Duomo Florence Italy
The Duomo, Milan, Italy
The Duomo, Milan, Italy
I find myself drawn to historical books (and some not so historical) about saints, pilgrimages, the Medici clan, Leonardo da Vinci and the Catholic Church. All throughout Italy there are beautiful small churches, grand duomos, magnificent basilicas, filled with beautiful earth shattering art and sculptures. When I was in high school I had to take an art appreciation class as a freshman and I hated it. Pictures in a book. However, when I went to Italy and saw the real McCoy I wanted to know more. Who were the painters, the sculptors, the saints? What did it all mean? In the churches I had known, there might be a small cross, maybe a statue of Mary, or stained glass windows of Jesus as a shepherd with baby lambs. Church buildings looked to be a gymnasium. You get the picture. The Italian church soared into an azure sky, the pink marble glistened in the sun, the saints peered down at you. In Italy the fresco scenes were filled with gnashing of bodies or cherub angels floating across an Italian landscape. Sometimes both in the same scene. The detail and brilliance of color and depth in the scenes of people in deep distress or in a trance beyond words was captivating. There were armored men going on crusade urging their followers forward. A woman standing steadfast while holding the bloody head of a man in her gnarly strong hand. The man triumphant over the defeated slain dragon. The pictures became real. The pictures told stories. You didn’t even have to know the story, you got the message. No matter what language you spoke, words weren’t necessary. The frescoes and paintings said it all. Passion. Faith.
The Duomo, Milan, Italy
And I wanted to know more about those bones. Those pieces of bodies and what they were there for. I think the first relic (term for holy bits and pieces of people or their clothing) I remember and payed any attention to, was inside a tiny glass window lit up in an alcove in a small exit way leaving a church. It was a hand. I thought well that is odd and went up closer to take a better look. It was a real shriveled up cut off hand. I wasn’t sure what to do. I looked around me. Do you act like you didn’t see it? Ho hum that’s nice. Do you drop to your knees and pray? Why was that there? I was taken back. I had to know more. So I decided to read up on it. Hence, I started reading that………
During the early years of the church, the body parts of holy people were highly prized and sought after for their healing powers, and brought fame and followers to any church that presented these body parts or even the clothing these people wore. Remember the man touching Jesus’ clothing and being healed? So rich patrons and crusaders scoured the holy lands and returned with their riches to put them on display in their local churches. Or perhaps a holy person died and was buried on the spot. Believers came to this site to pray. A church was built. More people came. The believing flock became the first tourists. In those days the only reason to leave home was to go to war or go on pilgrimage. Sometimes a penance of traveling to a particular holy place to pray, repent and receive forgiveness was given to the sinner. The penitent had a lot of time along the way to think things over. The road was not easy. Some would be killed along the way and would never return to their homeland. The Holy Land was too far for most. Rome was a good choice, centrally located, and the Way of St James or the Camino de Santiago through France and Spain was best for others. Most of the people could not read or write. Story telling frescoes, awe inspiring churches rising to the heavens to meet God and the bodies of saints brought the people to the churches. My adventures to following the saints in books began with………
A Stolen Tongue by Sheri Holman, documents the travels and travails through the journals of Father Felix Fabri to find his spiritual mate Saint Katherine of Alexandria. Her broken body parts are scattered in several churches and have gone missing. He carries her dried up tongue in a pouch around his neck. He needs to find her. Need I say more? Who would not want to know what happens along his path? I was hooked.
Over the years I have read The Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Holidays; the Catholic Origins of Celebration by Greg Tobin, Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Anything by Michael P. Foley, Catholicism for Dummies by John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and just about every book written about the Way of St James or El Camino de Santiago. I have studied the saints……. and their
Magnificent Corpses. This book written by Anneli Rufus is a travel book with a difference. It encourages you to seek unheard of places contemplating on life and relics of life and what we regard as holy. Anneli focuses not only on the saints, but on the people who come to see them. She follows fifteen of the saints through Italy. So what does this all mean? If you build it and believe it, they will come. And we do. Abundantly.
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy