The refectory in the abbey Monte Oliveto Maggiore

Abbey Monte Oliveto Maggiore
Saint Benedicts life in incredible frescoes

Abbey Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Tuscany/Italy (2017) – Where the green rolling hills of the Tuscan landscape all of the sudden end and the rather harsh looking land of the Crete Senesi takes over, there you'll find Tuscany's most-visited abbey, the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore. With that, you meet the brotherhood of the Monaci Benedettini di Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto and my new found friend Brother Joseph. The monastery is renowned for its great Renaissance frescoes in the "Chiostro Grande" showing the story of the life of Saint Benedict. The frescoes are very colorful and detailed illustrations on the four walls of the cloister. Besides the fact that these frescoes are a great storyteller, they truly are masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.
The Crete Senesi – where green turns into grey
It's like a step into a different world when you enter the Crete Senesi area in Tuscany approaching the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. What moments ago was still lush and green is now bleak and grey. If you think about it, it's a reasonable adjustment for the eyes before visiting a Benedictine monastery. Because there you don't expect really anything rich and lush. The Crete Senesi is considered the land of clay, in this part of the beautiful Tuscany you won't find many vineyards or olive trees, it's mainly cultivated fields and only once in a while, you can spot some single olive trees or rows of cypresses. Don't get me wrong, also this piece of Tuscan land has its charm but there is no comparison with the beauty of the land you just came from.

1313: Bernardo Tolomei starts to build the abbey
The abbey is situated in between a forest of cypresses and oak trees. The necessary walk through this little wood has something to it since the walkways look and feel almost reverent, reinforced by the little ancient chapels you'll discover kind of hidden in the overgrown forest. At the end of the walkway, you arrive at the abbey which originally was founded in 1313 by Sienese Bernardo Tolomei, who had retired in this isolated place on the property of his family, after he converted to Benedictine order. Some years later he began the construction of the abbey. The structure as you see it today has been completed during the following centuries.

More than 30 frescoes tell the story of Saint Benedict's life
The true attraction of the abbey are the frescoes of the great cloister. In more than 30 frescoes on the walls of the four sides of the cloister, the artists Luca Signorelli and Antonio Bazzi illustrated at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century the life of Saint Benedict. The frescoes are amazingly vivid, telling in a universal language about the different stages in Benedict's life.

Brother Joseph – the very cool Dutch monk in the abbey
A walk through the monastery takes you also to the Monte Oliveto Refectory, one of the largest spaces of the abbey. Vaulted ceilings, frescoes showing events of the Old and New Testament and the impressive long wooden tables, made out of cypress wood, where the monks meet daily to eat their meals. Standing outside of the room and imagining the monks sitting in this grand circle and eating, when the unexpected happened: all of the sudden the soft voice of Brother Joseph, one of the less than 30 monks living in the abbey, broke the silence. "Do you want to come in and take a closer look?", he asked and smiled. Joseph, originally from the Netherlands, speaks fluent Italian, English, German and of course Dutch. And while showing us around, he confesses his love for soccer and that his heart would be still a bit broken that the Dutch lost against Germany the final in 1974 World Cup in Munich 1:2. Turned out, Joseph still remembered every little detail of the game and proved it. And he later also came up with reasoning to why his team might have lost. "You know", he said and almost smiled a bit, "they thought they couldn't lose this because they were that good. But they didn't realize they played against Germany."
Thanks to Brother Joseph who turned out to be an incredibly nice man and more so a very welcoming host in a place where you don't even expect to be hosted, we got to see in a private tour the very famous "Monumental Library", the abbey’s large Library comprises more than 40,000 volumes, pamphlets and parchments that have been carefully restored by the monks over the years. From the library, Joseph brought us to the abbey's Pharmacy, also a real treat to see the 17th-century vases, a collection of medicinal herbs. Joseph made clear that he enjoyed the talk we had at times in German, in Italian and even in English about very worldly things but also about the life he's living in the abbey for almost 30 years now. And I am sure we would have gotten lost in talks if Joseph wouldn't have been in charge of the Refectory that evening. "I have to make sure that my brothers get something to eat tonight before I go to join them for tonight's Vesper", he almost apologized before he left us to ourselves again.

The monks of Monte Oliveto Maggiore are proud of their wines
The wine cellar in the courtyard of the abbey below the cloister houses huge wooden barrels with some great wine in it. "We're proud of our wine" a monk originally from the Equator tells us, and that the grapes are from the surrounding area. The final event of the day was the Sunday evening prayers of the monks in the beautiful church.  The Gregorian chants of the monks are something very special to listen to. Many people who visit the abbey just come to hear the monks sing. The monks at Monte Oliveto Maggiore chant in their conventional Mass, at Vespers and Compline, the service for the evening prayers. And yes, also Joseph was chanting on this evening and he did so with a big smile in his face.


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