Postcard from Rome, Italy: Putting that saintly fashion foot forward

Away from San Antonio during Fiesta… when duchesses were bowing, weighed down by their glittering trains and flashing their fancy footwear, sometimes chanclas, from atop flowery floats… we encountered a rich array of elegant gowns in a fashion show in an unanticipated setting.

Chapels lining one side aisle of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli hosted mannequins wearing some of the Virgin Mary’s most formal attire. Numerous outfits were complete with compatible cloaks and shoes and, of course, matching attire for Baby Jesus.

The basilica’s own Baby Jesus, Santo Bambino of Aracoeli, needed no additional clothes. Carved from olive wood from the Gethsemane Garden in Jerusalem, Santo Bambino always is cloaked in a much-bejeweled golden garment.

The original statue created by a Franciscan dated from the 15th century and was credited for numerous miraculous healings. At one point, Santo Bambino was carted around on house-calls to aid those too ill to visit personally.

An icon of such value attracts much interest. The French hijacked it in 1797, but it was later recovered. Thieves robbed the baby of numerous jewels in 1838, but the worst theft occurred in 1994. Santo Bambino vanished. Even thieves in prison penned public letters requesting their fellow tradesmen return the beloved Santo Bambino. Fresh olive wood was obtained from Jerusalem for the replacement now on display.

The original Santo Bambino might be missing, but, for the faithful, his powerful spirit remains with the reproduction in the basilica. Letters from around the world arrive addressed to Santo Bambino requesting mail-order miracles and are placed beside him to “read” at will. As newer ones arrive, the older requests are burned with incense.

As for the setting itself? No San Antonio ballroom can compare with the shimmering chandeliers and ornate décor found in the basilica.

Somewhere at the foundation of the enormous Basilica of Santa Maria of Aracoeli lies a Byzantine church dating from the 500s. The papacy took over the property in the 9th century, placing it under the control of Benedictines. Immense columns supporting the central nave were harvested from ancient Roman ruins. Franciscans provided much Romanesque and Gothic remodeling and expansion in the 1200s. Heavy gilding of the ceiling was completed in 1575 to thank the Virgin for her assistance in defeating the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.

A monumental stairway, 124 steps, was added in 1348 for those praying for an end to the Black Plaque or seeking penance on their way up to the church (Okay, I confess. We took an easier approach through a side door.). In the Middle Ages, criminals were executed at the base of the stairway. In the 17th century, one of the royal princes who lived above took offense to international pilgrims sleeping on the steps and periodically rolled stone-filled barrels downward to chase them off.

Contemporary superstition claims the faithful who crawl up the stairway on their knees enhance their possibilities to win the national lottery. No point for us. We will never win any lottery. You have to pay to play.

 

Postcard from Toledo, Spain: San Juan de los Reyes remains, but the royal remains were no-shows

While legions of tourists line up for the Cathedral in Toledo, you can wander a few blocks away and they almost vanish. Only a handful appeared as we peacefully explored San Juan de los Reyes Monastery.

A battle between the Juanistas and the Isabelists led to the construction of the monastery, and I’ll try to explain why. Life among the Iberian royals was complicated. Sometimes they fought their way to power, and other times they married to merge kingdoms.

Henry IV of Castile (1425-1474) had no heirs and wanted to peacefully sidle up to Portugal, so he talked the Pope into annulling his first marriage to free him to marry the sister of King Alfonso V (1432-1481) of Portugal. Things were going along fine for a while, but an heir didn’t appear for more than six years. Royal gossips believed the king impotent, but then Juana (1462-1530) was born. The snickering about her paternity never ceased.

In the meantime, Henry’s younger half-sister Isabel (1451-1504) snubbed proposals from Alfonso. Instead of the King of Portugal, she married her second cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516).

Well, when Henry up and died in 1474, many in Spain viewed young Juana’s pedigree as questionable. Isabel and Ferdinand’s marriage, on the other hand, conveniently unified the kingdom of Castile and Aragon.

The rejected suitor Alfonso did not like this turn of events. What better way to get control of his neighbor then to promote Juana as Henry’s heir to the throne and marry her, his 14-year-old niece?

So then the whole peninsula was conflicted between the Juanistas and the Isabelists, which, of course, convinced King Alfonso and King Ferdinand to pull out their armor and lead their followers into a big battle at Toro on the Duero River in 1476. Militarily, the outcome was questionable. The flanks were divided geographically, and the troops of one king were victorious on the right flank and the other on the left. Nightfall and fog created chaos, and everybody not killed went home declaring victory.

Which leads us to the monastery.

In a masterful public relations move, Isabel commissioned the monastery In Toledo as a monument to “victory” at the Battle of Toro, a victory securing her crown as Queen of Castile. Merging Flamboyant Gothic with Mudejar styles, this place needed to be nice because the queen announced it would be the final resting place of the royal couple.

By the time San Juan de los Reyes was finished, Ferdinand and Isabel had acquired a lot more land and wealth. The Cathedral in Granada seductively offered appropriately sumptuous quarters for permanent royal rest; San Juan appeared modest in comparison. So the Catholic monarchs presented the monastery to Franciscan monks.

Aside from a major fire during the French invasion in 1808, the monks were good stewards of their monastery. But the property was seized by the government in the 19th century.

The Monument Commission carried out what the monastery’s literature calls “a subjective Neo-Gothic restoration project, with traces of historicist Romanticism” at the end of the 19th century. And then, miraculously, the government returned San Juan de los Reyes to the Franciscans in 1954.

 

 

 

Postcard from Portugal: Pilgrimage to the birthland of San Antonio’s patron saint

Part of the excuse for extending our stay in Portugal until mid-June was to ensure we were there for the Feast Day of Saint Anthony of Padua, June 13, the anniversary of his death at age 36 in the year 1231. Actually, the celebration is more than a day. In Lisbon, the party in honor of Saint Anthony lasts throughout June.

While we call him “of Padua,” he wasn’t from there. He only ended up in Italy because his ship was blown off course during a storm. He was born in Lisbon and studied in Coimbra, and the Portuguese have not forgotten him. His images, and a few personal relics, are everywhere.

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They love him. And why not? Few saints are more versatile than Saint Anthony in the types of prayers answered.

So, following my pilgrimage to the homeland of the my city’s patron saint, I wanted to share, in layman’s terms, a few of the things every San Antonian should know about him:

  • Saint Anthony must have been fearless. His prime inspiration for becoming a Franciscan was the story of the five Franciscans beheaded by Moors for preaching in Morocco. He yearned to follow in their footsteps.
  • Forget being impressed by horse-whisperers. Sparrows would flock to hear Saint Anthony preach. A stubborn mule would bow to take sacrament from his hands. Early on, when heretics ignored him, he turned to preach to the fishes in the river, who all popped their heads up, mouths agape, and listened attentively as long as he cared to speak.
  • Saint Anthony was such a silver-tongued orator, rock stars would envy the crowds he attracted. His final sermons had to be given far out in the countryside in the open air to accommodate the thousands who swarmed to bear witness. He needed bodyguards to keep from being stripped naked by those who wanted to snip off scraps of his robes to remember him.
  • His popularity was so great and miracles so obvious, Pope Gregory IX had to put him on the ultra-fast track to sainthood. He was canonized within a year of his death, and there was none of the fudging about waiving confirmation of a second miracle like Pope Francis had to grant for Pope John XXIII.
  • Saint Anthony protects sailors, stemming from the miracle that his ship was merely blown off-course and not destroyed in a storm. Maybe Rio San Antonio Cruises should consider breaking the all-female naming tradition and christen one barge in his honor with a little statue of him on the bow.
  • Saint Anthony helps you find lost and stolen things. This stems from a story of a naughty novice who nicked Anthony’s psalter. Saint Anthony sent such a fearful devil of an ax-wielding creature after him, the repentant man scurried back and returned the book. Some of us would find Saint Anthony’s blessing handy every time we head to the car.
  • Saint Anthony’s been known to appear to guide lost travelers. Those tourists driving the wrong way down a one-way street downtown yesterday sure needed him on their dashboard.
  • Saint Anthony helps fishermen, which means bountiful fresh sardines in Portugal during his Feast Month. You might not think that is a good thing, but grilled fresh sardines are moist and sweet. Celebrating St. Anthony’s Month would provide San Antonio with a good excuse to promote their importation.
  • And what’s better than sardines? Wine. Faced with a drained keg on his arrival in Provence, Saint Anthony refilled it to the amazement of all.
  • In Portugal, people give each other gifts of sweet basil on Saint Anthony’s Day. Wow, how perfect for here. By mid-June everyone in San Antonio could use a fresh pot of basil to replace their summer-stressed straggly ones.
  • Even the poor get bread on St. Anthony’s Feast Day. Unsure whether this tradition stems from the French baker who promised to give bread to the poor if only the shop door would open; the mother who pledged to distribute her child’s weight in wheat if Saint Anthony would bring him back to life (which of course he did); or parents donating bread when placing their children under the saint’s protection. He was such an ardent protector of children, it is claimed that the infant Jesus was seen visiting him in his cell.
  • Saint Anthony not only can heal the sick and bring the recently deceased back to life, he can reattach limbs. A man confessed to Saint Anthony that he had kicked his mother. Taking his penance a little too literally, the man went home and chopped off his own foot. Upon hearing this, Saint Anthony kindly went to the sinner’s home and reattached his severed foot.
  • Saint Anthony helps single women find husbands. Needless to say, grateful brides are honored to be chosen to be part of the multiple-wedding ceremony held on his day.
  • And this is truly cool. Superman has to disappear from one place to fly off to do superhuman feats elsewhere, but Saint Anthony could bilocate. This meant he could be preaching a sermon, suddenly remember he was supposed to be up in the loft singing in the choir and do both at once. But it also meant that when his father was falsely accused of murder in Lisbon, Anthony – then based in Padua – was able to appear in court in Lisbon in support of his father. This feat was made even more impressive when Saint Anthony brought the murder victim back to life to offer his testimony as well, leaving no doubt as to the innocence of the saint’s father.

These tales may seem hard to believe, but everyone wants to believe in miracles. Faith is powerful. But enough about miracles for now.

A pair of Spaniards, Father Damian Massanet and Domingo Teran de los Rios, both claim to have named this place in June of 1691.

We just need to be grateful the explorers entered the land the Native Americans called Yanaguana on Saint Anthony’s Day.

And San Antonio certainly needs another excuse for a citywide party.