Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Raphael's Birthday.

Forgive me in advancement for the long post, but today is the birthday of Raphael, one of the most influential artist who ever lived. 
He started his career in Urbino in what is now the region of Le Marche, then one of the most important centres of the Renaissance. He began his work under the direction of Perugino, soon his genius arose and he started creating works of the caliber of the Mond Crucifixion and the Wedding of the Virgin, in 1502 he was even called to Siena to work under another renowned Umbrian artist: Bernardino Pintoricchio, with whom he worked on the striking Piccolomini Library in Siena. 

In 1504 he visited Florence, this is where his career took an important boost, under the inspiration of central works of the early Renaissance he began working for private commissioners, an incredible achievement for a non-Florentine at the time. 

Until now, between a Madonna and Child and a church altarpiece, Raphael’s style even if more gentle or slightly with more character (!) still resembled that of his master, his turn from post-Socratic to Platonic, was with the Borghese Deposition, this is when we can finally notice Raphael is spreading his wings (and brush) and letting his genius work for a sensational work that will change the history of art, the work was so fantastic that although being destined for a church in Perugia it ended up of one of Rome’s greatest art collectors. 

Rome, his final destination where he erupted into the genius he will become, working for Julius II for whom he painted a “private” Sistine Chapel, apartments decorated with a cycle of frescoes representing holiness and knowledge of which every single scene is a monument to the Renaissance genius.

He also worked for Cardinal Agostino Chigi, for whom he designed the futuristic chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo and painted the sublime Sibyls in Santa Maria della Pace, as well as the triumphant Galatea in his Trastevere villa. 

While in Rome he continued working on Madonnas as well as splendid portraits such as that of the “terrible” Pope Julius and that of La Fornarina. While in Rome, he studied the grotesques in the Domus Area which he replicated in the Vatican Loggia, the new temple of art. 

As with most artists of his time he was known to have a lot of fun, and despite being having lived more than one life for a lifetime, he died relatively young under his last, mystic work: the Transfiguration. 

He inspired artists to come, from Perin del Vaga to Edward Burne-Jones. He will lie in his beloved Pantheon, the temple of classical canons, which in his life he took to transcendental beauty. The inscription on his tomb reads: "Here lies Raphael, by whom nature herself feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Florentine glory: the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Sant'Ambrogio.

The greatest miracle happens every day at the altar, it is important to remember that it is the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ who is present in his flesh and blood at all times in this great gift that Christ has bestowed on us, a unique act of love. If the world would truly realise how great a miracle it is, there would be cameras all over the churches, security outside their gates, people would come from everywhere to attend the simplest Mass in the smallest chapel - because it is God that we see and receive, his blessing, his promise in the expectation of his coming in glory. As we approach the feast of the Resurrection, in which we give thanks in a joyful and festal way for the very presence of Christ on earth, later confirmed in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. I would like to write a little article about the Eucharistic miracle occurred in Florence some centuries ago. Whether you’re high church or low church, I think this is a moving story that recalls the sacredness and holiness of this godly gift of love, even if you do not believe in miracles, it is important and essential to remember what they represent: God and his love made manifest in humankind.

On 30 December 1230, an elderly priest called Uguccione, in the Florentine church of Sant’Ambrogio, after having celebrated the Mass, forgot to remove all wine from the communion chalice - the following day he found blood on it and everything soon became clear. The holy blood was soon collected inside of a little crystal ampoule and became subject of popular devotion. Initially, the Church was of course sceptic, as it often happens, the Bishop, Ardingo Foraboschi, kept the ampoule for a year for exams and only after that year, thanks to the help of the Franciscan friars, it was returned to the church. The Pope himself, did not really give the miracle much credit, very differently to what happened later to a similar miracle in Bolsena, even if these miracles actually proved that the beliefs of contemporary heretical groups, such as the Cathars and the Patarines, that did not believe in the real presence, and who were presence at all levels of society in the Ghibellines faction, that faction that during the wars of the Italian city states of the 12th and 13th centuries supported the Holy Emperor over the Pope.

In 1279 Beatrice di Capraia dei Conti guidi, a Guelph (pro-Pope), commissioned the decoration for the ampoule and gave an endowment for the hospitality of future pilgrims. From 1317 to 1344, also the Arte dei Giudici e Notaia, (a corporation of judges and notaries), one of the most powerful in Florence, paid for the entire celebrations of the anniversary of the miracle. In 1340, the blood was carried around the city in order to request godly assistance against the black death, five years later, a wool merchant, Turino Baldesi, a relative of Beatrice (see above), commissioned the construction of a chapel for the relic dedicated to “his soul and his brother Giannotto”. Meanwhile, the care of the Corpus Christi services was given to the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella, documents compiled by Thomas Aquinas show how the miracle lost importance. In 1405, the Ufficiali di Mercanzia, the heads of all corporations, took part of the feast of Sant’Ambrogio before war with Pisa, in 1425, the Signoria, before war Milan, opted for the procession at Santa Maria Novella. The Benedictine nuns of Sant’Ambrogio eventually established the Immaculate Conception as the main celebration of the church, a feast dear to both Saints Benedict and Ambrose. In 1431, the prior, Francesco Maringhi, commissioned a beautiful (and famous) Coronation of the Virgin, now at the Uffizi, this altarpiece would substitute the ampoule at the high altar and it would be moved to a side chapel. In 1468 Domenico Maringhi, related to Francesco, commissioned a new chapel with a tabernacle where to keep the precious ampoule, the tabernacle was inside of a panel by Alesso Baldovinetti with Angels and Saints Ambrose, Lawrence, John and Catherine of Alessandria. In 1481, the chapel was moved to the left of the high altar, in a chapel already belonging to the Zati family, a new beautiful marble tabernacle was commissioned to Mino da Fiesole, the outstanding Florentine sculptor, by the abbess. Between 1484 and 1486, Cosimo Rosselli, one of the great artists of the Renaissance, was commissioned, for a hundred florins, the decoration in fresco of the one wall on the left side of the chapel, the east wall, around the tabernacle, and the vault. Today the frescoes are not in an excellent shape, after the fire of 1595 and the flooding of 1966, but nonetheless are entirely viewable and in good condition. With the definite arrangement of the chapel, the Baldovinetti altarpiece was placed on another altar.

The chapel is located to the left of the main presbytery, slightly elevated by a few steps, the shape is rectangular and it is open on two sides and enclosed within a Baroque marble rail. 

Mino da Fiesole’s tabernacle is located above the altar, as an altarpiece, it was in the late 1400s that tabernacles started to occupy that position, a similar arrangement is that of the San Chiara Chapel at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The nuns were surprised by the size of a previous monumental work by Mino da Fiesole in the Monastero delle Murate and commissioned the work to the sculptor in 1482, despite better hopes, the work took three years (and 160 florins) to be completed.

The central panel is enclosed within two small pillars with a vegetal-themed bas-relief decoration and Composite style capitals, on top is a frieze with cherubim and a little lunette with God the Father giving a blessing between two angels and a cherub. The ciborium is framed within an imaginary niche, on its size are two other nice with Saint Ambrose and Benedict, the patron of the church and the founder of the nun’s order, both portrayed in the act of praying, above is the Holy Spirit’s dove, between two small panels with cherubim. Lower than this, two angels are holding the miraculous chalice, positioned on a cherub, the Child Jesus in the act of blessing is in a mandorla coming out of it, inspired by the ciborium of San Lorenzo by Desiderio da Settignano. His pose is similar to that of God the Father, and both with the dove, create a perfect iconography of the Holy Trinity, manifested in this miracle and sacrifice of the Eucharist, the holy food of our souls. In the base is a bas-relief in which the priest Uguccione gives te relic to the abbess of Sant’Ambrogio, the scene is set in a symmetrical way, as it was customary at the time, there are two groups of figures in the act of praying, mostly nuns and notaries. In the two niches on the two sides of the altar, in “very” bas-relief, there are personifications of Faith with a chalice and paten and a cross, in the other Hope in the act of praying. At their side, two women open doors to a series of kneeling figures. The work is signed as Opus Mini, Mino’s Work. Previously, some details of the tabernacle were gilded, today some traces remain.

Around the tabernacle, Cosimo Rosselli, the outstanding Florentine master, painted in fresco music making angels, to spiritually praise and glorify that miracle of the Eucharist, they respected the Corpus Domini’s directions by Thomas Aquinas. 

In a rather customary way, the vault is decorated with doctors of the church on a red background (that once was blue): Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome with the lion and Saint Gregory the Great with the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear. 

The large lunette on the left wall portrays the Miracle of the Chalice, probably a representation of its exposition of 1340 against the black death. This, according to Renaissance art chronicler Giorgio Vasari, is his best fresco scene in Florence, apparently a young Fra Bartolomeo assisted the master in this work. The scene is realistic, it is set in the what the Piazza in which the church is located looked like back in the Renaissance, the side view is remindful of Masaccio’s work too, as well as being incredibly rich of portraits and buildings of the time. On the right is the church square with an original palazzo which is no longer existing, where a curious viewer assist to the scene below. 

The main scene is set on the right, where a group of priests and nuns is gathered around the ampoule, exposed by a bishop in a cope, at the foot of the steps are a group of acolytes, also in copes, holding candles for the Lord present in the sacrament and miracle. This is a rather “naturalistic” portrayal of the scene, for example in the shadows, the bricked up window in which the real window is shown by the pietra serena frame, the woman in the far palazzo on the left, hanging her laundry on the window, and in between these two palazzos in true Renaissance fashion, the scene spaces onto a view on the Florentine countryside, with gentle, green hills, and tall, thin trees. 

There is also clearly a lot of care in the clothing, hair-styles and hats, especially in women. The young lady holding two little boys, on the right, is inviting us to join the scene and participate, as if that miracle is happening now and in fact its presence is real and right on the other side of the wall!

The procession, where women and men walk separately, has several contemporary portraits, as Vasari also states. On the extreme left is Rosselli’s own portrait, looking towards the viewer. In the same fashion of Ghirlandaio, Florentine fashion in fact, there is a group of three young men: Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Agnolo Poliziano. 

In the centre is Pico, dressed in green, with his typical hair-style, he is holding arms with his colleagues. The three elderly men kneeling in the church square are probably members of the Medici family. The bishop, might be Antonino Pierozzi, is donating the sacrament to Francesco di Stefano della Torre, behind him is the abbess maria de’Barbadori in the act of praying. 

Essentially, this great scene in which there is a clear glorification of the miracle of the eucharist invites us to join them in celebration, to give us a sense of awe and belonging to the celebration, that celebration still located in the blood and body of Our Saviour, in the nearby tabernacle. Next to the frescoes is also the sinopia of the fresco, in which we can see how the artist imagined and reimagined the work, before and during its execution.

The first reliquary of this miracle was commissioned right after the miracle by the nuns, this is proven by a breviary compiled by the nuns under bishop Ardengo Trotti who dreamt about it. It was a little ivory urn, decorated with porpora and gold inlays. Unfortunately, this one was lost, and the only testimony of it and what it looked like is the Rosselli’s fresco, the recent one dates to 1511 and is by a certain Bartolomeo di Piero Sasso. This might also be a revisitation of the original reliquary. Today the blood is contained in a small ampoule protected by a crystal cylinder. The “new” reliquary is partially gilded and it is remindful of an hexagon-shaped ostensory. In the little niche in it are two angels flying and a third is symbolically holding the ostensory, the figures are rather fluid and plastic, in proper Renaissance style. Once the chapel was also adorned with two Della Robbia angels. 

This chapel is a triumph of eucharistic devotion, that devotion inspired by the greatest miracle bestowed by God the Christ on us, his very presence, in the awaiting of his coming in glory of his salvation.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Historical visit of the Pope to an Anglican church in the Eternal City.

Today my parish church, All Saints' Anglican Church in Rome, had the pleasure to welcome Pope Francis himself. Needless to say it was a remarkable occasion, the first of its kind, before today Popes had only visited Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The rather long service of Evensong began with the dedication of our new icon of Saint Saviour by artist Ian Knowles from the Bethlehem Icon School in Israel. Then we proceeded to renew our baptismal vows and subsequently the altar party (led by me) reached the sanctuary while His Holiness slowly sprinkled our worshippers with holy water under the thundering notes of Stanford's setting of Psalm 150 to Anglican Chant. The Pope then preached about charity and mercy, reminding us of our brotherly relationship and the path of faith that we keep following together. Sharing prayer with the Holy Father, believe me, is a humbling experience. Then it was the time of the peace, which we all gladly shared with His Holiness, from the highest ranking members of the Church of England, to the sick, elderly and young of our church community, sharing the peace with Pope Francis really didn't require any additional words, the physical contact was enough to give us a sense of peace and hope. As customary it was then the time for questions, two answers from the Pope got stuck in my head: that we have to understand that when our Churches split times and circumstances were different, but we still share a love for Jesus Christ and his saints and much of our traditional way of practicing Christianity is unchanged, he then moved to an especially moving answer, he explained how we can look to the new churches of the global south, how we can worship together where canon law or theology can't get, as in the case of a diocese in his familiar Argentina where local Anglicans and Catholics worship at the same churches and services depending on the availability of the clergy. On this occasion our church was also twinned with its namesake Roman Catholic partner, with whom we recently started a new service for helping the homeless and the hungry of this large city. Gifts were then exchanged as we sang the beautiful strains of the hymn "For all the saints". Today was an especially touching and humbling experience, we will surely treasure it in our hearts for the years to come. This is truly God's own handiwork. That they may all be one.

Monday, February 20, 2017

History in the making in Italy, Anglicans and Catholics praying together.

Following 50 years of ecumenical partnership between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, culminating in last October's events in Rome, the next few weeks will once again mark historical occasions that will tighten the bonds between the two greatest Christian bodies of the West.

All Saints' Church Rome.

On Sunday 26th of February Pope Francis will visit the Anglican Church of All Saints' in Rome in Via del Babuino, not only this would be the first visit of its kind, but it will also be the first time a Pope will ever join an Anglican church community in prayer, before Popes had only visited Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, a cathedral and a royal peculiar, never a church! The service will be a modified version of Vespers during which His Holiness will preach, bless a special icon commissioned for the service and even get to meet members of the congregation, which we are sure it will be the part he will enjoy most! All Saints' will also be officially twinned with All Saints' Catholic Church, Ognissanti, with whom we have recently started a project for feeding the homeless together each Friday. 

The icon of Our Saviour that will be blessed by Pope Francis.

This visit signs the unique bonds of friendship that in the past years have characterised the relationship between us, where there is no communion, our bonds of love in Jesus Christ will do the job for now. Make sure to view the service in streaming on All Saints' website.

Bishop Lane and Bishop North.

On March 7th, Bishop Libby Lane, the first female Bishop of the Church of England, and Bishop Philip North, who stands with the Forward in Faith movement and against the ordination of women, and who operate in the same diocese, will both give a lecture at the Anglican Centre about how to work together, how to overcome difficulties and find one common goal under Jesus Christ. The fact that this will be held in Rome is of great importance and I invite all my Roman Catholics friends to come and be inspired by this important testimony.

St. Peter's Basilica.

Another important occasion will occur on March 13th, when Choral Evensong, the fascinating service of sung Evening Prayer deriving from Benedictine Vespers and famous for its solemn liturgy and glorious music, will be held in the Basilica of Saint Peter, yes you have heard it right. St. Peter's Basilica. The service will be led by Archbishop David Moxon, the director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Holy See. The service will be sung by one of England's leading choirs, that of Merton College Oxford one of the oldest in Britain. It can't be stressed enough how important this great act of hospitality is. I sure will be there to attend this unique event and enjoy the best church music under the best church art!

Florence Cathedral.

What a list you would think! That is not it, if I would ask, what's that city closest to Rome, famous for its world renowned art, what would you say? Yes, it's Florence. We all love Fiorenza and we all know its famous Cathedral, home to works to some of the greatest artists: Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Castagno, Luca della Robbia, Giorgio Vasari, under Brunelleschi's dome and the shadow of Giotto's campanile... right I am done, forgive my art historian streak. Florence is also home to one of Italy's most vibrant Church of England chaplaincies, St. Mark's, a growing community of Anglicans with great ecumenical bonds. The church also boast an incredibly fine choir that due to the friendship between the church and the cathedral will perform in the latter. That's right, on March 12th Choral Evensong will be held for the first time in one of the world's most famous and beautiful cathedrals and by all means I will be there! English church music, the greatest form of art Anglicanism has, will be performed in this house of visual arts in which much Italian Renaissance polyphony resounded in ages past. When that music was composed and when that art was produced we would have probably burnt each other. How far have we come!

St. Mark's Church Florence.

The next few days and weeks will be of great historical importance and it is incredible to see how far we have come, it will be a great occasion for each and every single one of us to be part of the great work of love that is the body of Jesus Christ and which we are trying to bring together, at least in friendship because... that they may all be one.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

An Italian celebration of Christmas.

Nowadays, not many are aware that Christmas does not end on December 25th, but it goes on for twelve nights! To say the truth we can say it lasts until Candlemass, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus to the Temple at the end of Epiphany Season, we could say a continuation of Christmastide. Tomorrow the twelve days will end with the Adoration of the Child Jesus by the Magi, a very important continuation of the Nativity where the humble community of shepherds is joined by three kings bringing gifts to the holy child. 
In Italy, this feast or better, "Epiphany Eve" has always been just as important as Christmas culturally, and Italian children not only have to wait for Santa Claus or Father Christmas but also for a lovely elderly lady called "La Befana" (after "Epifania" = Epiphany).
The legend goes... the three kings were looking for shelter the night before visiting Our Lord to bring Him gifts, they arrived to a small village where the locals addressed them to the best place, the house of a caring granny that gave them a place to sleep and excellent food, they were so touched they invited her to join them... she denied the offer, but the following day she changed idea, and started looking for the kings and especially Jesus! In the attempt to bring gifts to Jesus, she gave candies and sweets to all children... she still does today! Filling long stockings with any kind of sweet, candy or chocolate delicacy, unless you have been naughty, in which case some coal (made of sugar) will be left for you, pink coal is an option too, if you haven't been that naughty! At least in Italy! Tonight let's wait for this lovely granny! Viva viva la Befana!