According to some authors, the Church was erected in the IX century: in fact, the graven slab of stone on the front of the Church is dated back to this time. Thus, the current Abbacial unit would have been erected on the remains of a more ancient Church!
The foundation of the Abbey is dated back to the beginning of XI century (year 1011), as a result of the munificence of the noble family Bencivenga Fonzi, masters of Acquasparta and Massa Martana. The Abbey, which was erected on the south-eastern side of the Church, would have been given San Romualdo, who was passing through this place while in travel to Orvieto. According to some other authors, the Abbey would have been founded just by San Romualdo. Also, the Order of Benedectines settled in here.
In the year 1138, the Archbishop of Ravenna Gualtiero issued the diploma of concession of the Abbey to the Order of Camaldoleses. Thus, in this period the Abbey was under the chapter of S. Apollinare in Classe of Ravenna; whereas, subsequently, the Abbacy would have passed under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Todi.
On the basis of stylistic and historical considerations, the building of the current Church is dated back to the years 1160-1170.
In the year 1256, Benedetto Caetani, who became subsequently “Pope Bonifacio VIII” (!), was nominated Prior of Santa Illuminata. He was celebrated by the verses of Dante Alighieri in the Inferno of the Divina Commedia; nevertheless, he is also famous for the institution of the Jubilee.
The Abbey of Santa Illuminata develops around a rectangular court, whose north-western side is bounded by the Church.
Unlike many other Churches, which are oriented towards south with their front and towards north with their apse, the Church of S.Illuminata has got the peculiarity to be oriented towards east with the front and towards west with the apse. The reason for such a peculiarity is not clarified: some authors speculate it should be ascribed to the religious tradition of Assisi (which in Latin corresponds to “Oriens”); the orientation of the Church towards Jerusalem is also hypothesised.
The Church, which is an aisleless one with a semicircular apse, is covered by a roof with wood trusses. Currently, the presbytery rises only by one step above the floor level. Actually, the stagger of the apse through two levels suggests that a crypt and a presbytery higher than the current one existed.
The front is structured with a central portal with hollow arches and two lateral blind arches. The central portal is overhanged by a mullioned window with two lights (“bifora”). Over the bifora, a stone slab, which is dated back to the early Middle ages (IX century), may be admired: a cross, which delimits four panels with symbolic Christian figures, is engraved in this slab: in particular, two birds, the right one with a halo on his head, are recognisable in the higher panels; a man with an arch and a deer are engraved in the lower panels.
Inside, the south-eastern wall (the left one, when watching the presbytery) was painted in fresco: the frescoes are currently hidden by plasters, which have allowed their preservation, only emerging to some limited extent. Within the apse as well, a fresco representing the Virgin with the Holy Child and the face of an Angel is recognisable: such fresco is dated back to the year 1430 and is attributed by some authors to Rogerino da Todi, who worked in the Church of S. Niccolò in San Gemini. Further frescoes have been recently discovered in the northwestern wall of the Church near the presbytery (right wall).
The other three sides of the court are delimited from the bodies of the Abbey. Although they underwent remarkable changes over the centuries, these bodies still showed clear evidence of the original structure, which allowed – as far as possible – its recovery.
On the south-western side, a body of the building had been lost and on its remains the current body has been erected, following a work of authentic “archaeological” verification of the course of the original boundary walls: it is hypothesised that the chapter-house was located in this volume.
On the south-eastern side, a rectangular body is situated. The ground floor is divided into three halls. The first of these rooms is narrow and surmounted by a barrel vault, recovered on the basis of its original imposts: it is hypothesised that it represented the entrance of the Abbey. The central hall is the widest and probably represented the refectory. In the last hall, situated at the eastern end of the body, the kitchen was maybe located.
The north-eastern body presents two accesses from outside, restored from the existing traces of the original entrances: one in the north-eastern side; the other, which is wider and with an arch, in the north-western side. This body opens to the court through two Roman arches, with a different width: possibly, these arches represented the portico of a traditional cloister.
The first floor was probably destined originally for dormitory, vestibule, etc. At its eastern side, one of the most amazing and ancient rooms of the Abbey is located. This room is characterised by the presence of two mullioned windows with two lights (biforas) and a wonderful chimney: it is hypothesised that it represented “the room of the Prior”.
The court is paved by a very ancient cobbled paving, with the characteristics of the Roman cobbled paving. The court is framed from both the arches of the bodies of the Abbey and two stairs leading to the first floor, which are surmounted by a little portico; a delightful pulpit, set in the parapet of the right side stairs, makes the frame of the court precious.
The archaeological importance of the Abbey of Santa Illuminata is integrated by the remains of ancient thermae of the Roman age, named “Terme o Bagno di Papiniano”, which rise close to the Abbey within the farm.
The Abbey of Santa Illuminata, acquired by the family Spina in 1988, has been restored at present. This important and hard work of recovery has been conceived and carried out since 1997 with huge devotion, love and expertise by Carmelo Spina. The photographs of how the Complex of S.Illuminata appeared in 1988 are available.
Spina Family has continued with this difficult work, in order to accomplish the project of recovering the precious historical and artistical witnessing of the Abbey of Santa Illuminata and opening again the Church to adoration of believers. Such an exacting work is being carried out under the guide of Soprintendenza ai Beni ambientali, architettonici, artistici e storici dell’Umbria.by