Tuesday, February 14, 2023

St Antoninus of Sorrento

February 14th is of course known throughout the world as St Valentine’s day, and in the post-Conciliar calendar, is celebrated liturgically as the feast of Ss Cyril and Methodius, the evangelizers of the Slavs, since the former died on this day in the year 869. However, the southern Italian city of Sorrento, on the bay of Naples, keeps the day as the feast of its patron Saint, the abbot Antoninus.

A statue of St Antoninus in the piazza in front of his basilica in Sorrento. One of the miracles attributed to him is the rescue of a child that had been swallowed by a whale or sea-monster, but was recovered safe and sound from the creature’s belly through the prayers of the Saint. The sea-monster is here seen under his foot, copied from representations of such creatures on ancient Roman sarcophagi.
He was born near Ancona in the later part of the eighth century, and early in life became a monk in one of the many dependent houses of Monte Cassino. The Italian peninsula was wracked by endless wars and chaos in that era, which drove Antoninus to leave his monastery and migrate to Castellamare, a town at the beginning of the peninsula of Sorrento, where he became fast friends with the local bishop, St Catellus. An oratory which the two of them founded on nearby Monte Faito in honor of St Michael the Archangel (who has a special fondness for southern Italy) after receiving a vision of him there is still visited by pilgrims to this day. For a time, Antoninus lived at this oratory, but later, at the insistent invitation of the citizens of Sorrento, left his solitary life and entered a monastery in the city, later to become its abbot.

The story is told that shortly before his death in the year 830, Antoninus said that he wished to be buried neither inside nor outside the city wall, and was therefore buried within the wall itself. Not long after, the city was besieged by the Duke of Benevento, and his attempts to knock down the section of wall near the Saint’s tomb with battering rams completely failed. The Saint then appeared to him in a dream and not only rebuked him, but administered to him a severe beating; on waking, the duke was not only covered in bruises, but learned that his daughter had been possessed by a devil at the very moment when he had begun his attack on the city. This led him to abandon the siege and pray to the Saint for the healing of daughter, which was granted. Twice in the 14th century, Sorrento was besieged by the Saracens; the successful defense of the city on both occasions was attributed to the St Antoninus’ intercession, and he is therefore honored as the city’s principal heavenly Patron.

An oratory dedicated to him was constructed close to the place of his burial in the 9th century, and transformed into a much larger basilica in the 11th; this latter was entrusted to the Theatine Order in 1608, who extensively rebuilt it in the decoratively rich Neapolitan Baroque style. Staircases to either side of the main sanctuary lead down to the crypt where the Saint’s relics are kept.

Looking from the staircase back up into the basilica.
Ex votos thanking St Antoninus for his intervention in saving ships from being wrecked, attached to the wall of the crypt. Sorrento is fairly small, but has a good port which is quite busy, home to a lot of fishing boats; the bay of Naples can be especially turbulent in the winter months.

The crypt seen from the aperture in front of the main altar.
Stories from the life of the Saints are also painted in the main nave of the basilica; here, another ship is saved by his miraculous intervention.

Marblework in the typical Neapolitan Baroque style on the balustrade leading up to the main sanctuary.

Side altars
More ex votos.
Three views of the cloister.
An inlaid marble coat-of-arms above the holy water stoup.
The 17th centry façade added to the church by the Theatines.
This portal dates from the church’s original construction in 11th century, and makes us of several pieces of stone from ancient Roman structures.

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