Montefalco, noted for its fine Sagrantino wines, loom-woven linen textiles and the stunning Museo of San Francesco, hides many a secret as well. Suor Giovanna is one. She remains – for me – a Montefalco highlight. An Augustinian nun and follower of St. Clare of Montefalco, 14th- century medieval saint, she lives in cloister in the convent attached to the Church of St. Clare. Baroque splendor replaced the original medieval church – and even St. Clare’s relics are now ensconced in ornate reliquaries: her heart (with heart muscle in the shape of a cross) is the most revered relic (but not the only one!). It is said that in the early 14th-century, she met Christ in the convent garden carrying His cross and offered to bear it herself. She suffered pains in her heart all her life – “because Christ’s cross was embedded in it”, Suor Giovanna explained to me and a group of fascinated visitor as she showed us the heart.
[lcaption]Suor Giovanna in the medieval cloister[/lcaption]
Suor Giovanna then invited us into the cloister after showing us the original medieval church frescoed with an image of the meeting of Clare and Christ. In the cloister, she showed us the wheel where medicines, groceries are delivered to the sisters (who do not meet the public). “Ah, look what we have today! A villager left us tomatoes,” smiled Suor Giovanna. Nearby, Suor Giovanna proudly showed us an immense rotting tree trunk, assuring us “that is the tree which sprouted when Christ thrust his staff into the garden the day he met Clare.” She then proudly led us into the cloister garden, bursting with springtime blooms, to show us the trees there which sprouted from the seeds of that tree. The Agustinians living in the convent make rosaries now from the seeds (and many of our group purchase them that day).
A magnifcent Byzantine crucifix and other treasures lined the walls of the 17th- c convent cloister (the newest one). Fascinating were the “ex-votos” (“out of a vow”), that is, thanks for a favor received. Naif wooden panel paintings of the 17th-century illustrated miracles St. Clare had worked in response to a prayer, her image in a nimbus cloud on the left, the miracle or the interceding on the right. Suor Giovanna’s surprises just kept coming: as we turned a corner, we were in the original 14th – c cloister where St. Clare had walked, prayed.
I chatted with Suor Giovanna as our group took pictures, curious to know how she had chosen cloistered life. She was clearly radiantly happy. “It was a dream as a child. My family didn’t believe me – I was a mischievous little one,” she chuckled.
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Suor Giovanna highlights