Where the holy things are

In his Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily (1823), Rev. John James Blunt describes several locations where the Lares, or Roman domestic gods, were commonly positioned and where contemporary Italians and Sicilians often keep images of saints. These are:

  1. “…in the public streets, particularly in situations where several ways met, and where the conflux of the populace was consequently greater. These were called Viales or Compitales…” (21)
  2. “…to guard the entrances of houses…” (24)
  3. “…for them a corner was reserved in their principle living rooms…” (25)
  4. “…guarding the chamber and bed from the influence of evil spirits by sight.” (26)
  5. “…the protection of shipping.” (30)
  6. “…for charms…” (40), particularly as pendants around the neck
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Vestiges of ancient manners and customs (1832)

Vestiges of ancient manners and customs, discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily (1832) by the Rev. John James Blunt is a compilation of Rev. Blunt’s observations on the culture of the Mezzogiorno region compared with texts describing that of antiquity. While Rev. Blunt, an Englishman, tends toward a tone at once condescending and titillated, many of his observations are worth reading.

Chapters:

I. Introductory Remarks
II. On Saints
III. On the Virgin
IV. On the Festival of S. Agatha at Catania
V. On the Churches of Italy and Sicily
VI. On the Religious Services and Ceremonies of the Italians and Sicilians
VII. On the mendicant Monks
VIII. On sacred Dramas
IX. On the Dramatic Nature of the Ceremonies of the Church of Italy
X. On Charms
XI. On the Burial of the Dead
XII. On the Agriculture of Italy
XIII. On the Towns, Houses, Utensils, &c. Of the Italians and Sicilians
XIV. On the Ordinary Habits, Food, and Dress, of the Italians and Sicilians
XV. Miscellaneous Coincidences of Character between the ancient and modern Italians

It is available through the grace of archive.org for reading and download here.

Applying domus-logic to holy figures

“Holy figures were also celebrated by the people for their place in the domus: the most cherished and important Catholic figures in Italian Harlem were sacred figures in domus relationships. The Madonna held her infant in her arms; Saints Cosmos and Damian were brothers who died together; Saint Ann was loved as the mother of the Madonna. Covello discovered that southern Italians conceptualized the Trinity as the Holy Family, with Sant’Anna, Jesus’ nonna (Grandmohter), always in the background as an additional figure.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 86.

Cult of Heroes vs. Cult of Saints

“The rise of the Christian cult of saints took place in the great cemeteries that lay outside the cities of the Roman world: and, as for the handling of dead bodies, the Christian cult of saints rapidly came to involve the digging up, the moving, the dismemberment–quite apart from much avid touching and kissing–of the bones of the dead, and, frequently, the placing of these in areas from which the dead had once been excluded. …Even when confined to their proper place, the areas of the dead, normative public worship and the tombs of the dead were made to coincide in a manner and with a frequency for which the pagan and Jewish imagination had made little provision.

“To idealize the dead seemed natural enough to men in Hellenistic and Roman times. Even to offer some form of worship to the deceased, whether as a family or as part of a public cult in the case of exceptional dead persons, such as heroes or emperors, was common, if kept within strictly defined limits. Thus, the practice of ‘heroization,’ especially of private cult offered by the family to the deceased as a ‘hero’ in a specially constructed grave house, has been invoked to explain some of the architectural and artistic problems of the early Christian memoria. But after that, even the analogy of the cult of the hero breaks down. For the position of the hero had been delimited by a very ancient map of the boundaries between those beings who had been touched by the taint of human death and those who had not: the forms of cult for heroes and for the immortal gods tended to be kept apart. Above all. what appears to be almost totally absent from pagan belief about the role of the heroes is the insistence of all Christian writers that the martyrs, precisely because they had died as human beings, enjoyed close intimacy with God. Their intimacy with god was the sine qua non of their ability to intercede for and, so, to protect their fellow mortals. The martyr was the ‘friend of God.’ He was an intercessor in a way which the hero could never have been. …

“We can chart the rise to prominence of the Christian church most faithfully by listening to pagan reactions to the cult of martyrs. For the progress of this cult spelled out for pagans a slow and horrid crumbling of ancient barriers… In attacking the cult of saints, Justinian the Apostate mentions the cult as a novelty for which there was no warrant in the gospels; but the full weight of his religious abhorrence comes to bear on the relation between the living and the corpses of the dead that was implied in the Christian practice: ‘You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago. You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres.’ He turned against the cult practiced at the tombs of the saints all the repugnance expressed by the Old Testament prophets for those who haunted tombs and burial caves for sinister purposes of sorcery and divination.”

Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints, pp. 5-7

 

Madonne vs. santi

“The concepts saint and Mary evoke quite different connotations in Italy. A saint is much more likely to be associated with the local community. A saint, for example, is likely the protector of that community. The local church will likely be dedicated to a saint. Most of the images that peer down from the altars in that church will be the images of saints. A saint, in other words, is someone close and accessible.

“Madonnas, however, are distant. In part, distance is established by the fact already mentioned–that madonnas are more likely than saints to be associated with sanctuaries far away from population centers. This is not to deny that some madonna cults grow up in urban areas. On the contrary, it is quite common to hear about an outdoor image of Mary in some city that suddenly starts dispensing favors, becomes the object of popular devotion, and is then brought into a church. But these are not usually powerful madonnas; the most powerful madonnas in Italy are almost always those whose images are kept in distant rural sanctuaries.”

Carroll, Michael P. Madonnas that Maim. p. 26.