Exploring the depths of Procida’s Abbey of Saint Michael

I visited Procida in the bay of Naples earlier this year and after a delicious fish meal by the shore, I prepared to explore the most intriguing corner of the island: the Abbey of Saint Michael the Archangel. It’s perched on the highest point of Procida, in the “Terra Murata” surrounded by fortified walls built in the 16th century to protect settlers from pirates. I first spotted the walled section of the island when I sat down to lunch in the port of Corricella. It looked like a dramatic and imposing fortress next to the pretty colours of the lower village:

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After climbing up the steep hill I stopped in front of the church on the site, which has a statue of St. Michael on its facade, and the Latin words “Defende Nos in Praelio” or “Defend us in Battle”, a line from the Catholic Prayer to St. Michael introduced by Pope Leo XIII in 1886.

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In Catholic tradition, Michael is an Archangel who protects the Church, along with Gabriel and Raphael. Michael, whose name means Who is like God?, is seen as the chief opponent of the Devil and he has the highest ranking among the Archangels. He is one of the “Seraphim”- the closest angels to God. He is believed to have powers of intercession, which also appear in the history of the island of Procida.

According to local tradition, during an invasion led by the Ottoman admiral Barbarossa in 1535, St. Michael came down from heaven to protect Procida. By making the whole of the high point of the island appear to be surrounded by a ring of fire and by sparking a major thunder and lightning storm, Michael managed to scare Barbarossa away, as the story goes. From that moment on he became the patron and protector of the island.

WP_20150607_076I started the tour on this terrace in the abbey, with stunning views of the sea. In ancient times the site was probably a temple to Neptune, the god of the sea. His special representation here was “Neptune the farmer” due to the role water plays in keeping Procida’s land fertile, and the fish the sea provides as sustenance for its people. I imagined how you would be easily inspired to worship Neptune surrounded by these incredible views of the Bay of Naples.

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To the left you also have a view of the former prison on Procida, where criminals were looked up until 1988, including political prisoners such as senior members of the Italian Fascist regime.

WP_20150607_073Inside the church, I stopped to look at the beautiful paintings behind the altar by 17th century painter Nicola Russo, from the school of Luca Giordano.

WP_20150607_089One of these, painted in 1680, depicts the moment St. Michael appeared to save the island of Procida from invasion.

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An intriguing element of the church was the presence of trapdoors in the floor, which were used by various religious groups on the island to access the catacombs underneath the abbey where they lay their dead to rest. According to my guide, they used to hang dead bodies upside down so that all of their fluids would drip away. This way they dried out the corpses in preparation for mummification. The catacombs underneath the church and lower chapels are unfortunately the only section that is closed to the public at the moment as they are in need of renovation work.

This is the trapdoor for the religious group of the Holy Spirit, or the “whites”, the oldest  of the four religious congregations of the island made up originally of noble families from Procida.

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I then looked around the pretty side chapels in the church. Here I saw one of three 17th century organs, which were all very beautiful but in need of restoration. There was also a collection of votive offerings in the chapel dedicated to the Madonna of Lourdes. If people prayed for healing of a certain body part and they were cured, they would bring a votive offering to the church in the shape of their body part. So these included silver hands, backs, hearts, breasts and legs.

The next chapel along contained a stunning statue of St. Michael, made out of gold and silver by Neapolitan silversmiths in 1727.

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My guide also pointed out this interesting baptismal font. She said the bowl was originally from Pagan times before the abbey was built on the site. It was probably a bowl dedicated to Dionysus, the wine god. When they constructed a Christian place of worship, they added the wings onto the Pagan face to make it look like an angel!

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We then headed down below the church to see the lower quarters, which included libraries and chapels. We passed an anchor found in the sea around the time of St. Michael’s apparition. According to local legends, the Saracen pirates were so afraid of the storm St. Michael created that they fled immediately, leaving their anchors in the sea.

The first chapel we saw was originally the seat of The Turchini confraternity up until 1885. They were dedicated to the immaculate Madonna, hence the decoration on the ceiling.

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This chapel is now seat of the “Gialli” congregation, who are devoted to St. Michael. Founded in the 19th century, they are the most recent confraternity on the island. On this level you can also see some of the manuscripts and documents from the abbey’s library, These include maps and musical scores.

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After this we headed down another level to the “Segreta” or “Secret” chapel.

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This is the original meeting place of the congregation of the “Rossi” or “Reds” formed in 1733. The eye is initially drawn to three intricately decorated coffins in the centre of the room. I liked the pale blue, yellow and pink colours in this chapel, and the pretty tiles covering the floor.

The walls are surrounded with 18th century wooden pews where members of the congregations and island leaders would sit to hold reunions and pray. It felt very special to be inside this “secret” meeting place deep down in the heart of the abbey.

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On the way out of this chapel, we stopped to admire several votive paintings. Sailors who survived fierce storms at sea would have these made in honour of St. Michael, to thank him for having saved them from disaster. Most of them portrayed scenes of ships at sea, some had inscriptions mentioning the date and people who were involved in the various incidents, and they all displayed an apparition of St. Michael or another holy figure in the corner.

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The catacombs are on another level below these chapels. I’m hoping that next time I come back they will be open. I want to see what’s under the trapdoors.

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This was one of the most interesting places I’ve been to in a long time– I highly recommend you visit it during a trip to Procida. It would be particularly exciting to be here during the many festivals the island celebrates, which include the procession of the “mysteries” on Good Friday, when allegorical wagons representing the life and death of Christ are paraded through the town. St Michael is also celebrated with several festivities around his feast day on Sept. 29. So those would both be good times to participate in some local traditions as well!

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