Key to Umbria: Spoleto

St Isaac of Monteluco (11th April)

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Detail of a fresco (12th century) of

St Michael appearing to St Isaac and another monk

Cripta di Sant’ Isacco

An entry in the Roman Martyrology under 11th April reads: “At Spoleto, St Isaac, monk and confessor, whose virtues are recorded by Pope St Gregory”. 

A copy of the account of St Isaac given by Pope Gregory I (below) (BHL 4475) is in the Leggendari del Duomo di Spoleto.

St Isaac in the Dialogues

According to the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, St Isaac, a man of God, arrived in Spoleto from Syria “at the time that the Goths first invaded Italy” and lived there “almost to the last days of the Goths”.  When he first arrived in Spoleto, “the keepers” of a church allowed him to stay there over night.  However, on the third night, one of the keepers denounced him as a “hypocrite and one that desired to be reputed an holy man” and ejected him by force.  The keeper was immediately possessed by “a wicked spirit” and had to implore St Isaac to drive it out.  As the news of the exorcism spread, “men and women, rich and poor, came running, every one striving to bring him home to their own house”.  Many offered land and/or money for an abbey, but Isaac refused and left the city.  “Not far off, he found a desert place, where he built a little cottage for himself”.  He attracted many converts who “under his discipline and government, gave themselves to the service of almighty God”.  Some of his new followers argued that “it were good for the necessity of the abbey to take such livings as were offered” but St Isaac refused, saying: "A monk that seeketh for livings upon earth is no monk”.

Isaac became renowned for his gift of prophecy and for the miracles that he performed:

  1. One night, he told his monks to leave a certain number of spades in the garden and to “make pottage for our workmen”.  Later, a number of thieves, one for each spade, entered the garden, as Isaac had expected.  God inspired them to turn from their planned robbery and instead to use the spades to till the ground.  Isaac greeted them the next morning with the words: "God save you, good brethren: you have laboured long, wherefore now rest yourselves”.  He gave them the pottage and then admonished: "Do not hereafter any more harm: but when you desire anything that is in the garden, come to the gate, quietly ask it, and take it with God's blessing”.

  2. On another occasion, some beggars approached him in tattered rags and begged for new clothes. He quietly sent one of his monks into the surrounding woods to look for a hollow tree and to bring to him the clothes that he found there.  The monk did as he was told and duly found the clothes, which Isaac gave to the beggars.  They, of course, recognised them as their own and were filled with shame.

  3. On a third occasion, a man sent his servant with two baskets of meat for Isaac and a request to be remembered in his prayers.  The servant hid one basket in a bush and gave only one to Isaac.  Isaac knew what had happened and warned the servant that a poisonous snake had slipped into the second basket.  When he found this to be the case, he too was filled with shame.

Gregory I had two source of information for this account:

  1. One was “the holy virgin Gregoria” who, when she was young, had sought Isaac’s help in order to avoid marriage and to become a nun.  She had later moved to the nunnery next to the monastery of Gregory I in Rome.

  2. The other was “the reverent man Eleutherius”, who, as Abbot of San Marco, had been “familiarly acquainted with” Isaac.  He had later moved to the monastery of Gregory I in Rome, where he had become close to Gregory I.  At the time that Gregory I was writing, Eleutherius had recently died.

Nevertheless, there are a number of oddities about it:

  1. There are many similarities between the account of St Isaac and that of St John Panariensis: both were men of God who came to Spoleto from Syria in the 6th century; both were initially viewed with suspicion; and both established eremetical monasteries outside the city.

  2. The miracle of the reformed robbers is a parallel of a miracle told of St Felix of Nola.  [I have not been able to track this down.]

  3. The miracle of the servant who hid one of two baskets of meat is a parallel of a miracle of St Benedict: the lay brother Exhilaratus hid one of two bottles of wine he was taking to St Benedict and the prescient saint warned him that he would find a snake in it when he retrieved it (Dialogues, Book II, Chapter 18).

The Dialogues place the account during the time of the Goths in Italy: that could mean any time from the accession of Odoacer in 476 to the defeat of Totila in 553.  In fact, the most likely point at which orthodox monks would have left Syria was after appointment of the Monophysite Severus as Patriarch of Antioch in 512.  If St Isaac lived in Spoleto “almost to the last days of the Goths”, he must have died in ca. 550.

The Dialogues do not give a location for the monastery founded by St Isaac.  However, local tradition insists that this was at San Giuliano on Monteluco, which is documented in two letters of Pope Pelagius I (556-61). 

St Isaac and Syria

St Isaac is named in:

  1. the Legend of the Twelve Syrians, although these Syrians were said to have arrived in Spoleto the Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-3); and

  2. the legend of St Laurence (BHL 4748 d), who was one of an “infinita turba” (boundless multitude) of Syrian immigrants.  By this route he found his way into the Legend of the 300 Syrians, a construct by local scholars in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in which a large group of Syrian monks arrived in Umbria in 516.

Relics and Sarcophagus of St Isaac

The relics of St Isaac were originally preserved in the crypt of San Giuliano, where they were subsequently translated into a fine sarcophagus (12th century).  The relics and the sarcophagus were translated to Sant' Ansano in 1502 and were kept in what is now the crypt of Sant' Isacco (beneath its apse).   The original sarcophagus was sold in the 19th century, the relics were moved into a new one that was donated by Pope Pius IX, who was Bishop of Spoleto in the period 1827-32. 

  1. The relics have recently been enclosed in a copy (1999) of the original sarcophagus, which stands in front of the back wall of the crypt of Sant' Isacco. 

  2. The original sarcophagus was recovered by the Commune on the initiative of Giuseppe Sordini and  is now in Room 5 of the Museo Nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto.

  3. The 19th century sarcophagus was used in 2000 for the relics of the Blessed Simon of Collazzone and is now under the high altar of Sant' Ansano.