Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

  entry Aug 2015

The Cattolica Monastery in Stilo and the Basilian-Byzantine Complexes in Calabria

map of the the Calabria region of Italy (left)
general article on Calabia

The UNESCO description of the item(s) indicated in the title includes this:

The Basilian-Byzantine complexes in Calabria constitute a group of religious buildings that not only testify to the "Byzantisation" of the Italian peninsula, through the military campaigns of reconquest conducted by Constantinople, but also to the spread of Eastern monasticism...The Cattolica monastery [pictured] in Stilo is the most representative of the Byzantine Basilian monuments. At the time of its construction, Stilo was the leading Byzantine centre of the region and a magnet for hermits and Basilian monks, who found shelter in its caves, creating an extremely important rock settlement in the area. This is the context for the Cattolica monastery, built between the tenth and eleventh centuries...

The “Cattolica Monastery in Stilo and Basilian-Byzantine complexes” have been on the list of nominees for the UNESCO World Heritage list for almost 10 years, but so far have not made it, and I don't know why.*(see note) Southern Italy is well represented on the list —Naples, Paestum, Amalfi, etc., (see this link to the UNESCO lists) so it's not biased regionalism or anything like that. Maybe it's a general perception, even among those who stayed awake in Medieval European History 101, that not much happened in the south between the fall of the western Roman Empire and the coming of the Normans, who founded the Kingdom of Sicily (which became the Kingdom of Naples). That's about 600 years, give or take, in which nothing happened. Really?

Southern Italy has been largely ignored by most historians of medieval Europe. Since the region was both prominent and prosperous in antiquity, one might have expected more curiosity...they typically have glanced south only briefly, to consider the Normans, and thereafter have largely concentrated on developments from Rome northward...[but] this early medieval period, southern Italy was a giant laboratory, one in which politics were tested and where Byzantium, the Lombards, the Islamic world and the Latin West constantly intersected.
Before the Normans: Southern Italy in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries,
by Barbara M. Kreutz, 1991 U. of Pennsylvania Press

Nothing happened? Here are a few things: the Gothic Wars raged (535-553) and devastated much of Italy; the Greeks retook Italy; the Greeks lost it again to the Lombards; the Lombards lost it to Charlemagne, the “Father of Europe”; Islam was born and quickly spread to Sicily and parts of the southern peninsula; religious controversy in Greece drove many Eastern Christians to southern Italy; these Greeks built many churches and monasteries in southern Italy like the ones they had in Greece and adhered to the monastic rules laid down by Saint Basil the Great (330-c. 346), one of the fathers of Eastern Christian monasticism (thus, the adjective “Basilian”). I left out a lot, but, again, from the UNESCO description:

Byzantine Calabria underwent a slow process of orientalisation of all forms of religious life (rites, cults and liturgy), which accompanied the remarkable spread of churches and monasteries, founded by Eastern monks, that preserved and transmitted the Greek and Hellenistic tradition.
With a little time and patience, you can still see bits and pieces of this interesting Greek presence in the south. Just think, when someone asks you about the Greek presence in southern Italy, you can look amused and say “Oh, are you referring to Magna Grecia or to the Basilian-Byzantine presence?” (Do look amused, by all means.)

So, the Cattolica monastery in Stilo is the best example. The town of Stilo is in the province of Reggio Calabria in the region of Calabria, only 10 km inland from the Ionan Sea at the bottom of the “toe” of the boot of Italy. The Cattolica is a tiny red-brick structure like the religious buildings in the Peloponnesus, Armenia and Anatolia. The church has a Greek cross plan within a square and three apses symmetrically arranged around a central dome. The vaults are supported by columns taken from ancient buildings in Magna Graecia. Also, the name “Cattolica” meant simply a church with a baptistery. The Cattolica contains a bell installed in 1577 after the church converted to Latin rites. And really also, there is an Arabic inscription on the premises that says “There is only one true God,” which almost certainly means that at some point the structure was used by Muslims.

There are other examples of Basilian-Byzantine religious architecture in Calabria:

Santa Maria della Roccella in Squillace (prov. of Catanzaro);
San Giovanni Teresti in Bivongi (prov. of Reggio Calabria);
Santa Maria del Pathirion in Rossano (prov. of Cosenza), one of the finest Basilian monasteries of the region;
San Marco in Rossano (prov. of Cosenza);
Santa Filomena in Santa Severina (prov. of Crotone);
Baptistery in Santa Severina (prov. of Crotone).

[Also see this related item on monasteries and churches in the Cilento area.]

*note to "I don't know why." - Maybe I figured it out. One of the most recent (2015) additions to the UNESCO list is "Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale" on the northern coast of Sicily. It is a multi-structure site of nine civil and religious structures dating from the era of the Norman kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194).  It is an outstanding example of cultural syncretism and certainly a worthwhile addition to the list, but as Barbara Kreutz observes (text box, above) interest in southern history seems to begin again only with the Normans.

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