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 Rome, Italy: Church tour for the fleet of foot

No time to pause for even the slightest genuflection in this lightening-fast tour of more than a dozen churches in Rome.

You might think this blog has dragged you through every single church in Rome, but, no. One could spend a year visiting a church a day without exhausting that supply. Rome is divided into 339 parishes, and there are close to 70 basilicas within the city. Probably all are worth ducking into for a visit.

But, mercifully, our tour stops here.

On this whiplash final lap, am going to point out two major relics of the type upon which most American Catholics never lay their eyes. The reliquary above is said to contain “the first foot to be entered in the tomb of Christ,” that of Mary Magdalene enshrined in the Basilica di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. And the other is a portion of the head of Saint John the Baptist housed in a chapel in the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite.

I wonder whether anyone ever has developed a scavenger hunt for spying saintly parts tucked away in nooks and crannies in churches in Rome.

A shortcut to encountering a massive number of bones, if one is so inclined, is to seek out the Capuchin Museum and Crypt tucked under Santa Maria della Concezione. The church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII (to whom you were introduced during my “wild things” museum meltdown) in recognition of a relative who was a Capuchin friar, Cardinal Antonio Barberini. Cardinal Barberini had the remains of thousands of his Capuchin brethren transferred to the crypt, which provided monks with a creative side unusual materials for their assemblages.

The museum offers a rather dry history of the Capuchin order, somewhat interesting if not for the macabre magnetic pull of the crypt you know lies on the far side. I doubt much has changed there since Mark Twain’s visit long ago, so I will let him describe the interior:

There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself – and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones! There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails. Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs (they were by Michael Angelo, I think,) and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it” – meaning himself and his brethren upstairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.

“Who were these people?”

“We – upstairs – Monks of the Capuchin order – my brethren.”

“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”

“These are the bones of four thousand.”

“It took a long time to get enough?”

“Many, many centuries.”

“Their different parts are well separated – skulls in one room, legs in another, ribs in another – there would be stirring times here for a while if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer together than they were used to. You can not tell any of these parties apart, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes, I know many of them.”

He put his finger on a skull. “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

And, as this is a whiplash tour of churches, our friend Chris’ seconds-long forbidden video recording of the interior seems appropriate.

 

I asked the monk if all the brethren upstairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:

“We must all lie here at last.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

Catholicism remains a religion of many mysteries, even for someone who was raised as one, particularly during the years when mass still was said in Latin. Like, when near the end of the service, the priest would talk about Nabisco crackers: “Dominus vobiscum.” “The Lord be with you,” lost in translation between the priest’s lips and my ears.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Hailing two more graceful Marias

In addition to being dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other bond this pair of featured Roman basilicas has is their façades were undergoing restoration and hidden from view.

In 38 B.C., some claim mineral oil spewed out of the ground, a miraculous sign of the coming of Christ, on the site in Trastevere Pope Callixtus I (?-222) chose for a sanctuary dedicated to Mary. Aside from the foundation, little remains of that early church.

As Pope Honorius II (1060-1130) lay dying, a group of cardinals gathered as a committee and named his successor, Pope Innocent II (?-1143). Chaos within the church, not uncommon when determining papal succession, erupted when a majority of cardinals objected to the process and elected Anacletus II (?-1138) as their leader. Pope Innocent II was forced to flee Rome for a number of years, while the competing “Antipope,” depending on which side is relating the story, ruled.

A tomb for Anacletus II had been completed inside Santa Maria in Trastevere, but the presence of his former rival’s tomb was salt in the wound for Pope Innocent II. He had the church, and the offending memorial razed. During the reconstruction of the church, Pope Innocent II commissioned his own resting place to be built upon the spot once occupied by that of the “Antipope.”

The capitals of the columns, if not the entire granite columns, lining the nave were retrieved from the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, which dated from around the year 200. Centuries later, when Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) was informed the faces adorning the capitals were of ancient Roman gods, he had them chiseled off the columns.

The mosaic over the apse, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” with the row of sheep underneath was completed the year of Pope Innocent II’s death. Saints are clustered on the right of Jesus, with pope-approved popes on the left, including, of course, Innocent II himself. Below the herd of sheep are a series of mosaics portraying the life of the Virgin, including “The Annunciation” featured above. The mosaics of Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330) represent an artistic evolution from Byzantine stiffness to more natural figurative work. Numerous glamorous features were added to the basilica by cardinals and popes in subsequent centuries.

A giant walnut tree grew atop the spot at the foot of Pincian Hill in Rome where the ashes of Emperor Nero (37-68) were relocated by a landslide from above. Foreboding ravens, and perhaps more wicked winged demons, haunted the tree, frightening the superstitious populace entering or leaving through the nearby gate to the city. Fortunately, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) in a dream with the solution. Upon her instructions, he performed an exorcism on the tree and then took an axe to it, a blow releasing the screaming evil spirits residing within. Nero’s remains underneath were thrown in the Tiber, and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was erected in their place.

Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) ushered Rome into the Early Renaissance with the construction of an immense church on the site, Santa Maria del Popolo, and, among other enduring landmarks, the Sistine Chapel. He restored more than 30 churches and had a half-dozen more erected in Rome during his tenure at the helm of the church.

The photographs above capture only a fraction of the art stuffing Santa Maria del Popolo, its walls lined with chapels commissioned by families enriched through papal relationships. Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) fill niches and flutter above arches; two enormous paintings by Caravaggio (1571-1610) hang in a chapel flanking the apse.

Yet, my favorite memorials are a pair of slabs in the floor marking the graves of two nuns.