If you are of a spiritual or religious nature you might have a favorite space…a sanctuary of sorts, where you find a certain kind of peace. I think that it is nearly impossible to put the nature of that peacefulness into words. You know it when you see it…or, rather, when you experience it. Sometimes, maybe, you can recapture part of that peacefulness by reflecting back on that special place even though you are far away from it. Being out in nature might be a special place for some people. Maybe a library or a church works for others.
A little over ten years ago I encountered such a place on a trip to Italy. My daughter was spending a summer semester in Perugia, in Umbria, and my wife and I went over at the end of her term to visit and help her move back home. We stayed about six days in Perugia and fell into the rhythm of the place. We would stroll along the Corso Vannucci during the evening’s passeggiata, stop for gelato or a glass of wine, and generally suck in as much of the place that we could. The town is ancient; it was an Etruscan city before the Romans arrived and has gone through a great deal of turmoil over the centuries. The massive Etruscan walls and city gates are still in evidence.
All of this is background just to introduce the place. One afternoon I was walking with my daughter through some back streets and past the huge city gate and we came upon an old church. Perugia is full of churches…you are never more than a couple blocks from a church. But this one had something different about it. We had arrived at the Temple of Saint Michael the Archangel. The place is known by several names: Tempio di Sant’angelo or Chiesa Sant’Angelo or Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo and it dates back to the 5th century. The columns are salvaged from an older Roman temple that once existed on the site. There was probably an Etruscan temple before that.
Unlike many churches in Italy, this one is very plain and built in the Greek style. It is basically round with various alcoves and side chapels. There are remnants of ancient frescoes on the walls and burial crypts beneath the floor. Sunlight streams in through a windowed inner gallery supported by the old columns.
I think it is the intimacy of the place that appeals to me. I’ve been there several times, years apart, and it always has the same affect on me. There are usually no other visitors. It is off the beaten path and at the end of a residential street. The church offers one of the few places in Perugia where grass grows and students seek it out the grounds as a place to relax or study. On one occasion, an art class was touring the place and enduring what sounded like a boring lecture from their professor. That should have demolished any interest the students had in the place.
Being as old as it is, there are many relics and remnants of earlier times. The Knights Templar had possession for a while and there are carved memorials covering burial crypts. The baptismal chapel is an alcove with light streaming through a single window. There are remnants of ancient frescoes on the walls. The early Christian fish symbol is present in a carving. There are various plaques and engravings going back centuries. Being a Christian house of worship for fifty generations, I guess the church has earned many devotional decorations and additions. There was a major renovation carried out in the late 1940s that uncovered the older frescoes.
Here are a few other images from the place.
In one alcove there is a “life size” marble statue of St. Michael the Archangel but it seems relatively modern and almost as an afterthought. It really doesn’t add anything to the place or the serenity that permeates it.
Some of the early Roman temple columns were of different heights with slightly different capitals. That didn’t seem to matter and it adds a little more charm to the place.
Of all the places I’ve been and the many churches I’ve wandered through here or in Italy or even in Peru, I’ve never come across a more spiritually charged place. I think that this is a personal response and I hope you might have encountered a special sanctuary of your own somewhere.