Agnes R. Howard 

Art creates another significant link between Gordon College’s part of the globe and the Servite monastery in Orvieto. In a lush eclectic gallery of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston hangs a five-panel polyptych of the Virgin and Saints—a piece from the church of the Servi in Orvieto.

Monasteries of one kind or another have housed Gordon-in-Orvieto for much of the program’s life.  Such locations are no incidental lodging. They bear a history, local identity, shape, and imperatives of their own, and these can become significant parts of our residence within them.  Living in a space built for close relationships, accountability, prayer, and contemplation can assist efforts to do current-day versions of the same.  Or not: sometimes the gulf dividing our modes of study and worship from 13th century habits confronts us with what is lost or what is startlingly changed for the better.  The vagaries of a monastery through years, wars, and fashions hostile to Christianity ought to encourage as well.  What we see when walk out of the convent gate is not just the Italy of Christendom, a church on every corner and a nativity scene in every shop window, but European secularization in fits and starts.  The monasteries welcoming Gordon students and guests were violently closed by French troops, Napoleon’s forces, then the Italian state, forced to find a way to flourish when culture no longer deferred to scripture and prayer was counted of little public use.  The monks and nuns once in the edifices remade for Gordon purpose had to seek new ways to make old practices lively.  They had many obstacles, including those imposed by town, politics, culture, and weather.  Our very presence in vacated monastic spaces testifies to the difficulty of this renovation. Still, the challenge of taking up in a monastery is invigorating. 

Among the striking iconography in the Chiesa dei Servi di Maria, attached to the convent that now accommodates the Gordon program, is the depiction of one of Orvieto’s most-loved holy men.  The Blessed Tommaso of Orvieto was a layman who joined his life with this order, the Servi.  Set apart by his devotion, this fourteenth-century brother prayed for hours in a grotto near the convent and gladly gave to the poor, even offering his own portion to those hungrier.  One day a pregnant woman, craving figs, beseeched him to get some for her.  But it was winter, long past the season for figs.  Tommaso was touched by her pleas and prayed.  Astonished, Tomasso found ripe figs on a tree otherwise chilled and bare in the season, and brought the miraculous fruit to the expectant mother.                                                                      

In its history the convent of the Servi is rooted deep in the centuries of life within the city, and continues to bear fruit—in and out of season—for Orvietani and for the students spending semester here.                                                                                                                                                               Photograph credits to Miranda Fuchs

The Order of the Servants of Mary began in the thirteenth century, when a group of seven laymen in Florence left their worldly business and dedicated themselves to prayer, penance, and poverty.[1] Bonfiglio Monaldeschi, from one of Orvieto’s prominent families, was among these founding seven.[2] Close in time to the rise of two other important mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, the Servi received papal approval in 1304.  Like the other orders, they planted a monastery in Orvieto within decades of their beginning.  Why Orvieto? The Servi found it desirable in part because of its placement between Florence and Rome.  The order was founded in the former and took direction from the latter, though the occasional presence of popes in the city added to its virtues.  The convent extended its hospitality those traveling on the way to Rome.  At first the brothers tried to settle below the cliff, but political instability and the vulnerability of the countryside led them to seek a space within the city walls. 

Monasteries aim to be a place of peace and prayer, but human frailties and jealousies sometimes interrupt those goods.  For the first few years the Servi sought to build in Orvieto, the brothers were caught in controversy with the Premonstratensian canons at the monastery of SS. Severo e Martiri.  At some (achingly scenic) remove from the heart of the medieval city on the hill, the brothers of that abbey were concerned about the presence of another order in town, in the parish of St. Martin, within their jurisdiction.  The conflict was resolved under the intervention of Pope Clement IV, who urged the two groups to come to peaceful coexistence.   The Servi later drew in the population of the parish of San Martino.[3]

The brothers were glad to have a place to settle and worship. The Rule of St. Augustine provided a frame for their prayer and work. The Servi grew rapidly, so that by 1270 there were about 15 men in the community, led by energetic Fra Restauro, prior in Orvieto in the 1270s.   In the early 1300s the monks sought to expand their church, living space, and library.

In 1330 the brothers wished to add on to the church, continuing the work even through the plague that decimated the population in 1348.  At points they had to stop work for lack of tools.  Earthquakes also damaged the building.  But the monks requested and received permission to use materials from some structures destroyed by the earthquakes to continue construction.  Work stopped again in 1473, but the Servi were able to resume it by employing some laborers who had finished work on the Duomo.

In a city ringed with monasteries along cliffside and dotted with them throughout, sisters and brothers renowned for their piety and kindness also were figures of significance to the town.  Links between town and monastery are important.  Like many other religious houses, the Servi attracted groups of lay men and women to share aspects of their devotional life.  While these laywomen were recognized as early as the 1290s, we learn more about them through sixteenth-century Servite diarist Tommaso di Silvestro, who records short obituaries of some sisters in the 1500s who requested burial in the church.  The blessed Tommaso is the best known of the Servite’s lay brothers.  A fellowship of “disciplinati” with links to Perugia’s flagellants also shared service here.  In Catholic reforms after the Council of Trent the men transformed into a confraternity of St. Michael the Archangel.

In its commissioning and development, the art inside the church further linked the brothers with the devotional and charitable priorities of the Orvietani.  Church spaces in monasteries serve as an interesting meeting point, since monastic men and women might commission works to articulate something about their way of faith and therein share that gift with those outside the convent walls. Similarly, donating art to a monastery church allowed outsiders to contribute to the devotional life of the order.

Much of the art currently visible in the church of the Servi dates from several hundred years after its founding.  Some interior changes reflect the hard use to which the building was put over the centuries; others indicate shifts in style, resources, or patronage. In 1497 the Spanish chief stationed at the Rocca, Benedetto Crespa, provided for the marble basin to hold holy water.  Frescoes decorated the church in the sixteenth century, supplementing paintings and sculpture focused on the altars within.         

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Photograph credits to Gianna Scavo  

The number of altars rose as the Servi acquired duties for those in the parish of St. Martin and the bones of the blessed Tommaso, and altars were reduced with the later renovations of the church. Building and rebuilding is an ongoing work at the convent.  In some healthy respects, the work is never done.  Not static, constructed by one generation and fixed in stone ever after, the convent was repaired, enlarged, adapted repeatedly. The development of the building can only be traced in part, as many records from before the sixteenth century have been lost.  But archival materials record its changes more reliably after that.  At the close of the 16th century the church was weakened in its structure, especially in the roof, and needed restoration.  Many notes about expenditures for the work are included in the monastery’s records.  Damage from an earthquake in 1695 temporarily expelled the brothers.   The repaired convent in the eighteenth century included several gardens, kitchen, a refectory, granary, and large salon.  

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth ushered in a series of sufferings for the Servi: expulsion from their space during the French revolution and subsequent Napoleonic suppressions, damage to the building resulting in evacuation, and eventually the movement of the new-organized Italian state.  During the French Revolution, the community hosted clerical refugees from France.  Later, though, when suppressions were imposed on Italy, hosts and guests together were evicted, and some church treasures were confiscated.   For a time the brothers lacked even a prior.  When the community reorganized after 1816, it took in some of the order’s students of philosophy and theology.  For the Servi, difficulties followed on one another as a portion of the roof and walls collapsed in 1830.  For a time the brothers transferred their important altarpieces and relics to oratorio of St. Michael the Archangel.  Soon after, with the assent of their bishop, they abandoned the church and convent together.

Seeking a place to restore their order, the brothers considered buying the Dominican women’s convent of San Paolo just across the Corso, but relocation efforts foundered. Instead, in the mid-1800s, remodeling of the Servite church was begun under Roman Catholic architect Virginio Vespignani, brother of Orvieto’s current bishop.  These two brothers animated much nineteenth-century restoration of Orvieto’s religious institutions.  However, rebuilding efforts in begun in 1857—the year Pope Pius IX visited the city—were interrupted by fallout of Italian unification. The Servite compound was once again alternated periods of vacancy with use as military barracks.  But under the leadership of the zealous prior, Francesco Maria Ricossa (1819-1888), the church returned to Servite ownership and was refurbished according to the Vespignani plan. It opened again in 1875, taking the shape we see now. 

Art creates another significant link between Gordon College’s part of the globe and the Servite monastery in Orvieto.  In a lush eclectic gallery of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston hangs a five-panel polyptych of the Virgin and Saints—a piece from the church of the Servi in Orvieto. The travels of artwork resulted from the monks’ misfortunes. In efforts to finance necessary rebuilding, the monks decided to sell some of their art, including the fine altarpiece by Siena painter Simone Martini, (c 1320).[4] When a pair of Chilean diplomats offered to take the work off their hands in 1842, the monks were tempted.  But authorities in Rome scotched the sale and forbade removal of the work from the country.  The monks tried again in 1851, then receiving permission from Bishop Vespignani of Orvieto, to sell the piece to a townsman, Lorenzo Mazzochi, for a private chapel on condition that it stay there.  There it stayed for over four decades until Mazzochi’s descendents, ignoring the old prohibition, allowed sale of the work. Renowned art dealer Bernard Berenson processed acquisition of the painting for Mrs. Gardner.[5]

Prayer and work, art and study, community inside and out of the walls make for a worthy undertaking.  Having a study-abroad program in a monastery with meaning for a town, a landmark for centuries, is an elevated way to enter a community. 

Agnes R. Howard has taught regularly for the History and English departments of Gordon College. As often as possible, she teaches a course in "Women, Family and Religion in the early modern era" for the Gordon IN Orvieto program.

[1]  The Servi maintain a website for the order with helpful historical notes and a useful timeline of the order’s expansion. See    

[2]  Aurelio Ficarelli, Sancta Urbevetana Legio. Orvieto: Orfanelli, 1962.

[3]  This and following material on the order’s establishment and growth in Orvieto largely summarizes the history done by P. Roberto M. Fagioli, “La Chiesa e Il Convento di S. Maria dei Servi di Orvieto,” Studi Storici dell’Ordine dei Servi di Maria, VII (1955/56) 31-64. Fagioli was archivist of the church in Orvieto.

[4]  The Gardner museum acknowledges the link to the Orvieto Servites. See

[5]  The story of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum’s acquisition of the painting is recounted with documents in Burton Fredericksen, “Documents for the Servite Origin of Simone Martini’s Orvieto Polyptych,” The Burlington Magazine. Vol 128, No. 1001 (August 1986) 593-597.