In 1898 when the theologian and writer on mysticism Evelyn Underhill was 23 she went abroad with her parents to Switzerland and Italy. This was the start of her recognition of a need for the deeply spiritual nourishment that can be found there. She visited the Alps and beyond the Alps was Italy. She wrote in her notebook the rather stiff sentence: ‘I entered Italy’. Later she was to add, ‘Italy, the holy land of Europe, the only place left, I suppose, that is really medicinal to the soul … There is a type of mind which must go there to find itself.’
When her parents left Evelyn Underhill went on alone to Florence where she wandered around the galleries and churches. In an early novel that she wrote, she attributes to her hero the feelings that she herself experienced when coming face-to-face for the first time with a panel called ‘The Madonna adoring the Infant Christ’. She describes the picture where,
‘the mystical, reasonable, and austere come together … in its joyous purity of outline, the intimate holiness … the strange majesty of the rapt Madonna … the wistful angels who lean against the side of her throne are hushed by her intense stillness. They are spiritual persons who cannot understand the earthly love which blends Mother and worshipper in one. She dreams of her Child, lying very helplessly and gladly upon its mother’s knees, as all that is holy lies upon the lap of perfect beauty.’
In the novel the hero is deeply affected, ‘something unearthly, something remote from life laid its quieting hand upon him. These things had not been conceived in the petty agitations of ordinary life. The Beyond had been at their birth, and left a token of its presence.’
After this visit to Italy, Underhill returned home longing to penetrate into that Beyond. She returned the following year to Florence and then in 1902 went with her mother to Umbria which from then on she especially claimed as her spiritual homeland.
‘Umbria, where the little hills reach up towards the kiss of God, bearing her small white cities nearer heaven … where Francis walked … there is a Peace of God eternally established. In this country, long beloved of the dreamy arts, spirits wearied by dark journeyings may still feel the quieting touch of Immanent Peace.’
She wrote in her diary of Assisi:
‘Assisi is well called La Beata for its soul is more manifest than any other city that I have ever known … [Assisi] expresses the heart of Italy. I think after careful consideration that St Francis must rank with Our Lady of Chartres as one of the two most beautiful churches that I have seen.’