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.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: Gossipy stories behind ancient mosaics

It’s not surprising that Empress Theodora (about 500-548) merits the chalice full of wine in the mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. (Warning: this post contains rumors passed down the grapevine for centuries.)

The daughter of the keeper of the animals at the Hippodrome of ancient Constantinople, a monumental center for circus-like entertainment and chariot racing, Theodora learned her beguiling ways early as her mother promoted her as an “actress.” According to ancient gossips, actresses during those times entertained publicly and privately to earn their keep.

Although not the first man to claim her for his mistress, Justinian (483-565) was smitten with her. Justinian’s origins were far from royal as well. The son of peasants, Justinian was adopted by his uncle, Justin (450-527), a member of the imperial guard. As the commander of troops in Constantinople, somehow Justin managed to be elected to rule the Byzantine Empire in 518.

While Justinian was keeping company with Theodora, their marriage was blocked by law. Rulers were prohibited from marrying actresses. Shortly before senility overtook him completely, Emperor Justin overturned the law for the benefit of his nephew. So when Justinian I succeeded his uncle as the Byzantine Emperor in 527, his former mistress became Empress and ruled jointly with him.

Construction of the large octagonal Basilica of San Vitale was begun while the Ostrogoths ran Ravenna but was completed in 547 after Emperor Justinian reclaimed the city. Supposedly, the project was patronized by gold donated by a Roman banker. Both Justinian and Theodora were promoted to sainthood by the Eastern Orthodox church.

The murals above are from San Vitale and a neighboring building in Ravenna. The oldest of the pair is a small mausoleum in the form of a Greek cross commissioned by Galla Placidia (386-452), but she ended up buried in Rome. The story of Galla Placidia, who must have been as compelling a consort as Empress Theodora, requires divulging a few more juicy tidbits.

I’ll try to keep this simple, but her life was complicated. Galla Placidia was the sister of Roman Emperor Honorius (384-423), the one who moved the capital to Ravenna in 402. Her first fiancé was executed in Rome in 408 amid accusations he was part of a military coup d’état.

During one of the invasions of the Visigoths, Galla Placidia was captured and moved with them to Gaul in 412. She ended up married to their king, Ataulf (370-415), a union forging a period when the Visigoths and Honorius briefly ceased fighting each other. King Ataulf, though, was murdered in his tub in Barcelona by a minion of a Gothic challenger to his rule.

The widow returned to Ravenna where her brother browbeat her into marrying his general, Constantius, in 417. In 421, Constantius assumed the title of Constantius III, ruling in conjunction with the childless Honorius. Her new husband brought her the title of Empress, but he died of some illness seven months later. Alternating scandalous stories of Honorius’ incestuous affection for his sister and quarrels between the pair forced Galla Placida and her children into exile in Constantinople, where another of her brothers reigned over the eastern half of the empire.

Following much political infighting and turmoil after Honorius’ death, Galla Placidia served as regent of the Western Roman Empire until her son from her marriage with Constantius III, Valentinian III (419-455), turned 18 in 437.

History is so not boring.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: ‘We three kings of Orient are?’

Detailed wish lists for newborns are commonplace online, but aromatic resins must have fallen out of popularity. Maybe because frankincense and myrrh are not stocked by retailers such as Babies ‘R’ Us. Most parents of today would welcome gold though.

These are the gifts presented in the manger by the three kings from the east who followed the star. The Mister’s mother, Virginia Hornor Spencer (1924-2000), would unroll handsome gold banners featuring the kings each year for the holidays, launching the annual trivia quiz to recall the names of the wise men.

The photo above eliminates the challenge by labeling them: Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar. In this mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the kings are followed by a parade of 22 virgins.

This church was constructed for Theodoric the Great (493-526), who, in addition to his own baptistery, wanted a private Arian chapel near his palace. He is credited with commissioning the top row of prophets lining the walls. Some of his Arian Christian mosaics were altered after the Byzantine branch of the Catholic Church recaptured Ravenna from what they considered barbaric heretics. The parades of the virgins and martyrs were added by the more mainstream Catholics.

Saint Apollinaris was an early bishop of Ravenna who supposedly suffered through a torture and release program practiced by Roman emperors against the early Christians. He endured beatings, hackings by knives, forced walks over hot coals, time in the dungeon and numerous expulsions from Ravenna before his final capture resulted in wounds from which he did not recover.

Around the year 900, the martyr’s relics were moved to this church, which was renamed in his honor with the “Nuovo” tag to distinguish it from the first church to house his remains as it was near the sea and prone to raids by pirates. Most of Saint Apollinaris’ parts are divided between the two Apollinare churches of Ravenna.

The cylindrical bell tower was added in the 9th or 10th century, and the marble porch was tacked onto the basilica in the 16th century. The altar and its dome were altered much later.