Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Greek echoes in the Italian Renaissance.

Recently, someone asked me the question why didn't Athens, the cradle of civilisation, have a Renaissance in the same way Rome did? My answer might be unexpected as I will not respond to that question directly, but I will try to give an interesting perspective on how Greece might not have had a Renaissance, while in fact it hugely influenced the Italian one. Whereas the Renaissance was at its dawn in Rome and Florence; Pope Martin V brought the Papacy back to Rome, Pope Nicholas V was the first great patron of the arts, in Florence you had the first great masters of this era: Brunelleschi was working on the Duomo’s Dome, Donatello was creating magnificent sculpture, Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca were depicting beauty at such a high level that was never reached before, the Byzantine Empire, still in all its splendour was approaching its sad demise - but its last breath we still see in the art of the Italian Quattrocento. However, I will give you one event and one figure that will focus on how Greece influenced the Italian Renaissance, which we mustn’t forget was known for the rediscovery of ancient classicism, and where did that start? Raphael’s School of Athens down below is a clue. Here are the one event and the one figure: the Council of Florence (1431–1449) and the great Byzantine Cardinal Basilios Bessarion (1403–1472).

The seventeenth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church was convoked in 1431 by Pope Martin V shortly before his death, as the Council of Basel, the main theme of discussion would have been the rise of the Ottoman Empire (one of the reasons the Renaissance could not find ground in that troubled area, also the major patrons were in Italy). In 1437, Pope Eugene IV convoked a second rival council in Ferrara, then moved to Florence due to plague. The councils were eventually merged, the main goal was that of reuniting the Western and Eastern Churches. An important milestone of the Council was the arrival of the Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, and his court. The exotic parade through the streets of Florence hugely inspired artists of the time; the unusual hats, the wild oriental beasts and the spices, the rich brocade damasks not only impressed the aristocrats but also the artists of the time: Piero della Francesca, you can see Byzantine hats in his Flagellation, Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio, in their notable landscapes in the Carafa Chapel and the Sassetti Chapel Adoration of the Magi, you can see giraffes and other unusual beasts, but perhaps the most spectacular image we have is the Magi Chapel of the Medici Palace, with the superb cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli, portraying just that procession, including the Emperor!

Among the Greek dignitaries at that council, was Cardinal Basilios Bessarion, Βασίλειος Βησσαρίων, he also held a great diplomatic role; he was the Latin patriarch of Constantinople, which at the time of the Papal States was essentially the role of an ambassador, between a state ruled by the Church (Rome) and a state that ruled over the Church (Byzantium). His origins are quite humble, contrasting with legend, not an unusual background during the Renaissance. He was born in Trazbon, while still a child he moved to Constantinople where he became a basilian monk, adopting the name Bessarion, after the 4th century saint. In the following years, he went to Egypt and Sparta where he was introduced to Cartophylax, a Byzantine diplomat, soon he entered the circle of Emperor John VIII. At the Council of Florence he expressed his concern for the Ottoman invasion of the Byzantine Empire, he also worked towards the unity of the Latin and the Greek Churches. He tried to heal the wounds left among the Byzantines after the Crusades, the Fourth Crusade of 1204 was particularly devastating. He proclaims a compromise at the end of the council between the two Churches. Back in Constantinople he finds hostility, perhaps after learning some very good diplomatic skills he manages to go back to Rome as Cardinal in 1439, with the titulus of the Basilica of Santi Apostoli. He will never return to Constantinople. Now, why was he important to the Greek cause during the Renaissance? After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, he hosted all the great Greek minds of the east in Rome and enlarged the Greek community at Rome’s Byzantine Abbey in Grottaferrata, enlarging the library and placing a special focus on the conservation of Greek classical culture. This process worked both ways, it preserved this great patrimony and at the same time, it influenced the Roman Renaissance scene. He himself was an important neo-platonic philosopher and a perfect Renaissance humanist, with special interest on the ancient Greek authors. He was also a great appreciator of the arts; both directly and indirectly, his portrait appears in the beautiful studiolo of the Duke of Urbino, his villa in Rome is an example of refined Quattrocento art and architecture, and his chapel was decorated by the greatest artist of the Roman Renaissance: Antoniazzo Romano, in the local style but with Greek echoes. His diplomatic career continued, he even visited France, King Louis XII’s court, and finally he died on 3 December 1472, his body entombed in that magnificent chapel in the Basilica of Santissimi Apostoli.

Here is how the Greeks contributed to the most exciting time in art history.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Celebrating God's light in Rome.

As Christians, our roots lie in Judaism; very few people know that the oldest Jewish community in Europe can be found in the Eternal City, dating back to before Christianity, it even pre-dates it as the longest continuing religion of Rome, for example, the first catacombs in Rome were Jewish, testimonies of Judaism in Rome can be found anywhere, in Ancient Rome, Jews generally had enough freedom, Caesar even granted them the possibility of keeping Shabbat, however, in 70 AD the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple, they stole the Menorah, that moment still lives on a relief on the Arch of Titus in the Forum. A community so old, that is neither Ashkenazi or Sephardi, but simply Roman, so old that it is Roman cuisine that was influenced by their cuisine, and not viceversa. Rome might be the historical home of the Vatican, but Judaism was here before, long before there was even a Christianity, and it is fascinating that this Festival of Lights, this feast of God's Light is still celebrated along Christmas.

Today marks the beginning of a very well known Jewish feast; Hanukkah or Chanukah is an eight days long celebration that marks the rededication of the second Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC, after the Maccabean Revolt during the Seleucid Empire. According to legend, once the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem, they entered the Temple and cleared it of the Syrian idols, they had to make a new Menorah as the previous one was stolen, and when they needed to light it, they found only a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest, it was only sufficient for one day. 

However, by a miracle of God, it continued to burn for eight days, symbolising that he had taken his people under his protection. To this day, Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting one candle of a Chanukah Menorah for each of the 8 days, with one central candle, the Shammash (servant) used to light the others, and representing the little oil left. This ceremony is repeated in every Jewish home, while reading the Hanukkah Blessings:

Blessing over Candles

Praised are You,
Our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who made us holy through Your commandments
and commanded us
to kindle the Hanukah lights. 

Blessing for the Hanukkah Miracle

Praised are You,
Our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors
in those ancient days
at this season. 

(First Night Only)

Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.

The feast symbolises another occasion on which God took care of his people, it is also known as Festival of the Lights, as it symbolises the triumph of light over darkness, and Jews every year, in December, spread this light of God. Here in Rome, there are several Menorahs spread throughout the city, a large one is at the Great Synagogue and the other, 20 ft tall, is in the Piazza Barberini, a small ceremony with blessings of the Hanukkah lights takes place in the evening (6pm or 4pm and 7:30pm on Saturdays, to make allowances for the Shabbat), attracting large crowds. 

Like, Christmas, Hanukkah is a family-focused affair with lots of food and merriment, it is the right time to have a great meal in the historic Jewish Ghetto of Rome, have some traditional donuts or chocolate coins for children at the local bakeries, and spot lit Menorahs popping from many windows! For us Christians, Hanukkah has a special significance as well, as a Jew, we know that our Lord Jesus celebrated it too: now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the Temple, in Solomon’s porch (John 10:22-23). What's better than celebrating God's light in Rome, in the use of the Jews in the Eternal City before the coming of Christ and in the use of Christ himself? חַג שָׂמֵחַ. Hanukkah Sameach!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Last week I got to visit a building of great significance for our faith in Israel. The church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or of the resurrection is simply much more than a church, it is a shrine of all traditions, it is not a shrine to a particular saint or martyr who devoted his or her life to Christ, it is a shrine for all Christians, in which all that divides and unites Christians at the same time co-exists, it is a shrine of all denominations, it was a shrine of the many Churches, it was a shrine when the Church was one, it was a shrine when the Churches were many, it was a shrine when the Church began at Pentecost and it was a shrine to the apostles and relatives of the human, God made manifest, the Christ, the Son. It is not a shrine of relics, the real meaning of this shrine lies in its origins; it was the Calvary and the tomb of Jesus, a middle-aged man, born of Mary in Bethlehem and who lived in Nazareth, here he was wept for three days. On the third day, he was here no more, this is a shrine to the resurrection and to that expectancy of heaven and our final salvation. It is the crucifixion and the resurrection, the link between what is tangible and what is above, where the strife was over and the battle done. 

Calvary and the Tomb, Biblical References

We do not know much about the site of the church before the conversion of Constantine, soon after Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus, Christians fled beyond Jordan, temples and forums were built on the site. Before the resurrection was the crucifixion and the four canonical Gospels say that Christ was crucified in Golgotha, which is, the place of skull (Mark 15:22) and that the Sepulchre was nigh at hand (John 19:42). Golgotha, the Greek transcription of an earlier Aramaic word means exactly that, the place of the skull. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark refer to the Calvary as the place of the skull, that of Luke refers to it as the place known as Skull, that of John instead refers to it as the place of the skull, known as Golgotha. The evangelists do not refer to the Calvary as a rock or a mount, but they refer to an area in which Jesus was crucified that was named so, it was located outside the city wall (Hebrews 13:12, Matthew 27:39, Mark 15:29). Cyril of Jerusalem instead refers to the entire area as Martyrium, other chroniclers of the time, including Theodosius in the De Situ Terrae Sancte, will refer to it as the Calvary by the time of Constantine. Later on, Calvary will only refer to the stone of the crucifixion, within the area. An important observation is that during Jesus’ times this area was also used as a cemetery, with Jewish tombs, of Herod’s time, of the kokim kind (rather small), including the famous hypogeum of Joseph of Arimathea - Jesus’ tomb was of this kind. The Gospel of John gives more information: at the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Cyril of Jerusalem recalls remains of a garden by the Constantinian basilica, perhaps of Pagan origin. Romans always used the same spots for capital executions, such as the Esquiline Gate in Rome, and it is plausible that they generally used Golgotha for that purpose. It is even possible that it was the same spot that is referred to in the Book of Jeremiah. It is almost obvious that there was a garden because the area was right outside the Gardens’ Gate, at that time, outside the walls. The four Gospels all mention that the three crucifixions occurred on the same day, and given accounts of the time and the idea that crucifixion had to set an example, it is plausible to think that it happened on the highest spot of the mount, an old Iron Age quarry, so that many could witness and remember. Further proof of the validity of Jesus’ tomb are found in the descriptions of the tomb of Joseph, in Matthew 27,60 - Mark 15,46 - Luke 23,53; it was an ante-chamber one could enter without the need of entering the tomb, in John’s testimony of the resurrection he mentions that he had to kneel to look inside (John 20,5). These kinds of tombs generally had a round stone as a door. In this small tomb, and on its stone Jesus’ veils were laid (Luke 24,12 - John 20,7).


Ancient Symbolism, The Tomb and the Skull of Adam

One of the most common characteristics of Christian iconography and that any museum addict or amateur art historian, or even Sunday school child, might have noticed, is that in many representations of the Crucifixion of Christ, from Byzantine icons to Giotto, from Hans Memling to Guido Reni, there always seems to be a skull and sometimes even scattered bones at Jesus’ feet, below the Cross. This has nothing to do with representations of death or resurrection or any artist’s creepy strike. It has a lot to do with what the Calvary was thought to be before Jesus. According to an ancient tradition, Jewish and then Christian, the so-called tomb of Adam was located on the Calvary, right under what will become the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Adam’s body was retrieved by Shem and Melchizedek, from Noah’s Ark, and then the angels led them to bury it in Golgotha, in a very deep cave, where the head of the serpent from the Fall of Man could still be seen. This legend became extremely popular beginning in the 4th century, and it was thought that this was why it was known as the place of the skull. St. Jerome will deny this in 398, explaining how Golgotha really just meant a place of execution. Another legend states that it was moved there by divine providence. Today, one of the oldest chapels of the Holy Sepulchre is that of Adam, where a a crack in the rock would show how the earth shook at Jesus’ death, redeeming even the first sinner, buried there when the blood of the Saviour ran over the skull, through the rocks on the skull. The crack in the rock is still visible. 

The Question of “Without a City Wall”

There is a green hill far away, without a city wall, where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all are the words of a popular Anglican hymn for Good Friday by Cecil Frances Alexander, and it poses a question that had been taken for granted for quite a long time; if the green hill is without a city wall, why is it inside it? Recent and not so recent research has been wondering why is the church of the Holy Sepulchre quite far inside the city walls if burials could only take place outside the city? Could it be false? This has been source of endless literature and speculation but we can finally answer this old dilemma. It is known that Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem, not far from a city gate, but in the vicinity of a street, on the Golgotha, the place of the skull, thankfully these instructions limit our area of research. So was Golgotha, now the spot where the church is outside the city walls then? Was there a city gate there? Were there gardens and tombs? During the siege of Jerusalem of 70 A.D. under Titus, it is known that the Romans took the three series of walls of the city, however, during Jesus’ time, only two walls existed, because the third was built by Agrippa (41-44 A.D.) and not even completely, and in the north sector of the walls, there were never three of them. Archeology in Jerusalem is extremely difficult because of the city’s rough history and because it is so densely populated it is never quite easy to make extensive research. We know that the first wall, from the Kings’ Era, would connect to the Temple and now surrounds the former Ottoman citadel through an impressive viaduct, departing from the Tower of David. The modern Bab es-Silsileh street and the minaret are on the former side of the old wall. The second wall started from the so-called Gennath gate which was in the first wall, and was located only along the norther part of the city, until the Antonia Fortress. It is here that possibly was also the Gardens’ Gate, which could also be the Corner’s Gate of the Scriptures, outside which was the Golgotha, then an area with gardens and tombs, therefore outside the city walls. The third wall doing to the time of Herod Agrippa was to be found in the norther part of the old city. We have every right to think that the Holy Sepulchre church is indeed to be found outside of the city walls of Jesus’ time which are now found within the third walls built in 41-3 AD. The memory of the site also remained because the local community kept worshipping there, and in 135 Hadrian built his Capitoline temples of Venus and Jupiter there, levelling the top of Mount Calvary, this was part of his policy of keeping Jews and Christians out of Jerusalem after the Jewish insurrections. 

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Role of Helena and Constantine

In Christian iconography Saint Helena is often depicted holding a cross because according to tradition it is in Jerusalem that she found the relics of the true cross. She was the mother of Emperor Constantine, who sized power in the year 312 and in 313 made Christianity legal through the Edict of Milan. They both converted. At the age of about 60 she went to Syria Palestina in search of the sacred sites of Jesus’ calvary, around the year 324, funding churches marking the place of the Nativity and the Ascension. Eusebius of Caesarea noticed how she also particularly took care of the poor; donating alms and freeing prisoners. At the same time she adorned houses of prayer with rich offerings, from the largest to the smallest cities. Around year 326 the temple of Jupiter was demolished and excavations found the supposed tomb of Jesus. The temple of Venus was also demolished, exposing the site of the crucifixion, according to the Medieval chronicle of saint: the Golden Legend, Saint Helena, legend goes that a local Jew named Judas knew where the crosses were located, they found them, including the titulus (Jesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum) in a rock-cistern, but then the question of which one was Christ’s arose; they brought a dying woman to the spot, she was made touch each of the three crosses, the last one healed her and the true cross was identified. According to St. Ambrose, St. Helena uttered the words: she worshipped not the wood but the King, Him who hung on the wood. She burned with an earnest desire of touching the guarantee of immortality. Most of the relics were kept in Jerusalem for adoration and liturgies, others were sent to Rome. Saint Helena commissioned the foundation of a new church on the spot. 

In 326, Constantine ordered the laying of the foundations of a new church of splendour worthy of its richness and to re-institute both to sight and venerations all the holy places of the Lord’s Resurrection. The Emperor ordered to edify a church building that while he levelled the original area, as he did for St. Peter’s in Rome, he also tried to maintain the original geography of the crucifixion and Sepulchre sites. The Constantinian building followed a longitudinal axis, from west to east; within this complex we could identify four main elements: a rotunda, a basilica, two courtyards and a portico. The tomb was modelled to look like an aedicola, it was a the heart of the complex, its decoration was rich and it was covered with a dome. It was later named Anastasis (resurrection). The other part of the complex, named Martyrium was a basilica with five naves in the style of those at Rome. Three doors opened to a monumental staircase that led to a portico. Beneath the church was a crypt with St. Helena’s Chapel, containing the true cross’ relics. The Constantinian church was decorated with columns, mosaics, polychromed marbles, no art was spared to make it beautiful. Sadly, the glorious building was burnt down in 614 by the Persians.

The Destruction of the Church, the Byzantine Church, the Remodelling of the Site

The church was restored by Modest of Jerusalem, a Byzantine patriarch. However, in 1009, the building was almost completely destroyed by Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, also known as Nero of Islam, and later, in 1033, by an earthquake. Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, outranged, ordered its restoration. Hakim’s successors will be more tolerant of the Byzantines and will allow the reconstruction and the decoration of the church. At a great expense of the emperor and the Byzantine patriarchs. Debris were removed quite quickly, the original plan of the complex could still be individuated, the Sepulchre and the Golgotha were damaged but relatively intact. The construction of the new Byzantine church began in 1042, rebuilding the architecture that held together the most important sites of Christianity. The new construction was centred around the rotunda, the atrium and the basilica were lost, with chapels surrounding it. It was much more “compact”. The entire base of the church had to be rebuilt. It is with the Byzantine reconstruction that the original configuration finally disappeared. The portico was kept and become an area of preparation before the Sepulchre. The Golgotha rocks were surrounded by a marble flooring. Later an apse was added to the rotunda, developing it into a church. 

The Rotunda: Symbolism and Echoes

The rotunda is found at the heart of the Anastasis, it contains the Holy Sepulchre itself. The Anastasis holds two rooms; the first holding the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of the tomb that sealed the tomb, the second being the bomb itself. The rotunda is located at the centre of the Anastasis, beneath the largest dome. It is decorated with a 12-pointed star, whose rays symbolise the outreach of the 12 apostles. Interestingly, perhaps what is Jerusalem’s most renowned landmark, the Dome of the Rock, was built following exactly the same structure and measurements.

The Effect of Islam

Throughout the centuries, especially after its destruction and reconstruction during the Middle Ages, the Holy Sepulchre suffered greatly in different ways, because the resurrection of Christ, who is a prophet in Islam, is not accepted. A Muslim monastery erected by Saladin in the 11th century, worked on essentially nullifying the effect of the church by building two minarets by the Sepulchre. We can probably say that the effect of Islam on the church building was varied; whereas originally the early churches were almost completely destroyed, after Saladin’s victory and the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem, the church was somewhat safe, pilgrimages were still allowed. Unfortunate events regarding Islamic iconoclasm, deprived the building of its series of magnificent mosaics and marbles. 

The Crusaders’ Church and its Significance

On 15 July 1099, the First Crusade, ordered by Pope Urban II, captured Jerusalem once again. It was considered an armed pilgrimage, each crusader would revere the Holy Sepulchre once in Jerusalem, it is said that the first ones to arrive wept and sung a Te Deum. When Christianity was restored in Jerusalem, the new Crusader State became officially the Kingdom of Jerusalem, its first monarch being Godfrey of Bouillon. The first King of Jerusalem, refused the title and initially only adopted that of Defender of the Holy Sepulchre, Advocatus Sancta Sepulchri. Therefore, during the Christian rule in the Holy Land, this became a sort of Westminster Abbey, a royal church. This does not have to scandalise use, often in Rome I am teased about our Anglican Church having been founded by a King who wanted a divorce, truth is this relationship between monarchy and religion is older even than Christianity itself: if we think of Constantine and Theodosius, Byzantine and Holy Roman Emperors appointing Bishops, Kings being anointed to minor orders, just like the Queen today. This is simply another fruit of the special relationship that especially during the Middle Ages linked religion and monarchy. One of the first questions of the Crusaders was to rebuild the church of the Holy Sepulchre. The question was whether to restore the heavily damaged Byzantine church or to build a new one altogether. A compromise was reached in the end; the idea was to unite the tomb and the Golgotha under one building, while securing the access to the lower crypt of St. Helena. Construction ended on 15 July 1149. Only an inscription, once on the mosaics of the Calvary Chapel confirms the reconsecration of the church in 1149. The new church, even smaller than the Byzantine one, was built in a transitionary style between the late Romanesque and the early Gothic. By the rotunda was the new church, that was now reduced to the quire, a transept with a dome, and an ambulatory, with three chapels; the Greek Chapel of Saint Longinus, the Armenian Chapel of Division of Robes and the Greek Chapel of the Derision - along the ambulatory is also the high altar, east of which is an Orthodox style iconostasis dividing the sanctuary from the nave. 

The Chorus Dominourm, the quire is a fascinating part of the building, built on the former portico and on two levels sustained by Romanesque pillars, it gives access to both the rotunda and the Calvary. The original Byzantine apse was removed and was replaced with a great arch which opened the space within the complex. During this restoration the altar was moved from the center of what was now the quire, to its east end. There were therefore two liturgical poles within the church; the altar, where the Eucharistic sacrifice was held, and the tomb, where the miracle of the resurrection occurred. Under the Crusaders, the Calvary chapel ceased to be isolated and was made more of an integral part of the spiritual experience of the church, by enlarging its asset. Through a staircase one could have access to the below Chapel of St. Helena, divided in three naves, with its focus on the chapel of the true cross, in what was the crypt of the Constantinian basilica. Once the portico was closed, it was necessary to emphasise the south façade which remained the only access to to the pilgrims. It is in the Romanesque style, including the bell tower, and it has a great portal though with a very small door and it grants access to both the church but also directly to the Calvary through a staircase. It is located on the Via Dolorosa, alongside several Christian chapels of various Eastern Rite Churches.

Different Christian Churches, one Building

With the Crusaders came also the Latin rite to the Sepulchre, in 1555 the Franciscan friars arrived and despite the Muslim and then Ottoman Rule which lasted until the British Mandate of Palestine, a question arises? How did Western and Eastern Christians share such a sacred space despite the differences? The question is known as the Status Quo. A Sultan’s decree of 1853 defined custodians and the different roles of each denomination. The primary custodians being the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches, with the Greeks having the lion’s share. The Copts and Syriac Orthodox also have a small share, although the first are banished to the roof., a staircase leads to their chapel These responsibilities include shrines and chapels within or outside the building. The Greeks operate under the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre and the Franciscans through the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. However, the Status Quo did cause unpleasant consequences; for example times and places of worship are strictly regulated in common areas but that is often not respected, sadly particular situations can abrupt into violence. In 2002, on a hot summer day, a Coptic monk moved his chair into the shade and this was interpreted as a hostile act by the Ethiopians and 11 people were hospitalised as the situation degenerated. In 2004, during Orthodox celebrations of the Holy Cross, the Franciscan Chapel was left open and it was taken as a sign of disrespect; a fight ensured. On Palm Sunday 2008, another brawl broke out because a Greek monk was ejected from the building by rivals. Later that year, another clash erupted with the Armenians around the Feast of the Holy Cross. These unpleasant situations have been going on for centuries and a sign of this is a wooden ladder placed over the church’s entrance in 1852, when it was defined that the entrance was common ground, the “immovable ladder” remains there to this day to show the delicate situation of the Status Quo. Because the entrance is common ground, each day the opening and closing of the church is a complex ritual. The custody to the door and keys is entrusted to two local Muslim families. Back in the 13th century the local Sultan assured Pope Innocent IV that he would repair any damages following the Khwarezmian invasions, and that he would entrust the keys to two Muslim families. The tradition continues to this day at the original Medieval wooden door. There are two manners of opening the door: a simple opening and a solemn opening, in the second case the door is fully opened. 

Ultimately, this building scarred by conflict is a reflection of our world, waiting for the reconciliation that Christ the Lord will bring again through his sacrifice of blood and his glorious resurrection. It is in this very church building that our differences come alive, even around such a symbolic place, where death and the rebirth of the flesh have occurred, at the Golgotha and at the Sepulchre. During one of my visits, the Franciscans friars played the organ during Mass, the touching notes of that familiar instrument married perfectly with that glorious space, at the same time, the Greek Orthodox responded to the "noise" by ringing the bells, that might have been a conflict, but for this pilgrim it was an ethereal and ascetic experience. Even in conflict Christ repays us with beauty. Here we are recompensed with a vision of what is to come.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Underrated beauty: Renaissance and Baroque in England.

When one thinks of Renaissance or Baroque art we think of Italy, the Flanders, the Netherlands a few will also think of France and Germany, but why is England always left out? I have been thinking about this for years, now I made up my mind and decided to describe why briefly in this post.
Religion played a huge part in this. We have to remember that England underwent a Reformation after 1534 when the Anglican Church was formed and in the following years, but more especially during the English Civil War, much English Medieval and Renaissance art went missing because of iconoclasm; because of Calvinistic theology some Anglicans and Puritans literally smashed and destroyed over 2/3 of English art, most of it being religious. However, there is also another reason, the same reason why generic texts tend to focus on Italian, Flemish, Netherlandish and to an extent German Renaissance, whereas in fact France and Spain or England for that matter are really not. However, England did develop its own Renaissance art. As in the continent there were two main kinds of commissions in Renaissance England: the Church and private individuals, works commissioned by the latter tend to survive. England, especially the south-east, maintained strong relationships with the Flanders and Florence through its important wool-trade, the prime exporter in Europe, while England exported wool, it often took back art from Italy and the Flanders, often it also exchanged some back. This is one way in which English art was inspired by continental one during the Renaissance.

Probably, the most known example of 15th century art is the Wilton Diptych at the National Gallery in London; an early 1400s portable diptych, commissioned by King Richard II to an unknown English master, it incredibly survived the Reformation and Civil War and it is painted on both sides, with Saints John the Baptist, Edmund and Edward the Confessor presenting the Monarch to the the Virgin and Child on the other side, surrounded by a company of angels. On the other side, the King’s coat of arms and the white hart. It is a superb work which shows how they knew exactly what was going on in the continent in terms of art; the gilded background inspired by International Gothic art, yet the plasticity of the figures, even the angels wings’ colors show that England was developing its own art at the time and it could indeed be refined.

We can trace the beginning of English Renaissance Art to the mid-13th century, most parish churches at the time were divided by a sort of partition between the sanctuary and the nave, it was known as the rood screen, it was literally a screen that divided the people from the sacredness of the altar. It was usually surmounted by a “rood” a Crucifix, with statues of the Virgin and of Saint John.

The panels on such screen were decorated with Saints, Angels, Martyrs or doctors of the Church. During the mid to late 15th century this particular kind of art flourished. The style can be defined as a fascinating metamorphosis between earlier English art and Flemish art; a plasticity in the figures, a particular “Renaissance” iconography were already evolving, a trademark of English Renaissance art of the 15th century were unusually long feet. Most surviving rood-screens are now found in the beautiful East Anglian countryside. A notable example being St. Helen’s Church, Ranworth.

Also during the 15th century, another characteristic of early English Renaissance Art in parish churches is the series wall paintings that survived the Reformation, in the most fascinating cases, representing the Final Judgement; the Revelation, Christ sitting on clouds judging the whole of humanity to eternal salvation or damnation with angels and demons fighting each other over souls in scenes set in imaginary lands with the heavenly Jerusalem in the background, oddly enough looking like any Medieval English town. The dynamics, the plasticity and the frenzy of these scenes show us how this particular paintings were well into their own kind of Renaissance. Here is the splendid example of a Doom Painting at St. Thomas’ Church in Salisbury.

As in Italy or the Flanders, the quality of art and masters also depended on the commissioners, it is not a surprise that while being fascinating these works don’t quite count exactly as masterpieces. Towards the end of the 15th century, art in England was mutating, it was strongly being influenced by continental works, probably also under the patronage of the Tudors, especially King Henry VII, a great appreciator of French and Italian art. English sculpture, especially on ivory and alabaster was also one of the specialties of the English, with some great examples being at the Bargello Museums in Florence at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Two notable examples of wall paintings that come to mind are the refined works in Chichester Cathedral and Eton College Chapel, both by great English masters of the time. The chapel at Eton was decorated during the 1490s by William Baker and other English masters, the wall paintings are highly inspired by the Flemish style of the same time, on one side are stories of the Virgin Mary, patron of the chapel, on the other, in the true Renaissance rediscovery of Europe’s classical past, scenes from the life of a mythical empress.

The wall paintings at Chichester were executed by Lambert Barnard in the 1530s and show how English art had developed up to that point, they were commissioned by Bishop Robert Sherborne, which is also interesting because it shows there were patrons of the arts among the clergy just like in the continent and just like the continent these are a precious example of power and political propaganda; the Bishop is in a conversation with Henry VIII asking the monarch to preserve the cathedral after the Reformation, on the other side a scene of the foundation of the cathedral. Just like in the continent, the dynamic scenes were enclosed in classical frames known as grotesques and here and there you get exotic animals such as monkeys, you can’t get any more Renaissance than that!

Of course, the English’s true specialty was architecture, we must not forget that England had developed by then probably the most fascinating form of Gothic: Perpendicular Gothic, with examples such as Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey and Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, a spectacular spacious building with a remarkable and intricate fan vault and a Renaissance quire carved in the Italianate style.

England was also the excellency in the entire European continent for Opus Anglicanum, a particular style of needlework and embroideries that were highly popular throughout Europe, they were usually made for liturgical vestments, altar frontals but also personal clothes. In the Renaissance this form of art truly flourished and also reflected the style of painting and sculpture, it was often used as a diplomatic gift but also important churches throughout the continent requested vestments from England, notably Bologna and Rome (st. Peter’s Basilica) requested hundreds of these glorious works during the 15th century. Recently, I saw an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and I was stunned by these amazing embroideries.

Another form of art is indeed music; English Renaissance music, which developed its own style, is considered to be among the most refined of its kind in Europe; thankfully it survived the Reformation and was also commissioned afterwards, Queen Elizabeth I was a great appreciator, I am sure you have heard the likes of: William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons… Their Te Deums and Magnificats and Motets and Services are still sung in every English cathedral and college chapel and are one of the greatest treasure of that green and pleasant land.

How not to mention the superb English Renaissance stained glass, from the early works found in most cathedrals to the superb elaborate works in York Minster; the grand east window designed by John Thornton in the early 15th century, the greatest stained glass window in the entire world, it shows the Christian journey from the Scriptures, from the Genesis to the Revelation, each detailed window shows a style unique of England at the time. English stained glass evolved dramatically during the Renaissance, reaching its apotheosis during the 1500s with the magnificent windows at Kings College.

Secular art under the Tudors included land and naval battles scenes, hunting scenes, etc. in the continental style. However, perhaps the most famous English form of Renaissance art is the incredible number of portraits commissioned to great continental masters such as Hans Holbein, the official “Portrait Maker” of the Tudor court. Portaits of Thomas More, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I are world renowned masterpieces.

In the following century, England fully turned Classical; English Baroque can sometimes be remindful of a neo-Classical style, but it definitely was England’s own kind of Baroque. Already by the end of the 16th century English architects were exploring continental architecture. The Gate of Honor at Gonville & Caius College in Cambridge is a perfect example, Inigo Jones’ porch at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London could also be in any church here in Rome.

During the first half of the 17th century under Archbishop William Laud and other high church bishops of the time, churches, cathedrals and chapels saw a new rebirth of the arts; from painted panels to new stained glasses; there is an excellent book on this subject: the Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation by Graham Parry. The Stuarts really boosted the “Baroquization” of England; they commissioned great art and architecture, they brought Orazio Gentileschi from Italy, his art was strongly inspired by that of Caravaggio, he worked for the Quirinal Palace in Rome and great basilicas such as Saint Mary Major or Santa Maria della Pace, he also worked extensively throughout England and truly opened the doors to continental-style, he worked for both the Stuarts and the Dukes of Marlborough, where his Allegory of Peace and of the Arts is truly a breathtaking case of delicate Baroque taste, perfect for the English. Another grand example of Baroque art in the British isles is the Banqueting House in London, commissioned by Charles I is a great example of Mannerist extravaganza.

However, its ceiling is the real masterpiece; Charles I commissioned its decoration to no less than Peter Paul Rubens, one of the greatest masters of Baroque Europe, who executed one of the greatest Baroque follies ever produced: the Apotheosis of James I. England had nothing to envy from the continent at the time and those who commissioned this art knew it well.

England’s Baroque age was a time of great glory, of great art and of rebirth, with musicians of the caliber of Henry Purcell, equally known for church and secular music, his Funeral of Queen Mary is probably one of the greatest musical works ever produced; Georg Frederich Handel later followed… his Messiah is probably one of those works even the least acknowledged person would recognise as classical and Christian and it doesn’t end here! Architecture, architecture, architecture! After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Cristopher Wren designed many churches and the great Royal Hospital Chelsea with its great paintings; the ascension of Christ by Sebastiano Ricci in the chapel and the great murals by James Thornill. However, his masterpiece is one of the greatest church of Christendom in the English Baroque Style, it is one of the most photographed and discussed buildings in the world which inspired so many to come, it’s this one.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The role of the Church of Rome during WW2.

Many legends have been spread about the role of the Roman Catholic Church during World War 2, many about the Pope secretly standing with the Nazis. Whereas, it is impossible to mention all the heroic bishops and pastors of the Church of Rome who fought against the horrors of Nazi-Fascism, here I wrote a brief account to shed some light on a theme that has been polluted with several untrue legends and myths. This is a fairer account:

When the Papal States were reduced to the tiny Vatican hill in 1870, the Vatican officially refused any relationship with the new Italian, unified, state. Until 1929, Roman Catholics were forbidden to take part in the political life of Italy by a document issued by Pope Pius IX, the Non Expedit. However, in 1922 Mussolini marched on Rome, he became the Prime Minster of the Kingdom of Italy, his regime will turn out to be a violent and ruthless military dictatorship. This introduction is important because in 1929, after almost sixty years, Mussolini finally signed the Lateran Treaty, recognising the sovereignty of Vatican City, a neutral monarchy led by the Pope.

Before the war, in early 1939, when tensions were strong between European powers, Pope Pius XII tried to reconcile Mussolini with the French, Polish, German, and British governments, through his nuncios (ambassadors). The attempt was not successful, as it seemed to be pro-(future)Axis (it was proposed that the Free City of Danzig could be ceded to Germany), and the Pope broadcast via radio his message: Nothing is lost with peace, all can be lost with war. In order to mediate, the Vatican also proposed to prevent any Russian expansion; Russia at the time was still ambiguously in contact with Nazi Germany. After over seventy years, the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

However, as we know in 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, in a pragmatic way the Vatican thought a quick invasion Poland and its former German territories would be a quick way to end the war. However, in his Summi Pontificatus, the Pope criticised the Nazi/Soviet invasion of Poland. Italy was not yet in the Axis by then and the Pope as the spiritual leader of the Italian people called on the Italians to see Hitler and Stalin as the great evildoers. In Poland, the Germans murdered over 2,500 among the clergy, and more were imprisoned. The Pope shocked by this bloodshed of civilians and religious, wrote: The blood of countless human beings, even noncombatants, raises a piteous dirge over a nation such as Our dear Poland, which, for its fidelity to the Church, for its services in the defence of Christian civilization, written in indelible characters in the annals of history, has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world, while it awaits, relying on the powerful intercession of Mary, Help of Christians, the hour of a resurrection in harmony with the principles of justice and true peace. The Pope wrote fiercely against various anti-Christian movements in various documents but also warned Christians not to be fearful or cowardly in the face of persecution, but to be Soldiers of Christ.

Before the war, in 1938, when racial laws against Jews were promulgated by the Nazi and Fascist governments, racism and anti-semitism were strongly condemned by the Holy See. Regarding Nazi laws the Pope claimed: Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually we are all Semites. Earlier, in 1937 the Pope with the help of Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII published the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. The college of cardinals harshly criticised the laws as well and especially the idea of a “biological” racism. On 3 May 1938, during Hitler’s visit to Rome, the Pope published his anti-racist Syllabus document, criticising anti-semitism in Italy and Germany.

After the Kristallnacht in 1938, Lord Rotschild, a prominent British leader, organised a protest in London, and Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, on behalf of the Pope, sent a message of solidarity with the persecuted Jews that was read aloud. When Pius XI died in 1939, he was praised for his stand against the Nazi-Fascist regimes and his opposition to anti-semitism.

In 1940, Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop led a delegation to an audience with Pius XII, because the Pope had sided with the Allies. The Pope replied with a list of Nazi atrocities and religious persecutions carried out against the Church and the Jews. In fear of provoking Hitler to commit even more bloodshed, the Pope’s addresses may always seem weaker, but there was indeed a reason behind it. In 1942, Pius XII delivered a radio Christmas message about his concern for the Nazi industrialised genocide of Jews that had just began, the Final Solution, he said: Mankind owes that vow to the numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: 'Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.' Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or slow extermination.

Throughout the war, the Vatican was in contact with the Resistance in Germany and also behind Hitler’s murder attempts, hoping to restore a democratic republic there. Several generals were persuaded to act against Hitler. As early as late 1942, the Fascist regime already realised it had no chance of winning the war and sent a secret emissary, Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law (later sentenced to death by the dictator himself) to surrender to Britain, through the Vatican. Britain refused to deal with Ciano. The Swiss Guards at the Vatican, its small defensive troop, were given submachine guns and gas masks in the event of an attack. As the Allies started the invasion of Southern Italy, the Fascist regime weakened. In 1943 Mussolini escaped to northern Italy, where he founded the Republic of Salò, a Nazi puppet state. The Kingdom of Italy switched to the Allies’ side, but the Nazis invaded and occupied it, including Rome, perpetrating unnamable horrors. During the German occupation the extraterritorial status of the Vatican was respected although there were rumours of a plot to kidnap the Pope. The Holy See was concerned about the occupation and sent the Vatican Police Force and the Swiss Guards to maintain some order. One of Pius XII’s main priorities was to avoid the bombing of Rome, for it was an already devastated and occupied, as well as a holy city. Rome was bombed twice, by the Allies, who dropped leaflets before bombing but saw no great need for the bombing except in strategic areas. On August 14, 1943, Rome was declared an “open city”. After the Italian surrender, many Ally prisoners of war were released and were hosted in the Vatican City. Fr. Hugh O’Flaherty was one of many priests who helped Jews and allied POW’s to escape or hide during the Nazi occupation; he is credited with saving more than 6,500 people during the war. After the bombings, the Pope went into the crowds in the quarter of San Lorenzo to show the people that despite the horrors they had been through, the Pope and the Church were still there.

One of the most shocking tragedies of the war was certainly the Shoah. The Pope always protested against the deportations of Jews and often ordered his ambassadors to do the same, such as in Bratislava in 1942 during Nazi occupation. Following the Nazi occupation of Italy, the Pope ordered Catholic institutions to open themselves to the Jews, sheltering 4,715 of the 5,715 listed for deportation, in over 150 Catholic institutions; 477 Jews were sheltered in the Vatican itself. A moving testimony, in my city of Rome, is the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where the organ case was emptied for Jews to hide in, the organ was never repaired, but lives were spared. As Germans began the round-ups in northern Italy, the Pope opened his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, to Jews, and he instructed Catholic institutions in the north to do the same. During the invasion of Bulgaria, the Vatican arranged the transfer of thousands of Jewish children to Israel. Similar events occurred in Hungary and Rumania. At Pius XII’s death, the Pope was praised by the Israeli president and other world leaders.

Finally, the Allies liberated Rome on June 4-5 1944, afterwards many troops visited the Vatican for Mass and were invited to hear the Pope speak; he became the greatest celebrity during this period in the continent and a symbol of the resistance against Nazi-Fascist hatred.

The Church was a beacon of hope in times of desolation.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Christ upon the Mountain Peak: the Transfiguration.

One would think of summer as a liturgically bland season, the seemingly endless stretch of ordinary time seems to suggest that the Church is on vacation! It is perhaps for this reason that the Medieval Church used summer as a time to celebrate important saints, such as martyrs or even the Virgin, but also an important feast of Christ, one so significant that it possibly occurs in August because it does not belong to Christmastide or Eastertide and needs a place of its own, it is the feast that shows the glory and divinity of the yet "human" Christ over the religion and prophets of old; the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Transfiguration - Perugino - c.1497 - Fresco - Collegio del Cambio, Perugia. 

The Transfiguration of Christ, on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elias, is found in the Gospels of St. Matthew (17.1-6), St. Mark (9:1-18), St. Luke (9:28-36) and to a lesser extent in St. John (1:14) and in one of St. Paul’s epistle (2 Peter 1:16-18). It is indeed the culminating moment of Christ’s public ministry; starting with his Baptism and ending with the Ascension, but indeed this is the moment during his earthly mission in which he openly shows that he is not only capable of prophetic miracles but that he belongs to the highest sphere of heaven. 
Already during Jesus’ time, the mount of the Transfiguration was known as the “holy mount” (2 Peter 1:18) and tradition identifies it with Mount Tabor. In the third century Origen writes that it is indeed the mountain in Galilee in which Christ was transfigured and in the following century St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome also state the same. On these strong basis the Fifth Council of Constantinople erected the see of this mystical event. During the late 6th century the Byzantines built three shrines, which grew during the Middle Ages and became a monastery, which later became a Benedictine abbey, then destroyed by Sultan al-Malik al-Adil in the early 13th century. In 1631 the Franciscans took possession of the mount. 
The event took place during Christ’s sojourn in Caesarea Philippi; Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to a high mount On the mount, Christ’s body emanated a dazzling brightness, a sign of divinity, changed his earthly face to reveal his godly one, besides him appeared true Judaism in the form of Moses and Elias, representing the law and the prophet that foretold the coming of the Messiah, adoring the Christ. A cloud appears from above and the voice of the Father proclaims Jesus as his only begotten Son, Christ emanates a blinding light, symbol of his divine nature. This concludes the earlier line in which God the Father announces the death and resurrection of Christ, now the Son reunited his closest disciples at the announcement of the glory and heavenly delights waiting for everyone, the conclusion of this process and Jesus’ divine proclamation as God; Jesus of the Cross and Passion, the Christ of the Resurrection, Ascension and heavenly glory, it is indeed a revelation. The Transfiguration of Christ is an anticipation and a preview to the Resurrection, to Christ's truly divine nature and salvific mission and this event must be understood in the light of it as well as of his death and passion.

Transfiguration - Giovanni Bellini - c.1487 - Tempera on Panel - Giovanni Bellini - Capodimonte Museum, Naples. 

St. Matthew and St. Mark define the phenomenon as metemorphothe, in the Vulgata transfiguratus; which is the earthly Jesus reveals his godly and divine nature of Christ. His face did shine as the sun and his garments became white as snow…
The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated by most Christian Churches, the origins of the feast lies in the dedication of the three basilicas on Mount Tabor, it soon spread to the Western Church, the first celebration in St. Peter's Basilica took place in the twelfth century, and it was made a universal feast on 6 August by Pope Callistus III to celebrate the victory at the Siege of Belgrade in 1456, this date was also chosen because according to tradition the Transfiguration occurred forty days before the Crucifixion, and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross occurred on 14 September. Interestingly, in the Eastern Churches the Transfiguration is part of the Dormition fast (though fast is not mandatory!) and a beautiful detail is that the Transfiguration is not only viewed as a feast of Christ, but of the Trinity, as not only the Son was taking an active part, but God the Father was the voice from heaven and God the Spirit was the cloud. In England the Feast had a relatively low rank in the Sarum Calendar and after the Reformation it appeared as a black letter day in the Book of Common Prayer, but not as a major feast.

Transfiguration - Sandro Botticelli - c.1500 - Tempera on Panel - Pallavicini Gallery, Rome. 

The subject of the Transfiguration is also an immensely popular theme in Christian art; from the early Byzantine icons or mosaics, such as the early one at Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai to the famous Renaissance works of Fra Angelico, Perugino, Raphael or Titian. 
Iconography follows the Gospels which describe the apostles as afraid but also sleepy, in most works they seem to be just waking up when Jesus begins to shine, at which point they take dramatic poses of amazement. Christ, sometimes floating, sometimes not, is usually shown in a mandorla, (except in post 15th century Western works), emitting light, often through various effects, such as a gilded face. Frequently, God the Father takes the form of light descending from above or as a hand in early scenes.

Transfiguration - Byzantine - c.540 - Mosaic - St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai.

The mosaic at Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, probably commissioned by Justinian the Great always held a symbolic place, as it is where the Christ “meets” Moses, this is a rare survival of pre-iconoclasm Byzantine art and it shows Christ standing in a mandorla with a cruciform halo, with the prophets at his side. Below them are the disciples. This will be the theme chosen for most, later Eastern icons. In the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, from the same era, Moses and Elias are represented at half-length, God’s hand appears above the scene, but unusually this is a symbolic Transfiguration, Christ becomes a bare Cross within a celestial sphere. Twelve lambs surround the bottom scene. Byzantine iconography emphasised the divinity and glory of God, while since the late Middle Ages, Western Transfigurations emphasised the coming resurrection.

Transfiguration - Byzantine - c.549 - Mosaic - Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna. 

In more recent Western depictions the scene usually resolves itself into two zones; usually an upper one with the actual Transfiguration of Christ, the divine part, static, calm and timeless, while the lower zone usually chaotic and frenetic shows the astonished disciples. During the Renaissance the Mount became more of a rock a few feet tall, but the scenes nonetheless maintained their distinction and it is in these cases that the solution of a floating Transfiguration makes more sense, as in the beautiful examples by Perugino or Raphael, whose (last) masterpiece in the Vatican Museum, commissioned by Cardinal Giuliano de' Medici in 1516, is indeed the most important painting of this theme. In Raphael’s work, Christ recalls the composition of the Resurrection or the Assumption and that is the artist’s intent in which two apparently incompatible scenes work together, the solemnity of the Transfiguration and the chaos of Jesus healing a possessed boy, it is also the intent of Western theology, as well as the intent of God, to show his followers that after chaos and death there will be glory, an immense light, an immense peace.

Transfiguration - Raphael - c.1516 - Tempera on Panel - Vatican Museums.