Assisi stretches like a bright white smile atop a rural mountainside and offers me a moment of Umbrian solitude and tranquility. After a whirlwind week of touring Italy with a group of high school students more interested in souvenir-shopping and Wi-Fi access than the Italian countryside, I need the medieval serenity in this walled fortress far from usual routines.

The frequently imprecise Google translations students choose in Italian class creep into real-time exchanges of Quanto costa?, Grazie mille, and Buona Giornata with proof that life experience does build upon study. Our guide, Veronica, reassures me with a grin that I have her permission for some free time while I breathe in the April air alone and carefree.

Behind our hotel near Piazza del Comune, the cobblestone walkway slants sharply uphill to the Duomo of San Rufino, named for the third-century bishop and martyr who brought Christianity to Assisi.

After the Cathedral visit, I exit into the warm sunlight and spot two ascending paths to continue my walk.

A hot afternoon sun illuminates a stone street marker embedded in the city wall, Santa Maria delle Rose. The names of my grandmother, Maria, and my mother, Rose, on the carved stone marker encourage my climb.

I smile and embrace their soul-whispers, “I am with you always.”

At the top of the narrow incline rests Santa Maria delle Rose, a small church built near pagan ruins which were believed to have served as a Roman forum for this area of upper Assisi.

A heavy wooden door with the name MARIA above welcomes me in. I open the door with care as soft choir voices mix with the filtered sunlight streaming in from windows. 

Between two large steel supports—the upper Alpha and the lower Omega—thirty-three illuminated glass columns of water hold thirty-three sculpted wooden images of Maria turned in different angles of view, one for each year of her Son’s life on earth.

An open space in the Alpha-Omega connection invites visitors to enter and be surrounded by these columns of light and water in Maria’s spiritual charge.

A round, wooden table in the center of the area holds smaller sculptures of Maria and draws visitors to touch and rest her in their palms where she has been designed to fit with comfort in every hand. 

I join the space between Alpha and Omega and view the gently lit columns of water. As I turn in the middle of this arch of water columns, each viewpoint of Maria changes to represent different moments in a mother’s life—kneeling in prayer; waiting with hope for the birth of her child; holding the infant in a loving embrace; bringing water from the well to refresh the family.

Finally, when Maria is turned horizontally, she represents the Holy Spirit, the dove of peace.

These moments in a woman’s life may seem simple, yet serve as strong cornerstones of love to be found throughout time in womanhood.

The hours become unimportant as I speak with the woman in charge about the wonder of this exhibition and learn that the artist enjoys receiving contact about his work. She writes his email address on the receipt after I purchase my own small sculpture of Maria.

When I return to the group, I share the story of a little-known treasure at the top of this city of peace with them. Veronica, the adult chaperones, and three students agree to explore this unique last-minute experience as thoughts of shopping and texting seem to fade.

Exhaustion, frustration, and the need to reflect on something more meaningful had guided me to Maria.

My thoughts gathered around the childhood blessings of my mother Rose, whose unwavering, dependable hands in work and leisure supported our extended Italian family and her mother, my grandmother Maria, whose fingers kneaded bread, tilled soil, mended socks and stroked my forehead.

Maria is meant to be held in our hearts, as our common human connection, and in our hands, as a stone-marker grounds us to entrust our lives with spirituality and make our life experiences meaningful.


1. MARIA’s author, multidisciplinary artist Guido Dettoni della Grazia, has dedicated his life to the search for the Spirit within oneself and its expression in the world through various art forms.

As Mr. Dettoni explains, MARIA “is the tactile Icon of womanhood -the giver and feeder of life-conceived and shaped to be contained within the hands that see it. It represents Mary, the mother of Jesus, Maryam in the Sura 19 of the Quran, the Shakti of Hinduism, the Kwan Yin of China, evoking the imagery of the feminine of many cultures of the world.”₁ (Dettoni, Vita-Opus)

2. The exhibition of Maria at Santa Maria delle Rose can be viewed at:

3. Mr. Dettoni can be contacted at his organization:

Novena’s full coverage of Easter 2020


J. Jill Rito is an adjunct professor of Italian at SUNY – Old Westbury, Long Island, and a freelance writer.