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It's very hard to go anywhere in Italy and not find a church. Yet even knowing that, I was surprised. As I climbed Mount Subasio, the empty loaf-shaped hill that separates Spello from Assisi, several kilometers of dusty gravel road thru cropless, habitationless open spaces, trees getting scarcer and giving way to brush, and as the surrounding hills dropped off a cool wind rising — say what's this?

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A few hundred yards later (see my diary) I was standing in front of the chapel of the Madonna della Spella.

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The chapel remains consecrated, so Mass is said here the minimum canonical once a year, on Ascension Day, when many of Spello's families gather up here and picnic and pray for good weather, good crops, and prosperity. They've been doing this for hundreds of years, since at least the late Middle Ages: inside the church are a dozen medieval votive frescoes, and centuries-old graffiti that voice the people's concerns.

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The view E from the chapel onto the Apennines between Nocera, still in Umbria, and Camerino, in the Marche. The distant mountains, slightly taller than Subasio, range in altitude between 1300 and 1590 m. It certainly seems a fitting venue to celebrate the Ascension of Christ.

On this big mountain, why the chapel should be here, and not somewhere else, has eluded me so far. That I know of, there is no spring, no vestige of Antiquity, no martyrium, no cemetery, no miracle. We're nowhere near the summit of Subasio — several more kilometers of gravel road before that, horses roaming free, repeater stations, plunging views onto Assisi and most of central Umbria; but here, at 978 m, a church.

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Page updated: 23 Feb 03