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S. Maria della Visitazione:
The Church of the Image

[image ALT: missingALT. It is the church of S. Maria della Visitazione in the Lazio (central Italy).]

As we can see from my reflection in the glass doorway at the end of the chapel, having prospected its exterior, I'm still standing outside the building, at ground level now three steps up: what we see is pretty much all of it. The pavement is original, local red and white stone, about four hundred years old.

Not seen above, because on the left wall immediately as we enter, a framed Trinity of the 16c, a standard treatment of the subject — God the Father supporting the crucified Christ, with the Holy Spirit at the apex of the triangular halo — if more than usually unattractive. Further down the room, on the right wall, a similarly framed remnant of fresco has also survived: a Madonna at her prayers, said also to be of the 16c although I'm inclined to the century after that; at any rate, a somewhat better painting.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a painting in the church of S. Maria della Visistazione in Leonessa, Lazio (central Italy).]
[image ALT: missingALT. It is a painting in the church of S. Maria della Visistazione in Leonessa, Lazio (central Italy).]

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a painting in the church of S. Maria della Visistazione in Leonessa, Lazio (central Italy).]

The most beautiful and interesting item, though, was uncovered recently; the original chapel had been walled off altogether until someone investigated in the 1990s: why was the back wall of the chapel so thick? It's still somewhat inaccessible, protected by a glass door which does allow the visitor to see it, if not to photograph it satisfactorily for others. Seen slantwise here (in order not to show you a yet closer view of yours truly pointing his camera!) and despite the reflections, we get an idea of the tiny chapel completely covered with 15c frescoes: Madonna and Child in the center, and on the sides and ceiling, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, and SS. Peter and Paul, with a 16c Christ on what must have been an outside niche of the chapel.

From this kernel, a one-room church has grown; but the beginning is a little wayside shrine, often at a crossroads, as here: a central painting, then quickly a small vault to shield it from rain and weather. The sides acquire their own paintings, the whole becomes a substantial stone structure: in Italian, an edicola, literally, a small building. Eventually, depending on the population of the area and the intensity of the devotion to the shrine, much larger churches can evolve. The first step of the process will be made clearer by looking at a wayside shrine at Bovara near Trevi in Umbria, about 37 km N of here. Here at Leonessa the Madonna found an enclosing chapel, then was further saved by being walled up for a few centuries; and it is to this fresco, or maybe a predecessor, that S. Maria della Visitazione owes her popular name, la chiesa dell' Immagine — the church of the Image.

[image ALT: missingALT]

Madonna and Child, Umbrian school, 15c.
To our left and right, respectively, the Flight into Egypt, the Apostles Peter and Paul.

(And if you're wondering why no reflections here: I took the photo by pressing the camera lens flush to the glass door — a method not usable to get good views of the side frescoes, of course.)

To pass from the sublime to the everyday — and certainly to a lesser work of art, yet as we will see, our everyday reveals the love of God just as much as the high themes of the Crucifixion and the Madonna and her Child. This church is the actual site of a miracle of S. Giuseppe of Leonessa, in which he brought back to life not a man or a woman or a child, but an ox:

[image ALT: missingALT]

S. Giuseppe raises an ox: tile panel, late 20c.

Between the angel and a group of devout women (pastiches of Perugino and of 16c painting respectively), an ox lies dead on the floor he was threshing; another looks on. The mother and her daughters pray in church, the son advances, his stick held like a little sword for he's the man of the family, and is trying to do a man's work here. No father: single mothers raised their families in 1608 just as they do today, with the same difficulty. Losing an ox, for a farming family, is a disaster: without it, how will the fields get plowed? How will the family grow their crops? How will we live? Father Giuseppe has been called to the scene to see what he might do; and, we are told, he raises the ox from the dead.

In the distance, the walled city of Leonessa against the backdrop of Mt. Terminillo, veiled as often in threatening storm clouds: from this church we are looking S. We are told that this miracle took place precisely here, where this chapel already stood, but we shouldn't of course take this particular depiction literally — the ox surely didn't die in church — rather, the seamless transition from church to threshing floor matted with chaff, from the sacred to daily life, speaks to the life of St. Giuseppe: as I've pointed out elsewhere in these pages, he once had some very grand ideas of his vocation, but learned to "settle", and in taking care of the humble concerns of very average people like ourselves, became a great saint, still remembered with fondness and living memory by the people of Leonessa.

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Site updated: 28 Oct 10