The Abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata

One of Rome's best kept secrets is the Abbey of Santa Maria of Grottaferrata.  I was privileged to visit and stay here as a guest while my friend (a TAC graduate) was the porter here several years ago.  My visit coincided with the death of one of the monks who had walked to the monastery from Ukraine after the Second World War in order to ask to be accepted as an aspirant into the community.  He died a holy death at a ripe old age and was buried in the community cemetery near the church.  

The monastery of Grottaferrata is the final remnant of a once-flourishing Italo-Greek monastic tradition on the Italian peninsula.  The town of Grottaferrata is located just outside Rome, near Castel Gandolfo, on the other side of Lake Albano (near Ciampino Airport).  For 1,000 years the monastery has preserved the (Catholic) Byzantine Greek Rite.  It is a historic edifice perched on the edge of the town, with beautiful gardens, and a stunning view of the Tusculum hills.  The monastery can be reached by bus from Rome and is within easy walking distance of the town centre.  

The Foundation 

The abbey was founded in 1004 by St. Nilo, a brilliant, energetic, and pious monk from the south of Italy.  He was born in Rossano, Calabria, just a few miles from the sea.  St. Nilo came from a Greek family.  At that time Calabria was Byzantine, and the Greek Rite flourished in this region.  In Calabria he founded various monasteries as well as in the region of Campania.  A humble and saintly man, he was held in high esteem by princes, emperors, and popes.  

The story is told that having traveled from place to place to avoid all honors, he finally directed himself towards Rome to end his days in peace.  St. Bartholomew, the author of his biography, wrote that St. Nilo had known by divine revelation the place of his final rest.  The monks had been attracted to settle at this site amid the ruins of a Roman villa, said by some to have been a residence of Cicero.  The ruins had already been adapted as a monastery in the fifth century.  

St. Nilo, founder of the Abbey

Here St. Nilo and his Roman followers made their home.  Tradition holds that in the crypt dating to the Republican era Our Lady appeared to St. Nilo and his colleague St. Bartholomew, asking that on that site they would build a church in her honor, from whence graces would flow on all the neighboring lands.

Having obtained a gift of land from Count Gregorio of Tuscolo, construction of the new church and monastery began.  St. Nilo died shortly thereafter.  His successor, St. Bartholomew, along with the other monks labored for 20 years to build the property.  They utilized local materials, including the rubble taken from the ruined Roman villa.  Piecing together pieces of stone and marble, sculptured eaves, and blocks of peperino stone (volcanic tuff), the walls of the monastery slowly began to rise. 

In 1024 the church was finally completed.  It was beautifully decorated in Byzantine style, with marble and icons, enriched with the finest sacred vestments and vessels for service at the altar, admired by all who came to visit.  On Dec. 17, 1024, Pope John XIX came to the new church to consecrate it, dedicating it to the Mother of God, while the monks sang Greek hymns that were written specially for the occasion by St. Bartholomew.

Entrance to the Abbey property

The Basilica

The exterior of the basilica is typically Roman in style with medieval tower with three-fold pillar windows and colored ceramic polychrome decorations.  The walls are made of small squared stones and are interposed by darker lines.  Over the centuries the basilica and monastery have been added on to and have undergone various structural modifications.  The eaves and friezes are made of bricks, with saw-like grooves.  

The exterior displays a series of pendulum arches sustained by pilaster strips and small blocks of marble decorating the exterior walls.  Among them are various windows closed by perforated marble covers which emanate a mystical light.  In the upper facade there are a series of Gothic arches while in the center there is a large rose window.  In 1910 the exterior was restored and brought back to its original beauty.

The entrance to the basilica is through a covered outdoor pronaos (vestibule), with four pillars supporting the architrave, the main beam resting across the columns.  From this point visitors enter through the main door into the indoor narthex at the back of the church, where the Christian rites of initiation of catechumens traditionally took place.  Above the main door is a beautiful mosaic of Our Lady and the Christ Child, seen below.   

Mosaic above the outside main entrance

On the left is a marble baptismal font, a Byzantine work of the 9th century with symbolic bas-relief representations.  It depicts man stripping of his garments (i.e. his sins); he plunges himself into baptismal waters and is transformed into a fish, a symbol of Christ.  On the right is an icon of the Resurrection.

From the narthex to the central nave of the church visitors pass through a magnificent marble doorway with finely engraved door posts and engraved cedar doors.  Above is a mosaic of Christ situated between Our Lady and St. John the Baptist and below this is a smaller icon of St. Bartholomew, the founder of the church.  All of this is original to the 11th century.     

The Sanctuary 

The sanctuary has a marked difference in style from the other parts of the church.  In 1754 Cardinal Giovanni Guadagni, nephew of Pope Clement XII.  As Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati oversaw the restoration of several churches in the area.  He brought about an almost complete transformation of the interior of the church by updating the interior in the baroque style, covering the frescoed walls and pillars with baroque plastering and decorations.  Very little is still visible of what the church looked liked before.  

What remains is the triumphal arch mosaic, a  Byzantine work of the 12th century.  This splendid mosaic is a precious work of art, representing the 12 apostles and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  Above it there are some frescoes that remain from the 12th and 13th centuries.  Also the old polychrome floor remains, a medieval Cosmati work of the 12th century which includes the altar, the baldachin, the choir area for the schola, and the ambo, all in "Cosmatesque" style. 

Interior of the chapel with iconostasis

The Bernini Iconostasis

The marbled iconostasis by Bernini marking the entrance of  the sanctuary is one of the most sumptuous of its kind imaginable, a riot of color and various species of marbles.  It separates the altar from the rest of the church, indicating the infinite distance from the mystery of God (as well as the goodness of God, which is annulled through the Sacred Liturgy, that acts as a bridge, communicated to us through the holy doors.  

Two carven angels kneel in adoration and hold up an icon of the Mother of God with the Christ Child while a marbled dove descends from the very top.  Surrounding the icons are cherubs against the sky blue background made of lapis lazuli marble from Persia.  This project was entrusted to Bernini in 1665 by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII.  Bernini also designed the hidden altar behind in the sanctuary.  

The icon of the Mother of God is in typical Byzantine style, painted on a golden board.  Gold is non-corrosive, a symbol of eternity.  The artist is unknown.  Probably it was painted by a Greek monk in Southern Italy during the 10th or 11th centuries.  New icons were being created at that time imitating those destroyed in the Orient by the fury of the iconoclasts.  In the beginning years the icon was placed on a side-altar.  When Bernini built the iconostatis, he had it placed here where it was solemnly enthroned in 1687 when the Vatican Chapter ordained its blessing.  

This holy icon has granted many graces from heaven and it has gathered a multitude of faithful and pilgrims, among whom many were saints and popes.  Thus it was that two festivals of Grottaferrata began: one on March 25 (the Annunciation) and the other on September 8 (the Nativity of Mary).  Pius IX was fond of visiting here to pray.  Pope John XXIII came for a visit in 1960.  Paul VI came on August 19, 1963, making an appeal to unity to the divided brothers of the Orient.  John Paul II visited twice in 1979 and 1987.  

Visit of Pope Paul VI in 1963

This altar was originally in Latin style, rectangular.  At a later date, according to the exigencies of the Byzantine Rite, a square altar was reconstructed, placed behind the iconostasis.  The altar is seen by the faithful partially only when the doors of the iconostatis open.  The altar is surmounted by a canopy baldachin from which hangs a silver dove in symbolic descent above the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament.  

In the sanctuary is buried Pope Benedict IX of the Tusculum Counts, who after a tumultuous life, on the fatherly advice of St. Bartholomew, abdicated and retired here to the monastery as a penitent where he died at age 44 in 1056.  He was nephew of Pope John XIX and was himself elected Pope at age 20.  On three occasions he was Bishop of Rome, the only man to have been Pope more than one occasion and the only man ever to have sold the papal office.    

Visitors also admire the precious ceiling, dating to 1577 when Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had a lacunar or coffered ceiling constructed to replace the original ancient tie beam style that is reminiscent of the Middle Ages.     

The Farnesian Chapel

Not to be overlooked is the Farnesian Chapel.  Originally it was dedicated the martyrs and saints Adrian and Natalie.  In 1131 it was enlarged and dedicated to Sts. Nilo and Bartholomew and their relics have been venerated here since that time.  In 1610 Cardinal Odoardo Farnese had it decorated and frescoed by Domenichino.  At the back to the left, St. Nilo is depicted praying before a crucifix, praying to be delivered from a temptation, as Christ blesses him.  

In the middle is depicted St. Nilo's meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III near Gaeta.  The Emperor sought to reestablish Imperial control over Rome.  It was on that occasion the Emperor said to St. Nilo: "Ask me all you wish and I will give it to you."  The saint answered: "I ask you only for your soul, because you also will die and will have to give an account of your life to God."  The image of the man holding the reins of the horse is a self-portrait of Domenichino.   

Four dark columns of African marble delineate the sanctuary.  On the altar is a stunning bronze tabernacle, previously on the main altar.  The ceiling is in blue lacunars with ornaments of gold.  Further the chapel has a painting by the baroque painter Annibale Caracci the progenitor of his own style.  This work is above the altar, depicting Our Lady among the two founders of the monastery.  In the painting the church is under construction and St. Bartholomew looks on the project with the architect.  

The Sangallo Cloister

The inner cloister, seen below, is like a museum, with various pieces on display, taken from rubble of the Roman villa unearthed over the years on the property.  The colonnade is by Giuliano San Gallo, who worked on St. Peter's Basilica.  From the outside it becomes clear how the monastery was first built in small dimensions and was enlarged over time through the centuries.  Here for a thousands years monks of St. Nilo have lived a life of prayer, study, and work.  Visitors also notice the fortress around the Abbey.  This was the result of wars and military devastation that led Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) to construct defensive positions around the Abbey in the 15th century after the last devastation in 1482 from the troops of the Duke of Calabria and then by the Orisini and Colonna families.  The fortress was raised with towers, battlements, and a moat with a draw-bridge.  The architect was Baccio Pontelli, the same architect who build the Sistine Chapel, worked on many urban renewal projects under Pope Sixtus IV.  This imposing work gave the Abbey the majestic and strong appearance that it still has today.      

The beautiful inner cloister

In the front of the church at a later period a liturgical fountain was built in the shape of a Gothic temple.  It is here on January 6th the popular Byzantine ritual of the blessing of the water takes place in remembrance of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River, seen below.

The Baptism of Our Lord font where the blessing of water takes place on Jan. 6

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