Otranto Cathedral: Where You Can See The Remains Of Catholicism’s Newest Saints

Otranto Cathedral
Pope Francis has beatified a long list of religious figures in the first creation of saints of his papacy, the Guardian reports. Included in this list are the 813 Martyrs of Otranto. These were victims of a massacre in the southern Italian town in 1480 when Ottoman soldiers beheaded them for refusing to convert to Islam.

It was common in Medieval and Renaissance Europe to display the remains of martyrs and saints, and the Martyrs of Otranto were no exception. They are on display in a huge ossuary in the Cathedral of Otranto. It’s a fitting home since many Otranto residents took shelter in the cathedral during the Ottoman attack on their city. Eventually, the Ottomans broke in, took away the people and turned the cathedral into a stable. The cathedral was reconsecrated the following year when the Italians recaptured Otranto.

The cathedral, first consecrated in 1088, has more to offer than the arresting sight of hundreds of bones stacked up on a wall. The floor is covered with one of the most impressive medieval mosaics in Europe – a complex 12th-century work of art showing Biblical scenes, Heaven, Hell and the Garden of Eden. There are also traces of early frescoes on the wall, a gilded ceiling and some fine Gothic tracery.

Some of the remains of the Martyrs of Otranto are kept in Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples. Italy is one of the best countries to see bits of holy people from the past. There are numerous saints’ relics in Rome, including a crypt of mummified monks. The city even has a Purgatory Museum. The Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, France, has Mary’s bones. Further east in Sozopol, Bulgaria, is a church with the bones of John the Baptist.

[Photo courtesy Laurent Massoptier]

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Vatican City Issues Special Stamps After Papal Resignation

Vatican City, Vatican stampsCall me old fashioned, but when I’m on the road there’s something special about writing a postcard, sticking on some local stamps and sending it to loved ones back home. Receiving mail from overseas is almost as much fun.

I especially like rare stamps from smaller or less frequently traveled countries. Sadly I couldn’t send any postcards from Somaliland because they don’t have a mail service. I was also disappointed that on my recent trip to Iraq we never stopped at a post office.

Luckily you don’t have to go so far to find strange and soon-to-be collectable stamps. The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has forced Vatican City to issue a special set of stamps.

They are emblazoned with an angel holding the Arms of the Apostolic Camera and the words “Sede Vacante MMXIII” (“Vacant See 2013”). They come in four different denominations of 70 and 85 euro cents, 2 euros, and 2.50 euros.

Stamps for the vacant see are designed shortly after a new Pope takes office and are kept until he dies, to be used for the brief period before the next Pope is elected.

Stamp Magazine reports that since the Vatican started issuing stamps, the Vacant See issues have only been used for a total of 20 days. I suspect this means that franked (used) Vacant See stamps will later become pretty valuable owing to their rarity. So if you’re in Italy, head on over to that little country inside Rome and send out some postcards. Your friends and family will thank you for it a few years from now.

[Photo courtesy Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office]

The catacombs of Rome


“There were 500,000 people buried here,” my guide whispers.

She leads me down a dimly lit, narrow passage that seems to go on forever. To either side the rough walls are lined with small niches.

“These are where the bodies were kept. There are twenty kilometers of tunnels, and while most of the tombs are now empty, some are still unopened.”

We are in the Catacombs of Domitilla, one of the largest of a half dozen underground burial places dug out by Christians during the second and third centuries AD, when most of the Roman Empire was still pagan. My guide, a knowledgeable young Polish woman, is leading me through a warren of passageways, rooms, even subterranean churches. Incredible facts drop from her mouth every minute.

“This is the oldest of the catacombs with some of the earliest Christian paintings anywhere. There’s even a painting of the Last Supper that’s 1,800 years old.”

The frescoes are tucked away in little vaults built by wealthy families, or on the domes of small mausoleums. They show simple Christian scenes–the Good Shepard, baptism, the saints, painted in a capable but not overly talented hand.

“Since most people were pagan, the early Christians had trouble getting good artists. You can see it with the inscriptions too. They’re not done in orderly lines and clear letters like you see on monuments above ground.”

Somehow that makes me like them more, that these paintings were done by common people, not famous artists. The ones showing prayer are the most evocative because they seem to portray real individuals as they looked in life. They all take the same pose–with arms flexed outwards, palms up.

“This is how everyone prayed back then, both pagans and Christians,” my guide explains.

“Shi’ite Muslims still start their prayers in that pose,” I say.

She gives me a narrow look before leading me down another hallway. We pass a vertical shaft where we can still see small footholds cut into the side for the original builders to climb to the levels above and below us. The walls and ceiling of the tunnels are rough, with traces of the last cuts of the pick clearly visible. The stone is volcanic tufa, a rock so soft that it can be scraped with a fingernail, yet compact enough that it can support an immense amount of weight.

My guide stops in the middle of the hall and points to the wall.

“Look, this one is still buried here.”

One of the niches is sealed up with a rectangular slab. I know I’m not supposed to touch but I do anyway, pressing my hand against the cool, damp stone. Inches beyond my warm flesh lie the cold bones of one of the earliest followers of the world’s biggest religion. What I’d give to talk to him or her for just five minutes. My guide notices what I’m doing and smiles.

“Most of the bones were removed in the Middle Ages to protect them from relic hunters, but a few hundred tombs still remain unopened,” she explains.

%Gallery-102540%Sadly this slab is blank. Some have the person’s name carved on them. In some sections of the tunnel fragments of these tomb facings have been plastered onto the wall by later hands. The earliest inscriptions are in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Later ones, dating to the fourth century when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, are in Latin.

Pagan Romans cremated their dead, but Christians believed in resurrection and practiced burial so the body could rise up on Judgment Day. The Roman Empire was generally tolerant of other religions, incorporating new gods into the existing pantheon, but it looked upon monotheistic Christianity and Judaism with mistrust. While followers of Jupiter or Mithras or Ra acknowledged the existence of other gods, the monotheists dismissed all other gods as impostors or demons. Even worse, they refused to sacrifice to the deified emperors. Several emperors persecuted them, although the extent and violence of these persecutions have been exaggerated by early Christian chroniclers. The image of thousands of Christians being thrown to the lions is myth. People were sometimes killed, but more often their churches would be destroyed and property confiscated. The main victims were church leaders like bishops and early popes, some of whom are buried here; regular Christians were generally left alone. Many of the biggest catacombs were built right under the Appian Way, the main road leading into the city and lined with the tombs of wealthy pagans. While everyone knew where they were, most pagans were content to leave the Christians to their strange rituals as long as they kept out of sight and didn’t cause trouble.

Two other networks of catacombs along the Appian Way are popular with visitors. The Catacombs of San Callisto are as impressive as those of Domitilla and have several good frescoes. The Catacombs of San Sebastiano, under the church of the same name, are smaller and less well preserved, yet there’s an interesting room used for funeral banquets where early Christians carved their names or the names of their departed loved ones along with prayers. All three catacombs can be seen in a single day.

The catacombs stay at a constant 15°C (59°F), so it’s best to bring a long-sleeved shirt or light sweater. Photography is not allowed. I won’t ask how GerardM at Wikimedia Commons got the above image, or how the photographers who took the pictures of the frescoes in the attached gallery got theirs. I’ll assume they went through the red tape to get permission from Papal Commission of Archaeology. I’ve heard that if I do the same I can get a papal archaeologist to guide me through parts of the catacombs closed to regular visitors. My guide warns me I need a valid reason and lots of patience with bureaucracy. Perhaps next year I’ll be back.

“We’re nearing the end of the tour,” my guide says, “but I have one last thing to show you.”

We come to a large, empty tomb that has been converted into a display case for artifacts found by the archaeologists. Through the metal grille I see oil lamps the Christians used to find their way through the dark, shells that were pressed into the wall near a tomb to help identify the occupant, and bits of cheap glass jewelry.

In one corner are a collection of little ceramic animals, dolls, and rattles, simple toys put in front of the graves of children.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up next: The Death of Paganism!

The tombs of Rome–where art meets death


If you’re going to your eternal rest in the Eternal City, you should go in style.

Sure, you can’t take it with you, but you can show off what you had, and with all the competition in this place you have to do something special to make an impression. Rome is filled with grandiose monuments to the dead. First there are the giant tombs and temples of the Roman emperors. They were worshiped as gods, so they always got a nice sendoff. The most famous is the mausoleum of Hadrian, a giant circular building by the River Tiber. It was so splendid that the Popes preserved it and expanded it with additional stories and fortifications before renaming it the Castel Sant’Angelo. Just a cannon shot away from Vatican City, it proved a convenient bolthole for the pontiff back in the days when he ran the Papal States, an independent nation in central Italy, and warred with his neighbors. It saved Pope Clement VII when Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. Neither Rome nor the Vatican had great defenses, but the Castel Sant’Angelo proved too much for the invaders. It’s not often a mausoleum saves lives! While it’s not one of the ten toughest castles in the world, it is an impressive tomb/fortification all the same.

Then you have the early Christians with their miles of catacombs, and the churches filled with saint’s relics. More on those in two later installments in this series. There are so many tombs and monuments both pagan and Christian that sometimes it seems Rome is dedicated to death. The city even has a Purgatory Museum.

The Renaissance was a golden age of church building. Italy, while still divided into several different nations, was a rich place. Seagoing merchants dominated the lucrative trade in the Mediterranean, and the Pope’s coffers were full from tithes and donations. Much of this money went to sponsor the great architects and artists of the age. These talented men built lavish churches and adorned them with giant paintings. The rich and powerful vied for one another to be buried in the most prestigious churches, and they commissioned tombs to match the glory of the buildings.

Every Renaissance church in Rome is filled with these masterpieces of funerary art. Marble bishops lie in state flanked by angels. The walls are adorned with paintings of noblemen surrounded by reminders of life’s brevity–skulls on wings, hourglasses, and the grim Reaper with his scythe. Even the floors are covered in tombs. Most are smooth flagstones, but on some floor tombs bishops and cardinals had their likenesses carved in bas-relief. While these are not the most impressive of the graves, they’re perhaps the most poignant. Centuries of visitors have walked over them until their features have blurred beyond recognition, and their epitaphs have been lost. These powerful clergymen, respected and feared in their time, have all but melted away.

This is the second in a series about my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. Tune in tomorrow as we visit Italy’s fallen heroes in the Military Museums of Rome!

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Tree cathedral grows in Northern Italy

Anybody that’s ever been to Europe has surely been inside one of the continent’s many cathedrals. But even if you’ve seen all the stone and stained glass you’d ever care to see, the Northern Italian city of Bergamo is giving the cathedral a fresh look by making one of the structures entirely out of living trees.

The man behind the work is the recently deceased Giuliano Mauri, an Italian artist who was commissioned as part of a project for the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. The frame of the building will initially be made up of more than 1,800 fir tree poles, 600 chestnut branches, and 6000 meters of hazel branch, planted in-between with growths of live Beech trees. As the Beeches grow, the wood frame will decompose, allowing the living trees to take over the structure.

Mauri’s work is not only a novel work of art, it’s an interesting contrast to the more permanent stone halls of worship that have come to dominate our images of Christian Europe. A blending of the natural, the artistic and the religious, all in one. Head on up to Bergamo, about 40km Northeast of Milan, if you’re interested in paying a visit.

[Photo courtesy of oltreilcolle.info]