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Good Friday in Assisi: Ancient Traditions Live On

Date: March 31, 2012 - categories: , , , , - 5 Comments

Cristo Morto carried in procession

Countless religious customs – and innumerable processions in particular – are rooted in medieval street theater. The Holy Thursday and Good Friday of Assisi traditions are living examples. On Holy Thursday night in the 12th-century San Rufino cathedral, the crucified Christ image is detached from His Cross in the ceremony of the scavigliazione (best translated literally: “un-nailing”) and laid on a wine-colored funeral bier, covered with a gold-fringed burgundy canopy. From the Middle Ages, crucifixes with removable Cristo Mortoimages were common and were made specifically for the religious processions which were really a transformation of popular street theater, often acted out in the piazzas and on church thresholds as a way to teach the common people ecclesiastic truths. A living liturgy.

Early on Good Friday morning, Confraternity members in their caped tunics heft the funeral bier bearing the Cristo Morto onto their shoulders to carry the sacred image in solemn procession from the San Rufino cathedral on the eastern end of the town to the Basilica di San Francesco at the western-most tip of the town. Barefoot, hooded figures in white tunics – i penitenti – heads crowned with thorns precede the Cristo Morto and the clergy, then the townspeople follow. The only musical accompaniment will be a single drum, beating a melancholic funeral dirge. (All the bells in Assisi are silenced on Holy Thursday and will not ring again til Easter Sunday, when they erupt in a joyous peal).

Reverent Poor Clares pay homage to Cristo Morto

The morning procession stops at three convents of cloistered Poor Clares (followers of St. Clare of Assisi, 13th-century femaie protagonist of the San Francesco movement), so that the nuns can venerate Christ, kissing His feet, the sword wound in His side, and placing flowers on the bier. In contemplation and prayer in their convent chapels, the Poor Clares await the arrival of the procession, knowing that the drum’s funeral dirge and the singing of the local people and clergy will announce the arrival of the Cristo Morto.

The Procession concludes at the Lower Basilica of St. Francis where the statue of the Cristo Morto, draped in black netting and now covered too with the nuns’ floral tributes, will be placed in front of the altar, for popular veneration all day on Good Friday. On Good Friday night, assisiati and visitors will join in the evocative nocturnal Processione del Cristo Morto (“Dead Christ Procession”) as the statue of the Sorrowful Mother – heart piereced with seven swords symbolizing her seven sorrows as she followed her Son on his Via Crucis – is carried out of the Cathedral di San Rufino: la Madre Dolorosa goes in search of her Son.

The Good Friday nighttime procession

The statue is carried on the shoulders of Confraternity members in their gray and white habits, their shoulder cloaks embroidered with the confraternity symbol. Barefoot and hooded white-cloaked penitenti, crowned with thorns and dragging heavy wooden crosses, precede the Madre Dolorosa. Religious and civic authorities – including Carabinieri in full dress uniform (no separation of Church and State here!) – follow la Madre Dolorosaand then the townspeople join in, all singing the Stabat Mater, as the procession winds through the torchlit medieval backstreets to the Basilica di San Francesco. The religious sing in Latin, the people respond in the Italian vulgate.

The Good Friday nighttime procession concludes when La Madre Dolorosa reunites with her Son at the Basilica di San Francesco.
The statues of Cristo Morto and la Madre Dolorosa are then born in slow solemnity through the winding medieval backstreets, back to the Cathedral of San Rufino.

Read about the stunning evening Assisi Good Friday procession
Read about Holy Saturday Assisi rural traditions
Read more on Holy Saturday celebrations
Read more about the medieval confraternities

5 Comments

  • Monita Johnson says:

    I highly recommend spending the day (at least one, better yet, more than one) with Anne Robichaud, Assisi, Italy. My traveling pal and I toured farms and countryside with Anne in October 2011 and have wonderful memories of people, places and treats from the area. Visit Anne’s websie for more information. I’m hoping to work with her and bring her to my area of southern Oregon next February. Bringing Italy to Oregon…what could be better. Anne has a real flair for connecting interesting people to share with others. We tasted homemade olive oil, wine, and breads from the Assisi countryside. Those were wonderful days and I sure hope to return to Assisi in the future….it was a highlight of seven weeks in Italy, France, Greece and Turkey. Ciao for now. Monita Johnson from North Bend, Oregon

  • Christine and Randy Stime says:

    As each Easter time comes and goes, we remember well the special Good Friday we spent on a tour of Assisi with Anne Robichaud three years ago. Her connections with not only Assisi, but with the surrounding hill towns, allowed this Seattle couple personal insights into the Italy we were looking for. We especially enjoyed out olive and wine tasting lunch in Spello, along with the privilege of meeting Friar Paul and viewing his incredible festival art work (made out of dried flowers). Annie comes highly recommended for an insider’s view of these Italian hill towns. On her cooking tour a year later, we also reconnected, having coffee with her as she passed through the Northwest. She is delightful.

  • Awesome post! Thanks for sharing! Maybe next year! I would so
    love to be in Assisi for Easter. I am missing it already so much.
    Hope your travels have been amazing!
    Happy Easter Anne!

  • Judy Bates says:

    Buona Pasqua, Anne! I love reading about the beautiful customs that are still being practiced since medieval times in Assisi. Reading this and seeing the photos makes Assisi feel not so far away. Wish I could be there for this one, but am so excited to be there for Calendimaggio! Thank you so much for posting these – I look forward to them. And, I look forward to seeing you soon!

    Judy

  • Rosemary Johnson says:

    Was lucky enough to be in Assisi in 2015 to see the Good Friday procession! How wonderful that trip was! This year I watched the Stations of the Cross being done at the Colosseum on the Vatican’s YouTube channel. I remember Anne telling me about this. Even though it was in Italian, it was amazing to watch! Happy belated Easter from Chicago!!

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