The Monastery of Saint Elijah

The Monastery of Saint Elijah from the region of Lazio in Italy is a noteworthy monument that reveals artistic, cultural, political, and religious dynamics in the Middle Ages. Dating to the 6th century, this Benedictine monastery was renovated with papal support during the early decades of the 12th century in order to bring Roman values to this contentious northern frontier territory situated between the Roman papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, and thus claim it for the papacy. In addition to its Romanesque architecture and visual program - including the earliest monumental narrative of the Apocalypse from medieval Italy - the main church of the monastery features a unique dedication to the Old Testament prophet Elijah. 

This award-winning book - The Medieval Monastery of Saint Elijah: A History in Paint and Stone by Dr. Alison Locke Perchuk (Brepols, 2021) - brings the history and art of this amazing medieval complex to life.

"Blending innovative art historical analysis with archaeology, epigraphy, history, liturgy, theology, and landscape and memory studies, The Medieval Monastery of Saint Elijah: A History in Paint and Stone is the first comprehensive interdisciplinary study of a deeply intelligent yet understudied male Benedictine convent near Rome. The only monastery known to have been dedicated to the prophet Elijah in the Latin West, it was rebuilt c.1122–26 with papal patronage. Today, the monastery is represented by its church of Sant’Elia, a stone basilica endowed with its original Cosmati marble pavement and liturgical furnishings, early and high medieval sculptures and inscriptions, and vibrant wall paintings that include unique depictions of the prophet Elijah and the twelve tribes of Israel as warriors, an apse program with a distinctly elite Roman origin, and an important narrative cycle of the Apocalypse. An outlying chapel marks the site of a theophany that sanctified the landscape and gave the monastery its raison d’être. The Medieval Monastery of Saint Elijah makes significant contributions to current art historical debates concerning communal identity and the construction of social memory, artistic creativity and processes, the multisensory and exegetical capacities of works of visual art, intersections of topography and sanctity, and the effects of medievalism on our understanding of the Middle Ages."

Chapters 1-3 focus on less-known aspects of the monastery, such as its early medieval history and what has survived from the archaeological record. Chapter 4 underscores the innovative and creative facets of the abbey church during its renovation phase in the 12th century, including its distinctive dedication to Saint Elijah. This saint was selected as a monastic exemplar, along with other Old Testament figures that appear in the fresco cycles. Chapters 5-7 offer new readings of the frescoes and Roman features of the church against the backdrop of political and religious disputes at the time. The organization of the material in the various chapters offers a compelling narrative ark that continually reveals new details about the monastery and deepens the analysis of the church, its features, and its contexts.

This important publication has been recognized with the 2024 Karen Gould Prize in Art History from the Medieval Academy of America. 

To learn more about the Benedictines, their abbey churches, and their impact across Europe, be sure to check out issue 10 of Medieval World: Culture & Conflict, which looked at the "Followers of Benedict: Religion, Ritual, and Reform." 

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