Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

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

Early Renaissance representation of the Nativity by Gentile da Fabriano.

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

Botticelli's Nativity at the National Gallery.

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

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

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