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entry Feb 2012

Church of Santa Maria Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone

Santa Maria Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone is one of the two main houses of worship in the area of Naples known as Pizzofalcone (or Mt. Echia, or Monte di Dio); that is, the hill overlooking the Egg Castle. (The other one is S.M. degli Angeli a Pizzofalcone.) The Egiziaca church is also known popularly as Immacolata a Pizzofalcone, since it is the seat of the parish of that name. (There is, however, a nearby church with the legitimate name of Immacolata a Pizzofalcone, but it has been closed for many years.) The entrance is at via Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone 30, where very large wooden doors open onto the courtyard in front of this absolute jewel of a church.

The church is named for Santa Maria Egiziaca (known in English as Mary of Egypt and also Maria Aegyptica), the patron saint of penitents and revered by Christians of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Coptic faiths. The church and adjacent convent were founded in 1616 by sisters of the Order of St. Augustine when they left an earlier church called Egiziaca a Forcella (still in existence) for larger and more secluded premises. (These two churches may be the only active ones in Italy dedicated to this particular saint. There used to one in Rome, but it was deconsecrated and closed in the mid-20th century. Also, there used to be a convent in Milan dedicated to S. Maria Egiziaca and the Holy Spirit; it existed between 1555 and 1782.)

The church and convent of S.M.Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone were redesigned in 1648 to the plan of Cosimo Fanzago, the most prominent architect in Naples at the time; the work, itself, then passed to the direction of F.A. Picchiatti, among others, in 1655. The entrance is marked by a picturesque stairway flanked by two columns, all set into a convex facade (photo, above). The interior design is ingenious (even if Fanzago's original design was slightly altered by later architects): it is very symmetrical and built on the idea of two overlapping Greek crosses (i.e. a cross that has all limbs of equal length). There is a major cross and a smaller, minor one. The latter is rotated 45 degrees such that from above the impression is of a compass showing the 4 major points at N, S, E & W and the minor cross indicating the intermediate points. Thus you have eight equally spaced points around the perimeter with chapels in six of the eight end spaces. The other two spaces are occupied by the entrance (W), and the main altar (E). All of this is beneath a relatively high vault (photo, below right). Although built in the Baroque period and generally of Baroque design, the Egiziaca church is especially interesting in that it is in a small group of churches in Naples from that period that rejected the Baroque concept of making the interior as spacious and ornamental as possible. Santa Maria Egiziaca has a simple stucco interior with a majolica tile floor (from 1717) (photo, below left). It is a beautiful and efficient use of space enhanced by an intimacy (because of the smaller size) more reminiscent of Greek Orthodox churches rather than large Roman Catholic ones.

The convent was closed in 1808 under Murat in what religious historians in Italy term "the first suppression" (because there was a second one shortly after the unification of Italy in 1861). The church was reopened but the convent was not. Currently the "religious premises" consist of the church, itself, and the small northern part of the original building (on the left as you face the church), currently the seat in Naples of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate). The rest of the original building, that is, the large convent, now serves secular purposes (as is the case with most ex-monasteries and convents in Italy.)

Most of the artwork in the church is from the early 1700s, although there is a large canvas on the high altar from the 1600s by Onofrio Palumbo of The Virgin, Santa Maria Egiziaca and Saint Augustine. There are two paintings by Paolo de Matteis from 1717 depicting The Virgin and The Saints. As well, there are sculptures in wood by Nicola Fumo, also from 1717, of a Guardian Angel, the Immaculate Conception, and Saint Michael Archangel. Noteworthy, as well, is the marble main altar by Giuseppe Bastelli, from 1738. It displays sculpture by Giuseppe Sanmartino, sculptor of the famous Veiled Christ. The altar also displays multi-hued marble inlay of the crests of Neapolitan families who helped finance the building of the church.

Of some social interest is the fact the some of the early financing for the church also came from John of Austria as a reward to the inhabitants of the area served by the new church for having remained faithful to the Spanish crown during Masaniello's Revolt (1647). (John of Austria was the son of the king of Spain and had been sent to Naples to put down the rebellion.)

Somewhat beyond the scope of this entry (but useful if you plan on going on any quiz shows!) is a mention of how pervasive this patron saint of penitents is in Christian hagiography. Icons of Mary of Egypt are abundant in the Orthodox and Coptic faiths and, as well, there are numerous paintings of her in the Latin church, including ones by A. Vaccaro, de Ribera, Tintoretto, and Luca Giordano. (That last one, sadly, was stolen from the other Egiziaca church in Naples, mentioned above, in 1993 and, to my knowledge, has not been recovered). Farther afield, she crops up in Robert Graves' The White Goddess (1948): "...Mary of Egypt can be identified with "Mary Gipsy", a virgin with a blue robe and a pearl necklace. Otherwise known as Marina, Marian or "Maria Stellis". She is supposedly a remote descendant of Aphrodite, the love goddess from the sea." There are also at least two 20th-century operas based on the life of Mary of Egypt, by John Travener (1992) and Ottorino Resphigi (1932). Perhaps the foremost example that comes to mind combines music and literature: Mary of Egypt appears as one of the three Penitent Women at the end of Goethe's Faust. They are: the woman who washes Christ's feet with her tears (in Luke, ch. 7), the Samaritan woman at the well (in John, ch. 4 ), and Maria Aegyptiaca. They offer prayers to Mater Gloriosa to intercede for the salvation of Faust's soul, and the text of those prayers was then incorporated into Mahler's magnificent symphony no. 8, the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand."


Ruotolo, Renato. "Santa Maria Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone." Entry in Napoli Sacra, Guida alle Chiese della Città. Itinerario 12. Sopraintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici. Pub. Elio De Rosa, Pozzuoli, 1996.

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