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Death at the Gates:
The Church of S. Giovanni Battista


[image ALT: An old stone masonry wall along a street sloping upwards to the right at about 10°. It has three doors, the central one raised from street level by two steps, and with an ogival arch; the other two with simple round arches. Above each there is a stone escutcheon. It is the façade of the church of S. Giovanni in Monteleone di Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]

We are standing just inside the Porta del Borgo, the main gate of Monteleone, with S. Giovanni on the west side of the corso Vittorio Emanuele rising into town — and behind us no room to back up and take a better picture.

Location is everything. If this little church is the first thing we see as visitors to Monteleone, to generations of Monteleonesi on the other hand, it is the last thing they see, ever: right next to the gate out of town toward the cemetery is the logical place to put a burial chapel, and S. Giovanni has served as such — as the headquarters of the Confraternità della Buona Morte, the town's burial guild — for centuries.


[image ALT: A stone escutcheon, bearing a simple cross, on the façade of the church of S. Giovanni in Monteleone di Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy). Beneath it, a small carving of a lamb carrying a cross-topped rod.]

[image ALT: A stone escutcheon, blazoned on this webpage, on the façade of the church of S. Giovanni in Monteleone di Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]

Over the center door, a plain cross and beneath it the Paschal Lamb; over the right and left doors, the same coat of arms, repeated: quartered, [image ALT: an underscored blank] two fesses [image ALT: an underscored blank] and chequy [image ALT: an underscored blank], where those blanks represent the colors that I can't tell you — nor, perhaps, can anyone else.

All three escutcheons date to the 15c, and the Lamb is a century or more earlier.

The interior of the church is a simple rectangular space with no aisles, totally redone in the neoclassical style not very long ago, most likely in the late 18c or early 19c.


[image ALT: A rectangular hall with a high, prominently-arched ceiling from which hang several chandeliers; at the end, under a rectangular stained-glass window, an altar. It is the interior of the church of S. Giovanni in Monteleone di Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]

[image ALT: A patch of decorative stucco relief work depicting a skull and crossbones and a banner reading 'SODALITIUM MORTIS'. It is a detail, commented on this webpage in the caption of this image, of the interior of the church of S. Giovanni in Monteleone di Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]

High over the church, at the top of an arch (near the large chandelier), a witness to its vocation as the last station of the dead:

Sodalitium Mortis — the Guild of Death.

From this church on the first Sunday in September, a time of year almost always marked in Umbria by splendid weather, the Madonna della Misericordia leaves in procession thru the streets of Monteleone, and the holiday is celebrated by Mass, festive eats and a prize drawing. The image of the Virgin, however, I was unable to see nor do I have any information on it; I'm not even sure it is still kept in this church as it used to be.


[image ALT: An elaborate carved wooden casket consisting of a box without sides, the top of which is supported only by four slender corner pillars. On the bott of the casket lies a life-size statue of the dead figure of Christ. It is the Cristo Morto in the church of S. Giovanni in Monteleone di Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]

Along the right side of the nave, though, another image is kept: the veiled body of the Cristo Morto, the Dead Christ (close-up) which in many Italian towns is the focus of Good Friday observances.


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Page updated: 29 May 12