Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ceremonial Curiosities and Queer Sights in Foreign Churches

One of my favourite reads over at Project Canterbury is a 1938 book by an English clergyman called Edward J. G. Forse. Forse, to be quite frank, was a liturgical tourist and seems to have spent a huge amount of time tramping about the European continent recording various curiosities in the (mostly) Roman Catholic churches he came across. The book, grandly titled Ceremonial Curiosities and Queer Sights in Foreign Churches, Ecclesiological and other notes from the travel diaries of Edward J. G. Forse, M.A., F.R.G.S. is a treasure trove of charmingly snarky observations of liturgical irregularities and other curiosites. It's easy to imagine Forse running a 'blog were he around today. Take for instance his pontifications on the subject of altar candles:
Adrian Fortescue says cheerfully, "The High Altar of a church will normally have six larger candlesticks with candles" (Ceremonies of the Roman Rite, p. 7).

On July 17th, 1926, there were no candles at all on the High Altar, or any other altar, of the Cathedral of Huesca in Spain. On December 30th, 1913, there were no candles at all on the High Altar of the Cathedral of Chartres in France, but six fine candlesticks were arrayed, three north and three south of the altar, on the altar steps. At the famous Cathedral of Milan the High Altar is adorned with only two great lights, with a crucifix but no Tabernacle. At the noble church of San Petronio in Bologna you may find four candles on the High Altar, or you may find two: you will not find six. At the High Mass at the High Altar of Seville Cathedral on July 7th, 1912, there were only four lighted candles throughout the service. In the Cathedral of Huesca in Spain and in both the Cathedrals of Zaragoza you will find only two very small candles on any High Altar, and those set on the mensa at the extreme western edge. They are chained to the Table (as at S. Saviour's Cathedral in Southwark) and a lavabo towel is tied with tape to the Epistle Candle: but they are taken away directly after the Blessing and only replaced in time for the next Mass. But in both these dioceses the scarcity of candles is compensated for by the presence of a huge glazed circular recess, full of Sanctuary Lamps, high on the east wall above the altar: a thing I have found nowhere else in all Europe.
Less pedantically, he can also rise to the level of the anecdote:
Lengthy preachers, like myself, will appreciate this: on July 28th, 1907, I attended the 9 a.m. Mass in the Liebfraukirche at Zurich, ready to start for a long tramp as soon as it ended. A Capuchin in a brown habit mounted the pulpit and when the three ministers descended to the banc d'oeuvre, the celebrant sent the server to put out the six lights on the altar, presumably for economy's sake. After thirty minutes of the Capuchin, the celebrant sent the server back to light the six candles once more, presumably as a gentle hint. The Capuchin waited in a stony silence until the sixth was lighted, and then he gave us another twenty minutes more! When I hear how preferable to a cast-iron uniformity is "diversity in unity" I sometimes wonder if the speaker is really intending to praise the practices of the Roman Catholic Church on the continent of Europe!
I could quote dozens of fascinating pasages, but will confine myself to just one more:
At Monza, in April 1929, I was permitted a close scrutiny of the famous "Iron Crown of Lombardy," and saw also many personal relics (hair combs, etc.) of Queen Theodolinda and her contemporaries. I can still not understand the mentality which exhibits in the same room as these genuine antiques "the handbags which the Twelve Apostles carried about Galilee"; nor could I feel excited, in July 1924, when I was shown, in the "Camara Santa" of Oviedo Cathedral, "the actual sandal and purse of S. Peter."
Yet my sense of decency was no less shocked in the Tresor of Rouen Cathedral when I read upon a small box, "Chasse de Notre Dame: XIXe siecle: renferme seulement quelques parcelles des vetements de la Ste Vierge Marie."
But I was really angry on January 30th, 1909, when I copied from a poster in the porch of the Cathedral of S. Gudule at Brussels, the details of a diocesan pilgrimage to Aix-la-Chapelle, where the faithful were promised a view--not of the golden pulpit, and the relics of Charlemagne's Court, but of "the white tunic our Lady was wearing when Christ was born"; "the swaddling bands of our Lord as actually described in the Gospel"; "the loin-cloth worn by our Lord upon the Cross"; "the cloth on which S. John Baptist's head fell and in which his body was shrouded." The psychology of "The Adoration of Relics" must clearly include a chapter on "The Exploitation of the Public."

1 comment:

John said...

The author is perhaps not aware that clothing worn in medieval solemn processions and tableaux by actors representing scenes from the life of Christ, Apostles and Mary were held in high esteem and often displayed. The medieval representers often retired to a life of prayer in an intense identification with the person they were portraying. It was understood that their clothing was not of course tha actual clothing of Chirts and the others, but they were nevertheless blessed and were considered holy. Unfortunately, the effort to make the distinction was not made for moderns, which exposed the church to ridicule.