Postcard from Genoa, Italy: The humorous patron saint of the grill

Strange to keep referencing my father, Lawrence Conway Brennan (1918-1988), in posts about Italy, but he had several things in common with his namesake saint, Saint Lawrence (225-258). And Saint Lawrence happens to be honored prominently in Genoa where the seat of the archbishop is the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo.

First of all, they were both treasurers, my father of the Columbian Peanut Company and Lawrence entrusted with the treasury and riches of the church by Pope Sixtus II (?-258). Then there is the grill. Valencian-born Saint Lawrence is pretty much always depicted with a gridiron at his side or underfoot and is known as the patron saint of cooks.

My father loved grilling, so much so that I actually grew sick of eating his prized marbled sirloin steaks and still am not much of a steak-eater today. His penchant for medium-rare did carry over to me. My father’s impeccable timing for grilling was governed by when he swilled the last sip of bourbon and water from his highball glass.

The iconography of Saint Lawrence’s gridiron is not as pleasant an association. While sometimes in subsequent centuries assuming responsibility for the Vatican treasury enabled accumulation of great personal wealth, the perks in 258 were not pleasant. Emperor Valerian (200-264) was not fond of Pope Sixtus II and his band. He demanded the Christian clergy perform sacrifices to the Roman gods. Failing to follow his order, Christian leaders were ordered executed.

You might have noticed Sixtus II and Saint Lawrence died during the same year, but Lawrence lived a few days longer. Missed during the initial sweep of those to be beheaded, the treasurer requested a delay of three days to assemble church treasures to “render them unto Caesar.” He rounded up the goods, but, instead of turning them over to Roman authorities, he distributed them to the poor and infirm.

Needless to say, the reallocation of church assets was not received well by the emperor’s minions. A simple beheading was deemed too merciful a fate for Lawrence. A massive gridiron was heated over a fiery bed of hot coals to ensure a slow, sizzling death process for him.

After roasting for a considerable amount of time, legend claims Saint Lawrence piped up with a request: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.” A memorable quip meriting his saintly status as a patron of both cooks and comedians.

The impressive 1828 silver reliquary, above, containing some of Saint Lawrence’s unidentified smoked body remnants in its chest, is housed amid a collection of impressive silver and gold treasures housed in a museum under the cathedral in Genoa. Included there is a ceremonial casket for transporting the ashes of Saint John the Baptist, presumably not including his head as we viewed it enshrined in Rome in the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite, on appropriate church holidays. And displayed also is yet another chalice with claims of being used for Jesus’ final sip of wine at the Last Supper. No wonder the search through the centuries for the “real” Holy Grail has been so convoluted and controversial.

In memory of Saint Lawrence’s sacrifices, the Genoese built an impressive Duomo atop/around the site of several earlier churches. The cathedral was consecrated in 1118 by Pope Galasius II (1060-1119) during his brief year-long papal reign.

Obviously from the photos above, the handsome cathedral underwent numerous major changes through the centuries resulting in layers of different architectural styles.

Perhaps my father’s mastery of the art of grilling was directed by his patron saint perched upon his shoulder? That, accompanied by a little devil perched on his glass urging him not to let those ice cubes melt.

Postcard from Modena, Italy: Watch out for the devil in the architectural details

…monstrous beings of every kind, sinful creatures threatening the spiritual path of humankind…. Images emphasize the symbolic meaning of the church door, which separates the believers gathered inside, from those standing outside, who may fall prey to the Devil.”

UNESCO Guide to Visiting the Cathedral of Modena

Fortunately, if one does not want to pass through the doorway with the most monsters, the Cathedral dominating two plazas in Modena has numerous entrances with other lessons. Sculptural reliefs clustered around and above the doors teach the Biblical lesson of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden; the story of the city’s patron saint, Saint Geminiani, who died shortly before the year 400 and whose remains are housed in the crypt; seasonal harvests; and Arthurian legends.

Many of these were the work of sculptor Wiligemo, who worked simultaneously with the architect Lanfranco – “the choice of architect had been miraculously inspired by God.” Construction of the Romanesque Cathedral began in 1099, and it was consecrated in 1184. UNESCO describes the result as:

a magnificent example of Romanesque Art which astonished society at the time and still fills us with wonder….

As construction work took more than a century, some interior sculptural work was designed and completed by Campionesi masters.

The soaring Cathedral and the Ghirlandina Tower on its side are among the beautiful buildings in Modena compelling one to linger, meandering its relatively tourist-free streets and plazas.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: Cathedral honors the dragon-slayer

Saint George is the patron saint of Ferrara, so, first, here’s a wandering tale about the saint.

Collecting water for the day was a major chore, but a fierce dragon guarding your water supply really complicates matters. The wise villagers in a kingdom somewhere, perhaps Lebanon or Libya, placated the beast by releasing two sheep to it before fetching pails of water. But the dragon consumed sheep faster than the villagers could raise them, so soon their supply was exhausted.

Some “wise” person, obviously a male, determined the best way to appease the dragon was to feed him young women. A lottery was held to see which young woman would become his supper first, and the beautiful daughter of the king drew the short straw.

The villagers took her to meet her fate, tying her near the dragon’s lair. Fortunately, just in the nick of time, along came a brave Roman soldier who heard the princess cry out for help. The brave soldier slew the dangerous beast and freed the princess.

This tale was one picked up during the Crusades and embellished by soldiers returning home. The hero was reputed to be Saint George, a patron saint of soldiers, a saint who helped protect them not only during warfare but also from diseases they might pick up along the way, such as the plague or syphilis.

The legend of Saint George and the dragon has persisted through thousands of years, mainly because it is such a fairy-tale-type story. Although to truly fit into the Disney-type mold by which many of us were shaped, shouldn’t George then have married the beautiful princess and lived happily ever after?

There are lots of hard-to-believe stories of saints, but this one is considered more legend than fact. As one early pope purportedly said, George was included in the group of saints “whose names are justly revered among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”

But George did earn his sainthood. He became a valued officer serving in the guard of Emperor Diocletian. The emperor, however, demanded all his soldiers renounce Christianity. George steadfastly resisted. The emperor sentenced him to death via several brutal methods we will not describe, but, somehow, George was revived three times. Finally, he was beheaded in April of the year 303.

The grand Duomo is dedicated to Saint George. The façade was begun in the 12th century but took another century or so to complete. Some of its treasures have been moved to the Museo della Cattedrale nearby.

The cathedral with its spacious plazas in front and on one side is an integral part of daily interactions among citizens in Ferrara constantly crisscrossing them. At some point long ago, a shopping arcade of inferior architecture was attached to one side. Fortunately, the arcade is only one story high, so much of the cathedral’s details are preserved for viewing, including the wonderfully funky pairs of wave-like columns running along the side.

These photos are of the Cathedral and some of the contents of its museum.