Does the Neapolitan nativity scene hide a dark and mysterious side?
Here is a small video where I talk about it (as usual, you can turn on the English subtitles).
Does the Neapolitan nativity scene hide a dark and mysterious side?
Here is a small video where I talk about it (as usual, you can turn on the English subtitles).
In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?
The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:
There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.
This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).
A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.
Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).
Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).
In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.
But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.
The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.
One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?
This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.
Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.
This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.
Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.
Article by guestblogger Stefano Cappello
I lived in Catania for several years, first as a student at the liberal-arts college, then on the account of my work. Art always fascinated me, and being ale to live and travel throughout Sicily allowed me to discover this place where the highest expressions of human creativity lived together for thousands of years, sometimes blending together with unique results.
Visiting one of Catania’s churches, I happened to notice how the marble on the altar formed curious shapes: through the veinings, one could almost grasp grotesque faces, animal masks, bizarre figures.
The practice of putting two marble stones near each other in order to obtain a specular image is known as “macchia aperta” (book matched). Used for thousands of years, such a technique combines two consecutive slabs, which are cut and then put side by side, so that the veinings can form the image that up until then had been “sleeping” in the marble.
I started to visit other churches in town, only to find the phenomenon was quite widespread. The cutting of slabs and their arrangement were intentional, and these examples cannot be explained with pareidolia — the subconscious illusion that leads us to interpret artificial or natural visual stimuli as recognizable shapes.
Perhaps we should better think of these marble figures in relation to the concept of Gamahés, implying a sacred aspect of images and forms, which the Anima Mundi impresses within the stone in the shape of faces, animals, symbols or even whole landscapes, as in the case of the Paesina Stone. Through the same occult process, pictures could be ingrained in the marble by that very creative force, the natura naturans generating every aspect of reality, and they could be waiting for a sharp wit who, thanks to his sensitivity, will be able to bring them to light.
All these churches have in common the fact that they’ve been rebuilt from scratch after the devastating earthquake which on January 11, 1693, destroyed Catania. The city suffered huge losses, about 16.000 victims on a 20.000 citizen population.
A huge emergency project was set afoot to bring things back to normal in reasonable time. The reconstruction of the city shows how the catastrophe entailed a search for innovative architectural solutions of the highest quality. These innovations, which were applied in various degrees to all the villages struck by the earthquake in the Noto valley, were elaborated by what could be considered as a “unique experimental workshop of Baroque international models”.
In the particular case of Catania, the unity of this project can be seen on a structural level, as shock-absorbing materials were used in view of a possible new shake, and on a urban level. The city was completely re-planned, with broader streets and escape routes .
One of the marbles used in churches, the Libeccio Antico of Sicily, is also called Breccia Pontificia, because it was also used in the Vatican. This rare and precious marble, extracted from the Custonaci caves, is perfect for macchia aperta manufacturing, so that the internal veinings can emerge.
The fact that its figurative use was intentional is quite evident in the S. Agata la Vetere Church where, on the side altar that once contained the remains of the Martyr, these marbles can be found.
It looks like this red jasper slab was meant to represent the outline of the Saint’s body laying in a sarcophage. If we rotate the image, the composition is even clearer.
We can see the head, shoulders, the arms bent on her chest, her hips, legs, and her feet emerging from the garment.
Suggestion may go even further. On the silhouette’s chest, for example, one could almost see a Flaming Heart. A spherical shape is at the base of the figure, which is surrounded by a sort of aura.
The whole shape is consistent, in its proportions, with a female body.
The visual stimuli such a contour can suggest, if we consider it as standing on a globe, refer to the iconography of the Virgin Mary. This hypothetical “transfer” would be justified when applied to a female Saint, as in Christian tradition all female figures are in fact manifestations of the Sacred Feminine archetype.
Another example of the intentionality of these marble depictions can be found in the Church of St. Micheal Archangel. Here, like in other churches in town, the representations often appear in couples, at the bottom of the columns near the side altars.
These marbles show two stylized figures, of which we can make out the head, neck, stretched-out arms, chest and tunic. Behind these silhouettes are shapes that could be interpreted as wings, of which the veinings even seem to trace the plumage. The whole figure could refer to the Byzantine iconography of the Archangel.
In Catania’s churches, marbles take us on a trip through beasts, men, Saints and demons.
The following mirrored marbles seem to represent several faces, each wearing a hat that resembles a wolf’s head. This depiction could refer to the iconography of Hades, god of the Underworld, wearing the kunée, the Helm of Darkness.
If we suppose that marble workers acted freely, without their ecclesial clients knowing, we can imagine that their craftmanship combined with a knowledge of treatises was used to explore this figurative expression, and it could testify the existence of a clandestine ideology. These marbles could offer an example of such underground symbolism.
Here are two grotesque faces, of which we can identify the eyes, nose, mouth, and what looks like a mitre.
Here’s another curious image emerging from these slabs: a grinning creature, with what could be its hands (the veinings seem to outline the fingers) held before its chest, in a triangular shape.
The peculiarity of this grotesque face is that it can be found behind an altar, hidden from direct view. Is this an example of the typical Baroque need to fill out every empty space, of the horror vacui?
In the church of S. Francesco all’Immacolata we can find the following marbles, showing what looks like a donkey-headed seated figure. We can see its long ears, its snout, its nostrils. The hands, coherent in proportions, are in its lap and the symmetrical neinings on the slab’s sides give the perspective idea of a throne. What is interesting is that this figure has been created with an inlay work, using both the natural veinings and an artificial technique in order to obtain a specific figurative suggestion. This practice was already documented by Pliny, who in his Naturalis historia reported how, in his time, marble-cutters managed not only to cover with marble the walls of temples and public buildings, but even to carve them and insert small stones in shape of animals and other things. They actually began “painting with stone” (“coepimus et lapide pingere”, Nat. hist., Liber xxxv, 3).
The composition of these marble slabs seem to copy the structure of a railing from Samothracia, an important place for Mystery (Orphic) Cults in the Greek world. Here we have veinings that take the form of two bucrania on each side, and in the middle — where in the Samothracian version there was an eight-petal flower — a greek cross with four additional rays, as if to remain faithful to the original symbology.
We can imagine that such compositions sometimes referred to pre-existing models, and thus marble-makers were researching those exact shapes in the stone, while in other cases the veinings themselves suggested an image. These simulacra manifested themselves both with the firmness of symbols, archetypes, and the ever-changing uncertainty of the colored surface, the evanescent shape given by an immanent Nature.
The interesting aspect of this unsung chapter of Sicilian Baroque is that the Monstrous, the Grotesque, the Uneven which had not been adopted in religious or civil buildings, actually penetrated them in disguise. From three-dimensional sculpture to two-dimensional slabs, subtly flattened on the walls, decorating the altars right near those very paintings which were used to maintain the Church’s power in the form of Biblia pauperum, these marbles were a kind of parallel stone pinachoteca.
We do not know the ultimate goal of this figurative expression.
We can be sure it was intentional, and it was a thousand-year old decorative system which found its use in representing the bizarre and the grotesque, typical of Baroque culture and especially of the Sicilian Baroque. Probably known in the ecclesial environment at the time, at least in its highest levels, this art form was kept secret and not divulged to the masses.
The inherent ambiguity of these visual stimuli is similar to the lack of objectivity in the Rorschach inkblots, a projective test for which there are no correct answers but rather a subjective meaning.
One could ponder if clients and marble-workers considered the eventuality of the believers noticing these hidden compositions, only apparently chaotic. But even if someone became aware of it, he would had probably never mentioned it without risking the Inquisition, which was active on the island and only abolished in 1782.
Why then selecting rare and precious marbles to compose figures depicting grotesque masks? Was it a simple aesthetic pleasure for a selected few, or rather a specific apotropaic function, the monstrous image used as a spell to ward off the danger of a catastrophe similar to the one that destroyed the city?
The motivation behind such representations is still open to analysis. Several hypothesis could be put forward, just like many analogies can be found with the esoteric tradition — but we should not forget that “there is nothing an enchanted glare cannot recognize in shapes, spots, profiles within the stone” (Roger Caillois, La Scrittura delle Pietre).
To complete our visit to the Stone Pinachoteca, the slab which best represents the beginning and the end of this Voyage is one we can call “The Jester”.
Its vibrant eyes, sardonic smile, cap and bells. It reminds us of The Fool, the tarot card whose value is 0, the great multiplier. It is the archetype of everything beyond comprehension, the pilgrim on its Way, emerging from the stone to shout his warning: “Open your eyes!“
 Giuseppe Lanza Duke Camastra, who was nominated general vicar, and architect Giovan Battista Vaccarini were the two personalities mainly remembered for the reconstruction of Catania, while the documents from the Historic Archive and other sources do not report specific information about the workers, who remained anonymous.
Of the few names mentioned in the first years of re-building after the earthquake, a notable one is architect Salvatore De Amico, who is sometimes called Caput Magister, and was born in Aci S. Antonio, a feud belonging to the bishop of Catania. De Amico for five years acted as a bridge between the bishop’s curia and the construction sites: he himself managed funds, hired, coordinated and directed workers, evaluated and bought the materials and the necessary plots of land (Le maestranze acesi nella fase iniziale di ricostruzione di Catania, S. Condorelli).
The architect also designed the new map, and directed works, for the epicopal Palace and five other churches in the city.
The Episcopal curia was the direct client for these works and it is very likely that some religious personalities, among which the bishop Andrea Riggio (son of luigi Riggio Branciforte prince of Campofiorito, renowned aristocrat and diplomat), visited the building sites during construction, and were therefore aware of the decor that would adorn the interiors. ⇑