Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Monday, December 21, 2015

For Christmas: A Paganica Church Built on Rock

To celebrate Christmas in very Christian Rome, RST decided to post about another favorite church. We went a bit afield this time, eschewing our usual modern churches and even travelling outside of Rome, into the Abruzzo province.

The church above is the "Madonna degli Appari" - the sanctuary, or hermitage, of the Madonna of the "appearances."  As you might guess, the church was built on the site where a believer saw the Virgin appear; in this case it was a young shepherdess, who said she was instructed by Mary to build a shrine at the site.

The site is set in the magnificent Gran Sasso - the peaks that reach heights of 10,000' in central Italy, the highest mountains in Italy south of the Alps (and, yes, we've climbed them).  In this case the church is built into, and as part of, the rock ("sasso" means "rock", and Gran Sasso, well, a really big rock).  The original shrine probably dates to the 14th century, and was expanded after that, including into the 18th century.  The frescoes appear to be mainly from the 16th century.  (Information available at the site and also on these Web sites: and  There are more tales on the site, such as the one of the priest who didn't believe the shepherdess and fell ill.
Gorgeous, restored 16th-century frescoes.

The church has had its share of threats.  Two bombs of the Allies landed near it in 1944.  And it was damaged by the devastating 2009 earthquake centered in nearby L'Aquila.  The church is fewer than 5 miles from L'Aquila, outside the town of Paganica.  (You may remember President Obama meeting near L'Aquila with the G8 in that year  - a video of him visiting is on YouTube. Seven years later L'Aquila is still a ghost town; more about that in another post.)  The church and the frescoes are recently restored and the church was reopened in 2011.

We came to the sanctuary pretty much by accident.  We were looking for a hike or walk that was substantial but still let us catch the train back to Rome that evening.  On the recommendation of our hotel clerk, we took the train to Paganica, and serendipitously she--the hotel clerk--was on the same train (she was now living in Paganica because almost no one lives in L'Acquila).  Her house there is still boarded up but she must continue to pay her mortgage, she told us.  She drove us the few km from the train station into town.  From there we asked around about the walk she had mentioned, and discovered it was a newly created trek, often on boardwalk, with the Stations of the Cross, and ending at the sanctuary.  We were lucky the sanctuary was open for some other visitors when we showed up. By the time we had crawled through the rock pathway and back, it was closed again.

The full-blown walks to, and celebrations at the church take place around Easter.  Nonetheless, we decided this dramatically sited and painted church was a good way to acknowledge the Christmas holiday.
Looking back towards the door; note earthquake bar.

Easier to see here the rock pathway to the left - it goes alongside the church, a creek and the road.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a lovely church. A place to see the next time we are in Rome. When we were in Rome in 2010, I went to L'Aquila with some English-language teaching professionals for a conference. How heartbreaking to see this gorgeous city in ruins. The people we met were brave but dispirited. The government was not following through on the aid promised.

Glen just gave me a new book to read: The Spolia Churches of Rome: Recycling Antiquity in the Middle Ages, by Maria Fabricius Hansen. Have you seen it? I'm taking the book back with me to see all these churches again with new eyes.