Monastic founder; b. c. 480, Nursia, Italy; d. c. 547, Monte Cassino, Italy. Author of the most celebrated of monastic rules, founder of the abbeys of Subiaco and Monte Cassino, patriarch of western cenobitic life, one of the patron saints of Europe, Benedict has given his name to an order and way of life that have influenced the Catholic Church and Western civilization profoundly in the centuries since his death. The source that provides details of Benedict's life is book two of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great. Although written as a form of hagiography intended to edify the reader, the historical details contained in the work correspond with the figures and events of sixth-century Italy.
Life. Benedict was born of a distinguished family in the central Italian city of Nursia around 480. As a young man, he was sent to Rome to further his education. Rejecting what he saw as the corrupt and depraved environment of the city, Benedict retired first to the village of Affile, east of Rome, then to a cave in a rugged region near Subiaco, where he spent time in solitude and ascetical practice. A testament to Benedict's reputation for holiness of life came when a group of local monks asked him to serve as their superior in nearby Vicovaro. However after Benedict insisted upon a reform of their way of life, they attempted to kill him by placing poison in his drinking cup. The Dialogues relate how when Benedict blessed the cup, it shattered, a scene that has been preserved in Benedictine iconography. Benedict then moved back to the ancient villa of Nero near Subiaco, where he attracted a growing number of adherents and eventually oversaw the growth of twelve different monasteries. The success of his project prompted a local priest, Florentius, in his envy, to send Benedict a loaf of bread in which he
had concealed poison. The Dialogues again relate how Benedict was given knowledge of the deed and ordered a raven that would come to feed at the monastery to take away the bread in its beak, another scene that has become a staple in artistic renderings of Benedict.
Benedict then left Subiaco with a band of his monks and went south of Rome to Monte Cassino, an elevated redoubt that had formerly been the site of a pagan temple to Apollo. Benedict destroyed the temple, replacing it with two oratories, dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. Martin of Tours. It was at Monte Cassino that the large portion of the miracles and wonders recounted by Gregory the Great took place. One reads of secular rulers with whom Benedict interacted, such as the Gothic King Totila, as well as contemporaries such as Germanus of Capua and Sabinus of Canosa. One also learns of some of Benedict's more noted followers, foremost of whom are Maurus and Placid, sons of Roman nobility. One also discovers Benedict's sister, Scholastica, who established her own community of women at Monte Cassino and would eventually be buried there with her brother.
The time of Benedict's monastic experiment at Monte Cassino was one of intense social upheaval, with wars of the Goths and Lombards, famines and plagues, many of which are recounted in the Dialogues. It was at Monte Cassino that Benedict realized the final form of his rule for monks and where his death took place around the year 547.
Cult and Patronage . Even though Gregory the Great's Dialogues did much to enhance the reputation of Benedict, there is no indication of a devotion to St. Benedict before the destruction of Monte Cassino by the Lombards about 577. After the monastery's restoration under Abbot Petronax (c. 720) there is evidence to suggest a cult surrounding Benedict's tomb. The martyrologies and liturgical calendars of Monte Cassino, dating from the eighth century, mention a solemnity celebrated on March 21. This date was later observed as the feast of Benedict's transitus (death). Later the liturgical celebration for the wider Church was transposed to July 11, the date that marked the translation of the relics of Benedict to the abbey of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, Fleury. Monks of that abbey in France recovered the bones of Benedict from Monte Cassino after the abbey had been sacked in the late seventh century and brought them to Fleury. From that time a cult began to flourish, as well as a considerable literature occasioned by the presence of the relics in the monastery. The cult was soon picked up at Monte Cassino itself. Pope Zachary sent a copy of the Rule of Benedict to the monks of Monte Cassino at the time of the restoration of the monastery in the first half of the eighth century under Abbot Petronax.
Ancient iconography of Benedict includes frescoes in the eighth-century subterranean basilica of Hermes at Rome, the ninth-century monastery of Monte Civate, and the tenth-century lower church of St. Chrysogonus in Rome's Trastavere; a number of miniatures in tenthand eleventh-century manuscripts; the antependium of the eleventh-century cathedral of Basel; capitals on the twelfth-century basilica at Fleury; and the frescoes on the thirteenth-century church at Subiaco's Sacro Speco.
Devotion to Saint Benedict in modern times has been popularized chiefly through the Benedictine medal. A manuscript dating back to the early fifteenth century, discovered at the Bavarian Abbey of Metten in the seventeenth century, provided a drawing with a representation of St. Benedict, as well as a detailed explanation of the letters found on the medal. Subsequent devotion led to two types of Benedictine medals. The first is found in various sizes and is known as the "Ordinary" medal. The second is known as the "Jubilee" or "Centenary" medal. It was struck in 1880 at Monte Cassino in commemoration of the 1400th anniversary of the birth of St. Benedict and has become the more popular.
The "Jubilee" medal depicts on one side Benedict holding in his hands a cross and his rule. On the other side there is a cruciform design with the letters C.S.P.B., which correspond to the Latin phrase "Crux Sancti Patris Benedicti" (Cross of our Holy Father Benedict). On the perpendicular bar of the cross are the letters C.S.S.M.L, which correspond to the Latin phrase "Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux" (May the holy cross be a light to me). On the horizontal bar are the letters N.D.S.M.D., which correspond to the Latin phrase "Non Draco Sit Mihi Dux" (Let not the dragon [devil] be my guide). Around the margin are the letters V.R.S.N.S.M.V.S.M.Q.L.I.V.B., which correspond to the Latin verse, "Vade Retro Satana! Numquam Suade Mihi Vana. Sunt Mala Quae Libas; Ipse Venena" (Get behind me, Satan! Do not persuade me with your vanities. The libation you offer me is evil; go drink your own poison). The motto of the Benedictine Order, "Pax," is found above the cross. On the side of the medal depicting St. Benedict, there are scenes of the poisoned cup, shattered by the sign of the cross, as well as of the raven, ready to carry away the poisoned loaf of bread sent to him. Above the cup and the raven stands the phrase "Crux S. Patris Benedicti" (Cross of Holy Father Benedict). Around the border of one side stands the phrase "Ejus in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur" (May we be protected by his presence at our death).
Tradition has it that Benedict used these phrases when making the sign of the cross against anything having to do with the devil or temptation. Its power is affirmed by the fact that it is the only medal in the Catholic Church whose blessing has a special exorcism in the Roman Ritual.
Feast: July 11.
Bibliography: i. schuster, Storia di san Benedettoe dei suoi tempi (3d ed. Viboldone 1953); Eng. tr. g. j. roettger, Saint Benedict and His Times (St. Louis 1951). k. hallinger, "Development of the Cult and of Devotion to St. Benedict," American Benedictine Review 36:2 (June 1985) 193–215. t. kardong, "A New Look at Gregory's Dialogues," American Benedictine Review 36:1 (March 1985) 44–64; The Benedictines (Collegeville, Minn. 1988). a. l. conde, San Benito Y Los Benedictinos, v. 1 (Braga, Portugal 1992). a. de vogue, "La Foi et le monde au temps de saint Benoit, pere de L'Occident," Ecoute 162 (February 1968); The Life of St. Benedict-Gregory the Great (Petersham, Mass. 1993).