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S. Maria Assunta di Otricoli:
The Shrinking Crypt

[image ALT: One side of a plastered room, just short of 3 meters wide, with a low vaulted ceiling. Against the wall, a stone table with a lace-trimmed cloth, and the front of the table has a sort of window in it thru which can be seen an equally transparent box containing bones. Over the table, a murky oil painting in a somewhat elaborately carved frame; on the wall on either side, two inscriptions. The one on the viewer's right is very large, the one on the left is almost ridiculously small in comparison. It is a view of about half the tiny crypt of the church of S. Maria Assunta in Otricoli, Umbria (central Italy).]

This is one of the smallest crypts to be seen in Umbria, consisting of a single chapel, of which we see about half; its only altar is sacred to the memory of St. Medicus, a very ancient martyr, whose bones rest in the chest beneath the table.

[image ALT: missingALT. They are the remains of cyclopean walls of the Roman or pre-Roman period under the church of S. Maria Assunta at Otricoli, Umbria (central Italy).]
Now the church of S. Maria Assunta, founded as Otricoli's principal church when the population moved from the Roman city in the plain to the safer height of the hill, dates to the seventh century or thereabouts — a time when every church had its crypt, and when it might even be said that the whole point of a church was that crypt, the holy place where the bones of its martyrs were kept. S. Maria, too, is a large church, and in our descent to the crypt, two stories down from the nave by a steep staircase, we pass the very impressive Roman or possibly pre-Roman walls you see here; the little whitewashed room at the end of our somewhat labyrinthine progress comes as a surprise and a disappointment: the end result of massive rebuilding, the date of which may well be given by the inscriptions we will see below.

All of Otricoli is like this, by the way: recent stucco over — what? Roman inscriptions peep out, or bits of fine ornamental carving like these fragments of a monumental frieze under the more functional blocks: within the walls of the houses, thru the entire fabric of the town, who knows what might be found? In this very church, for example, it's clear that you can't shrink a whole cavernous space down to the size of a bedroom: when the technology becomes available to image clearly thru stone and earth, we have some discoveries ahead of us.

At any rate, as things now stand, on either side of the elegant little baroque faux-marbre reredos, we have two inscriptions, the physical disparity of which is unfortunate; since in terms of their content, they are almost exactly parallel.

[image ALT: A rectangular stone plaque about a meter long and 60 cm high, inscribed with eight lines of monumental capitals. It is an inscription in the crypt of the church of S. Maria Assunta in Otricoli, Umbria (central Italy); it is transcribed, translated, and commented on this webpage.]

Pavlo V Pont Max
Corpvs scti Medici Martyris in Dn et
Victoris · ecclesia · prope · Tyberī · repertvs
Io · Bapta · Tvscvs · Epvs · Narnien · ad · hanc
collegiatā · transtvlit · et · hoc · svb
altare · recondidit
die · XVIIII · Maii · Anno · MDCXIII

Deo optimo maximo
Paulo V Pontifici Maximo
Corpus sancti Medici martyris in Domini
Victoris · ecclesia · prope · Tyberim · repertus
Iohannes · Baptista · Tuscus · Episcopus · Narniensis · ad · hanc
collegiatam · transtulit · et · hoc · sub
altare · recondidit
die · XVIIII · Maii · Anno · MDCXIII

To God the best and greatest:
When Paul V was Supreme Pontiff
The body of Saint Medicus martyr was found
in the Lord's church of St. Victor near the Tiber;
Giovanni Battista Tusco bishop of Narni
transferred it to this collegiate church
and set it again under this altar
on the 19th day of May in the year 1613.

The church of S. Vittore, formerly a cathedral, and its 13c monastery are not much more than half a kilometer from Otricoli, in Poggio, the township's only frazione; I haven't yet seen them. The 19c Umbrian archaeologist Mariano Guardabassi (Monumenti dell' Umbria, p161) records that church as being partly built of Roman-era materials — sculpture, inscriptions, column bases, capitals: hardly surprising since it's even closer than the hilltop town of Otricoli to its Roman parent city of Ocriculum. It is exactly the kind of place where one might expect a Roman martyr to have been buried.

On another note, according to Fr. Giovanni Cappelletti, Le chiese d'Italia della loro origine sino ai nostri giorni (1846), p566, Giambattista Tusco, a native of Reggio, was elected bishop of Narni on May 28, 1601 and was transferred "five years later" to the church of Tivoli, being succeeded in Narni by his nephew Giovanni Beroso on July 31, 1606. At Catholic-Hierarchy.Org, a listing of the bishops of Narni gives the bishop in 1613 as Giovanni Battista Bonetti, Giovanni Battista Toschi having been appointed bishop of Tivoli in 1606: details which do not agree easily with the inscription before us.

The more important inscription, though, is the other one, that insignificant-looking little square patch in the middle of its blank plaster: it is an earlier grave marker of St. Medicus. The style of the attractive uncial letters dates it to the twelfth century, establishing provenance another 500 years or further back; my pen is for scale, exactly 14 cm long.

[image ALT: An almost square stone tablet, 14.5 cm on a side, with an uncial inscription in seven lines. It is an inscription in the crypt of the church of S. Maria Assunta in Otricoli, Umbria (central Italy); it is transcribed, translated, and commented on this webpage.]

☧ · ω
hic · re
q·escit me
dicvs · mr
cv̅ plvrib ·
i · p · c · q · e · s
t · b · am·

☧ · ω
hic re-
quiescit Me-
dicus martyrus Christi
cum pluribus
in pace Christi quiescen-
tibus amen

☧ · ω
here lies Medicus, martyr of Christ,
with several [others] who rest in the peace of Christ,

Here my commentary is all about the inscription itself; and the first thing that the attentive reader will wonder about is what appears to be a piece of prodigious mind-guessing on my part: how did I drag what I did out of i · p · c · q · e · s · t · b?

Fortunately, i · p · c · q is frequently found in medieval inscriptions for in pace Christi quiescentibus. At first glance that leaves us with e · s · t · b, which ought to yield another four words; but I believe I have the right solution just the same: our stonecutter had a stone to fill as best he could, without unsightly blanks (good judgment on his part, just look at the effect of the unsightly blank wall around this inscription!), and, as in line 2, no qualms about using the interpunct inside a word. I parse the result as in · pace · Christi · quiescentibus. A guess, but a good one, I think.

And the omega in line 1? Here I'm on shakier ground, but if in Christian inscriptions we are used to reading Α Ω or its commoner equivalent form Α ω — the alpha and the omega, referring to God — we also from time to time see them reversed in funerary inscriptions, ω Α, the notion being that for the Christian faithful the omega of death will be reversed into the alpha of life. Here mind you there is no final alpha, unless maybe in the final amen; but given the idiosyncratic and maybe not very well informed stonecutter, it's a possibility. (If you have better information or a better surmise, I'll be glad to hear from you.)

The inscription propped up to the left of the altar tells the rest:

[image ALT: A rectangular stone plaque about 80 cm long and 50 cm high, inscribed with ten lines of monumental capitals. It is an inscription in the crypt of the church of S. Maria Assunta in Otricoli, Umbria (central Italy); it is transcribed, translated, and commented on this webpage.]

quinqvaginta septem olim svb anno
inventa cvm corpore Sancti Medici martyris
ex æde D·Victoris prope Tyberim
svb die V·Novembris MDCLIV
hvc translata reqviescvnt
donec Deo placverit revelare
an vere sint corpora sanctorvm
ivxta decretvm
sacrae · congregationis ritvm

The bodies
of fifty-seven [people] some time ago, in the year
found with the body of the martyr St. Medicus,
were removed from the sanctuary of St. Victor near the Tiber
on the 5th day of November 1654
and now rest here,
until it shall please God to reveal
whether they are truly the bodies of saints,
in accordance with the decree
of the Sacred Congregation of Rites.

If you've looked carefully at the photos on this page, you've noticed the plastic boxes, many containing fragments of stone. Archaeologists use them to sort out a dig; and a dig, in fact, is what I happened to stumble upon in 2004 when I visited this church. Against the wall behind us stands, or stood, a large handsome wooden cabinet with yet another inscription, to the effect that here were the bodies of those fifty-seven people. At the time of my visit, these people had been displaced, their skulls stacked against the left wall (photo), and the cabinet — it locks — contained instead, if I remember well, the expensive tools of archaeologists and some of their better finds. In an earlier age, most likely to be stolen would have been the relics; but we've become technological, and it looks as if soon the crypt of S. Maria in Otricoli will be reduced to an altar and three or four inscriptions.

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Page updated: 3 Dec 17