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 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.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Our Lady of the River, a summery Roman tradition.

Yesterday, on the Tiber I had the pleasure to witness one of the oldest and most beloved traditions of Rome, La Festa de Noantri, literally "our feast", which occurs on the commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patroness of the Carmelite order. Celebrations last for over a week in the end of July and it is one of the most heartfelt feasts in Rome, but how did it begin?
In 1535, during a storm, a group of fishermen at the mouth of the Tiber found a statue of Our Lady sculpted in cedar wood. The statue which became La Madonna Fiumarola (Our Lady of the River), was given to the Carmelites of the Church of San Crisogono in Trastevere, it became the protectress of Rome. 


Now the statue is housed in the Church of Sant'Agata in Trastevere and every Saturday after the 16th of July a procession to the Church of San Crisogono takes place where the statue rests for a novena. But one of the most striking peculiarities about the feast takes place on the last day of celebration when a spectacular procession on the Tiber, crossing the entirety of Rome, ends up with Our Lady landing in Trastevere again where a Solemn Mass takes place in the third century basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
It is indeed a dazzling experience and it is a good example of Roman spirituality, be sure not to miss it next time! Ave Maria!

Monday, July 24, 2017

A "different" Crucifixion in Florence.

Florence is home to an endless number of marvels, easily comparable, if not superior, to those of any European capital. Of course, Fiorenza was also the home of the Renaissance. 
One of the many gems of the city can be found in the Chapter House of the former convent of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, here is a rare example of Umbrian Renaissance in the heart of Florence, an incredible combination; in this room Perugino, who resided in Florence for about two years from 1493, when he married Chiara Fancelli, his muse for many works, and was also Raphael’s master, eventually decorated the main wall of the room with a famous fresco representing the Crucifixion of Christ, his workshop, in the same room worked on a fresco of Saint Bernard collecting the body of Christ from the Cross. Now the Chapter House is part of an ancient high school of Florence, guess not every school can boast a room with Renaissance frescoes.
This is by far the largest fresco work of the few Perugino ones in Florence, the other being the Last Supper, it was executed when the convent was still under the Cistercian order and was commissioned by the Pucci family (who are still around today, like many other Italian families). Sources provided in the Libro di Antonio Billi show that the date of the commission is 20 November 1493 and the recipient is Mastro Piero della Pieve a Chastello Perugino, signed by Dionigi and Giovanna Pucci, the payment for the completion of the work (55 ducats) occurred on 20 April 1496. In 1628 the convent of Santa Maddalena dei Pazzi was taken by enclosed nuns and the fresco was forgotten until 1867 when the nuns abandoned the convent and the fresco was rediscovered, causing a great interest among scholars. Today the chapter house belong to the Polo Museale Fiorentino, together with the Uffizi, the Bargello, the several Last Supper frescoes and many other treasures, it can be visited by accessing the Liceo Michelangelo (the school) through the main gate on Via della Colonna.


In the space where the east wall meets the Renaissance rib-vault of the Chapter House, Perugino set the scene of the Crucifixion, divided into three scenes by columns, the capitals are the original architectural ones, the central part of the columns are painted in a rather innovative game of perspective, creating an imaginary loggia. On the north wall is a smaller fresco portraying Saint Bernard in the act of collecting the body of Christ from the Cross. The two frescoes have a common background, appearing beyond the painted loggia, a rather idyllic Renaissance landscape of central Italian woods, hills and lakes, very common in Perugino’s works. In the central section is the Christ on the Cross, still undead and looking downwards, above him the sun shines through rose clouds, Mary Magdalene, patroness of the convent, is just below him, praying at his Lord in penitence. In the other two sections, from left to right are: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order, Our Lady, in a Renaissance emotion-less pose, this is no more Mary, this is now the Mother of Our Lord, on the other section are Saint John the Evangelist, together with Mary, always present at the Crucifixion and at his side Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order of which the Cistercians are part of. On the left, on the north wall is the Saint Bernard deposition from the Cross, that shows the incredible and profound mysticism of the Cistercian order. Despite the dramatic subject the scene appears rather serene, this was very much the case in Renaissance spirituality, a sense of peace pervades the fresco and this could certainly be the intention of the author; behold your God, your Lord, in transcendental peace and awe, a scene of death with a pathos revealing the resurrection - the fulfilment of God's mission, yet hidden in our hearts. Surely a great idea, perhaps the author wanted to create a peaceful atmosphere in the Chapter House, thinking of those canons arguing all day long! This great work is a monumental triptych of about the size of one of the many Last Supper frescoes of Florence, but being for the Chapter House instead of a Refectory, this theme was chosen. This is an incredibly rare example of a Perugino work, an Umbrian, here in Florence. It is quite important as a testimony that proves how good an artist he was to be called here in the cradle of the Renaissance. This is indeed one of Florence’s hidden gems.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saint Mary Magdalene, a more "human" example of faith.

Today is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, a key figure in the life of Christ and perhaps one of the most enigmatic saints of Christianity, many legends have been told about this important saint. Instead, I would like to introduce her story; a story of remission, forgiveness, redemption and renewal in Christ, an example to all and below Christ, below the Virgin, someone we can not just admire but associate with us.

Mary Magdalene - Carlo Crivelli - c.1485 - Tempera on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

מרים המגדלית‎‎, Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή, Maria Magdalena, Mary Magdalene was a humble Jewish woman, she shared a common name of the time and must not be confused with the Mother of God or Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha. In the Gospels she is called the Magdalene, probably an association with the Sea of Magdala, later scholars, such as Saint Jerome, suggest it might indicate her great faith. Mary Magdalene has always been associated by Tradition as sexually immoral or as a prostitute, although this is not supported by Scripture, the Gospels do agree she was a great sinner, but it is her life after meeting Jesus, who casts the seven demons out of her, which is considered much more significant.

St. Mary Magdalene - Jan van Scorel - c.1530 - Oil on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

She plays an important part in the salvific mission of Christ and in the life of the Apostles. In Luke 8, while Jesus was travelling with the disciples, he cured the evil spirits and diseases of Mary called Magdalene and the seven demons came out, this is when the loving power of God heals Mary the sinner and transforms her, a common woman, nothing like the Virgin Mary, but truly one of us, into someone worthy enough to be part of God's story here on earth in different way from the disciples, sometimes even more intimately. It is in fact during the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25) that the figure of the Magdalene becomes central, unlike any other follower of Jesus she is specified by name as a witness of the main three events of the passion, beginning with the Crucifixion that she witnessed, at a distance. During the Deposition (Matthew 27:61, Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1), Mary Magdalene stands besides Joseph of Arimathea, with Mary (Mother of James) and they brought oils to anoint their Saviour's body, in fact an incredibly active part in the Passion. But it is at the Resurrection (Mark 28:1, Mark 16:19, Luke 24, John 20:1) that she truly fulfils her God's given mission. In the four gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first to witness the Resurrection of Christ, she was chosen among sinners to witness the miracle of Salvation, the first among sinners witnessed the fulfilment of what she also represented, Satan's sin being cast down and renewal, consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive in Jesus Christ the Lord, the Lamb who shed his sacred blood for the Magdalene, the Magdalene who is each and everyone of us. The Resurrection is announced in the Gospels in several ways, by beautiful angels or in the astounding meeting of the Christ and the Magdalene, Noli Me Tangere, "do not touch me!" the famous words Jesus tells Mary, because Jesus was pure, resurrected God and he had then worked through her and through mankind with his redemption. Her story is the story of Christ and the story of our Salvation.

Mary Magdalene - Piero di Cosimo - c.1490 - Tempera on Panel - Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

In the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene, although canonically a great sinner, was seen as being a repentant prostitute or a loose woman, at least in the West - these claims were never supported in the Gospels. This notion can be traced as far back as Ephrem the Syrian in the fourth century, but it was Pope Gregory I during a homily in 591 that more or less made the claim somewhat official; he identified the Magdalene not just as a sinner but also with the company of Mary of Bethany; Martha and Lazarus, starting the so called theological malformation known as the "composite Magdalene" which followed Mary into the Eastern Schism: four saints, one feast. The seven demons removed by Jesus represented the seven capital sins, and so the Magdalene incarnated all sins but also our redemption. An aspect which became her "trademark" in Western art and religious literature, fitting well with the importance of penitence in Medieval theology.

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance. Pope Gregory the Great (homily XXXIII).

The Raising of Lazarus - Geertgen tot Sint Jans - c.1480 - Oil and Tempera on Panel - Louvre Museum, Paris.

The so called "composite Magdalene" was never accepted in the East, where Mary was only seen as a disciple (in the broader sense of the term) and that she lived as a companion to the Virgin. Not only in the East it was unpopular, but also in the West. The Benedictines always celebrated Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus on 29 July, but the Magdalene on 22 July. By the end of the Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries), Mary Magdalene was generally accepted as the Apostolurum Apostola, the Apostle to the Apostles. She was commemorated throughout Europe and in England the Sarum Rite, the rite used in most of southern England included a beautiful collect:

Grant unto us, most merciful Father,
that like as blessed Mary Magdalene
by loving thy Only-begotten One above all things, 
obtained pardon of all her sins, 
so she may secure for us everlasting blessedness 
in thy compassionate presence.


Mary Magdalene was an especially popular saint for the Medieval man who always sought mediators in which he could identify; the Gothic, late Middle Ages were also a prolific time for mystic, "magical" tales; one of the greatest works of that time was the Golden Legend by Jacobus da Voragine, a Dominican Friar, a beautiful collection of the lives of the saints, from Saint George and the Dragon to the Finding of the Cross by Saint Helena. The Golden Legend stated that Mary Magdalene was in fact also rich and noble. 

...Magdalene abounded in riches, and because delight is fellow to riches and abundance of things; and for so much as she shone in beauty greatly, and in riches, so much the more she submitted her body to delight, and therefore she lost her right name, and was called customably a sinner.


Mary Magdalene - Antonio Vivarini - c.1476 - Tempera on Panel - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.


After the Ascension, the "Penitent Magdalene" spent the rest of her life as an hermit in a cave for thirty years, communicating with angels: 

...the blessed Mary Magdalene, desirous of sovereign contemplation, sought a right sharp desert, and took a place which was ordained by the angel of God, and abode there by the space of thirty years without knowledge of anybody. In which place she had no comfort of running water, ne solace of trees, ne of herbs. And that was because our Redeemer did do show it openly, that he had ordained for her refection celestial, and no bodily meats. And every day at every hour canonical she was lifted up in the air of angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears. Of which she was fed and filled with right sweet meats, and then was brought again by the angels unto her proper place, in such wise as she had no need of corporal nourishing.

The Golden Legend interestingly, and perhaps because of the Dominican influence, sees Mary Magdalene as a preacher and evangeliser:

When Mary Magdalene saw the people gathering at the shrine to offer sacrifice to the idols, she came forward, her manner calm and her face serene, and with well-chosen words called them away from the cult of idols and preached Christ fervidly to them. All who heard her were in admiration at her beauty, her eloquence, and the sweetness of her message...and no wonder, that her mouth which had pressed such pious and beautiful kisses on the Savior’s feet should breathe forth the perfume of the word of God more profusely than others could.

These elaborate, beautiful legends were generally widely accepted by the Church and truly besides being splendid poetry, caused no arm and were usually based on real accounts. In fact, they were instrumental in spreading the faith.
The Anglican 1549 Book of Common Prayer kept the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene as a red letter day, then changed to a black letter day after 1552, interestingly the readings remained the same as in the Tridentine Mass. Here is the beautiful collect from the first prayer book:

Merciful father geue us grace,
that we neuer presume to synne through the example of anye creature, 
but if it shall chaunce vs at any tyme to offende thy dyuine maiestie: 
that then we maye truly repent, and lament the same,
after the example of Mary Magdalene,
and by lyuelye faythe obtayne remission of all oure sinnes:
throughe the onely merites of thy sonne oure sauiour Christ.

Mary Magdalene - English Master of the 15th century - c.1493 - Tempera on Panel - St.Catherine's Church, Ludham.

Mary Magdalene in the late Middle Ages became the second most represented Saint after the Virgin Mary. She was usually depicted as extravagantly dressed and with very long blond or reddish hair, often covering her whole body, a sign of prostitutes or noblewomen, not  the case among working or middle class women, weddings were an exception. But the iconography was a fulfilment of her changed nature in Christ.

Saint Mary Magdalene in Glory with Angels - Master of Gdańsk - c.1430 - Tempera and Gold on Panel - National Museum, Warsaw.

A common iconography is that of the Penitent Magdalene. According to Medieval theology the saint had spent a number of years wandering in the desert as an hermit after leaving her life, a very similar iconography to that of Mary of Egypt, another prostitute who became a hermit. Magdalene’s long hair covers her whole body and as saint dialogued with angels, she is often depicted in an “elevation”, with angels raising her up as recounted in the Golden Legend. 
Another common iconography is that of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross during Jesus’ Crucifixion, she often appears with the Virgin Mary and Saint John as another spectator. She is often found kneeling, clutching the shaft, kissing Jesus’ feet or usually standing in grief at the left behind Mary and John. According to an 11th century English manuscript she is seen as an expressional device rather than a historical motif, intended as the expression of an emotional assimilation of the event, that leads the spectator to identify himself with the mourners

Crucifixion - Hans Memling - c.1491 - Oil on Panel - St. Annen Museum, Lübeck.

She usually appears in the Resurrection of Lazarus besides Martha and Mary of Bethany or in portraits while reading and/or with a vase containing the holy oils for Jesus' body, but probably her most famous iconography is that of the Noli Me Tangere. Christ meets the Magdalene, she mistakes him for the sepulchre keeper, and a garden spade can be usually seen in the foreground, but the beauty of these works is the surprise and the fulfilment of the Christian message when she dramatically falls before the Lord. 

Noli Me Tangere - Marcello Venusti - c.1550 - Oil on Panel -  Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.
When she meets for the first time the resurrected Christ who warns her not to come close, for redemption had been fulfilled in her and mankind; and the very God that he was had become ready for rejoining the Father in heaven. Sin had been broken. This is the story of Mary Magdalene and why this great sinner is the closest to us all, with Jesus in her heart, sin in her past and resurrection in her future. Here is a hymn I wrote to her (to be sung to Austria):

Mary Magdalene, most Blessèd,
born from sin, yet saved by Christ;
forth from her he cast the demons,
she became a Saint so bright.
By his mercy was she saved;
when the sin was torn apart,
Peace of God, his gracious off’ring,
unto her doth Grace impart.

Christ was Crucified by man,
so to save our souls from sin;
at his feet stood Mary weeping,
for the glorious King of kings.
Three whole days of silent waiting,
Mary first to see his face;
the great Christ was now alive,
raised from death, restored the Grace.

And from sin to Grace the story,
tells the victory over sin;
Mary Magdalene, the blessèd,
healed by Christ’s own power within.
To the Trinity be glory,
to the Father and the Son;
to the Holy Ghost above,
ever Three and ever One.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

An unusual Renaissance gem in Florence.

Florence, as mentioned in other articles, is a city that hosts several treasures, among these many treasures there are several convents and monasteries that often have the most outstanding works of art, most of them host the popular Last Supper frescoes we have seen before: the Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Castagno, etc. But there is also an unusual one, at the Convento di Fuligno, which hosts the Perugino Last Supper. Uniquely open to the public this summer, a very rare event. Why is it unique? As we have seen before, with his Crucifixion, it is incredible that an Umbrian artist (remember Umbria was in the Papal States) managed to get art commissions in the centre of the Renaissance: Florence, the city of Ghirlandaio and Botticelli, but this just shows how popular and outstanding his work was, so popular he eventually became Raphael’s master.
The convent took its name from a community of Franciscan nuns coming from Foligno in Umbria which took possession of it in 1419. It eventually became a convent for young aristocratic Florentine ladies and was embellished thanks to donations by Lorenzo de’Medici and the Lapaccini family. Perugino arrived in Florence in 1493, where he stayed for about two years after he married his wife Chiara Fancelli, that same year he worked on in the convent.


The large work is located in a wall in the shape of a horseshoe, the scene is set in a portico, the apostles are sat on a long Renaissance wooden sedilia, decorated with a beautiful green brocade, the iconography is rather common, as usual Judas Iscariot is on the other side of the table, looking towards the viewer, but still giving us his back to us, on the other side are the "holier" apostles and Christ, from the left: James the Less who is inviting us into the scene, then, Philip, James, Andrew, Peter, Jesus, John, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, Simon and Jude, all looking at their Lord, and eating on a table. The floor presents a rather complicated geometric pattern in rose and white marbles, similar to that in the younger works by Perugino. The work is very similar to another Florentine Cenacolo, that by Ghirlandaio at San Marco, especially in the background where behind the sedilia a Renaissance loggia, where decorated pilasters open the scene of a bucolic Italian countryside panorama, with gentle hills and large trees. This was rather common at the time. The point was that these frescoes were made in refectories, in this way it was as if the religious people would eat with Our Lord and the Apostles, as the room architecturally continued into the painting and spaced into that magic countryside. In the background is also a smaller scene, still linked to the Last Supper: Christ preaching in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he and the Apostles slept after the Last Supper and before his Crucifixion, the moments that link his revelation, his sacrifice in the very institution of the Eucharist. An angel appears to be overseeing the whole scene from above. The whole scene is set within a grotesque frame, similar to ancient Roman ones, except there are small portraits of saints, a rather common Florentine detail.
This little Florentine gem is indeed worth seeing, it shows how varied the artistic life in the 15th century was and Florence not only saw local artists, but also Flemish, German but very rarely from other parts of Italy. It's truly worth it!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Short Reflection on the Romanovs' Martyrdom.

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the majestic, imperial Viennese funeral of Otto von Habsburg, by pretence Emperor-King of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Jerusalem. While admiring the spectacular pageantry, the fascinating historical legacy of the former crown, I could not stop thinking how good it was for European nations to have such strong bonds with their living history, to be able to witness such ceremonial, the fruit of a continuous evolution of power going back to the Roman Empire, through the Church and via the birth of national states in the Middle Ages, through the later evolution of the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe. Upon hearing the beautiful Kayserhymne sung to the beautiful tune "Austria", I realised how these institution are an important treasure to keep, a treasure that made us who we are; monarchies shaped our culture, commissioned our art, peacefully (or less peacefully) supported the role of the Church in our society, in a fashion that dates back to Emperor Constantine. I am not being nostalgic, or perhaps I am, but I certainly don't believe in anachronisms certainly the existence of monarchies today isn't one, if they humbly serve their people. I do believe that monarchies are a gift to our societies, forgive me for my opinion, but so much more than republics which lack this fascinating and emotional side, but also represent impartiality and regality above any earthly matter and because our rulers of ages past shaped this our European culture, how can we not be grateful? A recent Austrian study stated that despite the country is now a republic the Imperial Habsburg heritage is the main reason tourists visit the country - in the form of their legacy, their palaces, churches and so much more and I believe this is very much applicable to anywhere else: in Italy; from the Doges of Venice or the Medici of Florence, to the Popes of Rome; to the Prussian or Austrian Emperors to the monarchs of England, France and Spain. The imperial legacy of the Habsburg was so strong that when the Emperor-to be died in 2011, Hungarian Parliament held a moment of silence, bad legacies don't prove in these results. 


My mind can only go to our own Anglican Defender of the Faith: Queen Elizabeth II, the fruit of a long lasting line of monarchs going back more than a thousand years, keeping the kingdom together by simply being above earthly matters, a neutral guide to a nation, not elected but anointed, not responding to the people, but serving it, only under God. Also, it is a matter of fact that the English Crown, which is entirely self sufficient is in fact a matter of pride but also revenue for the United Kingdom because of the tourism and merchandising it attracts, as well as the place it takes by making English public life much more interesting, from the Abbey services to the Trooping of Colour, it is doubtless that a crown is a perfect link between history and modernity that truly gives a country a strong self-identity and I believe all of Europe should begin to appreciate this its heritage.



But what is the point of this post? Today in 1918, Russian Bolsheviks murdered Tzar Nicholas II and his family, including children. The Tzar of Russia was among the most powerful crowned heads of Europe, the Russian court was among the most refined of its time and the Romanov family had reigned in Russia for about 500 years, it is as if the Stuarts were still reigning today - the Tzars helped to make Russia, despite its distance, a true European nation, because of its art, culture and political scene. Unfortunately, the Romanov were only the last martyrs of a European revolution, this case that of the the Communists. Sadly, the Romanov, whom most Russian still praise will not be back, but one would hope their martyrdom would prove the sadness revolutions can bring. In the European case, one could easily notice that there are several points in common - certainly, sometimes they were about monarchs who might have been out of touch with their people and reigning under absolute power. But is the only way to change that murder?


Did Charles I and Louis XVI had to die? Would bad monarchs die for the apostolic faith in England or would bad monarchs wish their blood to bring happiness among the French people? But what are these common points? Revolutions are usually started by few who intoxicate the most unhappy spheres of society and don't lead them into a successful way to improve their condition, but instead use them as a mean to get to their own power and preferential type of government, usually dictatorial: whether it is the Puritanism of Cromwell or the Reign of Terreur of Robespierre up to the Communism that brought down Russia's credibility as a nation, as well as its economy, for little less than a century. The point of this post is not to convince anyone about the grandeur of past monarchies but simply to understand that not everything is at it seems - that most of what we must be thankful for, as nationals of our own countries, derives from our past and these institutions shaped our past. Fortunately the English monarchy was restored, but when we talk about France or Russia, we are talking about millenary institutions and I do believe it is just plain wrong that in such a small time they were erased for ever, never to be back; and for whom arts, literature, music and all that shaped our European culture were composed.


These revolutions also led the path for the end of the Prussian and Austrian empires whose legacies and history were also extremely fascinating, instead we all know what happened after their end - nowadays we have the idea that only republics can be real forms of democracy. It is not so. On a lighter note, we left the world of Tchaikovsky, Sissi, Lully and the great palaces of Vienna, Salzburg or St. Petersburg or the French Chateaux for (allow me to say it) boring republican normality - in Germany and Italy the President of the Republic receives almost regal respects, is that democratic? Why not have a Royal Family! I hope these horrors won't be repeated and I hope we will begin to appreciate our past and the respect for the institution of the crown, the beauty of neutrality and a line that goes back to the origin of Western civilisation. Today we remember the slaughter of an innocent man who was instructed to rule under God in the way he did, and of his family and children, that the greed of some may never again prove in the death of other people of God. 

We remember the martyrdom of the Romanovs, 
may the Holy Family of Russia and Saint Mary the Virgin, pray for us.



Friday, July 14, 2017

10 things to see and to do in Rome this summer. 2017 edition.


As many of you probably might have noticed, I pretty much focus my articles on peculiar artistic or historical subjects, however, I did want to write a lighter post that some of you might find helpful, and indeed a light summer reading, if you find yourself in Rome. Here are 10 things you should do, they also cover the main attractions you would want to visit anyway, Coliseum and St. Peter's excluded. But we are not so banal, are we? One last warning, some of these places will offer shade from the sun, but if you're looking for anywhere cool, then you shouldn't visit Rome in the summer. Always bring a bottle of water with you, never throw it away, you can always refill it with the fresh mountain water coming from the city's nasoni (the little fountains). Now, wear a proper hat and enjoy the tour!

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Want to see what the beating heart of the most powerful empire of antiquity looked like? You must make sure not to miss the Roman Forum. Wander around and discover the marvels of the greatest of ancient civilisations. You will find beautiful, grand ruins of old classical buildings and basilicas but also some peculiar features, such as the church that has a façade that was previously a Roman temple's! Enter a world in which Romans decided how to rule the world and yet simply met their friends. Make sure to visit in the early morning or in the late evening, for better light and when the sun is not too deadly... Why not make it then to the nearby Capitoline Museums? The first museum in the world, with an astonishing collection of ancient, classical masterpieces.
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Rome is a city built on hills, surely you don't have to see them all (but you should), two of them offer great views on the city but also an escape from the heat, the best ones are the Janiculum and Aventine hills. The first one, located above the Trastevere hosts two Renaissance churches: Sant'Onofrio al Gianicolo and San Pietro in Montorio - the first with beautiful cloisters, frescoes by Antoniazzo Romano and Pintoricchio, the second with works by Antoniazzo Romano, Sebastiano del Piombo, Bernini, Vasari and with the famous Bramante's temple, built on the site of Saint Peter's crucifixion. The hill offers a nice walk, under the shade of pine and oak trees, the view is spectacular, on one side it overlooks the whole city, on the other is the dome of St. Peter's. The Aventine is equally great, it hosts ancient basilicas, among the very first ones in Rome in fact, among them are San Saba and Santa Balbina, from whence you could start your walk, the scenery there is amazing, then Santa Sabina, famous for being the best preserved early Christian church in Rome, in its interior and for its 5th century carved door! Nearby there is the famous key-hole with a spectacular view on St. Peter's, you can end your walk at the Giardino degli Aranci, it offers one of the best views on the Eternal City. A little tip: you will need to cross the river to get from one hill to the other, use the ancient Roman bridges of the Tiber Island or the Renaissance Ponte Sisto!

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I highly suggest you to opt for this option on 5th August. You could start your journey by visiting the earliest churches of Rome, renowned for their ancient mosaics. The first one would be Santi Cosma e Damiano, right outside the Forum, the church was built in an ancient Roman temple, divided into two storeys during the 17th century because of the Tiber's floodings, you can visit the early Christian crypt and the 6th century mosaics. You could then proceed to Santa Pudenziana to admire the oldest mosaic in Rome, dating back to the 4th century, in fact it isn't even in the early-Christian style but in the late antique Roman one! After that you could move on to Santa Prassede that hosts both a beautiful 9th century apse mosaic but also a greater treasure, the chapel of San Zeno, with glorious mosaics in the Byzantine style and even the relic of the column on which Jesus was flagellated. Remember to check out, everything in these churches, the mosaics aren't the only things to see! Often the floor, decorated with another form of mosaics called "Cosmati" is equally mind blowing. Now, we will reach the point in which you will realise why you should take this tour on this exact day. 5th August is the feast of the Virgin in Rome, on this special day make sure to visit the oldest standing Papal basilica of Rome: Saint Mary Major, its beautiful early and Medieval mosaics, the Renaissance works by Mino da Fiesole and Piero della Francesca (?), the first crib scene in the world (in the treasury) but first of all say a prayer to Our Lady. According to the legend she appeared in a dream to pope Liberius asking him to build a church dedicated after her, the following morning the miracle happened: it snowed on the exact spot the basilica had to be build, in the middle of the summer! During Vespers, at the Magnificat, a snowfall will pour on the high altar, you will never forget it! You can end journey visit by visiting the Victorian Anglican church of St. Paul's within the Walls, in the Via Nazionale, with lovely Pre-Raphaelite mosaics by Edward Burne-Jones!

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As they say in Rome "if you need some air", I highly suggest you to visit the city's beautiful parks: get lost in the vast Villa Doria Pamphilj, walk endlessly in this charming estate, it couldn't just be better: the large trees, the hills, the little ponds and fountains but especially the Versailles-like huge Baroque water games, ending in a large lake populated by swans and beavers. It's only a short walk from the Janiculum hill. Another beautiful park is the Villa Borghese, somehow "smaller" but with plenty of eclectic Neo-Classical works and even Egyptian-like architecture. The beautiful fountains, the trees, the majestic promenades offer a charming escape from the city life. There is also a lovely lake with a temple where you can go on a boat ride, it is a must at sunset! Make sure to end your visit on the Pincio, overlooking the Spanish Steps and the whole city. If you have children, there is an ecologic and animal friendly Zoo, if you have teens take them to the park's world-renowned art gallery! If you don't have any children, visit it anyway.

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If you want to escape the city, in favour of a "wilder" option, there is the walk along the Via Appia Antica, you will be able to stroll on the ancient Roman "motorway", along it you will find tombs, ancient houses and will be brought back in time. You can relax and have a picnic in the wild field facing the Cecilia Metella's Mausoleum. It will be like approaching the city in the old days of the Grand-Tour. Talking about Grand-Tour, if you want to experience the life of the great tourists that visited Rome during the 18th and 19th century, visit the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio, the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps or the Goethe House on the Via del Corso! But careful about the ghosts...

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I have been quite kind to you until now, Rome is also a city of art, of course our museums are churches and ruins, but we have our fair share of great art galleries too. Surely, you should visit the Borghese Gallery, booking in advance, you will be able to admire ancient sculptures, works by Bernini or Canova and paintings by the great masters, such as Titian or Raphael, all of them in the original location in which the family placed them, some of the ancient ones are unfortunately in the Louvre now. Napoleon and all that... The Corsini Gallery is never really crowded and offers a great collection of art works, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Annibale Carracci are all there. As for any respectable noble Roman family collection the Barberini Gallery hosts a great deal of works too: Caravaggios, Raphael, Filippo Lippi and even one of the most famous portraits of Henry VIII. In the setting of a family palazzo designed by Bernini and Borromini. The great salone has a spectacular fresco celebrating the family by Pietro da Cortona. For a more "familiar" atmosphere there is also the Doria-Pamphilj Gallery, still family owned! This beautiful palazzo hosts some threats, you will be able to see the original Renaissance cloisters, the family chapel, the great Versailles-like corridor with Venetian mirrors, and Memling, Filippo Lippi, Caravaggio and the most famous Velazquez painting in the world. You can end your visit with the Villa Farnesina and its Raphael frescoes, located in a charming and calm area of the Trastevere.

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Explore Baroque Rome: whether it'd be the excesses of the Gesù, the optical illusions in the ceiling frescoes at Sant'Ignazio or the Pietro da Cortona and Rubens works at the Chiesa Nuova - covering also the post-Trent Jesuit and Oratorian churches of Rome and the charming tomb of St. Philip Neri. Or the crazy works by Bernini and Borromini in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Sant'Ivo, Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, San Carlino or Sant'Agnese in Agone or their "secular" commissions such as the stair-cases of the Barberini Palace, the Ponte Sant'Angelo (leading to the castle, and a visit to it would also be de rigeur) or the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Explore any church on your way, you will probably see a Baroque masterpiece in every one! It is here that the Counter-Reformation started after all. It might not be Baroque, but make sure to see the Caravaggios scattered through the city: Sant'Agostino, San Luigi dei Francesi, Santa Maria del Popolo. They are a must-see and it may sound banal, but it is a transcendental experience to see the works of a great master.

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If you want to escape ancient ruins or Baroque works there is also the dreamy Renaissance option, the greatest art mankind ever produced, visiting the churches of the Medieval mendicant orders of Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans, take a relaxed stroll through the most central area of Rome, starting with the Franciscan Santa Maria in Aracoeli, near the Capitoline Hill, built on the site of Augustus' house, where he received the famous vision. The church hosts the Bufalini Chapel, with the famous Pinturicchio frescoes representing the life of Saint Bernardino. Another chapel on the opposite aisle hosts a fresco of Saint Anthony of Padua by Benozzo Gozzoli, follower of Fra Angelico who decorated the Magi Chapel in Florence. In the counter-façade is also one of the greatest tombs by Andrea Bregno, with fine sculptures of Saints Peter, Paul, Michael and Francis. The ideal Renaissance tomb. Nearby is a tombstone by Donatello. Not too far from that stands the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only remaining church in Rome with Gothic architecture, here is the splendid Carafa Chapel with frescoes by Florentine Filippino Lippi representing the Annunciation and the Assumption of Our Lady and the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In another chapel is the tomb of Fra Angelico himself, the altarpiece is a Madonna and Child by Benozzo Gozzoli. Tombs by Andrea Bregno and Mino da Fiesole, some with the original painted decorations, and Bregno's very tomb, are scattered through the church, find them all! The Annunciation chapel hosts the last works by the only Roman Renaissance artist Antoniazzo Romano, representing the Annunciation and with the good cardinal Torquemada (not the other one) donating alms to poor women that would have had to be prostitutes instead. Another chapel hosts the tomb of another Spanish cardinal with a fresco by a follower of Antoniazzo, Christ with angels. You can continue this tour by visiting the Augustinian Santa Maria del Popolo, famous for the Pintoricchio Della Rovere and Cybo chapels and choir frescoes, representing the life of the Virgin and saints, the Bregno sculptures and finally the Chigi Chapel designed and decorated by Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo. The tour could end with Santa Maria della Pace and Sant'Agostino, that host the only frescoes in a church outside the Vatican City by Raphael: the Sibyls and the prophet Isaiah. Sorry, I could not make this any shorter, but you know how much I love the Renaissance! Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Trinità dei Monti also offer a great "Mannerist alternative" to the previous places.

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Don't feel like having a plan? Just take a walk in central Rome and chances are you will find something amazing, why don't you take a tour of the city's fountains? You could start with the famous ones such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini, the Fontana del Tritone also by Bernini, the Barcaccia by Bernini, they're all located in the main piazzas. But after you have seen them there are plenty of other ones to see, from the smallest ones, such as the one in Piazza Lancellotti or the one in the Piazza of Sant'Andrea della Valle, that were located in the Piazza Montanara and Piazza Scossacavalli, demolished by Mussolini... A must-see is the Fontana delle Tartarughe, near the Jewish Ghetto, good photos are guaranteed and you will have a refreshing fun!

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This is the most important point, you must remember you are in Rome, you have to relax, wherever you are, stop and admire what's around you. Preferably, with a good gelato in your hand, always add panna, don't be a tourist! You might also have a great dish of pasta and don't say it will make you fat! It annoys us, if you will follow a strict Mediterranean diet it won't (supposedly) make you fat! Did I mention the wine? Yes the wine...

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Mary: why is she so important?

As many of you might have noticed I have a strong devotion to Our Lady, I already wrote down posts documenting her position in Anglican theology or about England as Mary’s dowry. This time I would like to go far back and write an article about the very basis of why Our Lady holds such a place of honour among all the saints.
We know that the figure of Mary held a place of high importance from the very beginning of the Church; the Apostles commemorated Mary with the highest praises as the first Fathers of the Church stated. During the first centuries, testimonies of Marian cult are rather common, especially in the forms of art found in the Roman catacombs: from scenes of Jesus’ life, like the Epiphany or the Annunciation, to devotional representations such as the famous Virgin and Child in the catacombs of Saint Priscilla or a Virgin between the Apostles Peter and Paul in the catacombs of Saint Marcellinus.

Early representation of the Virgin Mary in the Catacombs of St. Priscilla.

Commonly, it is thought that the early Christians overly praised the Virgin in rather heterodox ways, in fact this is not at all true, an early Father of the Church, Saint Ambrose, famously stated that Mary is the Temple of God and not the God of the Temple but still the Mother of all the virgins. The very first Father of the Church who wrote of the Virgin Mary was Saint Ignatius of Antioch who explained the humanity and divinity of Jesus as he was the fruit of the Virgin, descended by the line of David, but her conception was virginal and therefore a mystery of the silence of God. Like Saint Ignatius, Saint Justin holds a very similar point in his book “Dialogue with Trypho”, but he bases his reflections on the parallelism between Eve and Mary, a point that will inspire later theologians. St. Irenaeus, based on this point, puts the divine motherhood at the centre of his Christology, in which the human nature assumed by Christ in the womb, gives a redemptive value to his death, applicable to all men. Later during the 3rd century, the word “Theotókos” (Mother of God) comes into use, first applied by Origen, it becomes the title used for Mary in so many prayers of supplication, such as the Sub tuum presidium which is in fact the oldest known one. Among later theologians such as St. Ambrose or St. Augustine, the title “Mother of God” became widespread. The Divine Maternity of Mary became a dogma in 431 A.D. during the Council of Ephesus.
Marian devotion had already been shaped by then; as texts from theologians of the time show:

You are the vessel and tabernacle containing all mysteries. You know what the Patriarchs never knew; you have experienced what was never revealed to the Angels; you have heard what the Prophets never heard. In a word, all that was hidden from preceding generations was made known to you; even more, most of these wonders depended on you. (270 A.D., St. Gregory Thaumaturgus),

Blessed Virgin, immaculate and pure you are the sinless Mother of your Son, the mighty Lord of the universe. You are holy and inviolate, the hope of the hopeless and sinful; we sing your praises. We praise you as full of every grace, for you bore the God-Man. We all venerate you; we invoke you and implore your aid...Holy and immaculate Virgin...be our intercessor and advocate at the hour of death and judgment...you are holy in the sight of God, to Whom be honor and glory, majesty, and power forever. (373 AD, St. Ephem of Edessa).

It becomes you to be mindful of us, as you stand near Him Who granted you all graces, for you are the Mother of God and our Queen. Help us for the sake of the King, the Lord God Master Who was born of you. For this reason you are called 'full of Grace'... (373 St. Athanasius).

Blessed Virgin Mary, who can worthily repay you with praise and thanksgiving for having rescued a fallen world by your generous consent? ...accept then such poor thanks as we have to offer, unequal though they be to your merits. Receive our gratitude and obtain by your prayers the pardon of our sins. Take our prayers into the sanctuary of heaven and enable them to bring about our peace with God...Holy Mary, help the miserable, strengthen the discouraged, comfort the sorrowful, pray for your people, plead for the clergy, intercede for all women consecrated to God. May all who venerate you, feel now your help and protection. ...Make it your continual care to pray for the people of God, for you were blessed by God and were made worthy to bear the Redeemer of the world, who lives and reigns for ever. (St Augustine in 430 A.D. ).

The Three Holy Mothers in Santa Maria Antiqua.
During the time of Pope Sylvester, a Temple dedicated to Vesta, in the Roman Forum, was reconstructed and dedicated to Santa Maria Antiqua, also Bishop Alexander of Alexandria consecrated another early church dedicated to the Mother of God. It is also known, that Our Lady was being honoured with her Son, in the Church of the Nativity in Palestine since the era of the Emperor Constantine. The early liturgies, since the 3rd century, had special celebrations of the Eucharist that mentioned the name of Mary, especially at the Nativity, Epiphany, etc. and the Feast of the Most holy Virgin/Mother was soon instituted in 380 A.D. 

Renaissance Birth of the Virgin Mary by Ghirlandaio in Santa Maria Novella.

The main commemorations of the Virgin for Anglicans, most of which, except the Dormition/Assumption, are found in the Book of Common Prayer, are: the Purification (February 2), the Annunciation (March 25), the Visitation (July 2), the Falling Asleep/Assumption (August 15), the Nativity (September 8) and the Conception (December 8), the first two are primarily commemorations of our Lord. The Presentation of Christ to the Temple, also known as the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin represents the human nature of Christ being presented to His Eternal Father. The Festival, also called Candlemass, representing the light of Christ among the Gentile world as in the Nunc Dimittis. This commemoration is first found in the “Pilgrimage of Sylvia” at Jerusalem during the fourth century. The Annunciation commemorates the beginning of Christ’s incarnate life on earth and we remember that he took our nature in the Virgin’s womb as in the Creeds. This is well resumed in the second Article of Religion of the Church of England:

THE Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.


This festival is said to have been introduced in the West by Emperor Maurice in the 7th century, together with the Nativity and the Falling Asleep of the B.V. Mary. The Visitation of the B.V. Mary to her cousin, Saint Elizabeth, the Mother of the Baptist, is of extremely great importance, as this is when she spoke the words of the Magnificat, words of joy and exaltation given by her Lord. This feast was instituted by Pope Urban IV in A.D.1389 (and adopted in England in 1480). The commemoration of the departing of Mary from this life first appeared in the West at the same time of the introduction of the feasts of the Annunciation and Nativity of the B.V. Mary, it originates in the East about the year 600 A.D. The original title was the “Rest of the Theotókos”. The Falling Asleep of the Virgin or the Assumption are commemorated on this day, in both theologies which I explored in another article, the Virgin’s body is finally assumed into heaven. The Conception (Dec.8), together with the Nativity of our Lady (Sep.8), is of great importance. Both festivals appear to have originated in Syria during the 6th century, the first commemoration was centred on St.Anne, the ancestress of God, in the 7th century the festival became more defined and during the late Middle Ages it gained popular favour in most of the West, the modern feast appears to have originated in England, amongst the monks of Winchester, before the 11th century. The feast of the Birth of the B.V. Mary also originated in Syria and it was linked to the dedication of the Basilica of the Virgin’s Birth (now St. Anne’s Church) in Jerusalem. Later, the feast was widespread throughout the Byzantine Empire. This was a popular time for Marian devotion - specially after the Council of Ephesus. These two festivals place great importance and draw attention to the immediate preparation for the Incarnation of Christ - the Virgin’s close association as a saint with her Divine Son give her an undoubted right to special commemoration and to her virginal conception and indeed holy birth. Her birth was the coming of one through whose agency the Eternal Son would take our nature and reveal Himself to mankind.

Renaissance Falling Asleep of the Virgin by Filippo Lippi in Spoleto Cathedral.

During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the basis of Marian devotion, later shaped in the 17th century as we know it today, were laid. But why did Mary inspired our religion, the hearts of the faithful and even so much of our Christian art and music?
Why do we give Mary this important place though? Why do so many question us about Mary? Often degrading her as if Jesus would gain something from this. “Mary is dead and can’t help you”, etc. We do not worship Mary and we do not worship her as a goddess. We really just follow Scripture with the historical and divinely inspired interpretation of the wider Church. 
Often, the God of the Scripture chooses to work through a human, let us think of Moses, Jacob or Joseph, Isaiah or Elisha. The same happened with Our Lady, God sent Jesus Christ for our Salvation into the world through Mary, even though he could have come on his own! It shows great humility to appear through the form of the most humble and lowly creature of the time: Mary. If Jesus was obedient for her for about 30 years as a Son, shouldn’t we be too? Mary was indeed good enough for our Lord and he said to us: no servant is greater than His Master. Mary and God shared the same body for nine months and his Sacred blood and body which we receive every Sunday has been flowing in Mary’s veins as well. We do not worship Mary, we simply respect her Grace, as announced in the Scriptures, by the Archangel Gabriel: “Hail Mary”! The Queen of Heaven, the daughter of the Father, the bride of the Spirit and the Mother of Jesus is indeed worthy of our praise, but why so? What does Scripture say?
The Old Testament tells us of the virginal birth of Christ; in the Book of Genesis (3:15), God says I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. This is clearly a reference to the Messiah who will be born of a Virgin, in Isaiah (7:14) it is said that the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Annunciation by Simone Martini.

But why do we sometimes ask Mary’s intercessions during prayer? Where is that written! If we move on to the New Testament, in particular to the Gospel of St. Luke (1:26-28 we read that in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you! The Grace of God that filled her - in a special, transmissible way. Be it unto me, according to Thy Word - she received and accepted the mission of Salvation, brought by the Angel. In Luke 1:15 Mary sanctifies the greatest man, John the Baptist, while he is still in the womb: and when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:42 tells us that Mary’s fruit is blessed and so is she Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! A lowly maiden blessed by the blessed fruit (God) she is carrying, also in Luke 6:43-44: for no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The Gospels are never vague when they need not to be and Luke 1:43 affirms and confirms us that Mary is God’s Mother: and why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? and in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47), her joyful song of praise, Mary rejoices in the mission giver to her, a mission of Salvation, the mission of God’s testimony unto humanity: and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. The Magnificat continues with Mary’s understanding of her holy mission, of how God chose a lowly maiden to be the Blessed Mother of God, Luke 1:48 goes: for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed - a lowly maiden thankful for what God has done unto her (Luke 1:49): for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, also shared the suffering of her beloved child, yet God. In Luke 2:34-35: Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. And Mary was aware of the sacrifice of the Lamb, with great courage she begins this great path of love - a love for her Son the God, greater than her own maternal feelings (Luke 11:27-28): he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked! But he said, Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it! The greatest of saints was always subdued to God. These verses are at the foundation of the Hail Mary, the most famous of our devotional prayers to Mary, the Magnificat instead, which we always sing at Evensong, is a testimony of the joy of the announced God in the womb and Mary's mission here on earth and beyond.

Madonna of the Magnificat, Sandro Botticelli.

Since the early Middle Ages, Mary was seen as the intercessor to the mighty God, as we can see from so many frescoes and mosaics, she was seen as an understanding and more approaching way to the God of the Final Judgement. In the Scriptures Mary’s intercession with Jesus can be found in the Gospel of St. John (2:3-5): when the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you”. A rather moving testimony.
In the Gospel of St. John (19:26-27), in a rather dramatic passage, Jesus also instructs humanity to behold its Mother, Mary that will follow Christ into heaven, subdued to the same: when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. An analogue passage can be found in the Revelation (12:17): then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

Descend from the Cross, Rogier van der Weyden.

In late Medieval and Renaissance art, the Coronation of the Virgin, became a rather common subject for religious commissions - where does it originate from though? Again in the Scripture we can find references to Mary, the Mother in Heaven, in 1 Corinthians 6:17 but he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. It suggests of Mary being at the mighty presence of God in heaven. In the Book of Revelation (11:19-21), Mary is also seen as the New Ark of the Covenant, because as we know Jesus is the new Temple, the only messianic mission fulfilled in a different, yet real way than as expected in the Old Testament: then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Revelation (12:1) also confirms Mary’s assumption into heaven as Queen of Heaven: a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars - translated into art; it is a very common iconography if you think about it!
Mary also takes an incredible mission in Revelation (12:17), together with the army of angels and archangels she is the greatest warrior against Satan: then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

Coronation of the Virgin by Gentile da Fabriano.

In Rome, several churches were dedicated to Our Lady, the most notable example being the majestic St. Mary Major built in the 5th century, under Pope Sixtus III. Later, Marian veneration was particularly widespread among Benedictine monasteries, chants dedicated to the Virgin such as Ave Maris Stella and the Salve Regina started to emerge. In the 8th century the "Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary" became part of the Canonical hours. In France, the Carolingians were quite devoted to Mary; they celebrated various liturgical feasts throughout the year and dedicated churches in her honour. During the Romanesque period, great Marian churches such as Speyer Cathedral or Tournai Cathedral were built. Later, as Gothic architecture developed, even grander shrines were dedicated to her, a famous example being Our Lady of Chartres or Santa Maria Assunta in Siena. During the 12th and 13th centuries the growth of the cult of the Virgin was partly inspired by a large number of theological writings, such as those of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote of her virginity and humility or John Duns Scotus who defended the Immaculate Conception. By then, also large sanctuaries, such as Loreto or Walsingham, became part of the pilgrimage movement and attracted hundreds of people.

Our Lady appearing to St. Philip Neri - Sebastiano Conca - c.1740 - Oil on Canvas - Indianapolis Museum of Art.

By the 14th century the figure of Mary had become almost a compassionate intercessor, great art was being commissioned regarding Mary’s life, especially in Italy, a splendid example is the Annunciation by Simone Martini, an incredibly popular iconography at the time, during the Renaissance a dramatic growth in Marian art took places and depictions of the Virgin and Child, of whom Filippo Lippi’s ones are great examples or the many Coronations, Stories of the Life of the Virgin, etc. became extremely popular among the great patrons of the time. Another form of art during the Renaissance, music, also became a form of art to immortalise Mary’s testimony of fatih, notably through works by Palestrina or Victoria: the Salve Regina, Alma Redemptoris or the Missa de Beata Virgine. After the Counter-Reformation, popular Marian teachings such as the Conception or the Falling Asleep/Assumption became even more so. Also, a fruit of Baroque spirituality was Saint Ignatius of Loyola who instructed the Jesuits to preserve the shrine of the Madonna della Strada at their mother church of the Gesù in Rome, whereas Saint Philip Neri is credited with devoting the month of May to the Mother of God. In the 17th century, the Church of England saw a new beginning - Mary's feasts increased in the Book of Common Prayer and Anglican Divines such as Lancelot Andrewes, Thomas Ken and George Herbert wrote beautiful verses on the Virgin Mary.
Marian devotion evolved through the centuries, according to how the Holy Spirit inspired the Tradition of the Church - but the foundation are steady and strong; Hail Mary, Full of Grace!
I hope that this brief article summed Mary’s role, both passive and active in the history of God’s revelation unto humanity and why we should give her the honours as Mother of Jesus that she so deserves, the mission of Mother of God and Mother of all, given from the Most High.

Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi.

The great Cappadocian Father of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa wrote: What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for 'we no longer know Christ according to the flesh,' but He dwells in us spiritually and the Father takes up His abode with Him, the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each of us.
May God bless us all, with the prayers of Mary the Virgin.