The Sanctuary of Fontecolombo is located in a secluded area in a forest of centuries-old holm-oaks on the slopes of the very lush Mount Rainiero. It is the Franciscan Sinai. It was the site chosen by Saint Francis to write the Rule of the Franciscan Order. Everything is sacred here: the buildings, the pure spring waters and the forest itself because it houses the Sacro Speco, the Sacred Cavern where Saint Francis wrote the Rule.
Fontecolombo is the second place in the Sacred Valley, after Poggio Bustone, to see the presence of Saint Francis. Tradition narrates his first arrival at Fontecolombo in 1217. He was surely seen there between the spring and summer of 1223 writing the definitive Rule he would leave his Brothers.
The Rule was probably written in a grotto where the Saint Michael Chapel stands today.
This Regula Bullata (the Rule of the Franciscan Order) was solemnly approved by Honorius III on 29 November 1223.
The presence of Saint Francis in Fontecolombo is also tied to the cures he endured for the terrible eye illness that afflicted him until his death. He underwent a gruelling operation here where he was cauterised from his ear to his eyebrow. The pages from Franciscan sources that relate the operation are
steeped in a lofty lyrical tone. They recount the arrival of the doctor, Saint Francis’ conversation with the fire the doctor used to heat up the iron, the fear and flight of the friars before the beginning of the terrible operation and the miracle that permitted Francis not to feel pain.
Saint Francis went to Fontecolombo to visit a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was renamed Santa Maria Magdalene in the 17th century. The woods that surrounded the area and the humble chapel were owned by the Farfa Abbey. The structure may have been used as a storage space for equipment and
as a hideaway to protect the monks of Farfa. Records of the Farfa Abbey that prove ownership of this area by the Abbey allow for the following hypothesis: the monks at Farfa temporarily ceded the mount
that housed the hermitage to a cleric by the name of Rainiero, thus the name Monte Rainiero.
According to local tradition, the name was changed from Monte Rainiero to Fontecolombo by Saint Francis himself “because of the presence of a clear and fresh natural spring” where many white doves quenched their thirst.
The large church at the convent was consecrated on July 19, 1450, by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, the diocese of Treviri, and dedicated to Saint Francis and Saint Bernardine of Siena. The building is marked by its simplicity despite various renovations undertaken including the reconstruction of the portico which was carried out in 1940.
The interior layout has a single truss covered nave. The wooden choir dates to the 17th century. Above the choir, the window depicts Saint Francis and the vision of the writing of the Rule.
Along the right wall we find two valuable 17th century wooden sculptures. One of them depicts the Crucifixion with Saint Francis kneeling at Christ’s feet. The other high-relief sculpture celebrates the miraculous episode of the Confirmation of the Rule by God which preceded the confirmation by the Pope.
The church has undergone various transformations yet it has never lost its original imprint. The first transformation took place in 1644 when the choir was extended. Later the windows in the presbytery were opened and in 1712 a new room was added to the sacristy. Modifications to the windows and the rose
window were introduced in the 20th century.
Five stained-glass windows were donated to the Franciscans in 1925 by the famous opera singer, Mattia Battistini. Starting with the first window on the right of the entrance, the subjects depict: the offering of the location of the Sanctuary to Saint Francis and Saint Francis donating his cloak to the woman of Posta. To the left of the door there is a scene depicting the operation on the Saints’ eyes followed by an episode of Saint Francis with the birds.
Above the portal, the stain-glass window features the crèche at Greccio.
The lunette in the portal houses a painting of the Madonna with Child with Saint Francis and San Ludovico of Tolosa by her side.
The very charming cloister to the right of the church is the centre around which the buildings of the convent are built.
The so-called Little Convent was built during the 15th century. It held the dormitory, the refectory and the kitchen. During the same century, a clothing factory was annexed to the convent where Franciscan habits were made.
The part of the convent called the small fortress dates to the 16th century and is comprised of eight rooms. The guestrooms and the dormitory, which are still in use today, were built during the 1680s.
Crossing the open space in front of the convent one reaches a gate with the words, “Take off your shoes because sacred is the land where you are.” This gate opens onto a path with 14 niches housing the Way of the Cross in majolica, a work by the Neapolitan school dated 1745. Along the path we find: the Hermitage of Saint Francis, the church of the Virgin Mary and the Sacro Speco.
The so-called Hermitage of Saint Francis was rediscovered in 1947 and is has remained practically unaltered with the exception of two modifications in the 15th and 18th centuries.
Further on is the Church of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Magdalene.
Historians who have studied the wall structure of the building have retraced formulas that date it to the first decades of the 13th century: the pointed arch in the apse that rests on a squared altar and the frescoes in the basin.
The façade, originally hut-shaped, was renovated in the late 13th century. The bell tower rises from the horizontal crowning. According to local legend Francis called the friars to prayer with this bell.
In the small apse there is a fresco in a poor state of conservation depicting Christ on the throne with the Madonna and Child on the right and a barely visible figure on the left.
Along the right wall there are two frescoes dated between the 14th and 15th centuries representing a woman saint that cannot be identified, perhaps Saint Cuneconda, and Saint Mary Magdalene. The other wall contains a 17th century fresco with Saint Clare. During restorations in 1921, a red drawing of the Tau
came to light in the small window. Local legend says it’s a work by Saint Francis himself.
After the Church of the Magdalene, visitors are invited to see Saint Michael’s Oratory which is situated halfway between the cavern and the chapel. The Oratory holds the Sacro Speco: the long and narrow split in the rock that resembles a sepulchre.
This is the most sacred place in the hermitage: amongst the rocks, a simple wooden cross commemorates the presence of Saint Francis.
According to local legend, the fissure of the Sacred Cavern was created by the earthquake that occurred at the moment of Christ’s death. The much-laboured task of writing the Rule of the Franciscan Order took place in the cavern.
Saint Francis must have written it during the so-called Period of Saint Michael’s Lent, for whom the oratory was named after.
Above the door in Saint Michael’s chapel there is an inscription that testifies to Pope Sixtus’ visit in 1476.
Inside the oratory, on the altar, we find an 18th century copper representation by Brother Emanuel of Como which depicts Saint Francis receiving the Rule from God.
After the small Church of Saint Michael, the visit continues on to the Grotto of Friar Leo. Local legend narrates that when the Lord appeared to Saint Francis to give him the Rule, Leo raised his head and left an imprint of his head on the rock.
Further on, protected by a fence, we find the holm-oak tree stump where Francis had a vision of God. The tree fell under the weight of the abundant snowfalls in the winter of 1622. The wood from the tree was used in 1645 by John of Pisa to sculpt the scene of the apparition which can be found in the main church of the convent.
Returning to the open space in front of the convent, we reach the Fonte delle Colombe (dove’s spring) from which the Sanctuary got its name. The path leading to it is immersed in breathtaking nature that has been left unchanged since Saint Francis walked the same earth.
The path is dotted by three chapels: one dedicated to the Ascension of Christ, one to Saint Anthony of Padua and the third, located near the spring, is called the Chapel of the Little Rule. The first two chapels were built in the 18th century and they house terracotta tiles showing scenes of Saint Francis’ life in the Rieti area. In the last chapel, which dates to the 17th century, there are six terracotta tiles.