As the name of the church of San Paolo inter vineas suggests, it is located outside the city walls of Spoleto, ‘in the vineyards’. It is part of a ring of very old churches on the eastern and southern edges of the city, a ring that includes churches such as San Salvatore, San Ponziano and San Pietro extra moenias. The San Paolo is not far from the Parcheggio Spoletosfera 1 parking, where we left our car.
The original church of San Paolo may have been built as early as the sixth century. In Book 3 of his Dialogues, Pope Saint Gregorius the Great (590-604) describes how an Arian bishop of the Longobards, the people that had invaded Italy in 568, came to Spoleto. The Arian demanded a church from the local bishop so that he could practice his heretical religion. The local bishop refused, and then the Arian bishop threatened to take the church of Saint Paul by force. Here is what happened next:
“The keeper of the church, understanding this news, in all haste ran thither, shut the doors, and with locks and bolts made them as fast as he could: and when it was night he put out all the lamps, and hid himself within. The next morning, very early, the Arian Bishop came thither with many in his company: meaning by force to break open the doors. But suddenly by miracle the locks were cast far off, and the doors of themselves, making a great noise, flew open: and all the lamps, before put out, were lightened again by fire descending from heaven: and the Arian Bishop that came to enter the church by violence, was suddenly struck blind, so that other men were fain to lead him back again to his own lodging. Which strange accident when the Lombards there about understood, they durst not any more presume to violate Catholic places: and so it fell out wonderfully, by God’s providence, that for as much as the lamps in St. Paul’s church were by reason of him put out: that at one and the self same time, both he lost the light of his eyes, and the church received her former light again.”
Although the story may be considered pious nonsense, there is no reason not to equate the church of Saint Paul with San Paolo inter vineas. A convent of Benedictine nuns has been attached to the church since the end of the tenth century. In about 1219, these nuns would be subjected to profound changes. Cardinal Ugolino di Conti, who was heavily involved with the new Franciscan Order, turned the nunnery into a convent of the Poor Ladies, a new order founded in 1212 by Franciscus and Clara of Assisi and later known as the Poor Clares (see Assisi: San Damiano). This probably kick-started a reconstruction of the old church of San Paolo. In 1234 the new church was consecrated by cardinal Ugolino, who by now had become Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241).
The Poor Clares stayed at San Paolo for nearly two centuries, but in 1396 they were forced to relocate to a safer space within the walls of Spoleto. At the time the city was riven by clashes between different factions and the location of the convent in the vineyards left them exposed to danger. The nuns moved to the church of Sant’Agata, which is where we now find the Roman theatre and archaeological museum of Spoleto. The convent at San Paolo was left abandoned until it was reoccupied by a community of Observant Franciscans in 1461. Their monastery was suppressed in 1810 during the Napoleonic era and again in 1865. The San Paolo is still a consecrated church and judging by the images on Italian Wikipedia, it still attracts considerable crowds of worshippers. However, when we were in the church in September of 2018, we were the only visitors.
Things to see
The San Paolo is a very simple church. The Romanesque facade from the thirteenth century features little decoration, but the rose window is very nice. In the lunette above the entrance we see a faded fresco of a Madonna and Child, painted in the fifteenth century. That is about all there is to say about the exterior of the church, so let us quickly go inside.
The interior of the church got a makeover in 1771, which by the mid-twentieth century was considered a dismal failure. It was then decided to give the church back its original Romanesque appearance, or something like it. This restoration project was finally completed in 1965. If we study a plan of the church, we may notice that the building is not perfectly rectangular. The walls are slightly skewed and the front of the church is a little wider than the back. In the apse we find a modern replica of the famous crucifix by Alberto Sozio, made in 1187 and now in the Duomo. I was a little surprised to find such a replica here, as the crucifix was originally in the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo and does not seem to have a connection with the San Paolo.
The main reason to visit the San Paolo is a series of early thirteenth century frescoes that can be found at the back of the church. My travel guides calls the frescoes “magnificent”, but keep in mind that travel guides have a tendency to exaggerate. The frescoes are very interesting and can be counted among the oldest in the region, but know that they are also weathered and badly damaged. Some are barely legible, but the best ones can be found on the right wall of the sanctuary. Here we can admire several scenes from the Book of Genesis. We see how God creates the Earth and Adam (Genesis 2:7), how he warns Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17) and how he is seated between two four-winged cherubs. To the right of the window is another fresco showing Adam naming all the animals (Genesis 2:20) and God creating Eve from one of sleeping Adam’s ribs (Genesis 2:21-23). The cycle reminded me a lot of a similar, but much larger cycle that I had seen in the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina in Rome.