Santa Maria di Propezzano abbey
The Santa Maria di Propezzano Abbey is a religious building of Romanesque-Gothic style located in the Vomano valley, in the municipality of Morro D’Oro, province of Teramo, in the Abruzzo region.
Together with the neighbouring monastery it used to be part of the homonymous abbey which belonged to the order of the Benedectine monks. The cenoby was built during the same period as other important abbeys, such as San Salvatore of Canzano and San Clemente in the Vomano.
The name “Propezzano” seems to be linked etymologically to the “Madonna Propiziatrice ai miseri” (the Madonna who favoured the poor)”, after which the church is named.
Brief historical notes
According to tradition, the building of the church began following the miracle of the apparition of the Madonna on the 10th of May in the year 715.
In spite of the loss of the documents relating to the abbey and the fact that medieval sources have never been found, the narration of the miraculous event has been passed down in the 15th century fresco inscription on the remaining plaster, legible in part still today, painted by order of the canonic Andrea Cerone from the town of Atri.
The inscription narrates that three German pilgrims stopped here to rest under a small, cornel tree during their trip back from the Holy Land. They had tied their horses and their saddlebags containing some religious relics from Palestine, to the branches of the tree. Shortly after having done this, the tree started growing rapidly and the branches were soon too high to allow the retrieval of their bags, in spite of their efforts to do so.
Astounded and frightened, they gathered in prayer asking God for an explanation of the prodigy. It is narrated that they immediately fell asleep and that the Madonna manifested herself in their dream, asking that a church be built in that place. Upon awaking, they started building an altar at the foot of the cornel tree. The tree quickly returned to its original height and they were thus able to retrieve their bags.
Memory of the event has been further illustrated in the 15th century paintings found inside the church as well as in the 17th century frescos in the cloister of the abbey.
Next to the important abbey complex, the present day church displays an articulate structure of Romanesque style with slight Gothic influence.
The main elevation is characterized by the stratigraphy of various construction interpositions as demonstrated by the overlapping of works executed in different eras. The foundations of the primitive building date back to the high medieval period. In fact, the church underwent two radical transformations: the first one at the beginning of the 12th century and the second one around the 14th century.
The most ancient part of the building is the first Romanesque chapel, probably dating back to the 12th century, with the lower “oculo” now slightly off-centre with respect to the higher one, and the small portico with ogival arches supported by stocky columns and by the lower part of the front of the building.
The lateral extensions were added to the main building at the beginning of the 14th century. These determined the division of the internal hall into three aisles: the higher front wall which ends with the horizontal crown decorated by small, intertwined, pensile arches; the ceiling rose with arched, terracotta lintel and the Atrian portal.
On the left of the main elevation stands the bell tower added in the 15th century.
The Holy Door
Externally, on the left side adjacent to the small narthex, there is a stone portal attributed by Francesco Aceto to the “opera della bottega” of Raimondo Del Loggio, and dating back to the early 1300s.
The door, called “Porta Santa”, used to be opened only on the 10th of May and on Ascension Day, to pay homage to a tradition of uncertain date. It was remounted, according to Moretti, by will of the Acquaviva family, in the 16th century, in occasion of the celebration of a holy year. This construction was moved from its original setting on the parsonage wall of the church, where it had been placed at the centre of the apse chapel and where, traces of its removal, are still visible today.
The characteristics of the decorations of the round archivolt, consisting of four concentric arched lintels, together with the architectural style, evoke the portal designed by Raimondo del Poggio, found on the right side of the cathedral in Atri and therefore also called the “Atrian portal”.
The inside hall, built according to a basilican plan, and which extends on three aisles of almost equal size, is marked by impressive round arches of Romanesque-Gothic style. The pillars display semi-columns in correspondence to the lower part of the arches. The parsonage area is raised starting from the middle of the final span. The movement of the last spans constitute the apses. The ruins of the apse walls of the small church of 1215, found and left in open view following restauration works, are visible at the height of the terminal area of the central aisle.
On the right of the entrance there is a holy water basin, sitting on a smooth column base supported by an overturned Romanesque capital decorated by leaves arranged on two rows.
Inside the church there are a few frescos, the most interesting of which are those high up in the central aisle, those on the wall above the arch of the second aisle on the left, dating back to 1499, as seen below the Kneeling Virgin, describing the miraculous event of the rapid growth of the cornel tree, the apparition of the Virgin and the beginning of the construction of the church. A brief description of the stories represented appears at the base of each of five images. There is also a painting theme of an “Annunciazione”. On the opposite wall on the left, a brick ogival niche contains interesting remains of a painting representing a Crucifiction.
Next to the abbey monastery we find the cloister, on a square plan, with a double row of arches supported by firebrick pillars below which there are covered corridors which allow access to the monastery. At the centre of the courtyard, in the open area, there is a 16th century octagonal brick well with a sloping cover supported by two columns. The construction of the cloister occurred at two different times. Contemporary to the church was the lower arcade, built during the early years of the 14th century, with octagonal section pillars, while the arches and the round section columns of the higher arcade were added in the 16th century. The lunettes of the cloister were frescoed in the early years of the second half of the 17th century, by the Polish master Sebastiano Majeski (1585-1660). On the south side, the refectory displays interesting frescos such as the “Crucifiction” and the images of San Francesco and San Benedetto to highlight the succession of the monastic orders in the convent. Worthy of note is also an interesting “Last Supper”.