Question: What connects this tumbledown church, which my wife and I stumbled across during a multi-day hike we did this summer in the Wachau region of Austria
and this train station in London, well known to all those who take Eurail to go to London?
Answer: Their names: they are both called Saint Pancras.
I must say, when we came across that half-ruined church and discovered its name my curiosity was piqued. I mean, Pancras is a funny name, no? I’ve never met anyone face-to-face called Pancras, I’ve never even heard of someone called Pancras. And those websites which will breathlessly list you famous persons having a certain name all came up blank for Pancras. I had only ever heard the name due to the station, and that only because it’s right next to King’s Cross Station, which I used a lot at a certain moment of my life. And I only remember the name because of its close similarity to the name of that organ we all have and whose precise purpose I have never really understood. Yet here were two places some 1,500 km apart with the same name. Yes, my curiosity was piqued, I had to investigate – “Google it!”, as my son always says. And I am now ready to report.
First of all, who was this Saint Pancras? Well, he was an obscure fellow about whom relatively little is known. Like Saint Blaise, another obscure fellow whom I have written about in an earlier post, he was born in what is now central Turkey some time in the 3rd Century. When still a boy and after his parents died, he moved to Rome to be with his guardian. There, again like Saint Blaise, he was caught up in one of the periodic persecutions against Christians, in this case by the Emperor Diocletian. It seems that he and his guardian were giving shelter to Christians and as a result he (and presumably his guardian, but he disappears from the story) were arrested. Pancras was 14. Here, the story gets fanciful. His hagiographer claims that Pancras was hauled in front of the Emperor himself, that the two had a long discussion during which Pancras impressed the Emperor with his youth and determination. Finally, annoyed (enraged, says the hagiographer) by the teenager’s refusal to refute his Christianity, he ordered Pancras’s execution. Pancras was promptly dragged off and beheaded. I find it hard to believe that the Emperor ever bothered to speak to this unknown youth; in fact, as one of the commentators diplomatically put it, it would have been very difficult for him to do so since he was not actually in Rome in the year that Pancras was beheaded. Whatever actually happened, it seems that Pancras was buried along the Via Aureliana.
For reasons that are just as obscure to me as the details of his life, his grave became a hub of pilgrimage and supposed miracles. Pope Symmachus built a basilica over the grave in 500 AD, a basilica that was expanded and much remodeled over the centuries. A church still stands on the spot (a church which, I must admit, I have never visited; perhaps the next time I’m in the Eternal City …).
If things had remained there, Pancras might have ended up as simply a minor regional saint. But for reasons which are yet again obscure to me Saint Gregory of Tours in France wrote in a famous book on Christian martyrs which was published in about 590 AD, that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon and would collapse and die. Well! In an age where oaths were taken incredibly seriously and where everyone believed in the existence of demons and Hell, this was equivalent to saying that Saint Pancras was a divine lie detector: who in their right minds would dare to lie if asked to take an oath on the saint’s tomb? An oath on Saint Pancras’s tomb was considered so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness’s testimony.
There was one slight problem: Saint Pancras’s tomb was in Rome and Rome was far away. No matter! In an age in which trade in the relics of saints flourished, relics of Saint Pancras were considered just as potent. There was therefore a huge and urgent demand from all over Western Christendom for relics of Saint Pancras to be sent to them. The Romans were not slow to oblige, and soon relics purported to be of Saint Pancras were on their way to every corner of Western Europe. As one source I read commented: “The whole body of the Saint was apparently in at least twenty churches; the head, in at least ten cities. As for the individual bones, they were without number. Of course, only a small part of these relics could be authentic .”
Of course, such potent relics needed to be housed appropriately! As a result, many a church was built and dedicated to Saint Pancras, with his relics enclosed in the main altar. In great pomp and ceremony, swearers of oaths could be solemnly brought before the altar and required to take their oaths. In our more cynical age, we can smile at the credulity of our ancestors but I have to say if I had been around in the Middle Ages and had been required to take an oath before the relics of Saint Pancras I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lied. Who wants to spend eternity in Hell, even if you are being asked to swear that you didn’t kill someone?
It wasn’t just churches who owned relics. Rich aristocrats also had their collections of relics, housed in richly made reliquaries like this one.
I have absolutely no basis for making the following claim, but I would like to believe that one of the most famous of all oaths taken during the Middle Ages, that taken by Harold Godwinson in Normandy in 1064 before Duke William, was taken on relics of Saint Pancras. For readers who are not familiar with this story, let me quickly summarize the salient points. In 1064, the-then king of England, Edward the Confessor, was clearly nearing the end of his life and didn’t have a son to succeed him. Various regional powers were jockeying to get into position to take the crown on Edward’s death. One of these was Duke William of Normandy, who was related to Edward, although in a rather indirect way. Another was Harold Godwinson, head of the most powerful family in England. For reasons which are not entirely clear, Harold went to Normandy (some say he was actually on his way to France but got shipwrecked on the Normandy coast). Duke William promptly laid hands on him and held him prisoner, although he went through the motions of treating him as a valued guest. Harold’s “stay” ended with him swearing an oath on a series of relics. The Bayeux tapestry captures this moment.
Quite what he swore is not clear. William claimed that Harold swore fealty to him and agreed that he would support him to be king. Consequently, he cried foul when Edward died and Harold took the throne. Harold retorted that he had been made to take the oath under duress and therefore (whatever it was that he was made to promise) it was not valid. William took this “betrayal” as an excuse to legitimize his invasion of England. We all know how that finished. The two armies met at Hastings, Harold took an arrow in the eye and died, and his army collapsed. Again, this key moment in English history was caught in the Bayeux tapestry.
We’ll never know what oath Harold really took. As they say, history is written by the victors. But coming back to the relics that Harold took his oath on, it certainly seemed to have been important enough to have warranted the use of Saint Pancras’s relics. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson believed that they were of Saint Pancras. In his verse-drama “Harold,” when it comes to the moment of the oath he has William exclaim:
“Lay thou thy hand upon this golden pall!
Behold the jewel of St. Pancratius
Woven into the gold. Swear thou on this!”
Continuing in the obscurity department, when the Church hierarchy got around to assigning saints to all the days in the year, something which they seemed to have done quite early on, they assigned St. Pancras to 12th May. Why St. Pancras got 12th May is completely mysterious to me. In any event, 12th May was already St. Pancras day in 896 AD, when the Holy Roman Emperor Arnulf of Carinthia conquered Rome. Arnulf belonged to that delightful period of European history when everyone had fantastic names, something I have noted in an earlier post about Saint Radegund (itself a wonderful name). His father was called Carloman, his mother Liutswind, his son Zwentibold. He deposed Charles the Fat as Holy Roman Emperor and took his place, he was saving Pope Formosus from the clutches of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude when he conquered Rome. And on and on: there are literally dozens more such colourful names attached to Arnulf’s life and times.
But I digress. Arnulf attributed his success in conquering Rome to the intercession of that day’s saint, that is to say Saint Pancras. This made Saint Pancras even more popular than he already was in the German lands, and could well explain in a roundabout way why my wife and I came across this dilapidated church in the Wachau dedicated to him.
The fact that May 12th is Saint Pancras’s day meant that for centuries he also played an important role in the agricultural calendar of large swathes of Europe, from Lombardy and Liguria as well as Slovenia and Croatia in the south to Sweden and Poland in the north, from Belgium and France to the west to Hungary in the east. He, St. Mamertus (May 11th), St. Servatius (May 13th), and St. Boniface of Tarsus (May 14th) became collectively known as the Ice Saints, and Saint Sophia (May 15th) as Cold Sophy. They were so called because the middle days of May were believed to often bring a brief spell of colder weather, and there were warnings against sowing too early in case young crops were caught in a frost. These were translated into a series of colourful sayings, no doubt repeated around the hearth by the wise men (and perhaps wise women) of the village:
Pankraz, Servaz, Bonifaz
only make way for summer.
No summer before Boniface
No frost after Sophie.
You’re never safe from night frost
Until Sophie is over.
Servaz must be over
If you want to be safe from night frost.
Pankrazi, Servazi and Bonifazi are three frosty Bazi.
And finally, Cold Sophie is never missing.
Pankraz and Servaz are two bad brothers
What spring brought they destroy again.
Never plant before Cold Sophie.
Readers get the picture. Alas, science seems to disprove peasants’ belief that there was a tendency to a cold spell in that period. In fact, science has generally stopped us from giving any credence to saints. Which is generally a good thing. But it does mean that names like Pancras, Mamertus, Servatius, and Boniface have sunk into obscurity, so much so that when I came across a church dedicated to Pancras I scratched my head and muttered to myself “Who on earth was he?” Luckily there was Google to help me find the answer.
Oh, in case any readers are asking themselves why the railway station in London is called after St. Pancras, it seems that it was so called because the surrounding district was so called, and the district was so called because there was once in the vicinity a very ancient church dedicated to Saint Pancras. So there you are.
A little while back, I wrote a post about balsamic vinegar – a disapproving post, since I don’t like the stuff. But I used the post to confess to a hankering to make my own vinegar. I attribute this to the fact that my French grandmother made her own vinegar, down in that dark cellar of hers which I’ve had occasion to describe in an even earlier post. She used the local Beaujolais wine as her raw material, putting it in a miniature barrel and leaving it there to sour to vinegar. From time to time, she would send me down the cellar to replenish the dining room’s vinegar cruet. I tried making vinegar once, in our early years in Vienna, following the rather vague instructions I had been given by a colleague. As my wife and children will attest, it was a miserable failure. The resulting liquid had a strange taste and not much of that vinegary punch. Although I put a brave face on it and determinedly continued drizzling it on my salads until it was all gone, I half expected to keel over dead at any moment, poisoned by some mysterious fermentation product I had unknowingly created. So, as readers can imagine, my hankering to make vinegar remains.
It really shouldn’t be all that difficult, I keep saying to myself. Vinegar making has been around since at least Babylonian times and it’s been made just about everywhere in the world where there is a source of sugars (the route to vinegar being first a yeast-catalyzed fermentation of sugars to alcohol and then a bacterial-catalyzed fermentation of the alcohol so produced to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar its sour taste). In fact, it’s been truly fascinating to discover what people have made vinegar out of. Personally, I have always consumed vinegar made from grapes via wine, preferably red wine, although I’m intrigued to see that people are making vinegar with fortified wines like port, madeira, sherry, and marsala. In the Middle East, they even make vinegar with raisins (it’s famous in Turkish cuisine).
I’m also familiar with vinegars made from apples via cider and pears via perry, which have been commonly made in northern Europe. But actually just about every fruit known to man (and woman) has been used at some point to make vinegar. I just mention here the ones which intrigued me – or allowed me to create links to some of my earlier posts. The Babylonians used dates, which continue to be used for vinegar-making in the Middle East. The Israelis use pomegranates, testimony to an enduring relationship between this fruit and Judaism. The South Koreans use persimmon. The Chinese use jujube and wolfberry. The New Zealanders use kiwi fruits.
A couple of enterprising Italian and German companies even use tomato to make vinegar. I must say, I find this one strange. I know that tomato is technically a fruit, but I just can’t imagine a vinegar made from it. I would really like to try it one day, to see what it tastes like (as I would like to try tomato oil extracted from the seeds).
Sort of linked to fruit-based vinegar is honey vinegar made via the production of mead. It’s made in a couple of countries in Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Romania), although it’s not all that common.
Grains of one sort or another are also used to make vinegar (an extra step is needed here, to turn the starches in the grain into sugars). This kind of vinegar is made primarily in East Asia, where rice, wheat, millet or sorghum (or a mix of these) are used. many of these vinegars are black, but there are red and white rice vinegars too.
The East Asians have been making vinegar for a very long time. Already two and a half thousand years ago, royal and noble households in China’s Zhou dynasty had a professional vinegar maker on their staff. Perhaps there were also professional vinegar tasters. Such tasters certainly became metaphors for the three main religions in China, leading to a very common depiction (the one I insert here is actually Japanese, from the Edo period, but I rather like the style).
The three men dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, leaders of China’s three main religions. The expression on the men’s faces represents the predominant attitude of each religion. Confucius reacts with a sour expression – Confucianism sees life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. Buddha reacts with a bitter expression – Buddhism sees life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires. Laozhi reacts with a sweet expression – Taoism sees life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. I leave it to my readers to work out who is who in the painting I’ve inserted, based on their expressions.
But coming back to vinegar from grains, Europe also has its grain-based vinegars. For instance, the British have been making vinegar from malted barley for ever and a day. In my youth, no self-respecting fish-and-chip shop was without a bottle of malt vinegar which patrons could use to drown their fish and chips in – I cannot deny that I did this in my wild and foolish youth.
A series of vinegars which I find quite intriguing are made in South-East Asia and to some degree South Asia, from the sweet sap of various types of palms: coconut, nipa, and kaong palms (and to a lesser degree buri palms; so lesser I wasn’t able to find a picture of it).
The Philippines is the big producer and user; I read that Malaysia and Indonesia are smaller markets because the palm sap must first be transformed into an alcoholic beverage, something which is forbidden in these Muslim countries. Perhaps. But then why is Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Muslim countries, a big producer of date vinegar?
The Philippines is also a big user of sugar cane vinegar. Well, it certainly makes sense to make vinegar from the mother of all sugar sources.
I would imagine that all sugar-cane growing countries make vinegar that way. Brazil certainly does. I wonder if anyone makes vinegar from beetroots? (as opposed to pickling beetroots in vinegar) An odd vinegar that I suppose can be classified as a sugar-based vinegar is kombucha vinegar. Kombucha is a Mongolian drink. It is made by fermenting sugary tea with a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This yucky slimy mat will ferment the sugar in your tea to alcohol and start fermenting the alcohol to acetic acid. Normally, you drink the fermented tea before too much acetic acid is produced, but if you let the SCOBY carry on its work all the alcohol will be turned into acetic acid and you will have a vinegar.
I find it intriguing that in all the articles on vinegars which I’ve read, there is no mention of traditional vinegars being made in Africa or the Americas (as opposed to them copying vinegars originally made in Europe). Neither continent lacks traditional alcoholic beverages. The Africans made them (and to some degree continue to make them) from fermented honey water, fermented fruits, fermented sap of various species of palm (as well as a species of bamboo), fermented milk, as well as from grains and other starch sources. As for the Americas, alcoholic beverages existed in at least Mesoamerica. There, the common alcoholic beverages were pulque, which was made out of fermented agave sap, chicha, which was a kind of maize-based beer, and fermented drinks made out of cacao beans and sometimes honey. I cannot believe that these drinks didn’t sometimes get inoculated with acetic-acid making bacteria and turn into vinegar. And I cannot believe that the Africans and Amerindians didn’t figure out ways to use this vinegar, as people everywhere else did. At a minimum, they surely would have discovered – as did everyone else – that vinegar can be used to pickle food and so extend its useful life, a vitally important discovery for societies in the days before refrigeration. If any of my readers are from Africa or the Americas and have information on this point, I would be glad to hear from them.
It’s not only the making of vinegar which I find interesting, it’s also how it’s used. But here one could write a book! (and in fact a quick whip around the internet shows me that several people already have) Since I’ve already written a couple of posts, on mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, showing how vinegar can be used to make condiments, I reckon I’ve covered the use of vinegar as a condiment on food. I have also mentioned pickling in several posts, in my post on capers for instance, so I will skip the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. I will instead explore its use as a drink, for the simple reason that at first sight I find it rather incredible that anyone would ever want to drink vinegar. I certainly never have; the closest I have got to it is gargling once with vinegar when I had a sore throat, and even then I spat it out; I wasn’t going to swallow it. But people have drunk vinegar, and continue to do so.
The trick, of course, is to dilute it. Roman legionaries did this the simplest way, by just adding water (and maybe some herbs). This drink was known as posca and was drunk during military campaigns, as a thirst-quencher. There was a popular saying about posca: posca fortem, vinum ebrium facit – posca gives you strength, wine makes you drunk. No doubt these legionaries on Trajan’s column in Rome made heavy use of posca during their campaigns.
Interestingly enough, soldiers at the very other end of the Eurasian continent, the samurai in Japan, also believed in the restorative effects of drinking vinegar, in this case rice vinegar. They drank it (whether straight or diluted, I do not know) to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.
By the way, this business of posca being a drink of Roman legionaries gives quite a different slant to one of the stories in the narrative of the Crucifixion of Christ. All four Gospels say that as Jesus hung, dying, on the cross, someone put vinegar on a stick and held it to his lips to drink. Luke is the only one who says explicitly that it was one of the soldiers on guard at the crucifixion; the others say “one of the people there” or simply “they”. But it would have had to be one of the soldiers, no-one else would have been allowed to get that close. In the three synoptic Gospels, this simple gesture was turned into a gesture of mockery. John, on the other hand, has a more credible line. Jesus said “I thirst” and he was given vinegar. So now I see here a gesture of simple humanity on the part of the soldiers. They had a job to do, to crucify Jesus and the two robbers. But that didn’t stop them from trying to alleviate just a little the agony of being crucified by offering Jesus some posca for his thirst. It’s a moment in the Crucifixion story that has not often been painted, but here is a fresco by Fra Angelico.
The next step up in efforts to make vinegar drinkable is to mix the vinegar with something sweet. Here, too, the Romans had a popular drink, called mustum. It was a mix of low-quality must, fresh from the press, and vinegar. The must sweetened the vinegar, the vinegar clarified the turbid must (a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).
For their part, the Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar with honey and water to make a drink called oxymel. The beverage passed into European Medieval and Renaissance medicine as a medicament, and indeed the internet is full of articles promoting the health benefits of oxymel as well as bottles of the stuff. Here is a typical example.
But the Ancient Greeks simply drank it for enjoyment. The Iranians still do. They have a drink called sekanjabin, which is a mix of vinegar and honey, to which mint leaves are often added. Apparently, a side order of fresh, crisp lettuce is a must.
It’s an ancient drink, quaffed by Iranians when they were still called Persians. Perhaps the richest and most powerful Persians drank their sekanjabin from magnificent cups like this one (my wife and I saw similar cups in a wonderful museum near Kyoto).
It wasn’t just the Ancients who drank sweetened, diluted vinegar. Under the name of shrubs, drinks like these were drunk quite often until relatively recently in Europe and North America. It was only the rise of carbonated drinks that killed them off, and now they are a bit of a recherché drink. I suspect there is currently a bit of a comeback because apple cider vinegar is being touted widely for its supposed health benefits. As the Ancients had discovered, it’s easier to drink vinegar when it’s been sweetened. Here is one example of the current commercial offer of shrubs.
For those who, like the Iranians, want to make their own drinks, shrubs are made by simply mixing honey water or sugar water with a small amount of vinegar. Or they can be made by soaking fruit in vinegar for several days, sieving off the solid part, and adding a lot of sugar.
For those readers who, like I was, are puzzled by the name “shrubs”, allow me to explain the etymology. It is actually a corruption of the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink”. The Arabic version of this drink hails back to the use of vinegar as a pickling agent. In cases where fruit was pickled, the vinegar drew out the taste from the fruit during the pickling. So once the pickled fruit had been consumed, people would drink the fruity vinegar – after adding water to dilute it.
I must say, I thoroughly approve of this reuse of the pickling liquid. I have been telling my wife for some time now that we should find something to do with the pickling liquid left over after we’ve eaten pickled gherkins or onions or even olives. So far, she has ignored me, pouring the pickling liquid down the drain. Perhaps I can get her to reconsider if I argue that we can turn the liquids into some kind of shrub. Of course, our pickling liquids are salty rather than sweet, but no fear, I have a solution to this! In order to explain it I have to introduce another set of soldiers, the Spartans this time.
The Roman legionaries had posca, the Spartan soldiers had melas zomos, a black brothy soup (or perhaps black soupy broth). Made of boiled pigs’ trotters, blood, salt, and vinegar, it was an integral part of their diet. We could make melas zomos! Our various spent pickling liquids could give the salt and vinegar, we would just need to find the blood and the pigs’ trotters. Of course, if we still lived in China, we wouldn’t have any problems finding these (I remember several times eating a delicious Chinese dish of pigs’ trotters in a restaurant around the corner from our place in Beijing, and I’m sure we could have found blood if we’d looked for it). But in Europe, as I’ve related elsewhere, we’ve become more fastidious about the meat products we eat, so finding these ingredients might be a problem.
Of course, even if we could find the ingredients and made the soup, would it be yummy? Well, I can only report here a comment made by a citizen of Sybaris, an Ancient Greek city located on the coast of what is now Puglia (but which has since disappeared, alas), which I’ve mentioned in passing in an earlier post. After tasting a bowl of melas zomos, this man declared disgustedly, “Now I do perceive why it is that Spartan soldiers encounter death so joyfully; dead men require no longer to eat; black broth is no longer a necessity.” Now, given that the citizens of Sybaris were famous for their luxury and gluttony (so famous that they gave us theword “sybarite”), this confrontation of polar opposites is perhaps merely an Ancient urban legend. However, it is true that the Spartans gave us the word “spartan”, which suggests that yumminess in their soldiers’ food was not necessarily high in the order of priorities of the Spartan army’s high command. The idea was to give them strength, to beat the shit out of, say, those weakling Persians who drank sekanjabin, as we saw so thrillingly in the film 300 – the Spartans in that film must have been stuffed full of melas zomos.
Luckily, if we weren’t able to find pigs’ trotters and blood (and if I wasn’t able to persuade my wife to eat the soup, a highly probable outcome since she doesn’t much like these kinds of meat products), a quick whip around the Internet has shown me that many vinegar-containing soup recipes exist which involve perfectly ordinary ingredients like vegetables (I suspect that the craze for apple cider vinegar and its purported health properties has struck again; how to find pleasant ways to ingest apple cider vinegar). I can bring to bear my skills in making soups from left-overs and find a yummy way of recycling our pickling liquids into soups. Watch this space!
This second mention of mine of apple cider vinegar makes me think that before I finish I must just touch upon the supposed medicinal benefits of vinegar. In Europe at least, this love affair with vinegar-as-medicine has been going on since the Ancient Greeks; the current touting of apple cider vinegar is merely the latest iteration in a very ancient tradition. I do not propose to go through all the health benefits that are claimed for vinegar. In this time where we are living through a modern plague, Covid-19, I will only mention vinegar’s use during the bubonic plagues that regularly swept through Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For some reason, people felt that vinegar would keep the terrible distemper at bay, so anyone who came into contact with people sick with plague, or with the bodies of people who had died of it, would wash their hands in vinegar, or put towels soaked in vinegar around their heads, or cover their mouths with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, or gargle with vinegar. It was mostly doctors or nurses who did this, as well as the poor bastards (many of them convicts) who had to load the bodies onto the carts to take them to the cemeteries. I throw in here a picture from the Italian book I Promessi Sposi by Alssandro Manzoni, which takes place during an outbreak of the plague in Milan. We see the men loading up the dead bodies onto the cart.
My wife will no doubt be thrilled to bits to see this reference to I Promessi Sposi, a book which was a Must Read for all schoolchildren of her generation. In a sillier vein, I also throw in a still from the Monty Python film The Holy Grail, where a man is trying to get rid of his old father who isn’t dead.
Anyway, it’s not clear if this use of vinegar helped at all – it indubitably has disinfectant properties, but would they have been enough to kill Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague? At some point, people began to add herbs to the vinegar to increase its plague-killing power. Eventually, these vinegar concoctions got a name, Four Thieves vinegar, as well as a legend to go with the name. The legend goes like this: Four of the poor bastards picking up the dead bodies, who also happened to be thieves (it was a “profession” which tended to attract the criminal classes), hit upon a herb mixture which kept them safe. They therefore began robbing the houses they entered with impunity. Caught and threatened with horrible punishment, they offered to give up their secret recipe in exchange for leniency. The judge promptly accepted. Here is a recipe that was posted on the walls of Marseilles, site of the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe in 1720:
“Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express, then bottle.”
Here is a 17th Century bottle of this stuff.
And here is a modern version of the stuff, using apple cider vinegar (and with a different bunch of herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, clove)
Hey, you never know, it might help keep Covid-19 at bay, although the producers are careful not to claim this. Soak your face mask in the stuff before putting it on.
In these days of Covid-19, when the rules here in Italy forbid us from traveling from one region of the country to another, my wife and I have been cut off from the usual hikes we do at this time of the year along the sea in Liguria. We’ve had to make do with hikes in Lombardy, which in practice has meant hiking along the edges of Lake Como. Not that we’re complaining (too much), it’s a beautiful part of the world to be hiking in. Anyway, a week or so ago, my wife and I decided to retrace our steps along one of the segments of the Wayfarer’s Trail which we had first attempted back in January (for any readers who are interested, I mention our hikes along the Wayfarer’s Trail in an earlier post). Towards the end of the walk we passed through a small village called Corenno Plinio, which lies just north of a somewhat larger village by the name of Dervio, where we were planning to catch the train to go back home.
The last time we passed through Corenno Plinio, back in January, the light had been failing and we were in a hurry to get to Dervio station before dark. So we had ignored the village’s sights and pressed on. And quite some sights there are, to whit a castle from the 14th Century, a little church from the late 12th-early 13th Century attached to the castle, plus the winding cobbled streets of what was once a Medieval village huddling under the castle’s protective walls. This time, with the days being considerably longer, we decided to take a little break when we hit Corenno Plinio and at least visit the church.
For such a little church, it was quite a treat. Before we even went inside, there were three funerary monuments, dating from the 13th and 14th Centuries, to inspect. Readers can see two of them in the photo above. As for the interior of the church, there were some charming frescoes from the 14th Centuries on both walls of the nave. I particularly liked this Adoration of the Wise Men.
Opposite the Wise Men was a fresco with Saints Gotthard (he of the Gotthard Pass in the Alps) and Apollonia.
I’ve mentioned Saint Gotthard in an earlier post, but I had never come across Saint Apollonia before. For those of my readers who are not up to speed on their Christian martyrology, Saint Apollonia was one of a group of virgin martyrs from Alexandria who was caught up in a riot by the Alexandrian mob against Christians in the early 200s AD. In her case, the mob pulled out her teeth. This explains that mean-looking fellow who is shoving a large pair of pliers into the her mouth (she is, by the way, the patroness of dentistry, which I find highly appropriate; I feel just like that painting every time I sit in my dentist’s chair).
Further along the same wall, there was this line of apostles. I rather liked their piercing gaze.
The only one I recognized was the one holding the knife. That’s Saint Bartholomew, who met with a particularly hideous end by being flayed alive (readers who are interested in knowing more can read my post on him).
And then, next to the apostles, there was this bishop.
It is St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain on 29 December 1170 in his cathedral. In fact, I discovered, my wife and I were in the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury.
Well! It gave me a little turn to find a church dedicated to this oh, so English saint on the shores of Lake Como. I had learned about him in my history classes many, many years ago in primary school. At University I had read T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Honour of God, plays which both explored his tortuous relationship with his king, Henry II. It seemed such an English story. Why would the Italians be interested in Thomas Becket?
For any of my readers who might not know his story, it is quickly told. Born into a London merchant family, Thomas rose to become Chancellor to Henry II. He served the king faithfully, but more than that, he and the king were genuinely friends. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry had the bright idea of putting Thomas up for the post. He thought Thomas would enthusiastically implement his agenda of strengthening royal powers at the expense of the Church’s. Henry felt – with some merit, I would say – that the Church was too powerful and independent: a state within a state, as it were. But the moment Thomas became Archbishop, he became a zealous defender of the Church’s independence and prerogatives. Not surprisingly, Henry was outraged and relations between the two men soured rapidly, to the point where Thomas finally fled England and sought the protection of the French king. For six long years thereafter, the two men brought to bear against each other all the punitive measures in their power short of violence. Finally a peace, or rather an armed truce, was negotiated and Thomas came back to England. But just before he landed, he excommunicated three bishops for reasons which are not completely apparent. When Henry heard the news, he flew into a towering rage and is said to have cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Actually, he is more likely to have shouted, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”, which I feel sounds rather better. In any event, four knights (who play a major role in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) interpreted this royal outburst as an invitation if not an order to act. They immediately saddled up and left for Canterbury.
When they arrived, they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral before entering to challenge Thomas, who was on his way to Vespers. They demanded that he submit to the king’s will and come with them to Winchester to give an account of his actions. Thomas of course refused. The knights then rushed out, grabbed their weapons, and rushed back inside, shouting “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?!”. When they found him, one knight grabbed him and tried to pull him outside, but Thomas held fast to a pillar. One eyewitness, who was wounded in the attack, wrote this about what happened next: “…the impious knight… suddenly set upon him and shaved off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God… Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third, the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow… his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church… The fifth – not a knight but a cleric who had entered with the knights… placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, “We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again!””
Well!! That is a most satisfyingly dramatic end to a story of a Medieval bromance gone terribly, horribly wrong.
It may have been a very English story (although in truth the French were a good deal involved, as was the papacy), but this hideous murder, in a cathedral of all places, of the highest prelate in the land of all people, apparently on the orders of a king of all things, sent shock waves around Europe. Not only was it a damned good yarn, to be declaimed to a rapt audience around the evening fire, but it contained – for Medieval Europeans steeped in Christianity – the elements of sacrilege: murder in the holiest of places, of Christ’s highest representative in England. A delicious shiver of horror must have travelled up every Medieval European spine when the spines’ owners heard the tale, and many signs of the cross must have been rapidly made and prayers breathlessly uttered to keep the devil at bay.
The fallout was immediate and immense. Almost overnight, the spot where Thomas was murdered became a place of pilgrimage. The Church made the most of it and had Thomas canonized in the record time of two and a bit years. The murderers fled to safety in Yorkshire, but eventually gave themselves up and submitted to a heavy penance. As for Henry, like any modern politician he tried to distance himself from the whole affair and urged everyone to move on, but like all modern electorates no-one really believed him and didn’t want to move on. So he made peace with the Pope, swearing to go on a crusade (a promise he never kept), and scaling back some of his more anti-Church policies. And he bought off the Becket family by making Thomas’s sister the abbess of a rich nunnery. But it wasn’t enough. When his three surviving sons, Geoffrey, Richard the Lionheart, and John Lacklands, along with his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, rebelled against him, Henry found the rebels were supported by many people who were still shocked by the murder of Thomas. Henry’s difficult relations with his wife and sons is recounted in the play Lion in Winter – I show here Christopher Walken in the first production of the play in 1966 (for no better reason than my wife is a great fan of Walken).
So Henry decided that more extreme measures were required. In 1174, four and a half years after Thomas’s murder, he went to Canterbury, publicly confessed his sins, and then received five blows from a rod from each bishop present, and three blows from each of the 80 monks of Canterbury Cathedral (that seems an awful lot of blows, but I’m sure they went easy on him; I mean, how hard would you hit a king?). Then Henry offered gifts to Thomas’s shrine and spent a night at vigil at his tomb (which is where Anouihl’s Honour of God starts).
In the rest of Europe, scores of churches were dedicated to the now Saint Thomas of Canterbury, the little church in Corenno Plinio being one of them, and some wonderful artwork was created recording scenes of his life and death. In truth, his death seems to have excited artists (and no doubt their patrons) much more than his life. That seems perfectly in keeping with an age which enjoyed seeing paintings of St. Apollonia having her teeth pulled out and St. Bartholomew being flayed alive. In any case, let me run through a selection of these artworks, starting from the moment Thomas was consecrated archbishop.
This panel, of alabaster, was made in the second half of the 15th Century and was originally brightly painted. Many such panels were produced in England – the country was famous for them – and exported all around Europe.
Here, in a contemporary manuscript, we have Thomas now arguing with Henry.
In this other manuscript from the 1220s, the relationship between the two men has completely broken down and Thomas is excommunicating some of the king’s men.
This second alabaster panel shows the moment when peace was made and Thomas finally came back to England.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Thomas’s murder in the cathedral, in full technicolor.
From a psalter made in East Anglia in the mid-thirteenth century:
A fresco from the late 12th century in the Church of Saints John and Paul, in Spoleto, Italy.
From a reliquary, also of the late 12th Century, decorated with champlevé enamel. It was made in Limoges, France, which was a centre for this kind of work in Europe (I mention another wonderful piece of enamel work, this time made in the north of France, in an earlier post).
Finally, we have Thomas, now St. Thomas, joining the pantheon of saints in heaven, in a mosaic from the late 12th Century in the apse of the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (a church which I have mentioned at some length in a previous post). This is a wide view of a rows of saints on the apse’s wall – Thomas is the one in green to the right of the window.
Here is a closer view of him, in the company of Saint Sylvester.
Once all the fuss died down, what happened? I think the fashion of dedicating churches to Thomas died away, but Canterbury became a high place of European pilgrimage, rather like Compostella in Spain is today. I’m sure there were many people who went on pilgrimages for religious reasons. But I’m sure there were just as many who went for the fun of it – Medieval Europe’s equivalent to our mass tourism of today. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, supports this. It follows a party of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. To pass the time, they regale each other with stories. Some are religious. Most are not. And they are hilarious.
Then, another king came along, another Henry, Henry VIII this time. Another king who believed that the church should be a servant of the State, who broke with Rome and “nationalised” English Christianity. As readers might imagine, he didn’t care for Thomas Becket. In 1540, he had Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral destroyed and he ordered that what was left of his bones were to be destroyed. He then had all mention of his name obliterated.
Now, all that is left in Canterbury Cathedral is this sculpture and a stone set in the floor where he was killed, bearing his name.
And there still are, scattered across Europe, churches like the one in Corenno Plinio dedicated to him and some wonderful artwork in these churches or in museums celebrating his life – and death.
My phone gave a ping this morning. It was to remind me that the head of Saint Peter of Verona would be on view today in the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.
Like in those movies which start by jumping right into a scene that leaves the viewer confused and then write “24 hours earlier …” at the bottom of the screen, I must now write that in order for readers to understand this cryptic statement we need to go back some three months, to the month of January (a blessed time when we were still free to walk around and go wherever we wanted). My wife and I had gone down to the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (a mere 15 minutes’ walk from our apartment) to visit its small museum, something which we had never done (I should note in passing that Sant’Eustorgio is one of Milan’s oldest churches, having been established in the 4th Century. One day, I might devote a post to it). In any event, the centrepiece of the museum is the Portinari chapel. It was built in Renaissance style in the 1460s, by Michelozzo, or possibly Filarete, or maybe Guiniforte Solari. As readers can see, there is a considerable degree of doubt on the question. What is not in doubt is who paid. That was Pigello Portinari, who made his money as the Medici Bank’s representative in Milan. He had it built as a family chapel cum mortuary, as well as a place to house one of the relics of St. Peter of Verona, his head (more on this later).
We see here an exterior view of the chapel.
Anyone who has visited Milan will see a certain resemblance with the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses Leonardo’s Last Supper.
But the chapel’s real interest lies in its interior. There are lots of things to admire, but two things stood out for me. One is the interior decoration of the dome, by Vincenzo Foppa.
The rainbow effect, I suppose meant to denote the ineffable beauty of heaven, is really striking. It reminds me of a fresco by Bergognone in another Milanese church, San Simpliciano, which I came across quite by chance one day (an adventure which I relate in an earlier post).
The other stand-out in the chapel is the sepulchure of St. Peter of Verona, by Giovanni di Balduccio, a Pisan sculptor, said to have learned his trade under Giovanni Pisano. He was brought to Milan to sculpt this sepulchure in the later 1330s, some 80 years after the saint’s death.
It’s a very complex sculpture, full of meanings and theological allusions, as befits a religious sculpture of the Middle Ages. I do not propose to elucidate any of the meanings or allusions, because I want to focus on what I found most enchanting about the sculpture, the bas reliefs around the centre of sepulchure, three of which we see in the photo.
These tell the story of the saint’s miracles, his death, funeral, and canonization. They are gems of storytelling. I’m sorely tempted to insert photos of all the bas reliefs, but I will control myself and only insert four.
Starting with his miracles, we have first the healing of the dumb man: a fairly mainstream depiction, with everyone looking holy.
Then we have the miracle of the boat. I presume there was a storm and the saint’s intercession was invoked. Look at the man scurrying up the mast and the fear on sailors’ faces.
Then we have the saint’s murder, in a forest near Seveso: look at the monk running away on the left while the assassin plunges the knife in.
Finally, we have the saint’s canonization by Pope Innocent IV: look at the two grooms at the bottom holding the horses. I can almost hear one saying the other, “how long are they going to go on in there?”
Saint Peter of Verona is one of my favourite saints, iconographically speaking (as I’ve noted in an earlier post). He was killed by having his skull split open with a sabre and having a dagger plunged into his chest. This led to a whole string of paintings over the centuries like this one by Guercino.
I know it’s puerile but I find it hilarious to see these paintings with the man solemnly standing there with a sabre stuck in his head.
In any event, a strange thing happened when the saint was eventually buried in Giovanni di Balduccio’s sepulchure: the head got separated from the rest of the body. One explanation put forward is that Giovanni got the saint’s measurements wrong and made the sepulchure too short. His head was therefore taken off, and the the-then Archbishop of Milan, one of the large Visconti tribe, decided to take it. Another simply has it that the Archbishop wanted to have a piece of the saint near him and comandeered the head – which was probably considered the holiest piece because of that vicious sabre slash. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the saint’s head ended up with the Archbishop, in a nice urn. But then, the story goes, the Archbishop started suffering terrible headaches, and finally realised that he was being punished for keeping Saint Peter’s head separated from the rest of his body. He returned the head to Sant’Eustorgio and hey presto! his headaches disappeared.
Readers can imagine that this story rapidly turned Saint Peter into the saint to be invoked by those who suffer from headaches. Thus started the tradition of bringing the head out once a year, on the last Sunday of April, from the little side-chapel of the Portinari chapel in which it is stored away, and allowing people to come up and touch the casket in which it is kept.
Well, this is very interesting to me! I have to tell readers that I have suffered from headaches since the age of 14. When I was young they could be very strong, now they are just a nuisance. Of course, I’m a firm believer in modern science! But still, you never know, perhaps a little touch of the saint’s casket could help …(rather like those crossed candles at the throat to protect one from sore throats on St. Blaise’s feast day). So, since today is the last Sunday in April this year, I had been hoping to take part in this ancient ritual. Thus, the reminder which I had put in my calendar way back in January. But it is not to be, Covid-19 has once again screwed up plans.
My wife and I recently accompanied our son on a short business trip he was making to a small place to the north of Milan, near Lake Maggiore. He was going there to look over a company. We went along to share the driving and visit the local area. The company he was visiting happened to be very close to the point where a few weeks previously we had given up a walk in the area (the one where we had stumbled across several very lovely varieties of mushrooms), so we decided that we would use the occasion to visit what would have been the end point of our walk had we finished it.
That end point was the village of Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Orta. This is a small lake, the most westward of that series of lakes which form a necklace at the base of the Alps, between Verona to the east and Novara to the west. Readers with good eyes will see Lake Orta, marked with a red pin, to the far left on the map below.
Once we had deposited our son at the gates of the company he was visiting, we set off to Orta San Giulio. It was not, truth be told, the best day to visit anything: it was grey and drizzly, the kind of day that in my mind will be forever linked to the UK. But that didn’t stop us appreciating the scene that unfolded before our eyes as we arrived at the lake’s southernmost tip and took the road which hugged its eastern coast. My wife and I took no photos during our little tour, and the lake under the rain seems to have no fans among the legions of persons who post photos on the internet, so I can only describe to readers what we saw.
As we wound our way along the coast, with the wipers sweeping regularly across the windscreen, the trees covering the slopes which fell steeply into the lake’s waters – trees vested in their brown and reds of late autumn – began to give way to large estates with equally steep but more manicured grounds, the kinds of estates which I associate with the late 19th Century. Out on the water, dimly at first but ever more visible as we got closer to the village of Orta San Giulio, we discerned through the drizzle an island, the Isola San Giulio. The road began to climb to the top of the ridge of the peninsula along whose outer edge Orta San Giulio is built. Once we reached the top, we turned off the main road and made our way down to the village itself, passing as we did other, smaller estates climbing the side of the hill. When the road reached the water’s edge, it turned cobbled and narrowed into a single lane. We found a place to park and continued on foot, huddling under our umbrellas. Apart from a cat or two, we had the place to ourselves. Soon we were walking between rows of old houses on both sides of the street and only got an occasional glimpse of the lake down a side alley. But all at once, we entered the village’s main square, Piazza Motta, and there had a full view, across the square’s wet and windswept flagstones, of the lake and Isola San Giulio hovering on its waters in the middle distance. We could now make out the buildings on the island, in particular a Romanesque campanile on the water’s edge and a big hulking building, looking in all respects like an army barracks, which dominated the island’s centre point. We admired the view, looked curiously at an old hotel, now very much worse for wear, which occupied one whole side of the square, noted the street at the back of the square which, the signposts informed us, took one up to the Sacro Monte d’Orta, the Sacred Mountain of Orta, and then headed back to the car. It was time to go and pick up our son, and anyway it really was too wet and cold to explore any further. “For another time!” we promised each other. Maybe this Spring; there is a train we can take from Novara to Orta San Giulio.
In the meantime, though, I feel I must give my readers some idea of what we saw, or perhaps more accurately what we might be seeing when we come back in better weather. As is my habit, I’ve also been mugging up on the lake’s history and so can use this occasion to tell my wife – faithful reader of my posts – and any other interested readers about what I’ve learned.
So here is a photo album which I’ve cobbled together with other people’s pictures posted on the internet.
This is what the lake looks like on a good day from its south end, the end that we first saw it from.
Isola San Giulio is visible, along with a few houses of Orta San Giulio to the right. The pre-Alps rise up in the background.
As we turned off the main road down to Orta San Giulio, we passed this frothy building.
It is Villa Crespi. It was commissioned in 1879 by a wealthy cotton merchant by the name of Cristoforo Crespi and built in the Moorish Revival style. I suppose it is a somewhat outlandish example of what was happening around all of northern Italy’s lakes during that period: rich (or enriched) industrialists and bourgeois joined the aristocracy in building summer homes on the lakes. The same phenomenon certainly happened on Lakes Como and Maggiore (we see those villas every time we walk around those two lakes) and no doubt on Lake Garda (which still awaits a visit from us). Quite frankly, this particular building reminds me of some of the cinemas which dotted British cities when I was young, but at least this one continues to serve a decent purpose: it is a luxury hotel and home to the restaurant of one Antonino Cannavacciuolo (a well-known chef on Italian TV, I have read).
Certainly Lake Orta must have been a popular playground for the wealthier classes of the late 19th Century. It hosted the first ever European Rowing Championship in 1893 (rowing in Italy being considered a very aristocratic sport) and various national rowing championships thereafter, as this poster of 1909 attests (for an event, readers will note, “under the patronage of HM the King” [of Italy, of course]).
What happened in the following decades is a classic example of how not to manage a lake – but we will get to that later.
This was the narrow street we walked down after parking the car: Via Giovanetti.
It was pleasant to walk along under the rain; it looks even more pleasant on a sunny day.
And this is the village’s main square, Piazza Motta.
I’m not an expert on real estate but it does seem strange to me that the old hotel we see across the square in the photo (called, rather prosaically, Hotel Orta) has not been snapped up by someone and refurbished. There cannot be many places which have this nice a view when one steps out of the lobby onto the street:
Down by the lakeside at the foot of the square one catches the boat to go over to the Isola San Giulio, which, as we get closer, will look like this,
while we leave Orta San Giulio literally in our wake.
I think a little bit of history is in order here, because Isola San Giuglio has always been at the centre of the lake’s story.
The island gets its name from St. Julius, a possibly legendary saint who is said to have christianized the area around the end of the 4th Century AD. It is narrated that Julius and his brother Julian were two Greeks who somehow made it to Italy and were instructed by Emperor Theodosius I to destroy pagan altars and sacred woods and to build Christian churches. Which they did with a vengeance. The little church which Julius built on the island is said to have been the hundredth – and last – church he built. There are the usual colourful stories of his doings like, for instance, this one: having decided that he would build his last church on the island but finding no-one willing to take him there he laid his mantle on the water and miraculously sailed over to the island. As a final aside on this saint, he made it to sainthood, but – rather unfairly, I think, since the two worked hand-in-hand in their proselytizing mission – his brother Julian did not.
In any event, the first little church was succeeded by a larger one built in the 6th Century, which itself was succeeded by an even larger one built in the 12th Century; it was later nominated a basilica. That is the building we see today (although it has been much remodelled inside, as we will see, and squeezed in between houses built in later centuries). It is its campanile which we noticed when we were standing in Piazza Motta that cold and rainy day gazing out towards the island.
The island’s religious vocation was always in conflict with its obvious military importance. As this map shows, Lake Orta was one of two natural passageways for anyone crossing the Alps at the Simplon Pass to get down into the Po River plain and all its riches – the other was along the shores of Lake Maggiore. The red pin shows the location of the Simplon Pass in the map.
Having crossed the Simplon, armies would march down (or peaceful merchant trains would lumber down) the valley of the River Ossola and then either go along Lake Maggiore or march up to Lake Orta and then pass through the valley at the other end. A Frankish army did that in 590 AD, marching into territory that was claimed by the Longobards. A Longobard Duke, Mimulfo by name, who was entrenched in the island, seems to have just let the Franks through. For this betrayal, the Longobard King Childebert had Mimulfo beheaded on the island. (A French Corps also crossed the Simplon in 1800, as part of Napoleon’s campaign in Italy; I have no idea which of the two routes they used to get to Milan)
The island was also a useful place to hole up if hostile armies were around. To this end, a castle was built there as early as the 900s AD, reconverting some of the church buildings to military use and generally constricting how the church and its buildings could be expanded. By then, the Longobards had been defeated by the Carolingian Franks and northern Italy had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperors were traditionally also Kings of Italy, and northern Italy was therefore impacted by Imperial policies and politics. Around the turn of the first millennium, a struggle started in northern Italy between the smaller noble houses, many of Longobard origin, and the larger noble houses and the bishops, who owed their positions and land to the Emperors. The smaller nobles wanted – not unsurprisingly – to have their own, local king, while the bigger nobles and bishops wanted to continue to be beholden to an Emperor far away on the other side of the Alps who left them to pretty much run the show as they wanted. In 945, at a time of Imperial weakness, the smaller nobles got the upper hand and elected one their own, Lothair, as King of Italy. He was quickly replaced by Berengar, whose family was powerful in the region around Lake Orta. By this time, the Empire was back on an even keel and, at the request of the Northern Italian bishops, the new Emperor Otto I sent his son Liudolf with a large army over the Alps to deal with this upstart. Berengar’s family split up and holed up in various castles which the family controlled. Berengar, together with one of his sons, chose the castle on Isola San Giuglio. There, he was besieged by Liudolf and eventually surrendered. For some reason, Liudolf let both Berengar and his son go free. They went off and holed up in another castle of theirs in Romagna. Several months later, Liudolf died, officially of a fever although it was whispered that Berengar’s people had got to him and poisoned him. With Liudolf’s death his army melted away, and Berengar came out of his castle in Romagna to proclaim himself King of Italy once more. More Italian bishops headed north over the Alps, besieging Otto to come personally to deal with Berengar. This he did in 961, but first he went to Rome to have the Pope proclaim him Emperor and then to Pavia to have himself proclaimed King of Italy. By 962 he was ready to deal with Berengar, who adopted the same strategy: split up the family and hole up in various castles, except that this time it was his wife Willa who got to be in the castle on Isola san Giuglio (together with the family treasure) while Berengar headed for the castle in Romagna. Otto decided to go after Willa and history repeated itself: a siege of several months of the castle on Isola San Giulio followed by its capitulation. Again, Willa was allowed to go free (but not the family treasure) and she joined her husband. This time, though, Otto made sure that the castle stayed under Imperial control. As for Berengar, he died four years later and none of his sons seem to have made any attempts to retake the throne. There was another revolt by the small nobles some 40 years later, when Berengar’s grand-nephew, Arduin, was proclaimed King of Italy, and Northern Italy was put through the same circus: The Emperor (this time Henry II) came over the Alps with a large army and put Arduin in his place; he went back to Germany with his army and Arduin came out of whatever castle he was hiding in and proclaimed himself King again; Henry II came back over the Alps with another large army and dealt with Arduin again, this time for good (without, though, putting him to death; I think the Longobard king Childebert had the right approach: off with their heads!) Italy was not to have an independent King again until Italian unification nearly 900 years later.
After that, Isola San Giulio seems to have been pivoted away from its martial use back to its religious vocation and the whole area became a bit of a rural backwater. Over the next two hundred years, the successive bishops of Novara maneuvered to gradually have the Emperor give over to them the southern part of the lake as a feudal principality, which they then ruled with what seems to have been distant benevolence for some five hundred years; the local notables were generally allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid the necessary tithes and taxes to the prince-bishop. I don’t know if the prince-bishops used any of these funds to make life better for the peoples of their little principality. They certainly did use some of their funds, as did pious pilgrims, to make the basilica ever more beautiful. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the church’s look was “modernized”, with the latest Baroque additions giving the inside of the basilica its current look, and frescoes were added on every available surface, with the later ones sometimes obliterating the earlier ones. We have here the “modern” frescoes in the vault and dome (the picture also shows the baroque “scarification”).
while here we have one of the earlier frescoes, which are now tucked away out of sight in the lateral aisles.
I have already made my feelings abundantly clear about baroque and later religious art in earlier posts, so I need hardly say that I prefer the earlier frescoes.
While all this religiosity was going on, life was not completely trouble-free in Isola San Giorgio and the surrounding principality. The end of the 15th, beginning of the 16th Centuries were agitated times in Italy and while this quiet corner of northern Italy was largely able to avoid the troubles, for a decade or so, 1520-30, the troubles came to it. In 1523, the plague broke out, in all likelihood brought to the area by refugees from Novara which had been sacked and pillaged by French troops fighting the Spaniards. But worse were the predations by the neighbouring lordlets, many of them from the Visconti family, who were attracted by the relative prosperity of the principality. Although officially the Duke of Milan was exhorting the lordlets to be good boys – these were church lands, after all – he probably unofficially supported them in their rapine, because he had his own quarrel with the Bishop of Novara over the ownership of this little principality: Novara and its province had come under Milanese dominion some two hundred years earlier. On some excuse, Orta San Giulio was sacked in 1524 by one Visconti lordlet and prisoners taken for ransom. In 1526 and ’27, the principality was forced by another Visconti lordlet to put up, for free, a company of Imperial soldiers. In 1528, the same Visconti lordlet decided to become Governor of the principality and moved into the castle on Isola San Giulio. When the locals besieged him there, a third Visconti lordlet came to his rescue and sacked Orta San Giulio a second time. In early 1529, a random Imperial army invaded the principality and demanded a huge payment to leave. The locals refused to pay and escaped to the island and the relative safety of its castle. After trying to take the castle a few times, the army gave up and left, sacking and pillaging as it went. A few months later, the third Visconti lordlet decided it was time to pillage some more and marched into the principality at the head of a band of soldiers. This time, the locals were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore”, as the saying goes; they were determined to resist. Grabbing what arms they had, they met the invaders and brought them to battle. The invaders made the classic mistake of thinking that these were just a bunch of peasants who would run away when the going got tough. But they didn’t; they fought like madmen. They were helped, it has to be said, by the marshy ground they had chosen, which meant that the invaders’ horsemen were neutralized. The result was that the Visconti lordlet and a good portion of his men were massacred. The other lordlets of the area took heed and desisted in their predations (probably aided by the fact that a general peace was finally brokered between the Great Powers fighting over Italy).
Thereafter, Isola San Giorgio and the rest of the principality slipped back into its state of feudal somnolence for another two hundred years. In 1735, Novara and its province were handed over by the Austrians to the House of Savoy. The-then Duke of Savoy (and King of Sardinia) Charles-Emmanuel III had no patience with quaint feudal relics in his lands like the Bishop of Novara’s principality around Lake Orta. Pressure was brought to bear and slowly, slowly the bishops divested themselves of their feudal rights to the principality in favour of the House of Savoy. By 1819, the deed was done: the principality was no more. It was just one more district in the lands of Piedmont and, after 1861, in the newly-unified kingdom of Italy.
As a sign of the changes, the remains of the castle on the island were dismantled completely in 1841 and in their place a huge seminary was built – it is that big blockhouse of a building which I thought were old army barracks. We have here an old postcard celebrating the seminarists.
The seminary is no more; it lasted a little less than a hundred years. But the religious vocation of the island continues. The basilica and seminary have been handed over to a congregation of Benedictine nuns – we have one here going through the rite of becoming a Bride of Christ.
The nuns have an interesting vocation. They study and translate ancient texts, and restore ancient fabrics and tapestries.
It is time to go back to Orta San Giulio and take that street at the back of Piazza Motta which we had noticed that cold and drizzly day, and which carries one up past this church to the Sacred Mountain of Orta.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is one of a number of Sacred Mountains which were created in the late 16th, early 17th Centuries in Northern Italy. They were very much promoted by San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (whose very large nose I have mentioned in an earlier post). The original idea was to create places of pilgrimage which could stand in for the Medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which was becoming harder and harder for pilgrims to reach. For San Carlo Borromeo, the Sacred Mountains were also to be a way to teach the little people, who had not had the benefit of an education, in an easily understandable way such mysteries as the Trinity but also the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and great saints. To this end, the Sacred Mountains were made up of a series of chapels containing life-sized models in terracotta, backed up by frescoes on the chapel walls, each telling a story in a holy person’s life or making a point about some tricky theological concept: little theatrical pieces, if you will. I have mentioned the use of art to teach illiterate people about religion in an earlier post. With the growth of Protestantism, the Sacred Mountains took on a third purpose, that of combating these horrible heresies. That no doubt explains why there are so many Sacred Mountains in Northern Italy, where they were created as bulwarks against the tide of Protestantism that could be washing over the Alps at any minute. In fact, the Sacred Mountain of Orta is part of nine such Sacred Mountains in northern Italy which are now inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. In September, my wife and I visited another of these nine sites, at Varallo in Piedmont (where, coincidentally, we were once again accompanying our son on one of his business trips). I mentioned another of these sites, at Varese, in an earlier post I wrote about the fondness of religions around the world for sacrilizing mountains.
The Sacred Mountain of Orta is dedicated to the life of St. Francis, which pleases me no end since he must be my favourite saint, as I have mentioned in an earlier post. There are 20 chapels, laid out in a wooded landscape.
I don’t propose to show readers photos of them all. Just two can give readers a sense of what would await them were they to visit this Sacred Mountain (or any of the other Sacred Mountains for that matter).
I hope these scenes are in better shape than the ones we saw at Varallo, which were really rather tatty. Luckily, they were in the midst of being restored when we visited.
You get beautiful views over the lake from the Sacro Monte.
As you gaze down on this sunny scene, it’s hard to believe that a mere thirty years ago the lake was dead. Everything in it had been killed off by industries which were discharging their crap into the lake, turning it into the most acidic lake in the world. It started back in 1927, when the German company Bemberg, which was making rayon fibre using the cuprammonium process, set itself up on the lakeside. The plant’s copper and ammonium discharges quickly acidified the lake, killing all life in it in about two years. Bemberg made limp efforts to control the discharges, which did begin to finally show noticeable reductions in the late 1950s. But by then Bemberg had been joined by a host of small plants making metal consumer products; two of these companies, incidentally, went on to become global brands: Bialetti and Alessi.
Many of these plants included electroplating in their processes (that Alessi kettle is heavily chromed, for instance) and consequently toxic heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, copper and nickel were added to the filthy mix being discharged into the lake. As if that weren’t enough, the acidic waters of the lake released aluminium from the natural and normally harmless imissions of aluminosilicate into the lake, adding yet another toxic metal to the stew. Things only got better when the legislators eventually banged their fist on the table and passed Italy’s first water protection law in 1976 (the Legge Merli; I know it well, I referred to it countless times when as an environmental consultant I would tell Italian companies they needed to control their water discharges). Suddenly, companies which had claimed for years that it was impossible to control their discharges and remain in business found – surprise, surprise – that actually it was possible to control them and stay in business. But it took more than just forcing companies to properly control their discharges to get the lake’s pH back to normal. A massive liming operation was required, where calcium carbonate was added to the lake. A boat was specially made for the purpose. Lime was first sprayed on the surface.
But that wasn’t enough. Lime had to be injected deep into the lake, below the thermocline. It took twenty years to restore what had taken a mere two to destroy. The lake is now more or less OK: “fishable, swimmable”, in the catchy phrase of the US’s first water protection law, although the planctonic populations are not quite right yet.
Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, I leave my readers. Maybe some of them will make it to Lake Orta one day. My wife and I certainly will, when Spring comes rolling round again.
I had never heard of this particular saint until my wife and I came to this part of the world, but once here we saw him repeatedly, not only in Austria but also in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, and in Hungary (and Wikipedia informs me that we could come across statues of his in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and even further afield). Here is a photo of a typical statue of him.
This particular photo comes from a web site devoted to statues. The site has listed a little over 200 photos of statues of John of Nepomuk, mostly from the catholic lands of Central Europe but with a smattering from elsewhere, which gives some idea of the saint’s popularity in this part of Europe. The photo shows a “typical” statue of John: bearded, clothed as a priest, wearing the priest’s three-peaked biretta, holding a cross, and with a halo of five stars around his head (what is also often found, but is missing from this particular statue, is a martyr’s palm). The statues are often found on bridges or close to them, for reasons which will become clear in a moment. They often look lost and forlorn, engulfed by modern expansions of what were once little villages.
I suppose John of Nepomuk really came into focus for me when, relatively soon after our move to Vienna, my wife and I decided to visit Prague with the children. As anyone who has been to that city knows, no visit is complete without a crossing of the Charles Bridge.
The most striking thing about the bridge (apart from the fine views it affords of both the old and the less old parts of the city) is the thirty or so statues which line both parapets.
For the most part, they are of various saints who presumably were important to the city – or to the donors who paid for them. One of them – actually, the oldest of them all – is a statue of St. John of Nepomuk.
The reasons why some of the other saints got a privileged position on the bridge may not be entirely clear, but in John’s case it is crystal clear. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic (and, before the Czech Republic existed, of Bohemia). As if that weren’t enough he was killed by being thrown off this very same bridge, which was nearing the end of its construction when he was summarily tipped over the parapet.
Well! It’s not every day that you stand on the very same spot (more or less) from which a saint was dispatched to his death. And such an interesting death! I don’t want to sound too morbid, but the way he was killed – according to my guide-book, sewn into a goatskin bag before being heaved into the river below – was considerably more quirky than most run-of-the mill deaths of saints I’ve come across. Thoroughly intrigued, I began asking myself what John of Nepomuk had done to deserve being declared a saint (being killed isn’t enough, otherwise we would have millions if not billions of saints).
After reading various accounts of his life, I’m afraid I have to conclude that he did nothing to deserve his title of saint. His sainthood was an act of pure politics.
Perhaps it is time for me to give a thumbnail sketch of John’s life and times. He was born in the 1340s in the Czech (Bohemian) town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk). I would guess that his father – a burgher of the town – decided that his son should make his career in the Church. John must have been a bright lad because after the usual schooling he was sent to the University of Prague, completing his studies of theology and jurisprudence in 1374. Somehow he caught the eye of John of Jesentein, who later became archbishop of Prague. Here is a statue of the good Archbishop on the cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (if this is a true likeness, he seems to have been a merry fellow).
John of Jesenstein became Archbishop in 1378 and made John his first secretary. Presumably the Archbishop decided that John needed to further his studies and he went off to the University of Padua in 1383, returning home in 1387 with a doctorate in canon law in his pocket. Upon his return, he received – no doubt from the Archbishop – various positions: canon in the church of St. Ægidius in Prague, canon of the cathedral in Wyschehrad in 1389, Archdeacon of Sasz and canon of the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague in 1390, president of the ecclesiastical court shortly afterwards, and finally the Archbishop’s vicar-general (a sort of deputy for administrative matters) in 1393. It all sounds like the very rapid ascent of a very able fellow in the Church hierarchy. No doubt a brilliant career beckoned.
All this was taking place against a turbulent political background. Wenceslaus IV was King of Bohemia at the time. We see him here with his wife Sophia (more of her later), in a miniature from his bible.
From what I read, he was a rather weak man. He certainly didn’t seem able to control his overweening family members, who were constantly undercutting him. His nobles, perhaps already restive but perhaps sensing his weakness, spent their time being obstreperous. He made matters worse by relying on favourites, something which nobles everywhere have always disliked; they feel that by reason of their birth they should be getting the positions being doled out to lower-born favourites. I have to say, Wencelsaus reminds me a lot of Richard II of England.
It was Wenceslaus wanting to reward a favourite which brought him on a collision course with the Church. The crisis came to a head pretty much immediately after John took up his post as the Archbishop’s vicar-general. Wenceslaus wanted to found a new bishopric for one of his favourites. His eyes fell on the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby, an abbey which still exists. This picture gives us an idea of what a juicy piece of real estate it must have been.
It so happened that its abbot was dying. Wenceslaus ordered that upon his death no new abbot was to be elected. Instead, the abbey’s territories were to be turned into a bishopric and his favourite installed as its bishop (his idea was that the bishop could then return the favour, using the abbey’s resources to support the King in his struggles with family and aristocracy). Now, if there was one thing the Church hierarchy really objected to, that was having Kings telling them who should fill what Church posts, especially when those posts carried with them rich benefices which would be lost to the Church. So when the old abbot finally copped it, the monks of Kladruby held an election post haste and chose one of their own monks to be the new abbot; John, as vicar-general, promptly confirmed the election.
When he heard the news, Wenceslaus blew his top; I am reminded of Henry II of England who, driven to distraction by his Archbishop Thomas à Becket, cried out “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, a cry which led four knights to travel to Canterbury and slaughter Thomas on the steps of the cathedral’s high altar. In this case, Wenceslaus had John and three other top Church officials who had played some role in the decision arrested and thrown into gaol. In good medieval fashion, they were all tortured to get them to change the decision. The three others cracked and agreed. But John of Nepomuk held firm. So finally Wenceslaus ordered that he be placed in chains, paraded through the city with a block of wood in his mouth, and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the river. His executioners added the bit about being sewn into a goatskin bag. This fateful final event in John’s story occurred in March of 1393.
I’m not quite sure what the fall-out of all this was. The Archbishop certainly hot-footed it down to Rome, accompanied by the new abbot of Kladruby, to make a formal exposition of all that had happened (thus giving us the earliest written account of John’s death). In that exposition, he wrote of John being a martyr, presumably wanting to clothe in holiness a death that was really about quarrels between Church and State and who was more powerful, swirling around what was – let’s face it – a nice juicy piece of real-estate.
Regardless of what went on in the corridors of power, John’s death caught the imagination of the “little people” of Bohemia. A cult gradually grew up around him. By 1459, so some 70 years after John’s death, a more fanciful – and somewhat more holy – story appeared about the reason for his death; I suppose grubby little arguments about power and money didn’t seem suitable. It was now said that John had been Queen Sophia’s father confessor, that Wenceslaus had pressured him to tell if the Queen had confessed to having a lover, that John had refused to spill the beans citing the secrecy of the confessional, and that the King had lost it, leading to John being tossed into the river. This story is why John is quite often shown with his finger on his lips, as in this painting in the Church of Santa Maria Anima in Rome.
When, after Emperor Ferdinand II smashed the Protestant forces of Bohemia at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and the forces of the Counter-Reformation were in full flow to forcibly turn Bohemia back into a Catholic state, it was decided to build on John’s popularity with the little people and push for his canonization. A very thick report was put together which emphasized the fanciful story of his death over the real reason for his death, and it was forwarded to the relevant authorities in Rome. The Roman Curia was happy to comply, so John was beatified in 1721 and canonized in 1729.
John’s sainthood of course drove the creation of art. Some of this was what we could call High Art. For instance, the years between his beatification and canonization saw the building of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk, a church that is famous in the Czech Republic and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (its rather fanciful shape is apparently based on an interpretation of the Cabbala).
My wife and I have never seen this church, although it looks like a good candidate for a visit; I shall talk to her about it. On the other hand, I am firmly of the opinion that John’s Baroque tomb in the cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague can be skipped.
Not only does it have in spadefuls all that I dislike about Baroque art – all flash and no substance – I really disapprove of the fact that two tonnes of silver were used to make the tomb; the money used to purchase the silver should have been distributed to the poor.
That’s the High Art. The Low Art generated by John are all those thousands of statues of him scattered around Central Europe and beyond. As readers can imagine, based on the fanciful explanation of his death, John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of good confession, confessors and penitents. But – more interestingly, to my mind – because of the way he died, he is also believed to protect against floods and troubled waters, and so is considered a patron saint of bridges and fords. Certainly the latest statue of him that my wife and I came across was in Lilienfeld during our walk along the so-called Via Sacra between Vienna and Mariazell. The statue was situated on the bank of a river, next to a bridge.
This statue is somewhat more exciting than most statues of this type, showing John in the act of being thrown over the bridge’s parapet by a fellow who looks quite mean and nasty.
The river itself flowed quite placidly when we crossed the bridge.
But the news is often filled with stories of rivers which have flooded and killed tens or hundreds of people. Why, only a few days ago we were treated to pictures of extreme flooding in Spain.
I can imagine that the little, humble people have always had great respect for the power of rivers. They bring life-saving water to the crops, but they also unleash death and destruction when angry. I’m sure rites to propitiate the river gods are as old as civilization itself. The Greeks and Romans had their river gods and goddesses. So did the Celts. In fact, so did just about every other culture: Wikipedia has an entry on all these deities. I’m sure that the medieval Bohemians used John as a way of christianizing their age-old river gods.
Of course, if you have a saint to whom you pray to stop floods and the heavy rain which creates them, it is not a great step to also ask him to intercede in the opposite case, the case of drought. That’s why you will also find statues of John in the middle of farmland, like this one from a place called Burlo in Germany (although the field behind looks rather sodden in this case).
So there we have it. An actor in a Shakespearean drama of power and money who was, over the centuries and for various political reasons, turned into a saint. But below the official Catholic radar, a man who by chance became the means for a mostly rural population to officialize their magic to try to manage water, one of their most precious resources.
P.S. After reading this post, my wife began to see statues of John of Nepomuk everywhere we hiked. They really are common in this part of the world!
During the month of March, my wife and I went to Bologna for a short visit (I should have written up this post quite a while back; but hey, as they say, better late than never). It’s a nice little town, somewhat off the tourists’ beaten track, which makes it all the nicer. It had been decades since either of us had been back – my wife studied there for a year in the late 1970s, and I had visited her one Christmas before we went off for a little jaunt to Puglia. So it was nice to visit a few old haunts, although in truth her memories of the town were somewhat hazy and mine were almost non-existent.
But actually, what I had really been looking forward to visit was a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Niccolò dell’Arca from 1463, which is located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita (tucked away behind Piazza del Nettuno). I had come across it a decade or so ago when I was methodically leafing through the 1,000 pages of the book 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space.
This very – very – thick book purports to summarize the best art that we humans have created ever since we started making things: the first entry in the book is from c. 28000 BC, the last is from the mid-1990s. Its entry for the year 1463 is Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation (on page 685, if anyone is interested). When I saw it, I said to myself, “One day, I must go to Bologna to see this!”
The Lamentation in question is not a painting. Rather, it is a collection of terracotta statues making up a sort of “tableau vivant” of the scene of sorrow around Jesus’s dead body, after he has been taken down from the cross and before he has been deposed in his tomb. It seems that Lamentations of this kind were quite common, at least in Italy (and not just in terracotta; I recently saw the remains of two other Lamentations made of wood, in the Pinacoteca of Milan’s castle). The statues represent a set of stock characters: Jesus, of course, lying on the ground after being taken down from the cross; Mary, the mother of Jesus (whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Madonna, to avoid confusion with the three other Marys); St. John the Evangelist; the three other Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Salome; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. Here is a typical example of the form, which we also saw in Bologna, in the cathedral, made by the artist Alfonso Lombardi between 1522 and 1526.
Very nice, very dignified, very composed.
But now consider the Lamentation which I wanted to see.
Talk about lamentation! Look at the faces of the women!
Mary, mother of Jesus, first of all
Next to her, Mary Salome, gripping her thighs frenetically in her anguish
At the feet of Jesus, Mary of Cleophas, trying to shield herself from the awful truth
Finally, next to her, Mary Magdalene, shrieking out her horror at what she sees.
The weeping, the wailing – the shrieking – going on in that circle of people is all heightened by Mary Magdalene’s clothes streaming behind her in a most dramatic fashion.
The explanation given in the church is that she was running to the scene and the artist caught her – as if in a cinematic still – at the moment when she burst into the circle around the body and saw with horror that Jesus was dead.
In contrast, the two men in the group are quite subdued. St. John’s expression can only be described as that of someone who is feeling somewhat miserable
while Joseph of Arimathea simply looks phlegmatic.
(for those of my readers who might be asking themselves this, Nicodemus was either not part of this particular group or he disappeared in the intervening 400 years)
This male-female contrast in emotions brings to mind an exchange we as a family had on WhatsApp about Theresa May’s resignation speech in late May. Our son commented that it was somewhat embarrassing to see her cry, at which our daughter leaped to her defence. I quote: “I thought her speech was pretty good. She got emotional when talking about the honour of the job and the fact that she was the second ever female UK prime minister (and not the last) – I think it’s fair to get emotional at that stage! We need to stop vilifying emotional releases such as tears. Women are physiologically more prone to crying – our tear ducts open more easily. If we see tears as a sign of weakness we are inherently disadvantaging women. Anyway, the premise that being “strong” means being unemotional I also think should be changed. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme but her release was very appropriate.”
Well, Nicolò dell’Arca certainly seemed to think that grown men don’t cry, but that women do, and copiously!
It struck me that I could use the various Lamentations paintings created over the centuries to explore how painters felt about this gender difference in the showing of emotions, or simply about the showing of emotions at all. I should add a warning here that my personal take on this is that in real life the scene at the centre of the Lamentations would have been highly emotional: your son, or your leader, who has had you believing that he is heralding the arrival of the end of time and the start of the reign of Yahweh, has instead been shamefully put to death by the colonial authorities and now lies before you, dead. All your hopes, all your beliefs, smashed to smithereens. If I had been there I would have been a total puddle, even if I am a man. But let’s see what painters thought.
We can start this exploration some two centuries before dell’Arca’s composition, with Giotto’s Lamentation of 1303, which is to be found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padova (and on page 615 of the Very, Very Thick Book).
Here, everyone who is gathered around the dead Jesus is crying – not wailing as the women are in dell’Arco’s composition, but definitely crying. Even St. John – the person standing over the women huddled around Jesus – is crying. In fact, I would say that St. John is in transports of sorrow, more so than the women. Even the angels are in anguish. It is true that the two fellows to the right – believed to be Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – are quite composed, but one could argue that they were not close companions of Jesus and so not as committed to the cause that he represented. It could also show that Giotto thought it was OK for young men like St. John to show their emotions, but that older men should keep their upper lip well stiffened.
Jumping forward to 1440-42, we have a Lamentation by the Dominican monk Fra’ Angelico, in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.
Here, no crying, just a gentle preparation of the body for the tomb behind, by the women and St. John (who has his back to us) (the fellow in the background is St. Dominic, seeing all this in a trance). A typical work of Fra’ Angelico, I would say, as gentle as the man himself. Maybe strong emotions frightened him. Maybe he preferred to choose a moment slightly after the tears and the wailing, when practical considerations kicked in: the dead body needed to be prepared for the grave.
We can go forward another fifty years, to Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1489, hanging on the walls of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera just up the road from where I write this (and which can be viewed on page 707 of the VVThB, by the way).
Looking at the painting, readers can see that next to Jesus there are three people – the Madonna, St. John next to her, and a third person you can just make out over the Madonna’s shoulder. They are all crying copiously. It seems that Mantegna, rather like Giotto, believed in everyone showing their emotions.
On the other hand, in Botticelli’s Lamentation of almost the same period (1490-92), now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, the artist only has the women lamenting (although in a very stylized way, it seems to me; shades of things to come). St. John simply looks grim. So Boticcelli appears to be with dell’Arco on this one: women show emotions, men don’t.
The painting also has that stock situation, common in later times, and which I must confess to find most irritating, of the Madonna fainting from the emotion of it all. This really is the male assumption about the weakness and frailty of women: when the going gets tough, women faint. The other men, saints of various kinds, are simply there to witness the scene, like St. Dominic in Fra’ Angelico’s version, so do not show much emotion (I do think, though, that Botticelli had some cheek in including St. Peter – the fellow to the right, clutching a big key – since according to the Gospels while Jesus was being taken down from the cross and being buried he and the other – male – disciples were all cowering in a room somewhere, in fear of imminent arrest).
This next Lamentation is by Bellini, executed at the same time as Botticelli’s (1485-95). It is one of many Lamentations which he painted. This particular one is in the Uffizi in Florence. Here, everyone is even more composed: the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, and St. John seem to be sniffling a little while everyone else is looking calmly noble. Bellini does not believe in showing emotions, it would seem (although in fairness to him, some of his other Lamentations seem somewhat more emotionally charged).
On the other hand, in this Lamentation by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, from exactly the same period (1485) (and now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), both the Madonna and St. John are in absolute agony, with the latter literally howling (it is true to say, though, that Mary Magdalene is more contained).
It would seem that Crivelli was a believer in showing strong emotions, like dell’Arca, and was quite happy with men showing such emotions.
But now look at this Lamentation by Perugino, again from the same period, 1495 (and now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).
I mean, everyone, man and woman, looks ridiculously calm and noble! (there is one half-hearted attempt at gesticulation, by the lady in red at the back, but it’s very unconvincing). Perugino must have thought that emotions weren’t necessary to the scene.
From 50 years later, 1547, we have this Lamentation by Paolo Veronese (it seems that every artist worth his salt had a go at this theme), now in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.
Again, everyone looks calm and dignified. The Madonna looks a trifle pale, but that’s about it. No emotions please!
A decade on, 1560 or thereabouts, Tintoretto painted this Removal from the Cross bleeding into a Lamentation, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.
This is best described as baroque, although it’s a bit early for that. We have a fainting Madonna, dramatic gesticulation, contorted clothing – but not a single tear. Drama is required, but not emotions.
The same message comes through 45 years later in Caravaggio’s Deposition of 1603-1604 (which also contains some Lamentation in it), now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
The drama here comes from the play of light and dark and the angle from which it was painted. But the women seem quite composed in their sorrow; the gesticulation of the girl at the back feels contrived.
If real emotions seem to have drained away from the Lamentations painted in Italy, to be replaced first by Olympian calm and then by drama, there never seems to have been any real emotions at all in the Lamentations painted north of the Alps. The genre crossed the Alps at about the time that Giotto painted his Lamentation in Padova and became very popular. I have not been able to find any tears, or even much emotion, in these Northern European versions of the genre. For instance, this Lamentation from 1455-60, by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus (and now in Brussel’s Royal Museum of Fine Art) has the Madonna in a tasteful swoon, a lady to the right possibly wiping away a tear, and a woman to the left meekly wringing her hands. But everyone else is quietly going about their business.
This Lamentation by the Burgundian Early Netherlandish painter Simon Marmion is from a little later, about 1476 (and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
Not a shred of emotion here. No drama, either. “Oh dear, he’s dead” is all I get from it.
Dürer, a few decades later (c. 1500), managed to include one person in his Lamentation who is gesticulating, although in a quite contained manner (you almost feel that Dürer included her because it was the done thing to do). The other women just look a little sad, while all the men are simply standing around. (This is another painting in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek)
This next Lamentation, in London’s National Gallery, is by Gerard David, another Early Netherlandish painter, and is from a few decades later still, 1515-1523.
It looks a polished work, but I still see very little emotion. A certain quiet sadness is all I get from the painting, from everyone involved.
I could add more paintings – like I say, every painter worth his salt seems to have had a crack at this one – but I think we get the gist. If there is any trend in later paintings, it’s towards the dramatic – exaggerated gestures, contorted clothing – but with only the women showing – theatrical – emotion; the men simply look stolid.
So what conclusions can we draw? – because we have to draw some conclusion. I have to say that I agree with my daughter on this one. Perhaps it is physiologically easier for women to cry than men, but I also think that European culture (and possibly all cultures) have evolved and now strongly suggest that men should have stiff upper lips while it’s OK for women’s (and children’s, male and female) upper lips to tremble. I also think that it is expected for our leaders not to cry – stern anger, for instance against the enemy is OK, but no tears. Tears imply weakness, and our leaders must not be weak. Which is why the Renaissance painters stopped showing these ordinary people around Jesus, which Christianity had turned into leaders, crying – and why our son felt a certain embarrassment at seeing May crack up at her podium in front of No. 10. But I think we men should stop trying to look strong and weep and wail when we feel the need to, especially when we have lost someone very near and dear to us.
Oh, and do go to Bologna to see dell’Arco’s Lamentation. it’s really worth the visit – and Bologna is a nice place, with very good food.
Dedicated to my son, who too often gets strep throat
Milan, 3 February 2019
updated 14 January 2020
Today is February 3rd!
This exclamation of mine will, I’m sure, leave all of my readers puzzled, so I need to explain: February 3rd is the feast day of Saint Blaise!
I fear, though, that this piece of information will still not help my readers much, so let me plough on.
Saint Blaise is one of those delightfully obscure early Christian martyrs, lost to us in the mists of time and fog of hagiography. His story is quickly told. He lived in the late 2nd, early 3rd Centuries AD. He was the Bishop of Sebastea, now Sivas, deep in the heart of modern Turkey. He was a holy man and a miracle worker. It is one miracle in particular that interests us here. A young mother came rushing to Blaise with her son, who was dying from a fish bone (or possibly a fish scale) stuck in his throat. As someone who, at the age of 12 or 13, got a fish bone stuck in my throat, I can deeply empathize with the poor boy. Luckily, I wasn’t dying but it was an incredibly painful experience. After various home remedies had been tried, I was taken to a doctor who extracted it. It so happens that Blaise had also trained as a doctor, but it seems he favored a faith-based approach to healing (I don’t know whether this was merely a reflection of his strong faith or a commentary on the parlous state of medicine at the time). So he laid his hands on the boy’s throat and uttered the – extremely sensible – words: “either come up or go down”. The fish bone (or scale) duly came up, or went down, and the boy was saved. This is the best painting I have found, by the Neapolitan painter Pacecco de Rosa, commemorating this touching scene. Blaise was caught up in a final burst of persecution in the Roman Empire against Christians, which was the fruit of a vicious power struggle between the co-Emperors Constantine and Licinius. It is narrated that Blaise was arrested and dragged before the local governor and “invited” to abjure his faith. Here we have the scene commemorated in a stained glass window from Picardie, in northern France. Of course, Blaise did no such thing. In fact, he used the occasion to lambaste idolatry (no doubt using strong and colourful language to make his point). At which, the governor in a fury ordered his men to torture Blaise. Which they did, with gusto, using combs or brushes with pointed metal teeth to tear his flesh to pieces. This is the best painting, by Filippo Vitale, another Neapolitan painter, which I could find of this painful event. I particularly like the Caravaggesque approach adopted by the painter. I have to say, I also find the pop-eyed torturer fantastic. I feel moved, however, to also add a picture here of a section of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted Saint Blaise, because he made a great a depiction of the saint holding a wicked-looking pair of combs. Imagine having your skin scraped with those things! In passing, I have to say that I am always amazed at the wonderfully inventive tortures early Christian hagiographers came up with for their martyrs. The muscular-looking lady in the green dress below Saint Blaise in the Last Judgement is Saint Catherine, holding the spiked wheel which she was meant to be broken on. I have written an earlier post about the flaying of St. Bartholomew. I went to a school whose patron saint was St. Laurence; he was basically grilled like a pork chop over a fire. The list of incredible tortures is endless …
But I digress. For some reason – no doubt because he was a saint – Blaise survived this harrowing of the flesh. He was thrown into jail, presumably to give his jailers time to think up even more hideous ways of torturing him. But they were clearly not up to the task, for the next thing we are told is that the governor ordered Blaise to be drowned in the nearby river. His men duly threw him into the river, where he miraculously floated. In frustration, they hauled him to the shore and cut off his head. And that was the end of Blaise (although I have to ask myself, if he could miraculously float in the river why could he not also miraculously stop the sword from cutting his head off? But, as they say, God moves in mysterious ways).
Blaise might have been dead but his reputation lived on. Over the centuries, he became the patron saint of various things. The one that interests us here is that he is the saint to whom one prays if one has a sore throat. Well, sore throats are a very common ailment for us humans, especially at this time of the year, but they are not life-threatening. So initially I found it somewhat surprising that people in the old days felt the need for a saint to intercede specifically for sore throats. But then it occurred to me that perhaps I was actually just reflecting the modern state of our health. Perhaps in the old days a sore throat was actually often the harbinger of something much more deadly creeping up on us, especially if we were children. For instance, scarlet fever starts with a sore throat. It predominantly strikes children between the ages of 5 and 15. Scarlet fever is now treatable with antibiotics, but in the pre-antibiotic days, i.e., any time before World War II, it could be deadly, as I have just seen in the film Little Women. Strep throat, which is a cousin of some sort to scarlet fever, also comes to mind. This is another disease that predominantly strikes children – it is responsible for as much as a third of their sore throats. It is incredibly painful, as I remember from my one run-in with the disease at the age of 10. To make the point, I throw in here a picture of a nice case of strep throat. Strep throat is now also treatable with antibiotics, but perhaps in the pre-antibiotic days strep throat was more deadly. Then there is whooping cough, which I would assume has a component of sore throat (luckily, never having had whooping cough, I wouldn’t know). Until quite recently pretty much every child caught whooping cough and a not insignificant number died as a result (and still do in developing countries, because they don’t get vaccinated as we do in the developed world). And perhaps there are other diseases out there where sore throats are a warning signal of death around the corner, especially for children – I welcome further elucidation from any of my readers with a medical background.
In any event, my fancy tells me that early Christians had noticed a sometimes deadly correlation between youth and sore throats, and concluded – based on his miracle with the little boy and the fish bone – that Saint Blaise was the ideal saint to pray to when sore throats reared their ugly heads. Out of all this grew a custom that had the faithful flocking to churches on February 3rd, Saint Blaise’s feast day, to have their throats protected for the rest of the year with a special blessing. Although not so common now (I would say that we generally have greater faith in our doctors being able to cure us), it is a custom that lives on. And it’s not just any old blessing that one receives, no sirree! A pair of lit candles are crossed at one’s throat while the blessing is pronounced. I have never been blessed in this way, so I don’t quite understand how it is that one’s hair isn’t set alight in the process; I would be extremely nervous about the whole thing. Where the idea of involving candles in the ceremony came from I have no idea, although it must be an old tradition. Here is a painting of Saint Blaise by Hans Memling, where readers can see that the Saint is serenely holding a candle. All of this brings me to the real reason why I’m writing this post. It has to do with Milan, where I am currently spending the winter. The Milanese, like all other good Christians, firmly believed in Saint Blaise’s powers to cure sore throats. Indeed, there is a saying in Milanese dialect which proclaims: San Bias el benediss la gola e el nas, “Saint Blaise, he blesses the throat and the nose” (it seems that the Milanese sensibly extended the saint’s miraculous powers to the nose, or perhaps they simply wanted to make the rhyme). Nevertheless, the Milanese have added a special twist to this credence. Somewhere along the line, they concluded that eating panettone was just as good at protecting their throats as were two crossed candles and a priest’s benediction. So the ceremony in church was followed by a sit-down at home to eat a slice of panettone.
For those of my readers who are not familiar with this glory of Milanese cuisine, I throw in a picture. Panettone is a type of sweet bread loaf. It’s been around since at least 1599, date of the first credible mention of it in the written records. What we see today, though, is not what our ancestors would have seen in 1599 or indeed at any time before 1919. In that year, the manufacture of panettone was revolutionized. An enterprising Milanese baker by the name of Motta introduced a new proofing step, where the dough was allowed to rise in not one but in three separate stages over a period of 20 hours. It is that which ensures the panettone’s tall domed shape as well as its wonderful fluffiness. A few years later, he was copied (“the recipe was adapted”) by another enterprising Milanese baker called Alemagna. The Motta and the Alemagna brands of panettone have been battling it out ever since.
I suspect that panettone originally looked more like a fruitcake (or plum cake to the English), which my French grandmother was very fond of and liked to buy for the Christmas festivities. This too was the original role of panettone. It was a special, sweet bread that the Milanese made for Christmas. Like all these things, I would imagine that the “fruit” that Milan’s housewives and bakers added to their panettoni were closely guarded family secrets. Nowadays, as the Italian Government strives to give the panettone a DOP certification, the additions have been standardized: raisins – dry and not soaked! – as well as the candied zests of orange, lemon, and citron (the last of which I have written about in an earlier post).
I’m sure my alert readers will have noticed a problem. Panettone was originally made only at Christmas while the feast day of Saint Blaise is on February 3rd. Undeterred, the Milanese made it a habit of setting aside part of their Christmas panettone to eat on Saint Blaise’s day after they had braved their annual encounter with the crossed – and lighted! – candles. How exactly they kept their panettone from going stale in the meantime I don’t know. The web is full of suggestions on this topic for fruitcake, my favourite being to wrap it in towels soaked in brandy or wine and then in something like oiled paper. And anyway, as my wife sensibly remarked, if the panettone had become a trifle stale it could always be dunked in milk or tea or coffee.
But nowadays the Milanese don’t need to bother putting aside a piece of their Christmas panettone. No foodstuff is seasonal anymore, and panettone is no exception; you can buy it any time of the year. In fact, in a canny marketing move, sellers of panettone in Milan will offer two panettoni for the price of one on Saint Blaise’s day. Which is really why I’m so excited that it’s 3rd February today. I can buy two wonderfully delicious panettoni for the price of one! The moment I’ve posted, I’m off down the road to buy them, like this gentleman has (although he seems to have scarfed down half a panettone before even leaving the shop). And maybe on the way back I’ll pop into a church to have my throat blessed. You never know …
A few days before Christmas, I set up our nativity in Milan. I wrote a post about this tradition last year, and I throw in here the photo I took of it then, because I haven’t memorialized this year’s effort (it really hasn’t changed much; I just added a few figurines). But, as we discovered on a walk today, my modest efforts have been quite put to shame by the locals around Monte di Portofino (we’re spending the new year down by the sea). They have commandeered a stretch of forest road in the woods. There, in the bank of the road, they have set up charming little nativities, two dozen in all. They have placed small – in some cases tiny – nativities in natural depressions: among the roots of fallen trees, spaces where stones were once imprisoned in the soil, a natural declivity in the terrain.
These nativities are so modest that they are very easy to miss if you’re not looking out for them.
These al fresco nativities have humbled me. It’s back to the drawing board with my efforts. But in the meantime, I would like to celebrate these small, anonymous scenes with some photos: not all 24 nativities, just a selection of the best. Let me leave you with a picture of the glorious sunset that greeted us on our return home. Happy new year.
Halloween is upon us once again! Time to don the costumes of ghosts, goblins, zombies, skeletons, witches, and other assorted weirdos which we’ve been storing in our wardrobes since last year, and roam the streets drinking booze and checking out each other’s costumes!
Time to light the candles in those pumpkins which we’ve been patiently carving into hideous faces (or we just bought ready-made in plastic at the local store) and plonk them down in front of our door!
A dim and distorted reflection indeed of the beliefs of our ancestors that this was the night when for a short while the thin membrane separating the world of the living from the world of the dead became permeable, allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the land.
A time not to be out and about, risking to be set upon by evil spirits. A time to stay safe at home with your family.
Our ancestors also thought that, born as they were at that moment when real world and spirit world temporarily connected, Halloween babies had the ability in later life to commune with the spirits. When, 32 years ago, I wrote to our friends telling them that our son had been born in the early hours of 31st October, I jovially added that I looked forward to him having a successful career as a medium. Somewhat like Whoopi Goldberg in the film Ghost, although she initially was frightened stiff by her gift.
As of this writing, our son has shown no such gift although he has done well enough in other ways.
I am no believer in spirits – I am, as I have said in other posts, a child of the Scientific Revolution and the rationalism that came with it – but I do find it sad that what was for our ancestors an important and holy feast day has degenerated into a twee happening fueled by companies egging us on to consume.
Even the Japanese are getting into the act! Here in Kyoto we are constantly coming across the same Halloween-related consumeristic crap that we see now from Seattle to Budapest and beyond.
Halloween, it seems, is following in the steps of Christmas and going global: any excuse is good to get us out of the house and do some shopping.
Better by far that we just stay at home and enjoy each other’s company over a glass of wine. That’s certainly what my wife and I intend to do.
Halloween party: https://sf.funcheap.com/marin-singles-halloween-costume-party-san-rafael/
Medieval living and dead: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/the-medieval-walking-dead/
Whoopi Goldberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsI5bREF20Y
Halloween shopping: http://www.halloween-online.com/articles/halloween-articles-budgeting.html
Holiday shopping: https://me.me/i/fox-10-holiday-countdown-days-until-halloween-400-days-until-2900508