Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Feast of St. Leo the Great at the Vatican

I am traveling today, and will be attending a conference until the middle of next week, so I won’t have much time for writing for the next few days. Given yesterday’s appalling news from Rome, I thought it might be encouraging to remember some happier times for the See of Peter; this post was originally made in 2010. Sed multa renascentur quae jam cecidere!

On the calendar of the Ordinary Form of Roman Rite, November 10 is the feast of Pope St Leo I, who died on this day in the year 461; his reign of slightly more than 21 years is the tenth longest in the history of the Papacy, and certainly one of the most important. His relics are in one of the altars of the Basilica of St. Peter, which faithfully maintains the tradition of decorating the various side altars on the feasts of the Saints to whom they are dedicated.

Over the altar stands this extraordinary relief sculpture of Pope Leo putting Attila the Hun to flight, one of the last works of Alessandro Algardi, a great rival of Bernini.

The altar itself is decorated with a beautiful frontal on the feast day; the altar rail is decorated with flowers, and candles are kept burning on it all day.

Immediately to the left of the altar of Pope Leo stands the altar of the Madonna of the Column, a votive image painted on one of the columns of the Constantinian Basilica of St Peter. In the process of tearing down the ancient church and rebuilding, the section of the column with the fresco of the Virgin and Child was saved, and later mounted within this altar. The relics of the Sainted Popes Leo II (682-83), Leo III (795-816) and Leo IV (874-855) are housed within the altar, which is also dedicated to them.

Their relics are inside an ancient sarcophagus which was found within the ruins of the old basilica during the rebuilding process. This sarcophagus can be partially seen through the metal grill in the permanent altar frontal added in the later part of the 18th century.

In the floor immediately in front of St Leo I lies the tomb of Pope Leo XII, who reigned from 1823 to 1829. The inscription reads, “I, Leo XII, commending myself as a humble suppliant and follower of Leo the Great, my heavenly patron, have chosen the place of my burial here, close to his sacred remains, the least heir of so great a name.”

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