Aindrias Ó hAilpín – Medicinal to the Soul: Italy and Umbria in the Life of Evelyn Underhill,

Conference on the Centenary of the Publication of the Spiritual Biography of Jacopone da Todi by Evelyn Underhill, Todi, May 4th, 2019, English text available at

It is an honour and a pleasure for me to speak to you today. I must begin by pointing out that almost everything I will say is taken from the work of others, especially our previous speaker, Professor Dana Greene and also a thesis called Beyond the Fringe of Speech, on the spirituality of Evelyn Underhill and Art, produced in Australia by Marie Therese Crowley. My only qualification for speaking today, I think, is that like Evelyn I am a foreigner who has been visiting Umbria for many years and I have learned to love and have been inspired by this region, its culture, its people and its saints.

Evelyn Underhill’s biography of Jacopone is the fruit of a relationship with Italy – and particularly Umbria – that lasted for most of Evelyn’s adult life. But not only was this a long-lasting relationship, it was also a deeply transforming one. 

Perhaps Evelyn was such a good biographer of Jacopone because her own life shared some features with his, although of course it was very different in most respects. He was a lawyer; she was the daughter and the wife of lawyers. Both were poets. Both were raised, nominally, as Christians but showed little interest in faith before experiencing a form of ‘conversion’ in their fourth decade. After this both were attracted to a mystical expression of faith and – perhaps because of this – both had, at times, an uneasy relationship with the institutional church. 

This afternoon Claudio Peri will tell us about Jacopone’s ‘spiritual journey’ and how well Evelyn understood it. Perhaps this was because Evelyn had her own spiritual journey – a journey in which Italy and Umbria played a vital part.  

When Evelyn first visited Italy in 1898, at the age of twenty-two, she was by her own admission either an agnostic or an atheist. But this was beginning to change. 

She later wrote that around this time

philosophy brought me round to an intelligent and irresponsible sort of theism which I enjoyed thoroughly but which did not last long. Gradually the net closed in on me and I was driven nearer and nearer to Christianity, half of me wishing it were true and half resisting violently 

Evelyn studied many philosophers but the most influential was Plotinus (AD 205-270), the father of Neo-Platonism. She was attracted to Plotinus because he spoke about things that were already very important to her, especially beauty and art. 

Plotinus was not interested beauty and art for their own sake but because they were, for him, a means of approaching Reality – the transcendent Reality that we might call God but that he called ‘the One’. Plotinus taught that we have our source in the One and that the path to human happiness lay in being reunited with the One through contemplation. The beauty we experience is merely a reflection of the true transcendent Beauty – the One – and therefore it is a pathway to the One, or to God. 

Such ideas helped lead Evelyn to a gradual acceptance of spiritual reality and, ultimately, of God. Plotinus’ ideas about being reunited with the One would also profoundly shape Evelyn’s thinking about mysticism.

In Italy Evelyn was exposed to a great wealth of beautiful art and architecture – most of which was religious – and it affected her deeply. She first encountered Italian religious art in 1898 when she went to see Bernardino Luini’s frescos of the Passion of Christ in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Lugano, which is technically in Switzerland but culturally is Italian. 

She described the frescoes as ‘superb’ and added that “I spent all my odd minutes in that church whilst we were at Lugano”.  This is all Evelyn tells us directly but a few years later, in a novel published in 1904, she describes a fictional character entering a Catholic church for the first time. It is quite likely that this description reflects some of her own experience in Lugano:

The first thing that he noticed was a faint aromatic smell which soothed his senses. He was nervous, not knowing the meaning of the things he saw… he felt that there were mysteries very near… He had been of course in Protestant churches, but they had left no mark on his spirit, and gave him no clue to this experience… The idea of a religious building as provocative of emotion was strange to him… 

it was evident that great matters happened in this building… his eye was caught by a mysterious invocation — words, written in tall gold letters above the altar — Veni, Creator Spiritus! … It seemed a strange, majestic utterance. He felt the full weight of its tremendous appeal. Veni, Creator Spiritus! — this, after all, was what he had been asking all his life. 

Also in 1898 Evelyn visited Florence for the first time and spent time in the Convent of San Marco, viewing the frescoes by Fra Angelico, as well as in the churches of Santa Maria Novello and Santa Croce. Clearly there was more happening than simply appreciation of great art. At the end of her time in Florence she wrote that 

this place has taught me more than I can tell you: a sort of gradual unconscious growing into an understanding of things.  

In the churches and art of Italy Evelyn had a profound experience of transcendent Reality, presented mainly in the forms of Catholicism. It is no wonder that in 1904 she described Italy as “the holy land of Europe – the only place left, I suppose, that is really medicinal to the soul”. When she added that “there is a type of Mind which must go there to find itself”, she was clearly speaking of herself. Dana Greene has written, “Italy changed her life; it taught her that beauty was a way to the infinite life for which she longed”.

In 1902 Evelyn came to Umbria for the first time. Over the next twenty-two years she returned many times, visiting Perugia, Assisi, Spello, Gubbio, Orvieto, Spoleto and, of course, Todi – and no doubt other towns and places of which she has left no record.

Of Perugia she said, “the more I see of this place the more I love it”.  

She called Spello “a little brown jewel saved from the happy past”. 

She described Orvieto as “perfectly lovely” but had mixed feelings about the Cathedral. While it was “amazing” she also felt that “the facade is really more like a piece of jewellery work than architecture and for that reason I don’t think I really admire it: it is not alive enough”.  Elsewhere she described the facade as “almost horrible as architecture: so frozen, meticulous and exact”. 

Spoleto she described as “a wonderful old city built up the side of the mountain… but quite without the atmosphere of Assisi, which it was very hard to leave”.

Clearly, it was Assisi that had the greatest impact on her. In 1902 she wrote in her diary that

Assisi is well called La Beata for its soul is more manifest than any other city that I have ever known  

Five years later she wrote that 

Assisi has a quality which distinguishes her from any other city in the world, as S. Francis has a quality which distinguishes him from all others but the King of Saints Himself

Like many others before and since, Evelyn was quickly attracted by the figure of Francis. In 1908 she wrote that 

I do not believe anyone ever lived a more perfectly Christian life than he did.

Francis figures in her great work on Mysticism, perhaps more often than any other individual. She also wrote about a distinctive tradition of Franciscan mysticism, inspired by Francis himself, in which the two greatest figures were also of Umbria, Jacopone da Todi and Angela da Foligno.

As well as the towns, the Umbrian landscape made a major impression on Evelyn. When visiting Verona in 1903 she described the city as “one of the very loveliest I have ever seen… it’s really splendid – nearly as good as the Umbrian landscapes”.  

But to see fully the impact that Umbria had on Evelyn we must look at a passage from her novel, The Grey World, published in 1904, where she wrote:

 In Umbria, where little hills reach up towards the kiss of God, bearing her small white cities nearer heaven: in Umbria, clothed with olive-woods where Francis walked… there is a Peace of God eternally established. In this country… spirits wearied by dark journeyings may still feel the quieting touch of Immanent Peace… In her, the image of the Delectable Country, in whose likeness Earth was once made, is still to be apprehended. The Umbrian landscape is essentially religious. It fulfils the message of the Church, the revelation of the painters… that atheism and despair were impossible in its presence.

While this is a novel, a work of fiction, we may still ask if there is autobiography here: Did Evelyn herself experience “that atheism and despair were impossible” in the Umbrian landscape?

Evelyn’s experiences, particularly in Italy, led to a growing interest in Catholicism although arguably, the attraction was more aesthetic – perhaps even romantic – than theological. For a woman who still thought of herself, technically, as an agnostic, it is remarkable how easily Evelyn accepted and adopted the language of spirituality and devotion. 

At Easter 1905 she attended Pontifical High Mass in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. She described it as “intensely ceremonial and majestic” but she also noted, in a tone of clear disapproval, that “it was difficult to retain one’s sense of the mystical actuality of the Feast. It was a commemoration, not a renewal, as a festal Mass surely ought to be”. These are hardly the thoughts of a typical agnostic!

By 1907, when Evelyn considered herself to have definitively ‘converted’ from agnosticism to Christianity, she was seriously contemplating becoming a Catholic. Undoubtedly, this was largely due to her experiences in Italy. 

As we have heard, Evelyn never became a Catholic, but she had no interest in joining any other church. So, while she directed her energies to the production of her great work on Mysticism, Evelyn herself remained disconnected from any Christian denomination. Dana Greene has rightly described Mysticism as “a testament to personal religion lived out independent of historical institutions”. 

But Evelyn’s journey was not finished and Umbria still had a major role to play in it. 

Her ideas of mysticism at this point owed more to Plotinus and Neo-Platonism than to orthodox Christianity, and tended towards individualism, excessive intellectualism and an other-worldly dualism. But Umbria had given her a deep attraction to Francis and Franciscan spirituality which would challenge this Neo-Platonic thinking. 

In the basilica in Assisi in 1907, Underhill reflected on Cimabue’s fresco of the Madonna Enthroned with the Child, four Angels and St Francis. She was immediately struck by the contrast between the “mean, tired little figure of S. Francis” and the other figures in the painting. 

The magnificent figures around the throne are close to the ideal of Plotinus’ mysticism, in their majestic yet impassive serenity, but somehow Evelyn feels the challenge of the simple, humble figure of Francis. Remarkably, she describes the scene as a “loveless Paradise” and senses that Francis is out of place in it. Most significantly, she says of the figures around the throne that their “remoteness… from the common life of man is difficult to combine with any spiritual idea”. 

Even at the highpoint of Evelyn’s fascination with Neo-Platonism, Francis was causing her to question her assumptions. These questions would become more insistent in the coming years.

The war years from 1914 to 1918 brought Evelyn to a spiritual crisis and forced her to confront both the limitations of her Neo-Platonic view of spirituality and her isolation from institutional Christianity. As Dana Greene has explained, it was just at this point that she began work on her biography of Jacopone and this had a profound influence on her personally. 

Jacopone’s humanity and passion contrasted with the austere, other-worldly mysticism of Plotinus. As Dana Greene has said, 

in Jacopone she saw the world-denying tendency of the Neo-Platonist overcome by the world-affirming orientation of the Franciscan.

Returning to her insight that the figures in the fresco in Assisi were remote from “the common life of man”, Evelyn wrote that Jacopone, in contrast, “touches the common life at all points, as a good Franciscan should”.

Jacopone’s faithfulness to both the Catholic church and the Franciscan order, despite his struggles with both institutions, may also have been significant in the development of Evelyn’s thinking about her own relationship with institutional Christianity. 

Marie Therese Crowley has written that Jacopone 

combined all that [Evelyn] loved and admired about the Franciscans. Their humanity, gentleness, engagement with the world, spirit of adoration and loyalty to the Church inspired and instructed her.

Whether coincidentally or not, another Umbrian and Franciscan connection also became very important for Evelyn at this time. Around 1919 or 1920 Evelyn came into contact with Sorella Maria of Campello, a Franciscan nun who was establishing a small and radically unusual community of women living together in the spirit of Francis. 

Evelyn and Sorella Maria became regular correspondents and confidantes, although they did not actually meet until 1924, at her ‘Rifugio’ near Campello sul Clitunno. Through Sorella Maria Evelyn became part of the ‘Spiritual Entente’ (Intesa Spirituale), an informal ecumenical network of people from different backgrounds who were committed to seeking God within their own Christian traditions and to praying for each other and for Christian unity. 

This was perhaps Evelyn’s first real experience of committed Christian fellowship and it may have helped her to take another decisive step in her journey. Sometime around 1920, Evelyn decided to become an active member of the (Anglican) Church of England – the church into which she had been born but which had never, until then, played any part in her life.

As Dana Greene has explained, Evelyn’s career changed radically after 1920. In spite of the great achievement of her work on mysticism, her more pastoral ministry in the last twenty years of her life is probably her greatest achievement and her greatest legacy. 

Curiously, it seems that Italy no longer figured in her life in these final years. Her last visit to Umbria was in 1924 and her final visit to Italy appears to have been in 1925.  On her final visit to Assisi in 1924, she tells us that she

got up at 5:30 this morning and arrived at San Damiano just at sunrise for the sung Mass, today being the Feast of the Stigmata. The lay congregation consisted of half a dozen peasants, a few mosquitoes and myself.

Perhaps by then Italy and Umbria have served their purpose in her life – she had learned what she needed to learn from Italy and as a result, her life and career had changed profoundly.  In 1925 in Venice, visiting the Dominican Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, she described how 

a dear little friar, who somehow seemed to detect a sympathetic heart, lamented to me about the decay of all taste for the mortified life – “Our old friars are dying and young ones do not come – they seem to prefer the world…”

The Dominican friar was surely correct in sensing in Evelyn a sympathetic heart. Italy had indeed done its work in her life and truly, she never left it.

Ironically, it is on her last visit to Umbria, in September 1924, that she finally came to Todi, to see the tomb of Jacopone. Sadly, she was unable to do this as the crypt of San Fortunato was closed. She had to be content with looking at a picture of Jacopone, “very chubby and curly and holding his heart” which she described as “simply detestable”. 

Of Todi itself she had only a few words to say, but I will leave you with these:

We drove to Todi yesterday. What a place!