Last week I was on an academic symposium about Matilda in Marola, the convent that Matilda built to honour Giovanni l’Eremito, a hermit who marked a turning point in the war between Matilda IMG_1144and her cousin Enrico IV. Next to me there was an Italian lady with whom I started a conversation. She told me that I should go to Pieve di Sasso, a nearby church wanted by Matilda. So the next day I went, knowing that I have to follow such a strong advice. Seldom did I have such a strong feeling of being at the right place at the right time…

The old church lies in the area of Neviano degli Arduini, at the other side of the Enza River as seen from Canossa. The river separates the provinces of Reggio Emilia and Parma. It makes me curious to go, since I know already for longer that a count of Arduino was for many years the leader of Matilda’s troops. He doesn’t figure in my book, but I know that I have to find out more about him and to visit his area. Driving through the hills I find myself in a beautiful undulating landscape, full of signs of fertility and welfare. It’s one of the traditional areas of the cheese, ham and wine of Parma, and you can feel directly here that the Earth can be like a nourishing Mother – at least if we sustain her well.

IMG_1131The Pieve di Sasso is built in a forest on a high hill overlooking the valley. Walking up the hill I notice several people walking with me. Then the church shows itself in her splendid beauty, with an architecture that reveals Matilda’s style at its best. I realize that I have arrived at the right moment: in 10 minutes Mass will start, for the rest of the week the church is closed. Inside I am struck by the simplicity and the serenity of the building. A wooden cross with Christ with wide-open eyes, and a simple Madonna with a huge string of pearls around her neck. Those of you who read ‘Queen of the Vatican’ will understand that my amazement is rising. In the book I use the ‘string of pearls’ as way of qualifying the churches built by Matilda, and the sacred places she protected. There is also a simple statue of St. Rocco, a saint who is usually worshipped at ancient places of healers.

IMG_1130But more still I am caught by the extraordinairy baptismal font in full Longobardan style, filled with symbols that I have analysed in ‘Queen of the Vatican’. At the front side sits a beautiful griffin, an animal often wrongly described as ‘demonic’, or representing evil. We can better understand Matilda’s spirituality when we take the griffin for what it was considered to be in her time: an animal that symbolizes Christ as both earthly and heavenly, man and God at the same time, a connector of heaven and earth. At the backside sits a winged horse – a Pegasus – of a beauty that I have hardly ever seen. The believers were baptized in Matilda’s church in the midst of symbols that were later considered by the Church as ‘pagan’…

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I decide to stay for the Mass. Much to my surprise the entire mass is dedicated by a woman. She follows the liturgy of this Sunday, one week before Pentecost, quoting Jesus who sent out his disciples to bring the gospel around the world: a guideline followed by Matilda who lived with 12 Benedictine monks in her castle in Canossa. The woman says a prayer, in which she asks for a ‘new heart’, a healed heart, from which she can contribute to a better world. It touches me deeply: it is as if through this prayer an invisible thread is connecting this church with Matilda’s heart labyrinth in Canossa.

After the service I have a long talk with the guardian of the Church. He tells me that the Pieve di Sasso may have been Matilda’s 100th Church. In Queen of the Vatican I quote one of the famous legends about Matilda. It tells that she wanted to become an official priestess: the pope had promised her to allow this if she had built 100 churches. The most wel known version – that I quote in my book – says that she died after the 99th. But the guardian tells me another version of the legend: that she built the Pieve di Sasso as the 100th. At a Christmas evening at the end of the 11th century she would have arrived with great pomp and circumstance at the church to say mass. But when she touched the chalice with the wine a huge dragon would have appeared behind the altar. Matilda fainted and the audience left the place in great panic.

What a legend, food for thought! When I walk around the church I notice that it is built on a significant place, with a strong feminine energy, and with a wide view over the area. Again an ancient sacred place, it seems to, like so many of the places protected by Matilda. She built the church to honour Rainiero di Sasso, a loyal vassal who had his castle here, and who was one of her most important economic and political advisors. The whole hill is dedicated to the Madonna Immacolata. But it also had a great strategic value, as the guardian explains to me. On the horizon you can see the Castle of Canossa (and vice versa). In the Middle Ages they communicated with fire: the hill was part of Matilda’s defensive system, with which she held the emperor at bay. Later on she donated the whole area as a feud to the family of Arduino, her military advisor, out of gratitude for his loyalty. That’s why it’s called ‘Neviano degli Arduini’.

In ‘Queen of the Vatican’ I quote the legend about the 99 churches to support the argument that now – at the celebration of the 900th anniversary of Matilda’s passing – it becomes time to fulfill Matilda’s greatest wish – that women should be admitted as priests. How special to be present right now at her probable 100th church, and how special that mass is dedicated by a woman! With tears in my eyes I drive back to Canossa: it feels as if something has been healed. Back home in the tower under the Canossa Castle I see from my window the mountain of Sasso at the horizon. From now on I can feel the connection that Matilda must have felt so many times with the place where she hoped – according to the legend – to fulfill her deepest wish…

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