A glance at signs and symbols in the Abbey of Goleto

Wandering around the ruins of an old church or monastery tends to remind me of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is a walk my family used to take to the ruins of St. Bartholomew in Layston, near Buntingford. I also remember the mysterious atmosphere of sites such as Tintern Abbey in Wales. When I visited the partly ruined Abbey of Goleto in Avellino Province, Campania, I sensed a similar feeling.

This monastery, built by St. William of Vercelli originally for the spiritual guidance of nuns in 1133, suffered a period of decline and pillage when it was closed in the 19th century. However, it was reopened and partly restored in 1973 by Father Lucio Maria De Marino, and the Little Brothers of the Jesus Caritas community arrived in 1990.

It is a fascinating place to explore, and like many medieval sites, it has several slightly hidden signs and symbols to discover if you take a closer look.

goleto8Many of the nuns that Goleto originally housed came from the richest families of the Kingdom of Naples. Guided by prominent abbesses such as Febronia, Marina I and II, Agnese and Scolastica, the community expanded and the nuns became “renowned for their saintliness”. The convent also collected a lot of precious works of art and controlled some of the surrounding land.

When looking around its ruins, I saw several “feminine” elements, including this figure, which the site’s information describes as a Roman funerary sculpture depicting a Roman matron. Matrons in Roman times were married women who were considered symbols of feminine dignity.


The Chapel of St. Luke in the heart of the monastery is described as its “jewel” by the abbey’s brochures. Finished in the 13th century, it is reached by a set of steps which has a stair rail in the form of a serpent, one of the oldest mythological symbols, with an apple in its mouth. Can you spot it?


Above the entrance to the chapel is an inscription explaining that it was built by the Abbess Marina II to house some relics of Luke the Evangelist.


Inside, you can see the remains of frescoes depicting the most prominent abbesses, including Scolastica below. It is a small dainty chapel with a light, airy atmosphere. A statue of St. William stands in the corner by the window, with a wolf at his feet. According to local legends, William also built the nearby church of Montevergine with only a donkey to help him. When a wolf killed and ate the donkey, William scolded it and said it had to replace the donkey. Sensing it had become entangled in a divine plan, the wolf obeyed.


williamandwolfThe chapel of St. Luke is also interesting to observe from outside. If you take a closer look at its exterior, you can see several faces, gargoyles and figures of animals and mythological creatures. Here are some that I spotted:



You can also look out for these faces, which are up on the corners of the roof of the building. Other symbols on the building include a hand, a shell, a mystical rose and a half-moon.


Nearby is the Febronia tower, which is named after the abbess Febronia who had it built in 1152 to defend the monastery. It is a rare example of a fortification within a religious complex.

WP_20160329_079I noticed several ornamental patterns and symbolic figures on the tower. I later discovered these panels are from a funerary monument built here and dedicated to M. Paccius Marcellus, who was a primus pilus centurion, or senior officer of the Roman Scythica legion. You can see his name mentioned in the inscription below, and a legionary eagle, symbol of power.


Here are some more military and sacred symbols in the walls of the tower.



The last abbess died in 1515, and Goleto was united with a local monastery, leading to its second phase: “the Age of the Monks”.  During the 18th century the Neapolitan architect Domenico Antonio Vaccaro built the large church on the site. This fell into disrepair during a period of neglect after the King of Naples, Joseph Bonaparte, abolished the monastery in 1807. It is roofless, but it retains its sacred feeling.

goletomainchurchOther aspects that should not be missed are the underground corridor that leads to a crypt where dead bodies were prepared before burial, and the pretty medicinal garden in the courtyard.


The Abbey of Goleto is certainly one of the jewels of the Avellino province. I was intrigued when I was in its grounds and I have also thought back to it a lot since returning to Rome from my trip to this area of Italy. For more ideas about what to do on a day out from Avellino, please see here.


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