The Saint & the Sea Monster

The odd history of Sorrento's church of S. Antonino and its quirky titular saint

Chiesa di Sant'Antonino
Piazza S. Antonino, Sorrento

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The man could hold his own against sea monsters, so they say. He could also exorcise the possessed like nobody's business. His name was Saint Antonino, and he gave up life as a hermit to tend to the spiritual well being, demonic possessions, miracle granting, pirate attacks, and general carpentry needs of the people of Sorrento.

Little Saint Anthony

Antonino didn't even want the job. He would have been perfectly content to continue living his isolated life of prayer up in the mountains, building hillside oratories on the orders of St. Michael the Archangel, with whom he chatted regularly.

But when the Lombards came rampaging through the region—remember, before they settled down in Milan to become industrialists, the Lombards were one of those Barbarian hordes from the wild side of the Danube who helped bring down the Roman Empire—the saint hustled down from his hermitage at Montecassino for protection on the plains.

He took a cell in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Agrippinus, was soon named its Abbot, and set about performing miracles—though in his down time, the saint was far more fond of tending the abbey's vineyards, and puttering about town doing odd carpentry jobs.

Cue the miracles

Sorrento's adopted saint died on February 14, AD 626—must be rough, sharing your feast day with a Big Ticket saint like Valentine—but he didn't let a little thing like death get in the way of his ministry. He's been watching over Sorrento ever since, saving the town from everything from Saracen attacks to the Black Plague, as well as answering the panicked prayers of many a Sorrentine sailor caught in a tempest.

His real specialty, though, is exorcisms. Whether you're possessed by demons spawned from the depths of Hell, or by a mild skin ailment, Antonino's your man. With such power residing in the venerable bones, it's little wonder that, when Turkish conquerors made off with the saint's arm in1558, a Sorrentine merchant made the journey to Constantinople to buy back the relic.

The appreciative locals in return have given him, not one, but two statues in prominent squares (Piazza Tasso and, of course, Piazza S. Antonino). In both statues, the saint is shown treading victoriously upon the neck of a sea monster that looks a bit like a toothy porpoise. It's not. It's meant to be a whale.

Details on the legend of Antonino's most famous miracle differ, but the upshot is: A distraught mother came running up to the abbey, wailing that whale had swallowed her child whole.

Antonino wasted no time. He strode down to the sea, called the monster from the depths, and with the force of his oratory forced the cetacean to spit out the boy, alive and well (though presumably covered in whale slime).

Jonah really coulda used this guy in his corner.

Help me, Little Saint Anthony!

You can still see what are said to be the monster's actual bones—they are certainly whale ribs of some sort—mounted high on the wall to the right of the main doors in the vestibule of church of S. Antonino.

The town built this grand—but unfortunately baroqued—church around the saint's tomb so as to have room to leave ex votos of thanks in return for their patron's intercession on matters ranging from saving foundering ships to helping survive breast cancer.

Floor-to-ceiling glass cases surround his tomb in the crypt under the church, and these cases are wallpapered inside with silver talismans.

One case is devoted entirely to legs; another to images of be-suited men and women in long dresses that look as if they were copied from the cover of some 1940s Madison Avenue Better Villas and Vineyards magazine.

Many are labeled simply "Per grazie ricevute"—in Italian, the word for 'thank you' (grazie) is the same as the word for 'grace', so this double-meaning message it thanking the saint "For grace received."

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Other cases are a motley arrangement of body parts cured, the thin silver ex votos shaped and stamped with graphic anatomical detail—backs, chests, throats, lungs (one or both), breasts (one or both), heads, hands, eyes, mouths, hearts, and whole torsos opened up like a cadaver in Gross Anatomy 101 to show the GI tract in exacting detail.

Several cases behind the altar are stocked with silvery babies, some alongside blurry snapshots—many neonatal—of the miraculously cured infant in question, and a letter gushing thanks and grace—"Grazie! Grazie! Grazie!"

Still protecting Sorrento

As you turn to leave the crypt, you see that the entry wall is lined by more than 30 prints and paintings of 19th century shops tossing in stormy seas, with S. Antonino popping out of the dark clouds in an aura of light to raise on arm and save the devout mariners (as in foxholes, there are no atheist sailors during a tempest).

The paintings were donated by grateful captains and crews. The most recent one is a photograph, dating from the 1950s, and clearly that captain was taking no chances on the Sorrentine seas.

The name of his motorboat: The "S. Antonino."

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in January 2010. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 2008–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett