All Hallows' Day; Only the Best for Him

Saints’ Race Shows Reason to Celebrate

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 6, 2008 ( While the rest of Rome was sleeping off Halloween festivities, on Nov. 1, a group of men and women got up and showed the city what the holiday was really about.

The Corsa dei Santi, or the Saints’ Race, Rome’s answer to the Halloween activities of dressing up in sordid and often tawdry costumes of demons and witches, debuted last Saturday to an enthusiastic reception.

Over 2,000 participants gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the 6.5 mile (10.5 kilometer) race organized by the Salesian foundation “Don Bosco nel Mondo,” to raise money for their missions in Congo.

Rome’s new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, wearing a green tracksuit and the red, white and green sash of his office, joined the crowd gathered in the square to start the race, then exchanged his sash for a number and raced alongside the group. (He made a very respectable time, by the way)

The race took the participants by the principal Christian sites of the city, passing the Mammertime prison where St. Peter and Paul were held, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major before returning to St. Peter’s Square in time to pray the midday Angelus with the Pope.

A second shorter race was also held covering the four kilometers around the Vatican area, but most of the runners opted for the more challenging course.

This Christian response to an increasingly paganized holiday period recalled the days of St. Phillip Neri, the Florentine who came to evangelize Rome in the 16th century in new and clever ways, becoming one of the city’s most beloved saints.

St. Phillip Neri originated the devotion of the seven churches, a day of prayer, picnics and pilgrimage while visiting the historic churches of the city to counter the drunken festivities of Martedi Grasso or Shrove Tuesday.

Some runners dedicated their efforts to their local parish saint, so St. Catherine and Padre Pio were honored as their devotees wore T-shirts or medallions to celebrate their favorite intercessors.

The Saints’ Race also attracted runners from further afield. Nicholas George, a seminarian at the University of St. Thomas Catholic Studies program, together with a childhood friend who is now a seminarian at the North American College, found a different way to tour Rome through this race.

For two future priests, “To run through more than 2,000 years of history was pretty great,” said George. “To start from St. Peter’s Square, lined with saints, and to run the race through the streets they won over with their blood — it was definitely my best day in Rome so far.”

George described the best moment of the race as “peaking the Esquiline hill to see St. Mary Major. We’d already run from St. Peter and passed the Colosseum and St. John Lateran; after St. Mary Major was the big downhill that led into the home stretch.”

Following in the footsteps of the multitudes of saints who “have run the good race” through the same streets taken by the runners, the meaning of the universal call to sainthood became all the clearer.

As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You know well enough that when men run in the race, the race is for all, but the prize is for one. Run, then, for victory. Every athlete must keep all his appetites under control; and he does it to win a crown that perishes, whereas ours is an imperishable crown.”

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Finery for Christ

Last week a stunning exhibit opened in the treasury museum of Santa Maria Maggiore, dedicated to Nicola da Guardiagrele, an Italian goldsmith of the 15th century.

Born in 1385 in Chieti in the Abruzzi region of Italy, Nicola lived for 77 years, spanning the end of the Gothic era and dawn of the Renaissance, and his works reflect the best of both of these artistic worlds.

About 15 exquisitely crafted objects are beautifully displayed in the renovated space of the basilica’s museum. After a meticulous restoration, the art of Nicola da Guardiagrele offers a scintillating glimpse of the liturgical world of the 15th century.

Visitors are greeted with a fascinating display explaining two techniques of goldsmithery: enameling and beaten relief design. Although these are only two of the numerous techniques used by Nicola to craft his works, they convey the precision and patience required for this art.

Two 20-inch high monstrances, meant to contain the consecrated Host, flank this first display, offering examples of Nicola’s mastery of metal working. They are among the earliest works in the show, dating from 1413 and 1418.

They feature elegant pointed silver spires and frame the Host with little trefoil windows reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals. The miniature tabernacle is surmounted by St. Michael the Archangel, a popular hero in the Abruzzi region. Inside, a kneeling figure of Mary, cloaked in blue enamel, holds the disc that supports the Host.

This custom of placing a figure in the monstrance was abandoned after the Council of Trent for fear that the faithful might mistake the Blessed Sacrament for a relic, but it was interesting to see this medieval take on the Pietà, Mary holding the body of her Son.

Nicola da Guardiagrele excelled in the production of processional crosses and most of the works in the show are large silver crosses, decorated with gold plate, filigree, incisions and beautifully modeled figures. Another reminder of a bygone age are the two faced crosses, i.e. having images on either side.

One face shows Christ lifeless on the cross, his sensitively modeled body already far beyond the serpentine forms of the Gothic era.

Some of the crosses boast images of the Evangelists, others the pelican tearing at its own breast to feed its young, while others still tell the stories of the Virgin. The shapes are the same, but the varieties are as infinite as the blessings wrought by Christ’s sacrifice.

The opposite side of the cross shows the enthroned Christ, a reminder of his second coming. As these objects were paraded through the streets, the faithful would first view Christ’s sacrifice, and then as the procession passed by, they would see Christ seated in judgment.

One of the crosses was stolen from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Chieti in 1979 and broken into pieces. From 1980 to 1982 most of the pieces were traced and returned, but the last fragment, that of the mourning Virgin Mary, was only found in September 2008, one month before the show opened.

The most spectacular piece is an altar frontal from the cathedral of Teramo. It is a three by five foot rectangle made up of over 20 silver panels showing the life of Christ. The work, made in 1430-48, demonstrates that Nicola had seen the spectacular baptistery doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti in Florence.

The panels of the annunciation and the temptation of Christ reflect the last vestiges of Ghiberti’s Gothic elegance while the Last Supper and flagellation scenes present the Renaissance love of symmetry.

Nicola adds interesting virtuoso touches to the work from a basket woven in silver wire for the manger in the Nativity to the knotted strands of silver for the whips in the flagellation, the fine details of a master craftsman.

The work also reveals the input of the Franciscans. One panel represents a vivid and detailed image of the mocking of Christ, a theme particularly dear to the Franciscan order. And sure enough, in the lower right corner St. Francis, the alter Christus, is depicted receiving the stigmata.

The intricate objects offered a wonderful moment of recalling a time when the Body of Christ was considered so precious that it was best honored by the expression of the finest materials of the earth fused with the greatest skill of man’s hands.

The exhibit will be open everyday from 8:30 a.m. until 6.30 p.m. and will be here until Dec. 8. Tickets are 4€.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italia
n campus. She can be reached at

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