Wednesday, November 27, 2019

New Liturgical Fixtures at the Lateran Basilica

Earlier this month, two new liturgical fixtures were installed in the cathedral of Rome, popularly known as St John in the Lateran, more officially as the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior. The first of these is a cross suspended from the inside of the baldachin; this was formerly a very common custom in Italy, and can still be seen in churches like the basilica of St Petronius in Bologna, and the basilica of St Ambrose in Milan. The Lateran basilica was destroyed by fire in 1360, and rebuilt immediately afterwards; this baldachin is one of the very few things that survives (with many restorations) from that rebuilding project, and would certainly have had such a cross when it was originally made.

The new cross is actually a copy of a processional cross made in 1451, and kept in the basilica’s museum, of a type which was very common in Renaissance Italy. (See previous posts with examples here and here.) In this particular case, the cross is two sided. On the side facing the nave, the risen Christ sits on a throne in the middle, surrounded by the four Evangelists.

On the celebrant’s side, Christ is seen on the Cross, surrounded by other scenes of His life. It has to be said that while this object is very beautiful, as a substitute for the altar cross, it simply does not work. The altar of the Lateran is not very deep, and in its current position, the celebrant standing at it can only look at Christ by awkwardly tilting his head all the way back. From the nave on the other hand, it gives the odd effect of having one Cross directly underneath another, as seen in the first photograph above.

Far more successful in terms of placement, given that versus populum is unfortunately going to be with us for a while, is this new ambo, which was made to replace a much uglier one. (The ugly one can be seen at this link; click the Italian word “ambone”.) A very nice Paschal candlestick made of marble, which is not new, has been set into place next to it.

The carved marble block mounted into the front is a piece of the ancient basilica, many fragments of which have been recovered and reused in various ways throughout the complex. The twisted columns are new, but made in imitation of those in the church’s early 13th-century cloister. The eagle is another nice touch which looks back to the building’s medieval history; as I have noted before, it was very common to decorate lecterns and ambos with eagles, so much so that many liturgical books refer to a movable lectern an “aquila” in their rubrics.
The crest of Angelo De Donatis, Cardinal Vicar of the Diocese of Rome and Archpriest of the Lateran Basilica, with his motto “Nihil caritate dulcius - nothing is sweeter than charity.”

On the opposite side, the crest of Pope Francis.
Not brand new, but relatively recent (within the last few years) is this arrangement in front of the Sacrament altar in the left transept. Two 17th-century tapestries with episodes of the lives of the basilica’s co-patrons, Ss John the Baptist and Evangelist, were set within these wooden frames (and protected by thick glass, of course), with a very nice set of candlesticks on top of them. This sections off the area in front of the altar as a place reserved exclusively for prayer.
Another fairly recent installation (2014) is this wooden statue of the Virgin and Child, a work of the 14th century from somewhere in the region to the north of Rome between Umbria and the Marches. Although it is not in the best condition, it is notable as one of the few painted wooden statues of that era that preserves a substantial amount of its original coloring. In keeping with a scheme that was common at the time (but not always rigidly adhered to), by which a red robe symbolizes the flesh and blood of our humanity, and a blue one God’s regality and divinity, Christ’s outer robe is red and His inner garment blue, to indicate that He hid his divinity, so to speak, by taking on our humanity. The Virgin Mary, on the other hand, has a red inner robe and blue outer one, to show that Her humanity is clothed over by the royal dignity that comes from Her position as the Mother of God.

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