Today, the small Church of San Fabiano is a convent of extraordinary beauty. It is also known as the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Foresta or more simply, La Foresta. Those who seek peace or like Saint Francis want to run away from the “pomp of the world” will find this secluded place the ideal spot.
In the summer of 1225, Cardinal Ugolino ordered Francis to go to Rieti where Honorius III and his court would put him in the hands of papal physicians so he could receive medical treatment for his eyes. Francis left from Assisi accompanied by four brothers: Leo, Bernard, Angelo and Masseo. When they were near Rieti, St. Francis found out that the city had prepared festivities in his honour. In order to escape the event, he found accommodations outside the city in the Church of San Fabiano where he was given the use of a house.
The Church of San Fabiano, owned by the Rieti Curia, was looked after by a poor priest. Saint Francis was offered a place to live near the priest’s vineyard.
Historians believe that Saint Francis lived at the Sanctuary between September and October 1225.
Two important events are linked to this sanctuary: the miracle of the grapes and the Canticle of All Creatures.
The miracle of the grapes is connected to the mass of worshippers who flowed to San Fabiano to honour Saint Francis. The pilgrims completely ruined the vineyard next to the church which was the only source of income for the poor priest who had given shelter to Saint Francis. In order to reimburse him, Francis promised an abundant harvest. When the grapes were picked, an extraordinary amount of wine was produced by the few bunches of grapes that were actually gathered.
The Sanctuary is primarily linked to the Canticle of All Creatures. It is believed that it may have been written during his stay here even though critics tend to allocate its writing to Saint Damian’s.
Despite this fact, the beautiful and diverse locations brimming with lush nature near the La Foresta Sanctuary seem the perfect inspiration for those everlasting words.
History of the Sanctuary
The church that existed at the time Saint Francis stopped here was the Church of San Fabiano. There are documents on the church that date to the 11th century. The Church of Santa Maria della Foresta was erected later. Wadding, a famous 17th century historian on the Franciscan Order, wrote that the second
church was consecrated by George IX in 1217. In actual fact the first document
ever written on the church is dated 1319.
Locations and Art
The road that leads to the sanctuary is bordered with niches erected in 1950 housing majolica tiles depicting the Way of the Cross. The niche closest to the entrance of the sanctuary shows the Madonna of the Grapes, a tribute to the miracle Saint Francis performed here.
Church of San Fabiano, we reach the Cavern, the little grotto where Francis retreated to pray.
The rediscovery of the church came about thanks to the desires of the Franciscan friar Arduino Terzi and the 1947 restorations promoted by him.
The interior was at one time completely covered in frescoes. Some very important paintings that were inspired by the late 13th century Roman school and the paintings in the Basilica in Assisi still remain. The surviving frescoes can be dated between the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
The little church also houses the tub of the miracle of the grapes where the abundant production of wine was produced by a few bunches of grapes.
The heart of the convent is the small but charming 15th century cloister which is set with octagonal pilasters.
Before entering the convent, one can admire the sculptures by Lorenzo Ferri that depict the Canticle of All Creatures which some say was written at the La Foresta Sanctuary. The saint is depicted with his friends: Angelo, Leo, Bernardine and Masseo.