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: Another splendid museum off the beaten path

So close to Toledo’s Plaza Mayor yet skipped by so many visitors, the riches of the Santa Cruz Museum are displayed in a stunning rehab of a 16th-century hospital.

Yes, there are some El Greco works inside, but, uncharacteristically, I was fascinated by the fashions – an exhibit titled La Moda Espanola en el Siglo de Oro.

If you are paying attention, please, Mister, a necklace with powerful magical amulets resembling the one above is at the top of my birthday wish list.

And more on the fashion front: Returning to a blog theme broached in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, “What should Jesus wear?,” a large canvas in this museum seems to address whether he wore boxers or briefs.

Holy Cards from Oaxaca: The magical burro delivered parts of the patron saint

As the man from the countryside drove his pack mules down the dusty street in Oaxaca in the year 1620, one dropped to its knees. There, in front of the church of Saint Sebastian.

But, wait, this was not one of his burros. It was a volunteer laden with a heavy chest. The burro refused to budge, rolling over dead, knocking open the chest to reveal its contents. The hands and beautifully carved face of the Virgin Mary appeared. Surely a miracle.

A church would have to be built here. And it was. A grand church now known as the Basilica de La Virgen de la Soledad.

And the Virgin was cloaked in splendor, her garment designed to conceal her lack of corporal substance.

Many who have prayed to the Virgen de la Soledad through the centuries since credit her with miraculous cures. In the belief that she, the patron saint of Oaxaca, protects them, mariners would trek from the coast on foot to bring her tributes of pearls and gold.

When the Constitution of 1857 authorized confiscation of the church’s assets, her bejeweled garments and tributes were spirited away by some of her faithful. The tattered remnants of her gown, gems intact, were rediscovered by a merchant remodeling his shop in 1888. He ordered the finest velvet from France to present to the nuns who stitched the jewels back into the luxurious garment that is her hallmark.

The Feast Day of La Virgen de las Soledad on December 18 is one of Oaxaca’s most important celebrations. We never were able to determine at what hour she arrived by float paraded through the streets, perhaps midnight? A few spent fireworks littered the stones the next day. We found her enthroned in a corner of the Basilica’s plaza on her day, the faithful filing by to lay floral tributes before her.

In addition to the behemoth Basilica built in her honor, a smaller plaza in front of the church always beckons – the ice cream plaza, properly known as Plaza Socrates. Stalls of vendors of imaginative flavors of ice cream – such as rosa or aguacate – competitively beckon families to sit at their tables for some of the best people-watching in the city. Marimba minstrels generally set up in the middle of the neverias.

A plaza full of ice cream makes Socrates seem a wise man indeed.