Thursday, February 22, 2018

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Throughout my pilgrimage to Italy, I visited and sometimes attended mass in multiple churches per day. Therefore it's difficult for me to pinpoint my exact feelings upon entering any given church. Though I had a plan to combat the overwhelm - I would usually enter each consecrated structure intending to first let its beauty penetrate me, to pray, or visit a certain relic or what have you. Then I would spend my next round about the church documenting as much as I could. I knew my brain wouldn't retain so much detail or information. I finally have a moment to place everything I captured into one place with some of my thoughts. This post will be the first among many of my tour through some of the holiest places in my home away from home; Italy. 

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major stands out not only because it was two blocks away from my apartment, nor because it was the first place I visited after arriving in Rome, but because its community was thriving and of course because it supposedly holds pieces of the manger Jesus was kept in after he was born.

The original structure was erected in the time before Mary's ascension, but little of it remains. The construction atop the original monument, the one that you see here, began in 435 AD and continues today. It seems to have an odd mix of baroque and Greek influence, almost as if Saint Peter's Basilica and the Cathedral in Monreale were smashed together to make an explosion of golden mosaics and painstakingly ornate flourishes.

One of the many panels found directly overhead puzzled together like stars on the ceiling. The seal seems to depict a papal or bishop's seal, likely a pope due to the crown (a bishop's seal has a different little hat), but the ox image is usually attributed to Saint Luke, who wasn't a pope. Each bishop and pope has a unique coat of arms so this likely could have been a pope influenced by Luke, who is the patron saint of artists. He was an iconographer himself, so based on this information I can imagine this pope's focus throughout his service was toward the arts. This is just speculation, as I can't find who this exact seal belongs to.

This stained glass piece near the narthex of the church seems to be very modern. I don't know an extensive amount about the upkeep of stained glass, but through my travels and observations, I've noticed stained glass is usually the first to go. This is generally due to weather, moisture, vandalism, even sunlight, and of course thanks to the fragile nature of glass. Even fairly new, expensive pieces in the US tend to deteriorate quickly, although their construction is sometimes questionable as many intended "permanent" structures in the US are. The choice of this piece displayed in such a place seems to be quite the contrast, but that also tends to favor the church's theme of not being married to one particular style. A theory I have is that this piece was most likely fairly affordable to acquire - despite many misconceptions a church's manifestation and maintenance are sustained through major debts to creditors and the donations of its parishioners. Most parishes are millions of dollar in debt, although I imagine Rome is a bit better off due to tourism and a more populous diocese, but of course with a heftier bill. As you'll see later, this basilica has a tremendous amount of ongoing upkeep so this window may have been low on the list of priorities, the "original" (ie older, more salvageable) pieces and structures were most likely at the top of the list. It would make sense to hire an artist to create a new original piece, rather than hire a master of ancient reproductions to recreate an original or repair a rotting piece. This is very common in ancient churches. The juxtaposition of modern and affordable is stark against the ancient and irreplaceable. Many try their best to preserve as much of their original beauties as possible.

This is one of those moments you find you can't analyze anything. Its dense detail and symbolism is something that swallows you. This is an area closed off temporarily due to restoration, so I didn't pay very close attention to its intended message, but it's most definitely an additional side chapel, dedicated to its patroness, the woman above all men, above all humankind; the Queen of Heaven. The dedication to her is apparent -- she dwarfs the apostles scrambling to write the gospels below her.

I find this statue of the Madonna and child very intriguing. Usually, the virgin is portrayed as somber, awesome, serene... this almost seems defiant and conflicted, yet accepting. This to me seems much more human than usual matronly depictions of Mary. Here is a position of veneration while at the same time a position of plea and acceptance. Many of us can understand the sorrowful Mary, weeping at the feet of the brutally crucified Jesus. A natural reaction to universally heartbreaking circumstances. Portraying the complexities of being handed a God-child is not easy, yet is done here with the utmost subtly somehow, giving us a possible complete picture of who Mary was at the time of her rearing God. Her child seems to hold what may be grapes, happily extending them to the viewer, possibly signifying the coming and willing sacrifice of his blood for his people as wine. Mary's position is extended in surrender and almost an anger toward the heavens and possibly even to the cross awaiting their fate. This is so similar to Jesus' moment of weakness and humanity in the garden when he pleads with God to let this cup pass him if he wills it, knowing full well he does not will it. There's so much to unpack in this sculpture that I don't think I could possibly begin to cover here.

This place definitely seems to be a hub for community activity which felt so homey. Confessions were open in several different languages (my husband shown confessing to an English speaking priest above). Many groups of people came from all walks of life to learn about our practices, following priests and lay people; listening to them speak about every aspect of the church philosophically, historically, and scientifically. And dozens of folks like me, taking it all in quietly snapping hundreds of photos and paying respects. I've never seen so much happening in a church at once - usually, just one of those activities are reserved for a specific time. 

Another fun aspect of the basilica is the ongoing renovations. This created an interesting juxtaposition of baroque madness with sterile, industrial giants. I actually really love how this looks. Not permanently of course. For anyone else, I see how it can take something away from your moment, but I appreciate getting a glimpse at the amount of work it requires to keep these public spaces glittering. The process of making art usually isn't pretty, after all.

And finally, the main event. This is the reliquary holding the fragments of wood from the manger. Catholics are not required to worship or accept relics, in a sense. In fact, many don't, but the proper veneration of relics and the belief in their reality are required of Catholics. We are not necessarily required to believe in the authenticity of any particular relic that is set before us. This doesn't deter the church's quest to authenticate and preserve various items of importance to history. Even still, the history of most relics is better preserved than that of most historical objects and the evidence for their authenticity is highly compelling. Many relics can be traced back to saints hiding historical artifacts when Catholicism was illegal in its beginning. The reliquaries that hold these pieces are of course much newer, but can also be traced back to specific artisans, regions, and communities after relics were distributed throughout the world as aids for worship. For example, I currently care for a relic of the cross. It's made up of three pieces: the tiny cross fragment, authenticated by a bishop from a time I'm still trying to research, a small pectoral cross reliquary made in France a few hundred years ago, and then the entirety of those two pieces are kept in a large standing cross made in southwestern Germany a couple hundred years, then kept in a convent until its closure. I don't know the lineage of this specific relic, as in how it was saved, who cared for it before it was housed in this reliquary, who made the reliquary, or how this basilica came by it. I still need to do research on these but sometimes records are extensive and can take some time to find and comb through. I'm sure the basilica keeps the lineage of this relic in safe keeping. Again, we are not required to believe, but it's fun and nice if it helps one's faith. You'd be surprised at what people have found over the centuries that have yet to be disproven, so you never know.

One final fun thought... While visiting this church I found myself getting confused about the word manger. In English, this is the only word we have that's anything like this. I don't know what its root it, but I'm assuming it's Latin since many romantic languages possess permutations of the word "mange". In Italy and France, mangi and manger are terms for eating. The fact that Jesus was kept in something labeled in some languages as something to eat is interesting because until about the 1520s, all Christiandom believed that you truly ingest the body and blood of Jesus in fulfillment of the Passover feast at every mass. Catholics and Orthodox Christians still believe this, but I'm not entirely sure of the etymology I'm speculating is true or not. It was just a funny thought I had during my visit - as I kept hearing the word "manger", a word I rarely hear in the US unless it's near Christmas, thinking that people were just mispronouncing a French word.

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