Postcard from Malaga, Spain: All the saints and those Limbo babies, too

Gothic altar in the Chapel of Santa Barbara in the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de le Encarnacion in Malaga

Layers upon layers of of saints climb the numerous gilded altars found in the Malaga Cathedral. Saints carved in wood by Pedro de Mena (1628-1688) grace the choir stalls. Today is all of their days. November 1. All Saints Day, and, for Catholics, a Holy Day of Obligation.

When I was young, the thrill of a night of trick-or-treating with its late night sugar high always was followed the next day by attendance at Mass. Unlike many holidays, it was particularly hard to comprehend why almost none of my friends had to go to church on November 1.

My godmother, Aunt Gen (Genevieve Louise Brennan Savage, 1907-2004), tried her best to explain things, but the nuns really never talked to us much about saints. Like Santa Barbara, whose own father carried out her martyrdom for her belief in the Holy Trinity. Although he was struck by lightening and consumed by fire on his way home after the act.

But the major impact for me was November 2, All Souls’ Day. You might not know this, but there are all of these bazillions of poor souls stuck in Purgatory – not so evil that they were condemned to hell but instead hanging around in an uncomfortable state trying to slip through the gates to heaven. Our prayers were supposed to free some of them and send them soaring above the clouds.

Even more concerning for me was Limbo. Limbo was where the little babies throughout the world who died unbaptized were supposed to go. Through no fault of their own, they were sentenced to remain suspended, constantly fluttering their wings in some mysterious twilight zone.

Those little poor souls were the ones for whom I would join my hands, palms sweating in those uncomfortable white gloves, squeeze my eyes tightly together and plead. God took a while to process my prayers from almost 60 years ago. In 2007, the Catholic Church finally liberated them all, burying the whole Limbo concept.

Sorry for the detour. Back to Malaga and its Cathedral. After all it’s a Holy Day of Obligation.

The foundation for the Cathedral of Nuestra Senora de le Encarnacion was laid in 1530 atop the Almohad Mosque. Taking more than a century to complete, the church is viewed as a chronicle of the transition of religious Gothic architecture into the Renaissance. The facades reflect extensive Baroque updating.

In addition to photos taken in the Cathedral, this post includes images from the Parroquia de los Santos Martires Ciriaco y Paula. The two were executed, with great difficulty requiring several attempts, for their Christian beliefs at the dawn of the 4th century. While their executioners set their remains ablaze, an unexpected torrential rain quenched the flames and faithful carted them off for more respectful last rites. It is believed the two somehow resurfaced to miraculously help expel the Moors about a millennium later, so they were proclaimed the patron saints of Malaga.

My prayers have lapsed, but I trust there are a multitude of people inclined to remember as many saints as possible today. Tomorrow, please pray doubly hard, just in case any little babies somehow remained stuck in Limbo.

Postcard from Naples, Italy: Skulls of lost souls up for adoption

Quando finisce la partita il re ed il pedone finiscono nella stessa scatola.

The English translation would be: When you finish the game, the king and pawn end up in the same box. In other words: we all meet the same end.

“Best Italian Proverbs,” Rome, Food, Travel

There appears no shortage of ancient Catholic churches in Naples. Yet even by the 16th century, their walls, floors and underground catacombs were oversubscribed by the faithful demanding interment inside. Something needed to give.

Clever undertakers found a solution. They began digging up older remains, the ones of souls long forgotten, to free up space for the newcomers. The ancient bones were carted away discreetly to shallow graves in an enormous system of caves – natural caverns extended by ancient Greek and Roman tunnels and quarries for building materials for the city.

Then came the plague of 1656, decimating the population. The spiraling number of corpses led to their mass disposal atop the existing shallow graves in the caves.

The anonymous pile might have been forgotten were it not for an end-of-the-century flood washing all the bones out and depositing them helter-skelter on the streets below. The bones were returned to the cave, which then was deemed a more official location for disposing of deceased paupers.

An 1837 cholera epidemic swelled the number of residents unceremoniously dumped together in disorderly fashion. The charnel house became known as the Cemetery of the Fountains – Cimitero delle Fontanelle.

In 1872, a priest took pity upon all of the remains of the departed, many tossed inside without receiving their last rites. He had them sorted and arranged in a more orderly fashion, which attracted renewed interest among compassionate Catholics.

A cult arose, as people began to lovingly adopt skulls – capuchelle – of the abandoned souls – pezzentelle – in return for protection. They assigned the unknown names that appeared to them in dreams. They cleaned them, brought them small tokens of their affection, and kept them company.

Then, in 1969, the Archbishop of Naples decreed the practice fetishism and closed the entire ossuary to visitors. The deprivation of visitation rights to ancient adopted kin proved unpopular.

The cemetery was restored in early 2000 but was only unlocked for visitation a couple of times a year. Following protests including an overnight occupation, the cavernous space was reopened on a daily basis in 2010.

Only spotted one caregiver inside. She dashed down the entire length, her boyfriend lagging a ways behind. She stopped mid-right in the last chapel. Obviously, she only had eyes for but one skull amongst the abundance. She stooped to present something to her capuchelle, murmured a word or two, and then dashed back out as quickly as she entered. Her fidanzato rushed to keep up.

As you wander in the dimly lit chambers with bare rock walls and soaring ceilings, the space feels as hallowed as that of any ornately gilded church nave. The named capuchelle do indeed began to assume personalities of a sort, indicating that no two skulls are alike. They all are individuals; each with a story.

As in Mexican cemeteries on the first days of November, by the time you leave, keeping company with the dead no longer appears as bizarre. Eerie, yet somehow soothing.

And there are 30,000, 40,000, maybe even 50,000 more skulls stacked up, waiting for adoption.

Postcard from Antequera, Spain: Where women are not depicted as the weaker sex

Romans. Visigoths. Moors. Then Christians. As in Ronda, evidence of the waves of occupiers choosing to fortify a natural citadel in Andalucia remains in Antequera. Real Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor, an early (early 1500s) Renaissance church, dominates the hilltop with its Alacazaba fortress.

A replica of a 1760 float from the Corpus Christi processions parked near the front of the church is what stands out. Tarasca depicts a powerful woman, representing faith, conquering the seven deadly sins, symbolized by a snarling seven-headed dragon.

Then there are the faded murals on the church’s walls. Look closely. The Virgin Mary is not the only role model for young women here. The featured saints are all women. Women at war, leading Christian forces to victory.

And in the church of San Sebastian, there is a statue of a young woman gazing toward heaven. In her right hand, she bears a sword pointing downward to the head of a slain Moor at her feet.

Growing up with these images, are the women of Antequera particularly strident?

We lunched in a small restaurant patronized by locals that balanced things out by presenting the male side of the equation – the walls were covered with photos of matadors.