Have you ever noticed the dragon depicted in the coat of arms of the city of Venosa? Its presence is probably due to an old legend that tells of a dragon that came to the city.
Before telling you the legend, however, a clarification is in order: it was not a dragon but rather a Basilisk. An even more terrifying beast.
What is a Basilisk?
According to medieval bestiaries, the Basilisk was a mythological creature with an upper body resembling that of a large, evil-winged rooster with a long snake-like tail.
Its name “basilískos” comes from the Greek βασιλίσκος and means “little king“; this emphasizes that the creature was considered the “King of Serpents.”
It was indeed the most fearsome of reptiles. The Basilisk was considered one of the deadliest creatures of all.
Much like the mythical Medusa, it possessed a lethal power: simply looking into its eyes for more than a moment would cause one to be first immobilized and then slowly turned to ashes.
Furthermore, the dragon’s breath and bite were equally lethal, causing immediate death to anyone struck by them. Its venom was particularly potent and dangerous.
The legend of the dragon of Venosa
The Church of San Giovanni in Venosa stands on a site that once housed a Roman temple dedicated to Mars, the god of war.
One day, the monk in charge of the church’s sacred duties went near the bell tower to ring the bells for mass. But right beneath the wooden stairs, the monk saw two fiery eyes, like burning embers.
The poor friar ran away screaming, “The devil! The devil! I’ve seen the devil!” attracting numerous people who quickly came to his aid.
Someone mustered the courage and, looking through a crack in the door, realized that in that cramped space, there was not a devil but rather a terrible basilisk.
As soon as they discovered the creature’s presence, the Grand Captain and all the men-at-arms in the area were immediately alerted. The threat of a loose basilisk put everyone’s lives at risk.
According to the legend, among those who rushed to help was a count named Alberigo. Showing great courage, he decided to confront the basilisk with his faithful horse.
After donning armor, helmet, and grabbing his lance, the count asked for the church door to be opened and charged on his horse towards the fearsome creature. However, the basilisk was not caught off guard by the knight’s arrival and quickly sank its lethal claws into the horse’s neck.
Despite the count’s efforts, neither the lance nor the sword could inflict any damage on the beast. The unfortunate knight found himself forced to shield his eyes with his hand and flee before the basilisk could complete its deadly action against his horse.
The awful decision
Since no one seemed capable of defeating the basilisk, after long and heated discussions, the terrible decision was made to set fire to the entire church, with the creature inside.
At dawn the following day, the entire town of Venosa gathered to help fill the church with dry wood, brush, and anything else that could burn. The tension was palpable. Everyone prayed for forgiveness for the extreme act they were about to commit. It was at that moment that the fire was set to the small Church of San Giovanni in Venosa.
At first, only a dense cloud of smoke was visible, which soon transformed into increasingly high and violent flames.
All the residents of Venosa who gathered around the church witnessed the terrible cries, hisses, and screams of the creature as it burned. The sound was so horrible that many covered their ears and knelt down to pray for the salvation of their souls.
The strong and repeated impacts of the basilisk against the church’s walls and door were frightening. Many feared that the walls, weakened by the heat, might give way and let the monster escape. The idea of coming face-to-face with the vengeful creature was terrifying, and many wondered if they could ever survive such an attack.
Legend has it that only after five days did someone have the courage to enter the church again. The smoke was still thick, and the smell of burning still strong in the air, but the creature had finally been defeated.
The church walls managed to contain the force of the creature, whose remains were later found at the foot of the altar. Despite its immense power, the beast had been unable to breach the solid walls of the church. The people of Venosa felt relieved and grateful for the divine protection.
In memory of the event, some scorched stones were left on the right side of the altar as a tangible sign of the battle that took place. These stones became a symbol of hope and faith, a constant reminder of humanity’s ability to withstand the forces of evil.
Beyond the legend of the dragon of Venosa
The story of the basilisk’s defeat in Venosa quickly became a legend, and it was recounted in many different ways. However, all versions shared the tale of a memorable event when the town’s inhabitants united to overcome a dangerous and seemingly invincible threat.
In any case, the basilisk has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the city of Venosa, representing not only its history and cultural heritage but also its strength and fighting spirit.
The church of San Giovanni today
Visiting the Church of San Giovanni on Garibaldi Street in Venosa is definitely an interesting experience for those passionate about history and sacred art. The scorched stones left as a sign of the battle against the mythological creature are a tangible symbol of a legend that has captivated many.
However, be careful when entering the church. If you notice two fiery eyes, run away without looking back. It could be a basilisk. ;-)
Here’s a link to the website of the Municipality of Venosa.