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Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey

Pauline Kenny

Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey (Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore) is a stunning abbey perched on the top of a cliff in the Crete Senese area. The Abbey was built in the 15th century. Monks live on the premises and the church is used for religious purposes. The Great Cloister, beside the church, has a famous fresco series about the life of St. Benedict by the painter Sodoma.

The abbey closes midday, so be sure you get there well before noon or in the later afternoon. There is a gift shop, run by the church, just beside the main building.

Directions

The trip from Siena to the Abbey at Monte Oliveto is worth it just for the drive; seeing the abbey and the frescoes is an added benefit. As you go south from Siena, you drive through the Crete Senese area of Tuscany.

From Siena, take road 438 to Asciano. Continue on road 451 to Monte Oliveto. You can also get to Monte Oliveto from the SS2 at Buonconvento.

Parking is in various fields near the Abbey or along the road. Be careful when parking; one year we drove down a steep dirt road to a parking area and somehow managed to go off the road and had to push the car out. If I remember correctly, it was a combination of a very sharp turn and a steep, dirt road with a sharp drop off on the side.

Walking from the parking area, you first come to the famous gate with a Della Robbian Madonna and Child ceramic, then you will see the restaurant and caffe (I have had good reviews of this restaurant, but we have not eaten here). From there you walk downhill through the woods to the Abbey. A very interesting store run by the monks is to your left before the Abbey.

Opening Hours

The opening times and the schedule for chanting are posted in Italian beside the main door. We have translated these signs below giving the Italian version in parentheses. The standard European 24 hour clock times are used.

Hours sign at Monte Oliveto. 09/99

Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Abbazia di Monte Oliveto)
This is a house of God. Please dress and act respectfully. Thank you.
No sleeveless tops, no shorts.

Visiting Hours (Orario Visite)
9:15 to 12:00.
15:15 to 17:00 from the last Sunday in October to the last Sunday in March. (Winter hours)
15:15 to 18:00 from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October. (Summer hours)

Holy Masses (Sante Messe)
Holidays (Festivo): 8:00 and 11:00 with Gregorian chanting, 17:00 winter, 17:30 summer
Saturday (Sabato): 17:30
Weekdays (Feriale): 7:00 and 18:15 with Gregorian chanting

Monastic Liturgy of the Hours (Liturgia Monastica delle Ore)
Holidays (Festivo): Lauds (Lodi) 8:15, Vespers (Vespri) 18:30
Other days (Feriale): Lauds (Lodi) 8:00, Vespers (Vespri) 18:30
Sext (Sesta) 12:30
Nones (Nona) 15:30
Compline (Compieta) 21:00

If you want to hear the Gregorian chanting, go on Sunday at 11:00am (visit the frescoes first, because they close at noon) or weekdays at 6:15pm (after the visiting hours for the frescoes are over).

The Life of Saint Benedict Fresco Series

The Great Cloister is beside the church and has the St. Benedict fresco series painted by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (called "Sodoma") in the late 1400s. These frescoes tell the story of the life of Saint Benedict. The frescoes are large and very beautiful and well detailed. They are on the four walls of the cloister, which has an inner courtyard that brings natural light onto the frescoes. You walk in a long hallway around the four sides of the cloister to view the frescoes.

The Great Cloister at Monte Oliveto, photo by Janet Zinn

The Great Cloister at Monte Oliveto, Janet Zinn

Why is the painter called Sodoma?

According to Giorgio Vasari, who in the 1500s wrote the book "The Lives of the Artists", Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was called Sodoma "because he always surrounded himself with boys and beardless youths whom he loved beyond measure." He also had several wives, many children and many pets. His favorite pets frequently appear in his frescoes. In one of the St. Benedict frescoes he has painted himself and his pet badgers (see photo below).

Fresco Titles

Each fresco is titled in Italian (titles are painted below each fresco). Below is the English translation for the title of each fresco. These translations taken from a book I bought at Monte Oliveto; "Monte Oliveto Maggiore: The abbey born in a dream". It is for sale in the store at Monte Oliveto. You can also buy herbal tinctures and home made liqueurs as wells as religious articles at the store.

How Benedict mends the cribble that was broken.
This fresco has a self portrait of the artist and several of his pets.

The ones marked with an * are the ones we have photos of on the website.

  • St. Benedict confers the rule on the Olivetan Monks - Benedict in a white robe sitting and handing open books to a group of monks also in white robes
  • How Benedict leaves home and goes to study in Rome
  • How Benedict leaves the school in Rome
  • * How Benedict mends the cribble that was broken - self portrait of Sodoma and his pet badgers and goose
  • * How the monk Romanus gives Benedict the hermit's habit - excellent hill town in background
  • * How the devil breaks the bell
  • * How a Priest, inspired by God, brings Benedict food on Easter day
  • How Benedict instructs visiting peasants in sacred doctrine
  • * How Benedict, tempted to impurity, overcomes the temptation
  • * How Benedict, with the sign of the cross, breaks a glass of poisoned wine
  • How Benedict completes the construction of twelve monasteries
  • How Benedict receives the two boys from Rome, Maurus and Placid
  • * How Benedict delivers a possessed Monk by scourging him
  • How Benedict, entreated by the monks, produces water from the top of the mountain
  • How Benedict causes a hedging bill that has fallen to the bottom of the lake to return to its handle
  • How Maurus, sent to save Placid, walks on the water
  • How Benedict changes into a serpent the flask of wine hidden from him by an errand-boy
  • * How Florentius tries to poison Benedict
  • How Florentius sends evil women to the monastery
  • How Benedict sends Maurus to France and Placid to Sicily
  • How God punishes Florentius
  • How Benedict evangelizes the inhabitants of Monte Cassino
  • How Benedict drives the enemy from the stone
  • How Benedict revives a young monk on whom a wall had fallen
  • How Benedict tells the monks where and when they had eaten outside the monastery
  • How Benedict reproves the brother of the monk Valerian for having violated his fast
  • How Benedict exposes Totila's sham
  • How Benedict recognizes and receives Totila
  • How Benedict foretells the destruction of Monte Cassino
  • How Benedict obtains flour in abundance and with it restores the monks
  • How Benedict appears to two far-off monks and shows them the design for the construction of the monastery
  • How Benedict excommunicates two religious women and absolves them after they were dead
  • How Benedict has the body of Christ placed on the body of a monk whom the earth would not receive
  • How Benedict pardons the monk who, wishing to flee from the monastery, encounters a serpent along the road
  • How Benedict releases a peasant who was bound, by only looking at him

Resources

Slow Travel Photos: Slow Travel photo gallery of frescoes

www.comune.siena.it: Comune di Siena (in Italian)


Photo of the Great Cloister Janet Zinn, 2003. www.jczinn.com

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