Saturday, December 5, 2015

"Tantum ergo" and a well guarded Jewel of Beauty in Umbria

Many a day of our lives, we, Estela, my wife and I, have spent, stumbling along roads of Christendom, finding jewels of great splendor and beauty, hitherto unknown to us.

The façade of the Duomo di Orvieto

When I hear "Tantum, Ergo", a beautiful piece of Gregorian Chant, composed by the Dominican Monk,  father of Scolastical Theology and author of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, I realize that I am in the presence of a melodious, but clear and easily understandable introduction to the Mystery of the Eucharist as understood by Catholics for centuries.
The main entrance and bronze doors of Il Duomo di Orvieto

This Mystery of the Eucarist includes the philosophical and theological concept of the Transubstantiation.

The cast bronze doors portray the 7 acts of corporal mercy.

Back in my days of formation in a Catholic Seminary, we would go to bed at 9:00 pm (because we would wake up every morning and take a shower at 4:45am). On Thursday evenings,  we would rise again, at 10:40, and we get dressed again, and go down to our Chapel,  starting our "Holy Hour" at 11:00 pm. The Holy Sacrament, in the form of a host, is removed from the tabernacle, and set in the Monstrance for everyone in the Chapel to behold and to adore. The Holy Hour is intended as an act of expiation,  and thus, an act of Love towards Jesus Christ. (The very idea of expiation in our hedonistic culture today is as foreign to us as it is misunderstood, and often confused with masochism.) At the end of the hour of meditation,  we would chant Tantum Ergo, and I can still remember the smell of the incense we offered up to the Corpus Domini in the closing moments of the adoration.

The four columns of the façade reveal the highlights of the Old and New Testament

The right corner column of the façade offers a synopsis of the Last Judgment.

The bottom corner of the right-hand column of the façade gives a terrific view of Hell.

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Præstet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.
Right hand side view of Il Duomo with its white and green ribs of marble.

Hence so great a Sacrament
Let us venerate with heads bowed
And let the old practice
Give way to the new rite;
Let faith provide a supplement
For the failure of the senses.
To the Begetter and the Begotten,
Be praise and jubilation,
Hail,  honor, virtue also,
And blessing too:
To the One proceeding from Both
Let there be equal praise.

So far, I write of Theology and Liturgy, but these are very abstract and distant.  Now let me tell you a story about a priest, who lived in Bohemia,  and felt profound doubts about the Transubstatiation of the Body and Blood of Christ during the celebration of Mass. Suitably,  his name was Peter, Peter of Prague. He was on a pilgrimage to Rome,  and as he was saying Mass,  in the Church of Santa Caterina close to the shores of Lake Bolsena, he was assaulted by his accustomed doubts, when suddenly  the consecrated Host started to bleed human blood, pouring out on the corporal and staining the stone altar.

Interior view, facing the back, with the Gothic Rose Window lighting up the main aisle

Possibly you have visited Le Stanze di Raphaello in the Vatican Museums, and you have seen the gigantic wall affresco painting, illustrating this miracle.
The Miracle of Bolsena alfresco in the Stanza Eliodoro of the Vatican Museums
This affresco was painted during a moment of strong contention between Catholic Theologians, that defended the authenticity of the Eucharist,  and many Protestant Theologians, that thought differently. 
The altar of the Apse of Il Duomo di Orvieto

We seem to have slid back away from stories, and back into the quagmire of Theological discussion,  far from where a road took Estela, my children and me,  one early Summer afternoon.
La Cappella del Corportale
It was July, and we had parted Florence after breakfast,  all six of us driving south on the Autostrada del Sole. The day was warm and sunny,  and the fields were glimmering with golden wheat. We had been driving almost 2 hours, when Estela saw an exit sign:  "Look, just like the white wine you like so much: This town has the same name.  Maybe it comes from here? " Then my smallest child remarked: "It's 12:30 already, Dad! Remember that if we don't find a trattoria before 1:30 in these small cities here in Italy, that they don't want to give us a table!" So I gave up hope of an early afternoon arrival to Rome,  and took the exit. 20 minutes later we were as close as we could possibly get to the Piazza del Duomo, and we parked our van. When you are driving with a young family,  the first thing that happens when you park,  is that all the doors fly open everywhere,  and everyone starts looking for "la toilette". So I walked up to La Piazza,  went into il Caffè or Bar,  and asked for an espresso, while all my children used the bathroom. After my first sip of a delicious espresso,  I turned around to behold what many consider to be the most beautiful churches in Christendom: il Duomo di Orvieto. 

I could see that the ushers were starting to close the doors of the church,  so we hurried out of the bar, across the Piazza, and into one of the still opened front doors.
La Cappella del Corporale

Let's take a pause: we were facing for our first time,  the facciata or façade of il Duomo. Personally,  I believe that no other façade includes a more beautiful harmony of tile, sculpture and marble, a splendid sample of Italian Gothic architecture,  shining with a blinding glare, as we tried to escape the scrutiny of the ushers. 

Once inside,  we continued to scramble out of the sight of the ushers,  sneaking down the darker side aisle,  although thanks to its enormous central stained-glass rose window in the middle of the façade,  the interior is never dark during daylight hours.  I whispered that in the side chapel were the evidence of the famous miracle of Father Peter of Prague. So when we came up to the transept of the Cathedral,  and took a turn, a right turn, believing that we were about to enter the Chapel of the Corporal, but which turned out to be the wrong turn. What we saw was both beautiful, unexpected, frightening and breathtaking for my children and for me. We had entered into the Chapel of the Madonna of Saint Brizio.

As we looked up the walls of the chapel,  we saw corpses crawling out of the ground,  a sky painted a foreboding lead-blue tone,  as if sunlight would never return,  Christ and his Blessed Mother in the middle,  while demons hurry to carry off the dammed. We had entered into the chapel, and we are bewildered with the scenes of terror. Without warning, we entered into the world of Luca Signorelli, a world that deserves a separate article in our blog, which I promise you soon.

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