The art essay

The Last Conversation between Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica by Umbrian Master (15th century)

Love worked wonders in the life of Saint Scholastica, so much so that Saint Gregory the Great praised her for being able to do more because she loved more. For it was love that led to the extraordinary miracle that unfolded in the presence of Scholastica’s twin brother, Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. That miracle is the subject of this exquisite 15th-century fresco, painted on the walls of the upper church of Sacro Speco Monastery in Subiaco, Italy. The artist, known as the Umbrian Master, delivers a stirring visual homily on these sibling saints as he preserves, in lively visual form, the memory of Saint Scholastica, whose feast is celebrated on the tenth day of February. The Sacro Speco Monastery is a breathtaking feat of architectural engineering that nestles precariously on rocky forested slopes amid spectacular natural scenery. Located about an hour’s journey outside of Rome, the monastery serves as a kind of monumental reliquary enshrining the cave (speco) to which Saint Benedict fled from the moral decay of Rome, and in which he spent three years in solitude, prayer, and asceticism. Several beautiful medieval frescoes decorate the walls of this revered monastic enclosure, including a striking portrait of Saint Francis painted during his lifetime, and various scenes from the lives of the twins Benedict and Scholastica, who were devoted to a life of prayer and work, as embodied in the monastic axiom ora et labora.

Twin saints

Most of what we know about Benedict and Scholastica comes from the second book of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great, whose reign spanned the late 6th and early 7th centuries. A Benedictine monk before his election to the papacy, the pontiff had a deep reverence for monastic life and spirituality. In chapter 33 of the Dialogues, he recounts the miraculous event that marked the final meeting of the sibling saints, before Scholastica departed from this world. This master fresco painter of Umbria depicted this miracle as part of a larger narrative cycle presenting, for our imitation, the virtues of Scholastica—the strength of her faith, the confidence of her prayer, and the depth of her love for God and for her brother.

A final meal and miracle

Few details are known about the life of Scholastica. We are told only that she was consecrated to the Lord from her infancy, and that she lived in a monastic convent not far from her brother’s monastery in Monte Cassino, founded around a.d. 529. Saint Benedict, whose name means “blessed,” wrote a Rule that guided the rapid spread of Western monasticism. The Rule of Saint Benedict laid the foundations for monastic life that inspired the evangelization of Europe and the subsequent flowering of the medieval age of Christian faith and culture. Saint Gregory recounts that Scholastica used to visit her brother, “the man of God,” once every year. Their brief visits were spent singing the praises of God and in holy conversation. At the end of one visit, which would be their last meeting, they shared a meal as evening faded. Then Scholastica made a bold request, asking her brother to remain with her so that they might continue their holy conversation into the morning hours. Her intuition that this would be their final meeting was strong enough to take priority over the monastic injunction against leaving the monastery enclosure. Benedict’s response turned their last meeting into an extraordinary display of God’s power. For he replied to her request in dismay: “My sister, what are you saying? It is impossible for me to remain outside my cell.” And so, we see Benedict and Scholastica seated at a table with food, drink, and some utensils before them. The table, covered in white linen bordered by blue stripes, evokes the Eucharistic altar near the fresco. Both saints are clothed in dark blue robes, their lively faces framed in haloes. On either side of them is another religious, a nun on the right and a monk on the left. The table barely fits in the small room enclosed within the arched doorway. A series of receding arches and a small window shows the artist’s fine use of linear perspective to create a sense of depth in this interior space. As the vertical and horizontal lines follow the curve of the transept wall, the scene appears to project into our space. We are invited to sit at the table with these sibling saints and to listen to their  holy conversation. Benedict is shown as a  bearded, tonsured figure with his right hand  raised, while Scholastica’s eyes are lowered,  her hands folded in prayer.  Saint Gregory recounts that, after  Benedict’s refusal to prolong his visit, his  sister Scholastica offered an intense prayer  of supplication to the Lord. When she raised  her head again a violent thunderstorm with  a torrential downpour of rain covered the  area. As a result, Benedict was unable to begin his return journey. The monk on the  left looks out and up to the sky in wonder  at nature’s pageantry.  The artist captures that moment in the story  when Benedict realizes that the miraculous  display of natural forces is linked directly  to his sister’s prayers. He raises one hand  in a gesture of complaint as if to say, “May  God pardon you, sister! But what have you  done?” Scholastica’s simple response was,  “I asked you and you wouldn’t listen. I asked  my Lord and he listened!” 

Faith works wonders

Faith that works wonders begins with a  listening heart. And Scholastica evokes the  primacy of listening in love. She shows that  listening is born of love—love of God and  love of neighbor. It is no coincidence that  the first word in the Rule of Saint Benedict  is the word “Listen !”  For most of the Dialogues it is Benedict  who is described as a great miracle worker.  But in this story, captured in evocative fresco,  Saint Gregory points his readers, and us, to  the true source of miraculous power—love of God  and love of neighbor. 

God is love

In the next chapter of the Dialogues the saintly twins  return to their respective monastic communities.  Three days later, while in his cell, Saint Benedict  raises his eyes toward heaven and sees the soul of  his sister leaving her body, in the form of a dove.  Gregory tells us only that Benedict was overjoyed  and offered hymns of praise to God for his sister’s  saintly life. He requested that her body be brought  to the tomb prepared for him. The twins, united in  faith, would also be united in death, and for eternity.  “God is love…and she was able to do more  because she loved more.” With these words Saint  Gregory the Great concludes his account of the final  meeting of these two saints. As we contemplate this  lively 15th-century fresco of that miraculous event,  Saint Scholastica alerts us to the power of love in  the ordinary and daily circumstances of life. She,  like so many saints, invites us to experience love’s  transformative power over the whole of life. For the  miracle wrought by her prayers is proof that love is  the key that opens the door of faith.  Love is the greatest of all miracles. For in and  through love, all things are possible for God. 

Jem Sullivan  Writer on art, catechesis, and the New Evangelization

The Last Conversation between Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica (15th century), Umbrian Master,

Upper Church of Sacro Speco Monastery, Subiaco, Italy.