

Processus, n. 79, 376: the words of St Thomas Aquinas a few months before his death at Fossanova Abbey. Translation by Davies, Brian (1993). The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Oxford University Pres

The Doctor Angelicus

St. Thomas Aquinas was born in Roccasecca around 1225 and his writings are today considered a pillar of Christian theology. Son of the Counts of Aquinas, from a young age he decided to disobey his father’s wishes whom, according to the Medieval tradition, wanted him to be abbot of Montecassino because Thomas was the youngest son. However, during his studies in Naples in 1231 at the University founded by Frederick II of Swabia, he met the Dominicans and joined them in 1244.

Studies at the Dominicans

It was a revolutionary choice not only because it challenged his parents’ wishes, but above all because Thomas followed a mendicant order, ideally in antithesis to the temporal power expected for him. For this reason, the family decided to lock him up in the castle of Monte San Giovanni Campano. In reality, this was not a real imprisonment, as Thomas was allowed to entertain visitors. Nevertheless, the period in the cell lasted a year during which he was tried in chastity, but he was incorruptible before women and earned the title Doctor Angelicus. When he was freed, Aquinas had the opportunity to train as a theologian and philosopher within the Dominicans.

In a famous episode his master in Cologne, St. Albert the Great, defended him from the nickname he received because of his corpulent body and taciturnity: “the dumb ox”. The master said prophetically: “when this ox will bellow, his bellowing will be heard from one end of the earth to the other”.

St. Thomas was a disciple of St. Albert the Great for almost five years (1248-1252) and the relationship became so close that, as soon as Pope Innocent IV offered him the position of abbot of Monte Cassino, St. Thomas refused.

During his life, in which he preached and taught in various places of Europe, St. Thomas Aquinas drafted numerous writings, most of which have survived until today, while a few others were lost. The philosopher’s masterpiece is undoubtedly the Summa Theologica, which collects and explicates the principles of his thought.

The Philosophy of St. Thomas

St.Thomas has the merit of reconciling reason and faith, re-elaborating Aristotle’s philosophy from a Christian perspective. In particular, according to the philosopher, reason is useful to faith since it can demonstrate its presuppositions, explain its dogmas and defend it against heresies. One can therefore reach God through philosophical thought as well as through faith, which leads to revelation. St. Thomas identifies five a posteriori ways to reach the divine through the intellect and observation of nature.

St. Thomas Aquinas shows the Summa Theologica, Fra Angelico, San Marco complex in Florence

The Five Ways

God is primarily the unmoved mover who gave impetus to the first vital energy of the universe. From him propagates every movement that, being transmitted from one entity to another, necessarily has an origin.

God is then the first cause of all things, since it is impossible for a thing to be the cause of itself: in fact, if all causes are related in an order, as each son is begotten by his father or an object by its creator, then there must be an original principle.

The third way is based on the difference between what is necessary and what is possible. All beings of which we have sensible knowledge may or may not exist. In fact, if we went far enough back in time they would not exist yet, since they are possible. Then God, the necessary being from whom the possible originates, must exist, otherwise nothing would still exist.

St. Thomas Aquinas then focuses on the degrees of perfection of being. Everything has a different degree: man is more intelligent than animals, which in turn are more intelligent than stone. But if this is so, there must be an absolute degree of perfection of being, beyond which there can be nothing more perfect. It corresponds to God.

Another demonstration of God’s existence for St. Thomas is the final cause of things. Everything has a purpose: ships are for sailing, food for eating, the fangs of the wolf for devouring prey…. Thus there must be an intelligent principle that determines the purpose of life, since nothing is done at random.

The sudden silence

Nevertheless, the Doctor Angelicus never completed his Summa Theologica. In fact, on 6 December 1273, the saint experienced a long ecstasy while celebrating the Eucharist in the Chapel of St. Nicholas at the convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples [1]. Bartolomeo da Capua, a notary and witness during the canonisation process, reports that St. Thomas “fuit mira mutatione commotus”, underwent an astonishing transformation [2].

Henceforth, St. Thomas Aquinas mysteriously refused to write. To anyone who asked him for explanations, among them his trusted secretary Reginald of Priverno, St. Thomas replied with a laconic “I cannot”. When the requests became more insistent, the saint answered: “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me”. Something extraordinary was supposed to deeply shock the saint, such that he had to leave his writings. St. Thomas suddenly chose silence, the absence of thought, he who had placed reason as the guardian of Christianity.

Death and fame as a saint and doctor of the Church

The refusal to write continued until his death. In 1274 Pope Gregory X convened the Council of Lyons to attempt a reconciliation with the Orthodox Church and invited St. Thomas, an eminent personality of the time. The Doctor Angelicus set out for the transalpine city but, exhausted by months of fatigue, he fell ill and had to stop at Fossanova Abbey. Here he ascended to heaven on 7 March of the same year.

Thomas Aquinas was proclaimed a saint in 1323. When it was objected to John XXII that Thomas had performed no miracles, the pontiff replied: “there are as many miracles (in his life) as articles”. St. Thomas was finally proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 1567 by virtue of his enormous philosophical and theological digressions, which have contributed so much to the Church over the centuries.

Beyond the inexpressible

St. Thomas’ silence was a resounding gesture. Only by this oxymoron it is possible to understand the significance that his non-writing had on all those who knew him. Historiographical testimonies attest that Thomas Aquinas was a habitual person and that for at least fifteen years, every evening, he regularly dictated his theological and philosophical reflections to his secretaries.

The saint’s silence was perhaps the sudden awareness that he could not express the unspeakable. St. Thomas had reached the limit, the threshold of what can be described with words; the intimate revelation of the divine was thus manifested beyond language, symbols and conceptual representations. One cannot, in fact, recount the purest essence of perfection, nor explain the infinite with reason.

Fossanova Abbey

What metaphysical thing St. Thomas perceived in the Chapel of St Nicholas, we will never know. However, we can partially understand that sudden theophany of silence, albeit with a sense of melancholic distance, in the mystical atmosphere of Fossanova Abbey. Within the walls of the convent, the saint died in his material spirit, but it is as if he had left there the contemplation of the absolute as a gift. In the Abbey of Fossanova everything is silence. There are no words, but glances of intimate love with the divine that fill the measure of the soul, of what can humanly be expressed. This is an all-pervasive dimension, which is reflected in the Gothic architecture, in the monumental spatiality, even in the hidden symbols.

Fossanova Abbey
Fossanova Abbey

The early Benedictine monastery of Fossanova

Fossanova Abbey stands on the territory of Priverno, on the southern Pontine plain. The area was occupied by Benedictine monks from the 9th century. Here they founded a cenoby and later a monastery dedicated to St. Stephen Protomartyr. Archaeological excavations have shown that this group of buildings reflected the plan of a pre-existing Roman villa, and the cloister was erected over the structures of the ancient peristyle. However, only a few traces remain of the early Benedictine monastery, as it was extended in Romanesque forms around the year 1000.

The baths of the pre-existing Roman villa (2nd century A.D.) are still visible in front of Fossanova Abbey

The coming of the Cistercians

Fossanova hosted the Benedictine monks until 1135, when Pope Innocent II forced them to leave because of the struggle for the papal throne with the antipope Anacletus II. Shortly afterwards, the abbey was handed over to the Cistercians of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who had worked so hard for the recognition of the legitimate pontiff. They were the main contributors of today’s architecture, introducing in Italy the new revolutionary style that was emerging in France: Fossanova Abbey is a magnificent example of that transitional phase in which Gothic was breaking free from Romanesque in its early stages. It was rebuilt between 1163 and 1208 [3], and to complete it, the Cistercian monks constructed a secondary canal that, starting from Amaseno river, allowed them to reclaim the land from the swamp. The canal was called Fossa Nova, and the present name derives from this toponym.

Cistercian monks in a painting inside the abbey church of St. Mary

The cloister of Fossanova Abbey

The life of the Cistercians took place around the cloister, the centre of the entire abbey. From it there was access to the large refectory hall with its pointed arches and elegant staircase with pulpit, the dormitory, the chapter house and St. Mary’s church. Along the corridors of the cloister, the monks held the evening matins and ablutions, occasionally sharing words of fraternity.

Fossanova Abbey
The side of the cloister used for the matins, note the wall cupboard at the back, which contained the Holy Scriptures.

The architectural structure of the cloister has three ancient sides, while the fourth side is Cistercian. However, the typical austerity of the Romanesque style is thus contrasted by the richness of the Gothic decorations, which are articulated through elegant arcades. The supporting knotted columns are smooth or fluted and ideally evoke the legendary pillars of the Temple of Solomon, Jachin and Boaz. The carved capitals with phytomorphic and anthropomorphic friezes extend into space with vibrant harmony. On the Gothic facade of the cloister there is also a pavilion, inside which a fountain, once gushing, was used by the monks for ablutions.

The Chapter House and Solomon’s Knot of Fossanova Abbey

In the Chapter House, which is accessed from the cloister via a large portal and can be admired through fascinating lancet windows, the monks read a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict every day. Mighty beam pillars support the ceiling of the hall, which has cross-ribbed vaults and is decorated with wide mouldings.

A beautiful Solomon’s Knot is frescoed in one corner of the room. The symbol recalls the proverbial justice of the Jewish king, as a reminder to pursue such virtue in every choice of abbey life. In fact the Chapter House was the place where assemblies were held to manage and administer every aspect of the monastic community.

Solomon’s Knot in the Chapter House of Fossanova Abbey

The Sacred Centre and the Merels Board

The search for the divine is expressed at Fossanova also by symbols. They refer to a sphere of existence beyond the perceptible nature of things, thus allowing the contemplation of the divine in silence. It is no coincidence that on the walls of the abbey it is possible to observe certain symbols typical of the Middle Ages, such as the Merels Board and the Sacred Center. There are several examples of these engraved on the stone, and there are no certain sources about their meaning, only interpretations.

The Sacred Center

The inscriptions of the Sacred Center of Fossanova convey feelings of harmony and balance, linearity and symmetry, perfection beyond nature. St. Thomas Aquinas certainly perceived and recognised in this symbol a representation of the divine essence.

The ancient Greeks believed that the navel of the world was in Delphi and, at the Temple of Apollo, they indicated the sacred center with a stone of great religious significance, called Omphalos.

For the Jews, the Sacred Center was instead the place of encounter with God. According to the Book of Exodus, on Mount Sinai Moses had received the Tablets of the Law [4], and with them the commandments that were kept in the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was finally solemnly placed in the Sancta Sanctorum of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem [5], which from then on became the Sacred Center of all Judaism.

With the rise of Christianity in Europe, the symbol of the Sacred Center takes the attributes of God himself. It is not only the place where God dwells, but is the signification of God the Creator and the ultimate end of all things. The Sacred Center is the representation of the motionless engine of the Universe, the efficient cause of all that exists.

The Merels Board

Similarly, the presence of the Merels Board at Fossanova can be interpreted as a representation of the Solomon’s Temple. In fact, the Book of Chronicles narrates how the sacred building was composed of two courtyards, called “court of the priests” and “great courtyard”, contained by three concentric walls [6].

Fossanova Abbey
The Romanesque part of the cloister

The Church of Santa Maria di Fossanova

In June 1208, the Cistercian church of Santa Maria was inaugurated. It is the most completed expression of early Gothic architecture in Italy. The salient façade has a slight verticalism and reflects the the architecture of the central body, supported by buttresses.

Fossanova Abbey
The façade of Fossanova Abbey

A single central, splayed, pointed arch portal opens on the façade, surmounted by a classical tympanum.

Fossanova Abbey
The central portal

Blind portals are outlined on the sides, where it is still possible to observe the masonry that gave rise to a large portico, in the 13th century. The façade is dominated by an enormous circular rose window, composed of twenty-four small columns with Gothic arches.

The Cistercian Gothic interior is essential but majestic. A soft light, penetrating inside through the rose, illuminates the nave and two aisles on a Latin cross plan, separated by bundled pillars. Above the transept rises the tiburium, decorated with double and single lancet windows.

A beautiful octagonal-shaped stoup, symbolising the seven days of creation and the eternal day

Fossanova Abbey and the Memento mori

The austerity of the interior reflects a precise precept of life of the Cistercian monks. Everything in life is transitory and everything has to be abandoned one day. Man’s concern has to be, therefore, the mere contemplation of the divine while waiting for eternal life. There is no need for pomp and appearances, nor for outward beauty, but rather for purity of soul.

Fossanova Abbey
The three living meeting the three dead

This is the admonition of the Cistercians’ memento mori: every man has to constantly be aware of the transience of life and its pleasures. Death awaits everyone, rich or poor, king or commoner. At Fossanova, this concept is extraordinarily concretised through the figurative representation of the ‘three living and the three dead’. This is an iconography of death typical of the Middle Ages in which three young knights meet three skeletons who admonish them saying: “such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be”.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] «Quasi raptus et in devotione absorptus multis perfundi lacrymis» (Guglielmo Tocco, Hystoria beati Thomoe Aquinatis).
[2] Bartolomeo da Capua, Processus

[3] Emma Bernini, Carla Campanini, Cristina Casoli, Elisa Bellesia, Nuovo Eikon- Guida alla Storia dell’Arte, Roma-Bari, Editori Laterza, 2012

[4] Exodus 3,1 ss

[5] 1Kings chapter 8

[6] II Book of Chronicles 4,9

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