The Otranto 800; Lackluster Devotion

Martyrdom on the Vigil of the Assumption

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 20, 2009 ( In 1480, Italy celebrated the feast of the Assumption with spectacular liturgies, processions and, of course, banquets. With the exception of Otranto, a tiny town on the Adriatic coast, where 800 men offered their lives for Christ. They were the Martyrs of Otranto.

A few weeks earlier the Turkish fleet had docked just outside the Otranto harbor. Their arrival had been feared for years; since the fall of Constantinople in 1454, it was only a matter of time before the Ottoman Turks encroached on Europe.

Otranto stands closest to the Ottoman-controlled eastern side of the Adriatic.
St. Francis de Paul recognized the imminent danger to the town and its Christian citizens and pleaded for reinforcements to protect Otranto. He predicted, «Oh unhappy citizens, how many cadavers do I see covering your streets? How much Christian blood do I see flooding you?» But the leaders of Christendom refused to address the danger.

On July 28, 1480, 18,000 Turkish sailors swarmed the harbor of Otranto. They offered terms of surrender to the citizens, hoping to gain this first foothold into Italy without resistance and complete a lightening conquest of the Adriatic coast. The Sultan Mehmed II had boasted to Pope Sixtus IV that he would «allow his horse to eat his oats on the Tomb of St. Peter.»

Pope Sixtus, recognizing the seriousness of the threat, exclaimed: «People of Italy, if you wish to continue to call yourselves Christians, defend yourselves!»

Although his pleas fell on deaf ears among most of the crowned heads of the peninsula — they were too busy fighting among themselves — the people of Otranto listened.

Fisherman, not fighters, they had no artillery and numbered under 15,000 including women, children and the elderly. But by common consent they took the keys to the city and cast them into sea, committing themselves completely to resisting the Turkish fleet.

The sophisticated Turkish artillery ripped at the strong defensive walls, but the Otrantini repaired the breaches as soon as they opened. Charging the walls, the Turks found the determined citizens impavidly defending the ramparts with boiling oil, without armor, and often using their bare hands.

The citizens of Otranto foiled the Sultan’s plan for a sneak attack and bought Italy two weeks of precious time to organize defenses and prepare to repel the invaders, but on Aug. 11, the Turks broke through the walls and overwhelmed the city.

The Turkish army methodically passed from house to house, sacking, looting and then setting them on fire. The few survivors took refuge in the cathedral. Archbishop Stefano, heroically calm, distributed the Eucharist and sat among the women and children of Otranto while a Dominican friar led the faithful in prayer from the pulpit.

The invading army broke open the door of the cathedral and the subsequent violence to the women, children and Archbishop — who was beheaded on the altar — shocked the Italian peninsula into action.

The Turks had taken the city, destroyed homes, enslaved its people and turned the cathedral into a mosque. Some 14,000 people had died in the capture of Otranto, mostly its own citizens, but a little band of 800 were left alive, so the Turks could fully dominate the proud partisans by forcing them to convert.

Their option was Islam or death. Eight hundred men, chained together, had lost home and family and seemed utterly subjugated to the victorious Turks.

One of the 800, a textile worker named Antonio Primaldo Pezzula, rose from humble craftsman to heroic leader on that day. Before the Pasha Agomat, Antonio turned to his fellow Otrantini and declared: «You have heard what it will cost to buy the remainder of our little lives! My brothers, we have fought to save our city; now it is time to battle for our souls!»

The 800 men aged 15 and up unanimously decided to follow the example of Antonio and offered their lives to Christ.

The Turks, who had hoped for moment of triumphant propaganda, wanted to avoid a massacre. They offered the return of the women and children who were about to be shipped off as slaves, in return for the conversion of the men, and they threatened a mass beheading if they failed to comply. Antonio refused, followed by the rest of men.

On the vigil of the Assumption, the 800 were led outside the city and beheaded. Tradition has it that Antonio Pezzula was beheaded first, but his acephalous body remained standing until the last Otrantino had been killed.

One of the executioners, a Turk named Barlabei, was so amazed by this prodigy that he converted to Christianity, and was also martyred.

The remains were lovingly collected, and are to this day kept in the Cathedral of Otranto. On the 500th anniversary of the sacrifice of the Otrantini, Pope John Paul II visited the city and paid homage to the martyrs.

Benedict XVI officially recognized their martyrdom in 2007, bringing Antonio Pezzula and his companions a step closer to their canonization.

This «hour of the laity» at Otranto, separated from us by a half a millennium, still resonates as an example of witness to the love of Christ. Few of us will ever be asked the same heroic sacrifice as Antonio Pezzuli and his fellow weavers, farmers and townsfolk, but how would we answer his exhortation: «Stand strong and constant in the faith: With this temporal death we will gain eternal life.»

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Last Saturday, during a visit home to the United States, I attended a lonely and unexceptional Mass for the feast of the Assumption. After living 20 years in Italy where every other church is named for the Assumption, Assunta is a common name among women, and the Pope flies in from his summer residence to celebrate this feast, the poorly attended service seemed a bit anticlimactic.

The decline of the feast of the Assumption corresponds to the accommodation made by the U.S. bishop’s conference: «Whenever Aug. 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, or Nov. 1, the solemnity of All Saints, falls on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.»

Intended to release the faithful from having to attend Mass two days in a row, in many cases the decree has resulted in lackluster Saturday celebrations of the Assumption of our Lady.

Although the dogma of the Assumption dates to 1950 when Pius XII declared Mary to have been bodily assumed into heaven, the celebration of Mary’s special privilege has been a part of Church life for over a millennium. Brought to the West as the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin, the devotion flourished in liturgy, art, music and popular culture.

The Assumption of Mary was the subject of the first Baroque dome to be painted in Rome. In 1623, Giovanni Lanfranco painted the cupola of Sant’Andrea della Valle, in a swirl of color and movement, representing the Blessed Virgin drawn up into the heavens amid flying angels and saints with the Trinity frescoed at the apex waiting to welcome her.

This first foray into representing the supernatural in the midst of rigid architectural order and solidity was a resounding success and became the standard style for church domes for the next century.

The Florentines of the Renaissance exerted their formidable ingenuity to make machines and stage sets to re-enact the event hoping to offer a glimpse of the awesome sight of Mary’s Assumption as witnessed by the apostles.

Vivaldi, inspired by this glorious miracle, wrote the beautiful music for the vespers to the feast, trying to enhance the artistic and liturgical beauty through sound.

And of course, the Palio — Siena’s famous horse race through the town square — was organized in honor of Mary, the patron of the city, and held on Aug. 15.

Sadly, the on-again/off-again celebrations for Assumption in the United States pale by comparison.

Europe welcomed this feast with joy in the Midd
le Ages, and even as man discovered more about the natural world, this link with the supernatural took on greater and greater significance. The special distinction of history’s most important mortal being «previewing» the bodily resurrection not only celebrated our mother and intercessor, but also rendered the mystery of heaven a little more accessible to the rest of us.

Artists, musicians and theatrical engineers have long drawn inspiration from this feast to render the sublime joy of this glorious mystery. With the harsh realities of our everyday world, a little more mid-summer’s celebration of the mystical might be in order.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at

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