Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There's no place like Duomo!

For starters, when I refer to the Duomo, I'm referring not to the justly-celebrated Dome of the Florence's Cathedral, but to the Cathedral itself. In other words, "Duomo" isn't Italian for "dome," but derives from the Latin "domus Dei," meaning "house of God." There are duomos throughout Italy, most of them without domes.

Florence's Duomo is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Holy Mary of the Flowers. No one calls it that, except tour guides, and only once. Although the Holy Virgin is revered throughout the city, she is not its patron saint. That honor belongs to Saint John the Baptist, whose principal place of worship is an octagonal baptistry dating back to at least the eighth century and situated directly opposite the Duomo's entrance. But there's more: the Cathedral of Florence was, from the fourth- to the thirteenth centuries, dedicated to an obscure woman martyr of Syrian origin, Saint Reparata. The remains of that basilica lie under the floor of the present-day Duomo, and in recent decades access has been created to that lower level. The ruins cover about a third the length of the current building. Santa Maria was built around Santa Reparata, which continued to serve as the cathedral until there was enough of a structure around it to permit its demolition - that is, for nearly eighty years after construction began! And St John's Baptistry was not, as it were, created out of nothing; it was built on the site of a Roman temple to, of all "people," Mars, the god of war!

Some have wondered, given their long history of civil strife, whether the Florentines ever did end their association with the war god. A couple of examples, both of which took place within the Duomo itself, will make the point. Those of you who have been reading this blog from the beginning of my stay here four weeks ago will recall Fra Girolamo Savonarola. The Prior of the Dominican brotherhood of San Marco, a few hundred yards north of the cathedral, he rose to fame - and power - as the Duomo's preacher. The Dominican Order was dedicated to and distinguished for preaching, and Savonarola was by all accounts a preacher's preacher. He was renowned throughout the region for his dramatic and soul-stirring sermons, in which he claimed for himself prophetic status and divine inspiration. It is estimated that at the height of his influence he preached to as many as 15,000 at a time! (That the Duomo can hold a crowd of that size is not hard to believe; it is the fourth largest church in the world. That a person could make himself heard by so many people without modern day amplification is a more challenging claim.) Of course, not everyone responded to his calls for repentance (or else!) in the same spirit. On one occasion, he arrived at the Duomo to discover the high wooden pulpit from which he commanded the attention of the city smeared all over with animal excrement and draped with a donkey's carcass, with nails driven into it at strategic areas in the hopes that he would injure himself while pounding to make a point, so to speak.

The other example is even more dramatic. On Easter Sunday, April 26, 1478, during the celebration of High Mass, in the presence of 10,000 fellow Florentines, a group determined to put an end to the de facto rule by the Medici family of what was supposedly the Republic of Florence, attacked two of its most illustrious members, Lorenzo "the Magnificent" and his younger brother Giuliano. Lorenzo escaped into the sacristy, the room where the clergy vest for the services, with serious but non-fatal injuries. Giuliano was less fortunate. He was stabbed 19 times by a gang that included at least one priest who'd participated in the Mass, and bled to death within a few feet of the Holy Altar. The Medicis and their supporters quickly gained control, and within the hour arrested the visiting Archbishop of Pisa, one of the principal ringleaders of the plot. By the end of the day his naked body hung from the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, the fortress-like center of government not far from the Duomo. What a way to spend Easter!

Of course, Florence's Duomo isn't the only House of God that has witnessed ungodly violence perpetrated within its walls; think of what the Great Church of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople suffered at hands first of the Crusaders and later of the Ottomans. Which brings me, by an admittedly roundabout way, to what I wanted to talk about in the first place: a holy relic of Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, which is neither in Constantinople nor at the Vatican, but right here in Florence, in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo.

Let's connect the dots: St John was, not unlike Savonarola, a preacher's preacher. He is remembered throughout the Christian world, east and west, as The Preacher par excellence. Savonarola no doubt learned from his much-studied sermons, as did Martin Luthor shortly after him, how to direct people's attention from vain pursuits to the pursuit of the genuinely Christian life. Chrysostom, however, didn't resort to the kind of spiritual violence that characterized Savonarola's preaching at its worst. He did not so much breathe out fire and brimstone as he did entice with a language described by his contemporaries and all subsequent generations as golden in both style and content. Like the Florentine, however, he was no respecter of persons, and his denunciation of immorality was directed against the mighty as well as the man on the street. As punishment for his attacks that hit too close to the Imperial Palace for its occupants' comfort, he fell asleep in the Lord in the year 407, at the age of 53, while in exile, dying of exhaustion en route from one village to another in the Armenian mountains far distant from his patriarchal see. (Although he actually reposed on September 14, so that the commemoration of his memory would not be overshadowed by the celebration of the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross which was came to be celebrated four centuries later on that same date, his feastday was transferred to November 13.) Thirty years after his death, in the year 438, his sacred remains were brought back from exile to Constantinople and laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Peace of God (Haghia Eirene). The transfer - or in the language of the Church, "translation" - of the saint's relics from Armenia to Haghia Sophia is commemorated annually on January 27. He was to remain at rest there for nearly eight centuries thereafter.

In 1204, Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders from Western Europe, who established Latin control over the City that was to last for the next half century. During that time, churches and mansions throughout the City were ruthlessly stripped of their treasures, many of which were delivered to Venice and Rome. Holy relics were particularly prized, and the tombs of saints were everywhere plundered. The relics of two of the greatest men to ever associated with the City, Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory the Theologian, were among those taken to Rome. Four years ago this month, on November 30, the Feast of St Andrew the First-Called Apostle, elder brother of the Apostle Peter and Patron Saint of the Church of Constantinople, Pope John Paul II directed the return of a large part of these sacred relics of these two saints to Constantinople. One of the last acts of his Papacy, this was a demonstration of John Paul's longing for and commitment to the reconciliation of the Churches of Rome and the Orthodox East. Some relics were retained at the Vatican, and some had already been distributed to other churches throughout the west. Among the relics of St John which did not return was his holy skull, which had been presented centuries ago as a Papal gift to the Duomo of Florence. (I'm still looking into this, but I wouldn't be the tiniest bit surprised if the gifting Pope turned out to be one of the Medicis.)

Yesterday morning, by arrangement of Fr Nikolaos Papadopoulos, the priest of the local Greek Orthodox Church of St Iakovos the Apostle and Brother of the Lord, I was granted an opportunity to venerate this holy relic. Fr Nikos has lived here for nearly ten years now and is well known and well liked by the clergy of the Cathedral, of which there are about 20. (I'll have more to say about relations between the Roman Catholics and Orthodox here in a future post.) One of his closest friends is Archdeacon Allesandro, one of whose responsibilities appears to be Guardian of the Relics. He was more than happy to spend an hour with me yesterday, taking me to chapels and crypts off limits to tourists. His historical knowledge of the Catholic Church, the Cathedral (and other churches) of Florence, and of the city itself, is profound and impressive. He has traced his family's Florentine association back to the sixteenth century; prior to that, his people were associated with nearby Sienna. By Florentine satndards, that makes him kind of a newbie. (One of the complaints against the Medicis was that they assumed to much authority too soon after appearing on the scene; they'd only been here about a century before they presumed to get involved with local government. The nerve of some people!) The Archdeacon is a mild-mannered, unassuming fifty-year old, who treated me with gthe utmost respect. The skull of St John is kept throughout the year under the altar table in one of several chapels at the eastern end of the Cathedral. The chapel, which is to the left of the High Altar and faces north, is dedicated to the Saint, and a Mass is offered on the altar there every morning. The relics of several saints are visible there at all times, through the latticework that surrounds the altar. The Archdeacon was good enough to bring the reliquary out from under the altar so that I could venerate it. He also allowed me to take a few photographs. I thank God that I'm able to offer these images to you for your own veneration on www.flickr.com/photos/bishopsavas .

1 comment:

christinameares said...

Your Grace, wow. I wish your sabbatical had taken place before this last Pilgrimage! I don't think I was even aware that St. John Chrysostom's skull sat within the Duomo. Your VIP tour sounded incredible.