We would never have heard about the Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie al Sasso if we had not by chance stumbled upon a website about the churches of Pontassieve. Pontassieve itself is a municipality east of Florence with a population of about 20.000. The built-up area of this comune consists of just 4,7 percent of its territory. The rest is forests, fields and vineyards. The Santuario discussed here is not actually in the town of Pontassieve, as one might mistakenly assume, but some ten kilometres to the northwest, on a densely forested hill which offers a tremendous view of the surrounding countryside.
History of the Santuario
We parked our car in what appeared to be a car park, but was in fact no more than a crude open space between the trees, about 400 metres to the west of the sanctuary. We continued on foot and reached our destination after a few minutes. The Santuario has been a site for pilgrims for hundreds of years. There would have been a small oratory on the hill, at a height of 564 metres above the valley, since around the year 1000. It was a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary that led to the construction of a bigger sanctuary in the Late Middle Ages.
The date of the first apparition was 2 July 1484. The Virgin appeared to two sisters, shepherdesses who had come to the oratory to pray for their terminally ill father. Not only did the Virgin appear, she also managed to miraculously cure the sisters’ father. On 22 August of the next year, there was another apparition, this time called La Grande Apparizione, apparently because it was witnessed not just by the sisters, but also by others who had come up to pray with them. It was now decided that these miracles warranted the construction of a larger sanctuary, and on 2 July 1490, six year after the first apparition, the first stone was laid for the Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie al Sasso that we see today. The Santuario was extended and embellished in the centuries that were to follow.
The facade of the complex is a beautiful seventeenth century colonnaded gallery, which encloses two sides of a green lawn. The third side is a wall and gate, through which one enters the complex, and the fourth side is open. There one can admire the surrounding areas from above. We had arrived in the rain, but once we got to the sanctuary, the sun was out again and we could thoroughly enjoy the panoramic view. We were truly in the country here. All that we saw from our hill was forests and fields, with just a few odd buildings here and there.
The Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie al Sasso consists of two oratories: a lower one – which is the original oratory, but has been renovated on multiple occasions – and an upper one, which is the one built after 1490 and is basically a small church. It was a quiet day when we visited, and the only people we met were an older couple and a young woman, who had come here to pray while frequently checking her smartphone for new messages.
The upper oratory is quite sober, but it has a few interesting paintings on the wall, mostly from the seventeenth century. The high altar at the back of the church is slightly older: it dates from 1504 and contains a modern wooden statue of the Virgin. About a metre below her feet is a stone sarcophagus in which a piece of rock is kept. This is the ‘sasso’ – Italian for ‘stone’ or ‘rock’ – i.e. a piece of the rock on which the Virgin appeared to the shepherdesses.
The sanctuary has two interesting medieval icons, but it is not easy to find out which is which. Both are paintings on wood of the Madonna and Child with Saints. One is in the small chapel to the left of the altar in the upper oratory, while the other icon is in the lower oratory. A sign near the entrance attributes the latter to one “Giovanni Benintendi known as il Ceraiolo”. It is quite hard, if not impossible, to find out more about this artist. There was a sixteenth century painter named Antonio del Ceraiolo, but that is clearly someone else. He was not called Giovanni Benintendi, and the painting is much older anyway, dating perhaps to the late 1400s. If you search for this Benintendi in Italian Wikipedia, the first result is the page about the Santuario, which merely repeats the text found on the sign near the entrance.
Even more problematic is the fact that the sign claims that the painting called Madonna con il Bambino e Santi by Benintendi is in the lower oratory, while the Santuario’s own website states that a painting with exactly this name is in the chapel in the upper oratory. The name Giovanni Benintendi is, however, not even mentioned. It is probably best to assume that the icon we now find in the chapel in the church is the oldest of the two (it certainly looks older) and that it was originally above the altar of the small oratory. It would have been moved to its present location and replaced by a newer icon, the current one, when construction of the larger sanctuary started after 1490. The newer icon is called “la venerata immagine della Madonna delle Grazie” by the Santuario’s website. It also shows a Madonna and Child with Saints, who are unlabelled and are not easily recognised. The one on the left is presumably John the Baptist; the text on his scroll should probably read “ECCE AGNUS DEI” – “Behold the Lamb of God” – but it actually reads “ECCE ANG”, and what follows is illegible. Near the feet of the Madonna is a kneeling figure in colourful robes. It would be interesting to know who he is, but I have been unable to identify him.
The website of the Santuario with some more images and a movie can be found here.