Thursday, June 29, 2017

Vercelli, the missing link in the History of the Church between the Early and Late Middle Ages

When Sigeric the Serious, Bishop of Canterbury, left the Val d’Aosta on his way to Rome to receive his pallium in the year 992 AD, his following stops included Ivrea, Santhia, the Viverone Lake and Vercelli.
The Pilgrim, Symbol of the Via
Francigena, a sign you can see
on several street corners of
Vercelli, guiding us on our

Val d’Aosta is mountainous, yet once we exit the valley by the Pont Saint Martin, an immense plain opens up before us, where Vercelli is the crossroad of the Piedmont region.

Here at the Pont Saint Martin, the Val d'Aosta
with its mountains lie behind me, as the
plains of Piedmont unfold before my eyes.
Vercelli nowadays is the heartland of the Italian rice growing region. Not only the world-renowned Arborio, the most popular rice for the Italians used mainly in their Risotto, but the Carnaroli, the Nero Venere, the Badio, and the Roma, used in soups, salads, oven dishes, fish and meat, and even for deserts.

A risotto prepared with Arborio
rice. Arborio rice has a delicious
consistency in our mouth, and has
a wonderful capacity for
absorbing the flavors of the
broth and seasonings.
These plains are fed by a number of streams and rivers, such as the Po and the Ticino, with a plentiful supply of water, but the soil is not fit for many crops.  

Rice fields in early March during the
 dry season, at Confienzo, a small
 village in the province of Vercelli

Only in the later middle ages, a pair of centuries after Sigeric’s pilgrimage, did the Cistercian monks start introducing rice into the Piedmont.

The wide breath of the River Po brings fresh
water and minerals from the alps and from
the Val d'Aosta
So maybe much of this fertile plain were swamplands when Sigeric came through, a halfway point on his transcontinental pilgrimage from Canterbury.

The city of Vercelli is a collage of
Romanic, Gothic, Baroque and
Neoclassical styles, both in
churches and in palaces.
It can be an interesting and profitable exercise to try to put ourselves in the mindset of Sigeric.

The Façade of the Cathedral of Vercelli,
facing the afternoon setting sun.
 Il Duomo was consecrated in honor of Saint
Eusebius (283-371 A.D.), first bishop of the city,
contemporary of Saint Ambrose.
For Sigeric, the Via Francigena of the Xth Century was as different from the Via Francigena of the Roman Emperors, as the Via Francigena today is different from what Sigeric experienced.

Modern Crucifix in the apse of
the main altar of the
Cathedral of  Vercelli

Sigeric lived in a period 500 years after the death of Saint Augustine,  and almost 1000 years after the death of Christ, and the beginning of the missionary work of the Apostles. The monasteries were the closest tangible materialization by Church in this first millennium of the ideals of a Saint Augustine´s work, the City of God.

View of the dome of the
Cathedral seen from the transept

Sigeric probably stayed at the nearby monastery, or closest hermitage, or the chancellery of the closest Cathedral at each stop.

 The Certosa of Pavia was a type of monastery
 that Sigeric never experienced during his
pilgrimage on the Via Francigena

From the Vth to the VIIIth centuries Monasteries were those established either by Irish-Celtic monks, or for the most part, Benedictine Monasteries.

The majesty of the monasteries of the
Quatrocento like the Certosa here, was
nonexistent at the end of the 10th Century.
The Irish-Celtic Monasteries followed a more rigorous style of life, while the Benedictine Monasteries, patronized by Charlemagne, followed the dictum "ora et labora" (pray and work), with a strong emphasis on their scriptorium or library.
The monastic cloister in Citta di Aosta,
la Collegiata di Sant'Orso, along the
Via Francigena, was built to honor the
saint of Irish ascent, 140 years after
Sigeric came through.

The great Monastery of Cluny was already in operation during the lifetime of Sigeric, but the expansion of other Cistercian monasteries throughout Europe would only come about starting in the XIth Century.

The austerity of the first Cistercian
abbeys along the Via Francigena,
such as the Abbazia di Morimondo
shown here (1180 AD), are in
marked contrast with the opulence
of the nearby Certosa di Pavia.
This is the wonderful part of the Via Francigena and his Pilgrimage: Sigeric is at the crossroads between the two millenniums: Sigeric was as far distant chronologically from Christ and the Apostles as we are from him. Sigeric is our bridge for understanding the history of the Church.

Twilight at the Esplanade of Vercelli's
East Peidmont University Campus
Just as we described the City of Aosta over the last months in this blog, with its Criptoportico and its Paleo-Christian Basilica,  as an ideal spot to trail the metamorphosis of the early Church from the times of Constantine into the medieval world, few places along the 1000 mile long Via Francigena offer us a better insight into the Christian world Sigeric lived in than Vercelli.

The  Cathedral Treasure
Musuem of Vercelli

And no other place better to help us track the evolution of the Church from the medieval period to the modern era than the Cathedral Treasury Museum of Vercelli.
The curators of the Cathedral
Treasure Museum

Museums today are more than interesting collections: museums are made of the people that manage them. A good museum does not begin with a palace, but with a brilliant idea. That is what makes this what makes the Museo del Tesoro del Duomo (Cathedral Treasury Museum) unique. Young talented people in their twenties, like Timoty, Sofia and Dario, some with doctorates, committed, passionate, proud of their local history and heritage, but with their eyes focused on the future. The Cathedral Treasury Museum of Vercelli hays successfully merged the resources of the Diocese of Vercelli with regional private and government organizations, such as the CRT Foundation and the Regione Piemonte organization.
This was the main crucifix of the Cathedral of
Vercelli, damaged by looters during a night raid
in the 19th Century. During the restoration,
human flesh was discovered in the inner
structure of the crucified Christ. This is a
mystery, not an allegation of something
Christian devotion has had many facets. First and foremost, the celebration of the Holy Sacraments, especially Baptism, Confirmation, Confession and the Holy Eucharist during the celebration of Mass.
Part of collection of the Museum
 were works of art donated by
Pope Giulio II, bishop of Vercelli 
The devotion of Our Blessed Mother, manifest in her many Apparitions and the praying of the blessed rosary is another common Christian devotion. Thanks to the work of Saint Eusebius, first bishop of Vercelli, la Madonna Nera became the center of Marian devotion in the entire region of Piedmont.
La Madonna Nera, statue of
Our Blessed Mother, at her
chapel at the Shrine of Oropa,
60 kilometers northeast of
Saint Eusebius, the first bishop of Vercelli, was exiled from the Piedmont, by orders of Emperor Constantine II. While exiled in Palestine, he discovered the famous Madonna Nera statue of the Blessed Virgin, attributed to having been commissioned by Saint Luke. After the death of the Emperor, Saint Eusebius brought it back to Vercelli, where a shrine has been built for her devotion in nearby Oropa, on the outskirts of Biella.
The pastoral staff of the bishop
 donated by Archbishop Ferrero
cast in silver and gold, at the
early 16th Century
The devotion of the Saints, praying for their intercession in Heaven to God on our behalf, has been a very widespread devotion throughout all Christendom up until the Reform and by Catholics even up until today.

Bookbinding of the Codex Vercellensis
Evangelorum, a Gospel in Latin, prior to the
Vulgate of Saint Jerome. On the left if the front
cover, partially destroyed, with the symbols of
the four evangelists in each corner, and on the
back the figure of Saint Eusebius, first  Bishop
of Vercelli (283-371 A.D.) The bookbinding
is from the time of Sigeric (Xth Century). The
Gospel is unique in all Christendom.
In the context of this veneration of the Saints and Martyrs, the tradition of collecting relics has been a popular form of cult among Christians since the first centuries.
Silver Urn for ceremonies of Holy Thursday
Early 17th Century
The search for relics, and the consequent veneration of reliquaries came to a point of such exaggeration at certain times in popular Christian cult, that the essence of the Bible seemed to take backstage, under the stampede of Saints and similar paraphernalia.

Chalice and Eucharistic
The Reformation helped the Protestants, and eventually Catholics, to put God the Father, and His Son Christ, who saved us, back into center. Especially after the Second Vatican Council, theology and pastoral work became more “Christocentric”.
Gold and silver chalices from the 19th and 20th
The idea of a reliquary in today’s world may seem out of context, strange and somewhat bizarre. Religion in the Middle Ages frequently tend to evoke images both foul and fetish, lurid as well as full of superstition. 
Monstrance from the late
18th Century.

When my wife and I visited the shrine of Saint Anthony in Padua back in the 1980’s, she was shocked when she saw their prized relic of their famed preacher: his tongue. The sight of such a gory relic evoked a reaction that she resumed in one word: “Grotesque!”

Limoges reliquary  for relics
 of Saint Catherine, a gift from
the Bishop of nearby Cremona
when the Vercelli Cathedral
inaugurated her chapel
(1205 AD). Gold-plated wooden
box, decorated with enamel
vitreous finishing in lapis lazuli.  
Indeed a treasure!

Yet as we grew older, and traveled to many other shrines throughout Christendom, we studied beforehand in earnest the historical background of every church and monastery we were to visit, in an attempt to escape the context of our own limited perspective, our personal hic et nunc. We try to do our homework, in order to understand faith and art in a historically accurate context.

This reliquary is of the
architectural type, and contain
relics of the Blessed Virgin and
Saint Catherine. Reliquaries were
portable wealth in the Middle
Ages, a source of prestige for
the owner or donor.  
Probably even as early as the IVth Century, the devotion of saints and of their reliquaries were in some places out of control, prompting Saint Augustine in his City of God, Book XIII, Chapter 27, to caution us: But, nevertheless, we do not build temples, and ordain priests, rites, and sacrifices for these same martyrs; for they are not our gods, but their God is our God.”
This reliquary has a combination
of animal and architectural

Saint Agustine continues, and explains the proper function in the Christian faith of reliquaries:  Certainly we honor their reliquaries, as the memorials of holy men of God who strove for the truth even to the death of their bodies, that the true religion might be made known

Two reliquaries in the form of

Relics are part of the body of a saint, or something he wore or used or something he came into contact with during his life. Relics are still required for altar stones, as part of the procedure of consecrating a Catholic church. During the first centuries, Christian worship being outlawed in the Roman Empire, the celebration of the Eucharist took place to a large extent in Catacombs, and typically on top of Christian tombs.
Inside the Criptoportico of Citta
Aosta a sarcophagus was
converted a baptismal font and
altar for saying Mass.

Many Christians died giving testimony of their belief in Christ: they were called martyrs. Some were tortured, in an attempt to force them to recant.  The reliquary is something similar to a Christian equivalent to a Medal of Honor.
Reliquary in form of an arm.
This most recently introduced piece of art, Il Cammino di Un Uomo, Giorgio Sambonet, 2007, shows us that Vercelli Cathedral Treasure Museum is not closed into the past, but is open to the present and to the future. It appropriate to finish our visit at the Cathedral Treasury Museum of Vercelli, as representatives of the Road of Faith & Art, with a piece of art entitled The Road of a Man. As this piece of bronze shows us, our perspective of life, of our world, of people, of our loved ones, and of Our Creator, evolves as we grow. Giorgio Sambonet confesses that his relationship with God has changed over the years. Giorgio is not only a sculptor, but a poet as well.

Il Cammino di Un Uomo,(2007)
(The Road of a Man), by
Giorgio Sambonet
art from the 21st Century
Crops and good harvests eventually brought trade, prosperity, industry, economic growth and culture, particularly Faith and Art. This is why our road, the Road of Faith and Art brought us here to Vercelli. a hub for pilgrims past, present and future.

Estela and I enjoyed our walks
in Kennedy Park, a promenade
connecting the zone of the
Cathedral, the Train Station,
and several of the classical
Palazzi of downtown Vercelli.

Vercelli is an enchanting city, full of culture and history, a lovely place to stay a few days, somewhat off the beaten track of more congested tourist destinations in Italy, where you will probably enjoy a stroll in the park, encounter delicious food and friendly people, that have been welcoming pilgrims, like us, for centuries.

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