Anne's Blog

In Montefiascone, Saints and Saintly Wine

Date: July 6, 2021 - categories: - 1 Comment

Certainly as of the 6th-century B.C., an Etruscan town flourished on the shores of Lake Bolsena (Latium) – the largest volcanic lake in Europe –  in the area of present-day Montefiascone.
 Many archaeologists even indicate the Montefiascone area as site of the most important Etruscan sanctuary, Fanum Voltumna (“shrine of Voltumna”).  The Etruscan dodecapoli (league of twelve city-states) met annually at Fanum, in a place elected as omphalos (sacred navel), that is the geographical and spiritual center of Etruria, the Etruscan nation.
 Political and religious leader from the twelve cities would gather in springtime to discuss military campaigns, civic affairs and to pray to the gods they shared in common.  Voltumna was the most important of the gods and most likely, state god of the dodecapoli.
Some historians cite Orvieto as location of Fanum Voltumnae, while other possible locations of the sacred Etruscan cite include Viterbo, Bagnoregio or Tuscania.
But for the 19th-century British explorer of Etruria, George Dennis, Montefiascone was the site of the Etruscan religious sanctuary.  Remnants of Etruscan temples have been found in the Montefiascone area and even signs of a civilization more ancient than that of the Etruscans: the protovillanova, the culture of an Italic people of the 9th- 8th c. B.C.
Montefiascone came into the orbit of Rome in the 3rd-c B.C. and ruins of Roman villas, tombs and numerous inscriptions attest to the glorious Roman years of Montefiascone.  With invasion by barbarians from the north in the Middle Ages, the people headed away from the lake and to a more secure position on a hill, present-day site of Montefiascone.
By the 8th-century A.D., Montefiascone was under dominon of the Papal States, though a free city-state by the 12th-century. The Church of San Flaviano – built in the 12th-century –  was dedicated to San Flaviano, 4th-century Roman patrician and martyr – depicted in a 14th-c fresco in the church, flanked by Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Lucy.
This Montefiascone church is  an archaeological wonder also incorporating the Etruscan past of the area:  remnants of an Etruscan aqueduct in volcanic stone have been excavated beneath the church. Archaeologists believe that the church – built in volcanic stone –  was started in the 11th-century on the site of an ancient  sacello (sanctuary, sacred site, a small chapel) – perhaps the 9th-century church dedicated to the Virgin mandated by  Pope Leone IV to house the body of patron saint of Montefiascone, San Flaviano.
The church underwent significant alteration in the 15th-century, also with addition of side chapels.
The balcony with loggia over the main entrance was added in the 16th century and from here, the Popes could bless the faithful:
The interior is a basilica plan of three naves with the vault supported by robust columns and one can see above the altar, the chiesa superiore.  
This church features particular architectural solutions, succeeding in combining two different stylistic trends with a unique and singular equilibrium.  Composed of two churches overlapping and inversely oriented, the early 11th-century lower level with three aisles is adorned with 14th-16th-c. frescoes..
The lower church was conceived as the battistero (baptistery) or martyrium (a Byzantine church built on site of a  martyrdom or to house the body of a martyr) whereas the upper level was destined to be basilica or cattedrale.

The church was an important one in the Roman imperial period and then in Middle Ages as it stood near major roads leading out of Rome as well as the Via Francigena (“the road via France”), the ancient route taken by pilgrims heading to Rome from the city of Canterbury through England, France and Switzerland.
And many are still trekking the Via Francigena, like Giulia, a young woman from Rome I met while in San Flaviano recently who had walked a part of the pilgrimage road from Siena to Montefiascone.
Giulia and I were both fascinated by the 13th and 14th-century capitals of the columns….
… decorated with an array of fanciful motifs, including varieties of vegetation and flora:
A variety of animals are included in the sculptures, most especially the lion. The lion symbolizes regality and is also both an animal that devours and eliminates but also that transmits life-giving strength and power to its victims. The lion thus symbolizes  metamorphosis during the passage through death.
One of the capitals is topped with the figure of a man pulling his beard  reflectively with an inscription inviting those distracted with observation of the church to note his beard….
…..while a nearby capital shows him without a beard and the inscription making fun of the observer, saying “I am the custodian of the church sculpted to make fun of the foolish”
San Flaviano on horseback, banner with cross blowing in the wind…..…reigns in the apse…
… just below a fresco of Cristo Benedicente (Christ in Blessing), flanked by St. John the Baptist and St. Paul:
To the left of the altar, a fresco of the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist (perhaps 15th-century?) backdrops the 13th-century octagonal medieval baptismal font per immersionem, that is,  for total immersions.  The bestowing of the baptismal font elevated the Church of San Flaviano to the dignity of ecclesia baptismalis

In a side aisle, a fresco of Pope Urban V (1310- 1370) pays tribute to this pope,  who resided at length in Montefiascone, in the Papal fortress, la Rocca dei Papi…. ……and elevated the town from the status of simply castrum (military camp) to citta’:

The Pope – his right hand raised in blessing – holds a sunburst, symbol of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominican monk very esteemed by the Pope. At Urban V’s request, St. Thomas had composed five liturgical hymns for the celebration of the first Feast of Corpus Domini in Orvieto in 1264, celebrating the Miracle of Bolsena.

And in this stopping point for pilgrims walking the Via Francigena, the frescoes were also intended to provoke reflection on the purpose of this life and the future afterlife.   The fresco of i vivi e i morti  (“the living and the dead”)  – an uncommon fresco motif in Italy – certainly inspires reflection:

Two grinning skeletons – representing the dead….

…converse with three reflective representatives of the nobility (the living), just returned from a hunt, for their horses are nearby and an elegantly-dressed  dama  is holding a falcon:

The hermit saint, Macario, is above the group, holding a scroll and admonishing the nobility to live a virtuous life:

Another fresco depicts the Archangel Michael intent on weighing souls, lance poking the devil to warn him not to manipulate the weight of the scales in his favor:

Numerous frescoes recount the lives of saints as inspiration to the pilgrims.  On a back wall near the exit, a Christ Crucified is in the pointed arch above frescoes recounting the travails of martyr saint Catherine of Alexandria (3rd-4th-c.):

The scenes include the torture of the Saint on the wheel….

….Saint Catherine in prison cconverting to Christianity the wife of the emperor Massenzio, while nearby, fifty philosophers are martyred…..

… and .the decapitation of the empress – after her conversion to Christianity –  at order of the Emperor Massenzio:

On the other side of the church, also near the exit, Christ Crucified is depicted above the frescoes – probably done by an anonymous Tuscan painter –  recounting the life of San Nicola di Bari, also intended to inspire the pilgrims.
Patron saint of navigators and children, in the early Middle Ages  this Saint was as venerated for his generosity as St. Francis of Assisi would be; in fact, the two saints are often depicted together. Born in Licia (present-day Anatolia, Turkey) in the 3rd-century, his remains were interred in Bari in the 11th century
Frescoes recount his generosity,  as in the image of Bishop Nicola passing three golden balls (his own inheritance) through a window as dowry for poor young women who would have turned to prostitution for the impossibility to marry without a dowry:

Another fresco shows the Saint returning to his father his son lost at sea…

…while another depicts San Nicola attempting to save three prisoners unjustly condemned to death:

Right below the San Nicola di Bari fresco cycle is the 12th-century tomb of Johannes Defuk, a noble German prelate who died in Montefiascone on his way to Rome for the incarnation of Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor.
Beneath the San Nicola frescoes, the twelfth-century tomb of a German bishop spreads out.
Legend tells us that this bishop had ordered his servant, Martino, to precede him on his trip to Roman for coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, indicating “EST” in places where he found a good wine. The legend has a tragicomic gran finale: arriving in Montefiascone,  Defuk found a triple “EST” and so stopped to drink so much of the recommended wine that he died.
The inscription on the tombstone is inscribed with the words,  “Est est est propter nimium est hic Johannes De Fuk dominus meus mortuus est,” that is, “Est Est Es t-  here lies my lord Defuk, who died for too much Est”.


Try that Est!! Est!! Est!! white wine while you’re exploring the Lake Bolsena area.

I wonder if you’ll think it’s “good enough to die for…”

Read here about the Miracle of Bolsena, linked to Urban V, frescoed in the Church of San Flaviano

1 Comment

  • Janet Eidem says:

    The church is an encyclopedia! So much information and instruction for the congregation inside. All very interesting.

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