By Laura Ieraci
GROTTAFERRATA, Italy — Pilgrims to Rome, interested going off the beaten path, may want to venture about 30 minutes out of the bustling city and step into the 1,000-year-old Monastery of Santa Maria in Grottaferrata, unique in Italy as the last vestige of the many Byzantine-Greek monasteries that once dotted the southern Italian landscape.
Here, the chant and prayers of the Catholic Byzantine Church, typical of Italy’s historic Byzantine south, remain preserved.
Grottaferrata is located in the hills that surround Rome, called the Castelli Romani. “A Greek Catholic island in a Roman Catholic sea,” as Father Michel Van Parys, the abbot, described it, the large monastery was once swarming with monks of the Byzantine-Greek rite. Despite efforts to revive the community, the monks have now dwindled to eight — six are grey-haired. But the monks keep the daily office of prayers — mostly in Greek, with some Italian — and all are welcome.
The monastery was founded in 1004 by St. Nilus, a monk from Italy’s southern Calabrian region. Tradition has it that he and his disciples were headed to Rome and stopped to rest near a crypt in the hills close to the Eternal City. The crypt, which dates to the first century B.C., had been used as a pagan temple but was converted into a Christian chapel in about the fifth century. The Virgin Mary appeared to St. Nilus there and instructed him to build a church in her honor. He died a year later, after having established an abbey on the site. His fourth successor, St. Bartholomew, brought the church to completion in 1024. The basilica incorporates the ancient crypt as a side chapel.
At least two mosaics date to shortly after the church’s construction. Above the original doors is a 12th-century mosaic of Jesus on a throne, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist. A monk, represented in miniature, stands at Jesus’ feet. The larger mosaic that runs above the arch of the sanctuary symbolically depicts the scene of Pentecost: a white lamb in the center sits at the foot of an empty but bejeweled throne; six apostles are on each side. Those immediately on either side of the throne are Peter and Andrew, to whom tradition attributes the foundations of the Western and Eastern Christian churches respectively.
Also above the sanctuary are mosaics of St. Nilus and St. Bartholomew, which date to the 18th century. Off the nave to the right is a chapel with 17th-century frescoes, depicting the lives of the two saints.
The baroque, ceiling-high marble iconostasis, which distinguishes the altar space from the nave in the East, is not original, but was added later. The exact date and origin of the Marian icon, encased at the top of the iconostasis, is unknown, although tradition says it was donated in 1230 by Pope Gregory IX.
The abbey remains very much at the heart of the town of Grottaferrata. Though mostly Roman Catholic, the locals are much attached to the abbey and some attend the Divine Liturgy; others sing in the all-male choir.
In its heyday, the monks operated a large printing press for Eastern Catholic liturgical books in Greek and Slavonic. Printing machines with Greek keys are now on display in the abbey’s museum.
(To reach the monastery from Rome, take the train from Termini station to Frascati. Grab a taxi outside of Frascati’s train station for about 2.5 miles to Grottaferrata.)