"Here the body of Saint Thomas Aquinas rests. AD 1274" - Words written on the sanctuary wall at Fossanova, where Thomas' body rested until it was moved to Toulouse.

"Here the body of Saint Thomas Aquinas rests. AD 1274" - Words written on the sanctuary wall at Fossanova, where Thomas' body rested until it was moved to Toulouse.

While visiting Rome in June of 2017, Dr. Joseph Yarbrough of Ave Maria University showed me the sites that Fr. Reginald Foster brought him to some years earlier. Among them was Fossanova, where Thomas spent the last month or so of his life. One exciting discovery was the following mural which was found in the abbot's quarters of the Cistercian monastery.

 wall mural from the abbot of fossanova's quarters

wall mural from the abbot of fossanova's quarters

The text has not remained completely legible, but as it turns out, the Dominican friar Sixtus of Siena (aka Senensis; d. 1569 AD) preserved it in his  Bibliotheca sancta ex præcipuis Catholicæ Ecclesiæ auctoribus collecta - as did the editors of the Opera Omnia of Aquinas.  

There are some slight variations, but the mural text itself seems to have read as follows (the translation can be found below):

Divus Thomas, cum in coenobio Cisterciensi Fossae Novae, prope Amasenum, Campaniae fluvium, fracta ex continuis studiis stomachi virtute decumberet, rogatus a monachis, qui lectulo eius assidebant, ut Canticum Salomonis ad imitationem sensus ac spiritus Divi Bernardi, sed longe brevius explicaret, recusavit, inquiens, “Date mihi spiritum Bernardi et ego vobis expositionem, spirantem Bernardi spiritum, exhibebo.” 

Vero, cum illi adhuc enixius efflagitarent ut saltem de proprio sensu brevem aliquam [Cantici] Canticorum explanationem depromeret, accersitis ad se nonnullis monachis, qui ex ore eius verba descbribentes exciperent, exorsus est secundam in Cantica enarrationem, stylo et eruditione a priori in eundem librum expositione diversam, veluti tempus illud, et preces monachorum, et aegritudinis postulabat occasio, scribens, non quod ars, sed quod sincera pietas, et animus, iamiam ad futuram immortalitatem properans eructavit. 

In hac igitur explanatione, cum usque ad sextum libri caput exponendo pervenisset, eaque verba eiusdem capitis, quae illi novissima fuerunt, vehementi Spiritus ardore, et summa vocis alacritate, erectis in coelum oculis, proferret: “Veni, dilecte mi, egrediamur in hortum,” repente sanctissima eius anima, de mortali corpore egressa, in hortum sempiternae felicitatis, ad dilectum suum, omnibus vitae diebus expetitum, et postremis vitae vocibus evocatum, feliciter abiit anno 48 aetatis suae, a Christi vero nativitate MCCLXXIIII. Reliquum vero expositionis usque in finem libri studiosus quidam religiosus Cistertiensis adiecit.

Here is my translation:

While Saint Thomas was lying down in the monastery of the Cistercians of Fossanova near the Amaseno river of Campania (since the strength of his stomach had been weakened from incessant study), he was asked by the monks who were sitting near his bed to more succinctly explain the Song of Solomon (i.e., the Song of Songs) while imitating the sense and spirit of Saint Bernard. He declined, saying, “Give to me the spirit of Bernard and I will present to you an exposition that reflects his spirit.” 

However, since they continued to assiduously beseech him to at least put forward some brief explanation about the literal [proprium] sense of the [Song] of Songs, several monks were summoned to him to transcribe the words that came from his mouth. He began the second exposition on the Canticle, with a style and erudition different from the former exposition on the same book - at least as much as time, the prayer of the monks, and the state of sickness would allow. He said (lit., wrote) that it was not skill but sincere piety that hastily produced [the sentiments of his] spirit, which was already hastening towards future immortality. 

When he had arrived at the explanation of the sixth chapter of the book and the words of that chapter that were his last, he spoke with a vehement ardor of the Spirit and with the greatest eagerness of the voice while lifting his eyes to heaven and saying, “Come, my beloved, let us head out to the garden.” His most holy soul suddenly departed in his fourty-eighth year - 1274 years from the birth of Christ - having gone out from his mortal body into the garden of eternal happiness to his Beloved whom he sought all the days of his life and whom he called upon with the last words of his life. A certain Cistercian religious, however, added the rest of the exposition up until the end of the book. 

Interestingly, William of Tocco, writing about 30 years after Thomas' death,  also relates the fact that Thomas heeded the monks request to leave behind "some memorial of his knowledge in the end" by "briefly explaining the Song of Songs" and he points out how fitting it was for Thomas to "finish his teaching with the Song of love between Jesus Christ and the faithful soul."

Unfortunately, though, whatever was written down seems to have been lost. Perhaps the reason for this is that it was unclear what was added by a Cistercian monk and what was from the mouth of Thomas. In any event, as Torrell explains, "If a written text of it ever existed (Bartholomew and several catalogues speak about it, but the Prague lists do not) it has not come down to us" (see, St. Thomas Aquinas, volume 1, 292).

A note of clarification may be helpful here. Though the Opera Omnia text adds parenthetical remarks asserting that Aquinas' "second" commentary began with the words, "Solomon inspiratus," and though we do have a text that begins with those words that was traditionally attributed to Thomas, scholars have long attributed it to others (for example, to St. Bruno of Segni, Haymo Altissiodorensis, or Haymo, bishop of Halberstadt). Similarly, the Opera Omnia attributes the "first" commentary to Thomas through it has come to be ascribed to Aegidius Romanus

Though it is certainly tragic that Thomas' exposition of the Song of Songs has been lost, the glimpse into the Angelic Doctor's disposition that the mural provides us with is invaluable. It makes it clear that even after coming to think that his contribution to theology was as mere straw in value, charity pressed him forwards to share the fruits of contemplation even in his last moments. In other words, he never left behind his conviction that "a man may now and then suffer separation from the sweetness of Divine contemplation for the time being, that God’s will may be done and for His glory’s sake" (II-II, q. 182 a. 2) since "it is a sign of greater love if a man devotes himself to others for his friend’s sake, than if he be willing only to serve his friend" (II-II, q. 182 a. 7 ad 2). That he discerned such an act of charity to be God's will as he lay dying is testified to by the altar piece located in the chapel annexed to the abbot's quarters:

 head piece of the altar in the abbot of fossanova's chapel . Photo Credit:  Joseph Yarbrough

head piece of the altar in the abbot of fossanova's chapel . Photo Credit: Joseph Yarbrough

S[anctus] Thomas

ut cantando moreretur

et moriendo cantaret

rogatu monachor[um] F[ossae] N[ovae]

Cantica Cantic[orum] exponens

maiori amoris vi quam morbi

ad caelum rapitur

Roughly translated, it says, "That by praising he might die and that by dying he might praise, Thomas expounded the Song of Songs upon being asked to do so by the monks of Fossanova. He was carried off to heaven by the power of love that is greater than the power of death."

Fossanova Altar.jpg