The Secret of the “Anthill” Monasteries

The Middle Ages was a time when towns and people were besieged. For this reason, the monasteries were fortified citadels and grew to the maximum, filling disproportionately with religious and common people, becoming rich in workers, lands and treasures as true feuds.

In an era of invasion, violence, wars and looting, churches become an indispensable point of reference. And more so, this happened to the monasteries who, born for the needs of isolation and prayer, gradually became different, because the desperate need for salvation and safety, even physical, that led men and women in Romanesque era to choose them as their places of shelter.

Otherwise the rise and the spread of monasteries in the countryside, and even within the same cities, cannot be explained. Otherwise it is not explainable how entire territories (lands and activities and people) have been immediately entrusted into the protection of a monastery from its inception.

Born as an oasis to accompany the most informed of men as they prepared for the great passage to divine judgment, the monastery soon became a safeguard for the multitudes, as the need for protection and safety was dramatically inscribed in the heart of men of the time.

This is how each monastery turned into a powerful attractor and welcomed people, collecting possessions and lands, becoming a citadel where a vast community took refuge and found answers giving, in return, a large amount of sovereignty, which had long been ignored.

Above Burgusio, in Val Venosta, the Monastery Bianco di Monte Maria is a large, agglomerated habitation, strong and compact, whose original nucleus dates back to the 12th century. It demonstrates the aggregation of a whole people around a single original settlement.

This aggregation that began suddenly, in the middle ages, to finally arrive eventually at the completed form in which it now presents itself as a closed monastery, safeguarded solid. This castle, almost, was first of all again a place of prayers and worship, but the two functions were together, because in the medieval Romanesque period, defense and prayer served the same desperate search for salvation.

The Abbey of Monte Maria (along with many other medieval monastic citadels, from the Sacred St. Michael to the fortified monastic villages of Ireland) shows that Romanesque was really a society of “monasteries” which, as Duby writes, are the places where the needs of a people became faith and art:

The fundamental functions exercised by the monastic communities in this period of Christian history explain why the spirit of reform had developed initially in the abbeys. Remaining the secular Church captive to the laic world until the beginning of the twelfth century, the abbots prevailed over the bishops, and wherever this occurred the monks triumphed, living as the most holy and rendering to God much better services. Before 1130 the major centres of Western culture, the great melting pot of new art are therefore the monasteries, and not the cathedrals“(Art and Medieval Society).

It is precisely because of its ability to respond to the protection of the many, and to propose itself as a social institution, which enabled the Middle Ages monastery to multiply itself in a few decades and grow exponentially.

Testimony of this incredible vitality is its church that would be built and rebuilt several times (think of what happened to Cluny) with an impressive rhythm, justified only by the need to progressively adapt to a social reality that grew with the same impressive progression.

Monastery of Monte Maria

The monastery of Monte Maria is a monastic foundation dating back to the 12th century. The place, an ancient settlement dedicated to Mary, was chosen by the nobles of Tarasp who built the abbey that would become the highest among the Benedictine abbeys.

There remain, from that time, the charms, the angels and the Pantocrator on the vault of the crypt, the intense colours and the Oriental influence. The frescoes have been preserved in a marvelous way thanks to the ‘oblivion’ into which this part of the monastery had fallen: consecrated in 1156 the crypt had been erected in the following era and was only restored to view in 1980.

 

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