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 Rome, Italy: A literal definition of a marriage made in heaven

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appeared
Mistaking Earth for heaven.

“A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” John Dryden, 1687

Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate’s severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please:
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found….

“Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day,” Alexander Pope, 1708

Some time in the first or second century, the daughter of a wealthy family in Rome was betrothed to a young pagan. A Christian, Cecilia was dragging her feet about entering into the arranged marriage, fasting and pleading with God and the Virgin Mary to help her preserve her virginity. Definitely not the vow a prospective groom envisions.

As the musicians played at the feast celebrating the wedding, Cecilia stared upward, focused on serenading the heavens with the song in her heart. Valerian, the groom, was miraculously understanding when she explained her wedding night plans to him did not include consummation of their marriage.

Cecilia claimed she had an angel protecting her. A little suspicious, he asked for proof. She directed him to the third milestone on the Appian Way and to be baptized by Pope Urban I (died in 230). Valerian complied and, upon his return, saw her guardian angel with her, crowning her head with roses and lilies. In addition to his religious conversion, he accepted her vow of chastity.

Valerian’s enthusiasm was so great, his brother followed suit. Christianity was far from the official religion in Rome at the time, so Valerian and his brother busied themselves gathering the bodies of executed Christians and providing them with burials. This chore kept them quite occupied until their dedication attracted too much attention, and they themselves became martyrs.

Cecilia then threw herself more fervently into spreading the word, converting more than 400 pagans to the still somewhat new religion. Until…

… you know where this is leading, she attracted attention of those in power. But Cecilia’s angel did not let her succumb quickly to the efforts to dispose of her. First condemned to death by “spa,” she was locked in the baths with the heat and steam stoked up unbearably high. She emerged unfazed, so a more direct approach was taken.

Chop off her head. The executioner swung his axe three times. Despite profuse bleeding, her head remained in a semi-attached state. This afforded Cecilia time to make arrangements to distribute any remaining wealth to the poor and to donate her home in Trastevere for a church. Pope Urban I complied.

In the 800s, Pope Paschal I rebuilt the church. Desiring to locate Saint Cecilia’s remains and transfer them to her church, the pope searched the catacombs. After a vision, he finally located them and those of her husband and brother-in-law. Saint Cecilia’s original robes, blood-soaked, were at her feet; she was clothed in gold. All three bodies were moved to the church.

While the mosaic in the apse from that period survives, much remodeling followed. Fast forward to the 1500s, Cardinal Niccolo Sfrondrato (1535-1591), later becoming Pope Gregory XIV, was trying to confirm the location of the remains of Santa Cecilia.

Workers uncovered a marble coffin and opened it in front of the cardinal and, even more conveniently, sculptor Stefano Maderno (1576-1636). And there she was. Santa Cecilia incorrupta. The first Catholic saint recorded as emerging in this totally preserved state, further demonstrated by the fact that she had rolled over to a more comfortable position on her side.

Word spread like wildfire in Rome, and the cardinal was fortunate to escape being crushed by the crowds eager to view their patron saint of music, still cloaked in golden cloth. Maderno recorded this miracle by sculpting a realistic depiction of her body for the altar. But her actual body was reinterred elsewhere in the church.

The Mister is wise. A sign on the left side of the church offered entrance to the basement for a couple of euros, and he said, “Never turn down an invitation to visit the crypt.” And he proved so right.

Down underneath the church are ancient crypts and the remains of an old tannery, but then you stumble into a magical space. Arcades and walls covered with glittering mosaics heralding Saint Cecilia’s final resting place.

The Mister’s fingers seem to be gliding across his travel guitar’s strings more effortlessly ever since.

 

Postcard from Mexico City: The Lord of Poison and potent relics

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City also features a black statue of Christ, known there also as Lord of Poison which is a pretty interesting name for a Christ figure. This is the most venerated statue in the entire cathedral and… dates back to the 18th of August, 1602 when the Dominican Fathers came to Mexico with several Christ sculptures, all white.

Legend has it that this particular figure was installed in a small chapel in Tlanepantla where the regent archbishop prayed daily and at the end of a prayer, would kiss the feet of this statue. When his enemies saw what his routine was, they applied poison to the feet of the statue in the hopes that they could off him in this way after his next prayer. Alas, their cunning plan was foiled when the statue (faith, people, faith) shrank back from the archbishop’s approaching lips, thereby saving his life and providing for yet another biblical story. …the poison that had been applied by the evildoers… is what turned it black.

The story quickly got out and spread rapidly amongst the flock; the great back story and the fact that the chapel was not open to the public heightened the mystery and devotion to this black Christ. After being under wraps for many years (ie the marketing plan had worked and the product was ready) in 1935 the now heroic black Christ was moved from its private location to the Metropolitan Cathedral so as to be available for worship by all.

The Mystery of the Black Christ at Chumayel,” Lawsons Yucatan

The black figure of Jesus on the cross is somewhat of a newcomer to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Whether the version above or the story of the poison fed to Don Fermin by Don Ismael is preferred, the willingness of the figure to absorb the evil dark potion to spare the good man does make the Lord of Poison somewhat of a star attraction. The largest cathedral in the Americas actually is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. If the halo-bearing statue below is of Mary, she appears quite shocked by her immaculately conceived swollen shape.

Construction of the first part of the church was begun under orders of Hernan Cortes in 1524. Original building materials were recycled from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of Huitzilopochtili, which stood on the site.

It would take more than a few Hail Marys to make a pass the entire length of the cathedral, as it measures the entire length of a football field, including the two endzones. There are two major gilded altars surrounded by 16 chapels. Ornate facades mark four major entrances to the cathedral. The main entrance was barred when we were there, and a crane appeared to facilitate an inspection or repair of any possible damage above incurred during the recent severe tremors.

Despite floods, fire, earthquakes and general sinking of the foundation, the church has remained steadfast in its determination to occupy the symbolic location in the heart of the city. As the huge capital city drained the water table, the cathedral continued to sink. Work to rectify that in the 1990s required extensive excavation. The successful stabilization project revealed ancient treasures, discussed here in a post-to-come.

The rather substantial first-class relics of San Vital housed in the glass case reside at the front of a gated chapel filled with portions of numerous saints. I am confused about whether these belonged at one time (until about the year of 304) to San Vitale, whose bones we first became acquainted with in the Cathedral of Bologna where they are enshrined combined with some of those of Saint Agricola. Or were they originally part of San Vitale who was buried alive, probably about the same time, for his faith in Ravenna, on the spot where a basilica now stands in his honor? Or someone entirely different?

Outside of the main chapel of reliquaries, unbeknownst to us, life-size wax statues of saints contain secret stashes of more human relics recently revealed via digital X-rays, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Anyway, I’m totally uncertain of what causes this particular San Vital is in charge. But surely relics of this size are pretty potent, so go ahead. Pray for his help for anything.