Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Famous Medieval Relic of St James the Greater

All Catholics know that the church of Santiago di Compostella in Spain is one of the most important pilgrimage shrines in the world. Far less well known today is the fact that the Tuscan city of Pistoia was once another major locus of pilgrimage in honor of St James the Great. Since the middle of the 12th century, the cathedral of St Zeno has possessed a relic of the Apostle, a small piece of his skull acquired by Bishop Atto in 1145. Last November, I took a nighttime tour of the cathedral, during which the archpriest, Don Luca Carlesi, gave an extremely interesting presentation on its history. In the Middle Ages, the relic was a major draw for pilgrims who could not travel all the distance to Compostella. Large crowds of pilgrims were often a source of great prosperity to medieval cities, and, as Don Luca phrased it to a mostly local group of visitors, “Everything that our ancestors were able to make of the city of Pistoia in the High Middle Ages is due to the presence of this relic.”
The reliquary of St James the Apostle, made in the 15th century; it also contains relics of Maria Salome, traditionally identified as his mother, St Martin of Tour, and two local early martyrs, priests named Rufinus and Felix.
The relic was formerly kept in a special chapel gated off from the rest of the church at the back of the right nave; this chapel was the property of the city, and under its jurisdiction, not of the cathedral and its bishop and canons. The city’s governing council held its meetings in it, as a sign of the Apostle’s protection and patronage, and its constitution was kept in the small safe-room which also stored its precious objects.

Between 1287 and 1456, the chapel’s altar was commissioned in different stages. The various parts of it have been dismantled, reassembled and reordered on several occasions; during the Second World War, it was taken apart and removed to a deposit for safe-keeping. and afterwards reassembled. The current arrangement dates from the year 1953. Since the panels are made of silver, it is now kept behind rather thick glass to prevent people from touching them, which makes a certain amount of lens flare unavoidable.
Several parts of this upper panel were originally a frontal. Two of the figures were stolen and never recovered; this is why the figures which were inserted in the niches to either side of St James’ head to replace them are slightly too large.
St James with a pilgrim’s hat and staff.
The panels of the frontal have also been rearranged. The upper register shows the Annunciation and Visitation, the Birth of Christ, Christ in majesty between the Virgin and St James, the arrival of the Magi, and their adoration of the Christ Child. The middle register shows King Herod ordering the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, the arrest of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Angel’s appearance to the Three Marys at the tomb, and Christ’s to St Thomas. The lower register shows the Ascension, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Sermon on the Mount, followed by the condemnation and beheading of St James.
Stories of St James on the left side panel (originally on the right). From top to bottom: his calling by Christ; his mother asks for her sons to sit at Christ’s sides, the Gospel of his feast day (Matthew 20, 20-23); James and his brother John are named “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3, 13-19); James preaches to the crowds after the Resurrection; his arrest; his condemnation by King Herod; his prayer before his execution; his beheading. The last panel shows the transportation of his relic to Pistoia.
Stories of the Old Testament on the right side panel (originally on the left). From top to bottom: the Creation of Adam and of Eve; the Fall of Man and Expulsion from Paradise; Cain and Abel; Noah’s Ark; the blessing of Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receives the Law and preaches it to the children of Israel; the election and coronation of King David. The final two switch to the life of the Virgin Mary: her Birth, her Presentation in the temple, and her espousal to St Joseph.
In the year 1780, Pistoia suffered the terrible misfortune of receiving as its bishop one Scipione de’ Ricci, a creature of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It was he who called the infamous Synod of Pistoia, whose program for liturgical reform (inter alia) was condemned in 1794 by Pope Pius VI beatae memoriae in the bull Auctorem Fidei. Like all good Jansenists of the era, he was a strident opponent of devotion to the Sacred Heart, and like all truly modern liturgical reformers, filled with contempt for the ordinary faithful and their prayer life. On the fatuous pretext that devotion to St James was distracting people from the Eucharist, since the chapel of the latter always had more candles lit around it, the entire chapel of St James was destroyed. This groove on a column at the back of the church is one of the few remaining signs of its presence; part of the metal gate that sectioned it off from the rest of the church was formerly mounted into it.
This window was of course formerly open, and the door with the fresco of Christ between St James and St John was the entrance to the chapel.
The façade and bell-tower of the cathedral.

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