Postcard from Rome, Italy: Palace reflects vestiges of papal perks

It has never been easy to obtain first-class relics worthy of designing a gilded chapel around, but it certainly helped to have a pope in the family.

Among the prizes contained in reliquaries in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj are “the perfectly preserved remains,” according to the website, of Saint Theodora. We are not sure which Theodora, but this one, before final martyrdom I assume, purportedly was spared from a fiery end by flames that parted around her. Stretched out below the chapel altar are the remains of a saintly centurion who, prior to his conversion and martyrdom, served as an imperial guard standing by during the crucifixion of Christ.

The basic structural bones of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj date from 1435, but the Pamphilj family undertook major remodeling during the second half of the 17th century. Later redo’s Rococo-ed things up a bit.

The Doria portion of the family originally was from Genoa, while the Pamphilj branch had roots in Gubbio. Both powerful families, but the glory years of consolidating prime property and accumulating wealth and art in Rome followed the papal inauguration of Giovanni Battista Pamphilj in 1644 as Innocent X (1574-1655). Papal perks awarded to friends and family were chief causes of stormy Vatican politics for centuries.

Pope Innocent X lived in office for more than a decade, a decade during which he presided over the 1650 Jubilee Celebration. Traditionally during Jubilee years of the church, currently held every 25 years:

families were expected to find their absent family members, the Hebrew slaves were to be set free, debts were to be settled and illegally owned land had to be returned to its owners.

“The Jubilee Year,” www.vatican.com

In honor of the Jubilee, Pope Innocent X added opulence to St. Peter’s and, for the public, made Piazza Navona the incredible landmark it remains today. He moved an immense Egyptian red granite obelisk of Domitan there and commissioned artists of the caliber of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to add ornate Baroque fountains.

But wait, was that project for the public good or for the pleasure of the Pamphilj family whose palazzo happened to be located there? The family who would flood the plaza to float boats for elaborate summertime parties? No matter now, it is a stunning, if ridiculously overcrowded, public space.

Among the major paintings included in the palazzo’s collection is a portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Some critics regard this portrait as one of the finest in the world; artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) obsessively turned to reproductions of the painting as the basis for his two-decade series of “screaming popes.”

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 Guanajuato, Mexico: Templo de la Compania de Jesus

The florid details of the Churrigueresque façade of the church of La Compania de Jesus in Guanajuato are striking. The church was constructed between the years of 1747 and 1765.

But, as always, the details inside the church are equally as interesting. A rectangle of red velvet hung on the wall next to an image of Saint Lucy to encourage petitioners appealing for better eyesight to pin their silver milagros of eyes there. But, regarding proximity as more potent, several fortified their prayers by taping their charms directly on her image.

One day El Nino Medico almost was submerged completely in a sea of boys’ toys, but he was liberated from them the next week. Only a few photos, milagros and a lone baby shoe remained by his feet. A new crop of toys probably has arrived in his case by now.

Holding El Nino securely in one arm, the Virgin Mary somehow uses her other to hoist up some lad. She rescues him from the fierce-looking jaws of a black, toadlike version of the devil, surely by some artist from another time period than whoever sculpted the original statues in the ornate Baroque niche.

A few-peso fee grants admittance to the sacristy containing a small collection of paintings. But the appeal for me was not just the art. The docent pulled aside a heavy floor-to-ceiling drape to reveal the true treasures – first-class reliquaries containing major bones of several saints.

 

Ah, and the bloody feet pictured on the poster for a pilgrimage taking place tomorrow. Those feet represent those of Jose Sanchez del Rio, who will be canonized a saint in Rome tomorrow. Born in Sahuayo, Michoacán, in 1913, the teen left home to serve as the flag bearer for the Cristeros, who were rebelling against the enforcement of rigid anticlerical laws in 1926 by President Plutarco Elias Calles. Foreign Catholic priests were expelled from Mexico, and monasteries, convents and Catholic schools were closed.

Violence escalated, and the armed Cristeros, primarily rural peasants with no military training, even managed to inflict several defeats on federal forces. When Blessed Jose was captured, he refused to recant his faith. He was imprisoned in the seized parish church, and his jailers attempted to extract a ransom from his family for his release.

In addition to captured Cristeros, a government official was using the church to house his prized fighting cocks. According to the website of Ive Minor Seminary:

When Jose arrived he saw the roosters running around the church and was indignant, and said, “This is not a barnyard!” He took them all by the neck and killed them, hanging them from a banister. According to some, Picasso (the name of the government official) had imported some of those very fine birds all the way from Canada, and this was the last straw; he was so indignant that he commanded that they execute the boy by firing squad.

The soldiers carried out their own gruesome ritual prior to the execution. As he was marched to the firing squad:

…they began to strike him with the machetes they carried. Even worse, they chopped off the soles of Jose’s feet, and they forced him to walk along the rocky unpaved road to the cemetery. Instead of complaining, he shouted, “Long live Christ the King!” Witnesses said that the stones where Jose had trodden were all soaked in his blood, and although he moaned from the pain, he never weakened in his resolve.

Blessed Jose obtained his martyrdom on February 10, 1928.

The roster of Mexican saints now numbers about three dozen. No doubt, a few of the faithful will make the pilgrimage tomorrow barefoot in honor of the canonization of the new saint.