THE BASILICA OF Sant’Angelo in Formis, four kilometres east of Capua, built on the flank of the Monte Tifata on the site of the Temple of Diana Tifatana, is one of the most remarkable churches in southern Italy.
Its name, from ‘in (or ad) formas’ was due to the proximity of aqueducts taking water to Capua. The place was granted to the Benedictines of Cassino in the early tenth century, but later reverted to the diocese of Capua, whose bishop conveyed it in 1065 to the Norman, Robert I, Prince of Capua and Count of Aversa.
He returned it to the Benedictines in 1072 and in the following year Desiderio, Abbot of Montecassino, embarked on the construction of the existing church.
The visitor walks up from the south, to pass the massive campanile, built of finely cut blocks from the cella of the demolished temple with a brick superstructure, and reach the terrace that stretches in front of the church.
This is preceded by an arcade, with a tall central opening and lower lateral ones with pointed tops inspired by Islamic precedents, supported on four columns with refined Corinthian capitals also recycled from the temple.
In the lunette above the door is a contemporary fresco of Saint Michael, and above this one of the Virgin in Prayer.
The murals on either side are of the thirteenth century.
The church is of basilica plan, with a central nave and narrower aisles, all with apses.
Part of the pavement, datable to 74 BC, is another survivor of the temple.
The pulpit to the left of the altar is contemporary with the building. Very remarkably much of the original frescoed decoration of the church is extant. Ahead, in the main apse, below the Dove is the enthroned Christ surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists, with below Abbot Desiderio holding a model of the church the three Archangels and Saint Benedict.
The arches of the nave are decorated with figures of the prophets and others. Higher up is a sequence of scenes from the life of Christ from his visit to Zacchaeus to the Ascension: of the two upper registers of scenes only those from the childhood of Christ in the topmost tier on the left can be identified. On the west wall, over the door, is the Last Judgement.
In the eroded mural in the right apse, the Madonna is seen with the Child, who is blessing, and two angels, below whom were six saints, not all of which survive.
A cycle of Old Testament scenes partly survives in the aisles.
Taken together, the murals at Sant’ Angelo in Formis are the most substantial pictorial achievement of their date in southern Italy.
Their iconography owes much to Byzantium, but such details as the plants in the left aisle express the taste of the Romanesque in the west.
Ironically Sant’Angelo in Formis owes its survival unscathed to the relative decline of the monastery, which passed to the Carafa family in 1417.
Although a Roman altar was commandeered as a holy water stoop in 1564 and the obscure Cesare Martucci painted a fresco of three saints against an almost lurid sunset sky in the left aisle four years later, the place happily was left alone.
Try to be there in the afternoon when sunlight filters through the church.