Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Only some churchgoers know perhaps that Christmas Day is only the beginning of a two weeks long celebration in which we celebrate the birth of our Lord.
It is perhaps too easy to tell how much I love the late Middle Ages and in Italy, that part of it known as the Renaissance, so I thought it would have been nice to share on this blog the way Christmastide was celebrated during this period of cultural growth and flourishing both in Italy and abroad, both in art and in folklore.

Early Renaissance representation of the Nativity by Gentile da Fabriano.

How could we start such a post if by not mentioning Florence, three times larger than London in the 1400s (at least demographically).
The Florentines used to burn a massive oak branch in the fireplace at Christmas, its fire represented good wishes and prayers lifting up to the skies. The ashes were then spread as a symbol of a new life.
This was also an occasion to exchange gifts, in fact, until not too long ago the Florentine synonym for "present" was ceppo (branch). These presents were packaged with pine branches and other decorations not too dissimilar from those familiar to us nowadays.
Another popular Christmas tradition in Florence was that of the presepi (cribs) - the first one made by Saint Francis himself! This tradition became so popular that even the Medici took it!
The iconography of the nativity scene became most important in Quattrocento Florence - all artists at some stage created stunning representations of it, from the early ones such as Gentile da Fabriano, until Botticelli.
Of course churches were also decorated in beautiful ways, Missas were composed by the greatest musicians, often those who also composed those madrigals sung both by the meek and lowly, rich and poor at the many parties held during Christmas time in Renaissance Florence!

Botticelli's Nativity at the National Gallery.

Christes Maesse is the old English word for Christmas, meaning Christ's Mass (sorry, it will upset the Protestants). In England Christmas was a time of celebration, houses were decorated with evergreens, this is where Christmas takes its nickname "twelfth hour": because people would fast for twelve hours before the three Masses of Christmas, the first being traditionally at midnight (the Angel's Mass), the second at dawn (the shepherd's Mass) and the third during the day (the Mass of the Divine Word), this was when an archaic form of carolling began.
Of course a focal point of the Christmas celebrations was the banquet, which necessarily varied in sumptuosness with the resources of the celebrants. The menu varied with soups and stews, birds and fish, breads and puddings, but a common element was the Yule boar, an animal for those who could afford it or a pie shaped like a boar for more humble tables. Often the lord of the manor would host all of the people in the village in the great hall for a feast, often accompanied by music. This time of celebration lasted usually until Epiphany, but the real end of Christmastide was Candlemas, the feast of the presentation of Jesus to the temple, in early February!

Medieval wall painting representing the Nativity of Christ in Easby Church, Richmond.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Season of Advent - from a pastoral letter by St. Charles Borromeo, Bishop.

Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. 

This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the seeds of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.

Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all. We shall share his power, if, through holy faith and the sacraments, we willingly accept the grace Christ earned for us, and live by that grace and in obedience to Christ.

The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.

In her concern for our salvation, our loving mother the Church uses this holy season to teach us through hymns, canticles and other forms of expression, of voice or ritual, used by the Holy Spirit. She shows us how grateful we should be for so great a blessing, and how to gain its benefit: our hearts should be as much prepared for the coming of Christ as if he were still to come into this world. The same lesson is given us for our imitation by the words and example of the holy men of the Old Testament.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Presepio: an ancient tradition.

In this season of Advent, here in Rome, my mind goes to one of our best Christmas traditions: the Presepio (coming from the Latin word for "cradle"): the Roman nativity scene is somewhat more simple than its Neapolitan counterpart, but I also believe it is more refined. It is usually set in Roman streets and piazzas or the countryside and it never fails to host ancient ruins, recalling nineteenth century Rome.
The characters feature people of all sorts: fishermen, shepherds and there are also little markets, farms and wineries and so forth. 
The best Roman cribs are to be found in the city’s churches. As children all Romans used to go with their parents or grandparents to see these marvels.
The first presepio in Rome (and the world) is that of Arnolfo di Cambio in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major - donated by the first Franciscan pope in the late XIII century. A remarkable story considering that the Christmas crib has been invented by Saint Francis!
Many Romans have great presepios in their very homes, enriched through the years with pieces sold in the Piazza Navona Christmas market, where local artisans would sell their beautiful works.
The best cribs in Roman churches are those at SS. Cosma e Damiano, Santa Barbara dei Librari and especially that at Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

This is the 1291 presepio by Arnolfo di Cambio in St. Mary Major.

Santa Maria del Popolo

Late XIX century crib at Santissimi Apostoli with almost life-sized figures

1858 crib at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, the background was painted by a friar in 1828.

Sant'Eustachio, with the reproduction of the famous square and churches.

The French crib at San Luigi.

The lovely cribs at Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

Sant'Agnese in Agone in the Piazza Navona.

The huge XVIII Neapolitan crib at Santi Cosma e Damiano, it represents Rome (then).

Santa Barbara de' Librai, the crib is modelled after the actual piazza and the church.


A corner of Rome in the crib of San Marcello.

And now it is time for mine own Roman presepios!

Smaller one with larger characters.

My Roman crib.