Friday, August 06, 2010

August in Rome - the feast of Our Lady of the Snows

John Sonnen of Orbis Catholicus has posted a video of one of Rome's most beloved liturgical traditions. Each year, during the principal Mass of the Dedication of Saint Mary Major, a shower of white jasmine petals is let fall from the roof of the basilica during the Gloria. These petals represent the miraculous snowfall by which, according to the famous legend, the Virgin Mary indicated the place where she wished a Basilica to be built in her honor, during the reign of Pope Liberius.

The month of August is a particularly important one for the Church in the Eternal City. The day after the feast of the oldest church in the world dedicated to Our Lady, there occurs the feast of the Transfiguration. In the Tridentine usage, this feast is also the patronal feast of the Cathedral of Rome, popularly known as "Saint John in the Lateran", but properly called the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior. This tradition reflects the origin of the feast, which was adopted into the Roman Rite from the Byzantine only in the middle of the fifteenth century; the Greek name "Transfiguration of the Savior" indicates that Christ reveals Himself to His chosen disciples as both God and Savior on Mount Tabor. On the tenth, Rome commemorates one of her greatest martyrs, Saint Lawrence, to whom a large number of Roman churches are dedicated; among these, the private chapel of the Popes within their former residence at the Lateran. This chapel, Saint Lawrence in the Palace, is now usually referred to as the "Sancta Sanctorum", the Holy of Holies. This name derives not from its status as the Pope's chapel, but from its magnificent relic collection, which includes a piece of Saint Lawrence's gridiron. Shortly after the most important feast of the Mother of God, the Assumption, the Church also commemorates in August Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, a relic of whose flayed skin is kept in the church dedicated to him on the Tiber Island.

The Sistine Chapel was constructed next to Saint Peter's Basilica in the latter part of the 15th century to replace the Sancta Sanctorum, since the Popes were no longer living at the Lateran. This pre-restoration photograph of Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine shows the Apostle Bartholomew (right), holding a knife in one hand, and his own skin in the other, and Saint Lawrence (left), holding his gridiron; both are sitting at the very feet of the Lord, set apart from the rest of the company of the Saints. Notice how, immediately above the altar of the Pope's private chapel, Michelangelo gives a special prominence to two saints who are particularly venerated in the city of Rome. (By the way, the story that he painted his own face in the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew is not true!)

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