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A refreshing look at religious symbolism – in Otranto, Italy’s heel

9 Jul

It’s a sad but common ailment when visiting the world’s most beautiful places – burnout.  Whether museum burnout in Paris, temple overload in Angkor Wat or Cathedral overdose in Italy – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.  Yes, although we have a literal embarrassment of riches in the masterpieces in Italy’s churches and piazzas, sometimes you get a bit weary of variations of Madonna and Babe.

If you are in Italy and have reached this point, may I recommend a (lengthy) detour to Otranto, in the heel of Italy’s boot, for a change of pace? The Otranto Cathedral has the most fantastic floor mosaic I’ve ever seen decorate a church, from entrance to altar (the largest in Europe). Built in 1163 (the church itself dates back to 1068), the floor depicts a dizzying blend of catholic, gnostic and pagan imagery – from Adam, Eve & Noah; to mythical beasts consuming each other, to King Arthur, to Greek Goddess Diana – all suspended within a vast Tree of Life.


The trunk of the tree of life


Animals with animals snouts on their feet, devouring other animals


Your standard catholic centaur

These are the just kind of pagan images that eventually would earn their designer a fiery exile from the catholic church (and the early plane) – and in fact scholars are still trying to unravel the meaning and messages behind this remarkable floor.

In fact, that the mosaic has survived at all is a bit of a miracle.  On August 14, 1480, the city was sacked in an Ottoman invasion, and the cathedral was used as a stable for the invaders’ horses.  Oh and by the way, the inhabitants of Otranto were slaughtered in the attack, or sold into slavery or beheaded in a grim religious standoff for  800 martyrs who refused to convert to Islam. This event (“800 martyrs of Otranto) is also memorialized in the church. Go to the back right chapel and as you get closer you start to sense something strange about the the framed images behind the Madonna…

The chapel in Otranto's Cathedral

The chapel in Otranto’s Cathedral

…until you look closer and see….Gah!


…the actual 800 martyrs

Having endured a lot of interminable Sunday school classes growing up in Canada, I have to say that I would have been pretty keen on attending this church as a kid.

If you get tired of pondering myths and mortality in Otranto, you are only 2 minutes away from a gorgeous beach.  Which is straight where most foreign invaders head these days.


Descending through layers of history at the Basilica of San Clemente

18 Dec

I realize that with my travel schedule its been a while since I actually wrote a post regarding, you know, Rome.  Today I braved the chilly temperatures and drizzle to visit the Basilica of San Clemente.  San Clemente was one of the earliest bishops of Rome, and a contemporary of Saint Peter (and some say, Christ) in the first century AD; when being an open follower of Christianity predicted a short life and unpleasant death.  Perhaps that was the inspiration for Christianity’s eventual persecution of pagans?

Just a few blocks away from the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente is a fascinating reminder of the uniqueness of Rome’s  layers of history and how many of its Christian traditions were layered upon Rome’s pagan roots. To explore this marvelous church is to walk back in time — and your starting point is 1100 AD.

If you are fortunate, you’ll enter through the square courtyard with its graceful fountain and covered walkways.  Its simplicity belies the richly decorated 12th century church that sits at ground level.  Entering from the courtyard, you are immediately enveloped by the intensity of the rich decor.

The upper level 12th Century interior (CC Rome-Roma)

Unfortunately, I don’t have any of my own photos as photography is forbidden, and only having been in Italy for a few months, I complied with the rules.  This basilica is in remarkable condition despite being a thousand years old and each surface, from floor to ceiling, is adorned in a different style – from inlaid marble floors, to gorgeous frescos depicting the lives of saints and martyrs, to the luminescent mosaics about the main altar.  I loved the frescos depicting the life and trials of Saint Catherine, who was persecuted by the Emperor Maxentius (who was a contemporary of, and defeated by Constantine – the first Christian Emperor of Rome).

Saint Catherine and an angel miraculously destroy the wheel of torture (CC Monkey Fur)

Like I said, layers and layers of history.

While wandering the 12th century basilica is fascinating enough, take a detour through the gift store, pay 5 euros for a ticket and descend through history.

The next level down brings you to the 4th century basilica.  During one of the many sacks that Rome endured in the latter first millennium, this 4th century basilica was filled in and the current ground-level church was built upon its ruins in the 12th century.  The 4th century Basilica is amazingly well displayed, full of lighting and descriptive plaques in English and Italian.  The NYTimes describes it as “completely relit with discreet bronze lamps that shed light on once-hidden angles and cast haunting shadows. It was kind of like participating in a contemporary art installation (except the art was better).” Well done, Irish Dominicans.

One level down in the 4th century basilica (CC newliturgicalmovement-org)

Wait, what?

According to Wikipedia:

Irish Dominicans have been the caretakers of San Clemente since 1667, when England outlawed the Irish Catholic Church and expelled the entire clergy. Pope Urban VIII gave them refuge at San Clemente, where they have remained, running a residence for priests studying and teaching in Rome. The Dominicans themselves conducted the excavations in the 1950s in collaboration with Italian archaeology students.

It gets better…descend one level more and you’ll realize that 2 stories under today’s surface you are now at the level of ancient, 1st Century Rome, before time and neglect covered its civilization in metres of mud.  Hiding in the labyrinth of an ancient Roman patrician’s private villa are the remains of a Mithriac temple.

Let’s get to the patrician’s home first…it was apparently the villa of one of the first Roman senators who converted to Christianity; secretly holding meetings of the faithful in his home.  As I mentioned, 1st century Rome was a dangerous time and place for Christians – the reign of the Emperor Nero who initiated imperially-sanctioned brutal persecutions of Christians and oversaw the crucifixion of St. Peter.  Eventually a catastrophic fire destroyed this area of ancient Rome (attributed by many to Nero so he could build a golden palace).  The 4th century basilica was build directly over the ruins of the villa, and by the way; nearby the Colesseum was built as a gift to the Roman people to help ease their loss off massive swathes of the city in the same fire.  One of the more striking elements in this subterranean villa today is the sound of running water – in and before the first century AD, this villa was served by fresh spring water.  It probably had radiant floor heating too; I regret to observe that Roman interior heating has not evolved much in the last 2,000 years.

2 levels down in the cave of the Mithraic mysteries (CC

The Mithraic temple itself is very much a mystery, and its rituals and beliefs even at the height of its influence in the first century BC were only shared with its initiates.  This temple was meant to resemble a ritual cave, and you can view the altar depicting the slaughter of a bull, and a tiny statue which seems to be Sol Invictus.  Some historians link the cult of Mithras to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whose birth was celebrated on December 25.  Merry Christmas!

The vast array of breathtaking churches in Rome can be overwhelming, but although it’s a few blocks off the main tourist circuit, San Clemente is truly unique in its enormous span of history, as well as the the quality of its displays.

You can find it by walking past the Colosseum for a few blocks and turning right.  Or you can follow this map.

A wall of gratitude

10 May

Alessandro had a business meeting this morning, and as a woman of leisure I decided to accompany him and wander the surrounding neighborhood.

cc: santagnese

He deposited me where he felt certain I could stroll and do some window shopping, but I asked him if there were any ancient Roman ruins nearby that I could explore. Somewhat exasperated by my enthusiasm of all things ancient Roman, he rolled his eyes and expressed doubt.

After a brief scouting mission, I was delighted by the sight of a structure in the distance that looked distinctly ruinous. I probably walked the entire perimeter  before I found an entrance into the grounds of the Mausoleum of Constantia, or Santa Costanza.

Constantia was one of the 2 daughters of the great Roman emperor Constantine, and this mausoleum was initiated by her father in approximately 350 CE, after her death.  Much of the artwork and architecture remarkably still exists in its original state, almost 2 millenia later.

cc: seier + seier

Although the external structure appears rather boxy; when you wander inside, the interior possess a beautiful symmetry and the original mosaics on the ceiling represent early Christian art.  The early church often integrated pagan traditions and symbols, and these can be found in the Bacchic (wine) motifs on the sarcophagus and in some of the ceiling mosaics.

The mausoleum is located beside the Basilica of Saint Agnes, a 12 (or 13?) year old martyr/virgin who suffered a grisly fate on January 21, 304 CE at the hands of her intended ancient Roman husband’s family.  According to Wikipedia:

The Prefect Sempronius wished Agnes to marry his son, and on Agnes’ refusal he condemned her to death. As Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins, Sempronius had a naked Agnes dragged through the streets to a brothel. Various versions of the legend give different methods of escape from this predicament. In one, as she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. In another the son of the prefect is struck dead, but revived after Agnes prayed for him, causing her release. There is then a trial from which Sempronius excuses himself, and another figure presides, sentencing her to death. When led out to die she was tied to a stake, but the bundle of wood would not burn, or the flames parted away from her, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her, or, in some other texts, stabbed her in the throat.

It’s remarkable to stumble across something like this place in an unassuming neighborhood of Rome, but it was in the garden that I found something truly special: the wall of gratitude.  In 1945, a devotee built this intimate grotto to offer thanks to the Madonna for her grace received, and since then many have left marble tablets inscribed with their gratitude.

I made an offering, lit a candle, and gave heartfelt thanks for the new life I am starting in Rome with Alessandro, and for all the blessings I have and the grace that exists in my life.

This lovely place is a little further away from the central part of Rome, but fairly close to the area I wrote about yesterday, the Quartiere Coppedé.