I hadn’t missed Assisi’s evocative morning Good Friday procession in years. Until last year, due to COVID restrictions.
And, ahimè – alas – there won’t be a Good Friday Processione del Cristo Morto (“Procession of the Dead Christ”) this year either.
But that beloved Assisi tradition – routed in 13th-century lauds (medieval hymns) – must be remembered. I’d like to pay tribute in the only way that I can: with a short note and the sharing photos of past processions (a few of mine and mostly, much finer shots of Assisi photographers Marco Francalancia – whose are in color – and Andrea Cova‘s black and white gems).
Just a bit of background on the procession:
Good Friday comes alive in the Umbrian towns of Gubbio, Assisi, Bevagna, Cascia and tiny Fiamenga with evocative processions and sacre rappresentazioni (literally, “sacred rapresentations”), veritable Passion plays.
As of the 13th-century, a vast diffusion of spettacoli (shows, presentations) rooted in ecclesiastical liturgy and initially recited in Latin, then in the vernacular, have animated medieval alleyways and piazzas on special feast days.
The tradition lives on in Assisi on Good Friday as hooded, barefoot penitenti hauling heavy crosses precede members of ancient confraternities (lay brotherhoods) in tunics and capes, followed by the religious and the populace. In Assisi, the religious sing the Stabat Mater (“The Standing Mother,” i.e., at the foot of the Cross) in Latin, the populace answering in the verancular.
Traditionally, the Start Mater – a hymn dedicated to the suffering Mary, Mater dolorosa – has been attributed to an Umbrian, the Franciscan friar, Jacopone da Todi, who wrote several lauds in the 13th-century and was an early proponent of Italian theater: he was one of the earliest scholars to dramatise Gospel themes.
The setting alone – the medieval architecture of local limestone – adds drama and an emotional impact as ancient theater is brought to the streets and fully embraced by the populace.
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 baldacchino funeral bier, covered with a gold-fringed burgundy canopy. From the Middle Ages, the removable crucified Christ, Cristo deposto, was a common representation, made specifically for the religious processions, that popular street theater. A living liturgy.
On Good Friday morning, many of the faithful will drop in to the Cathedral of San Rufino to pay their tributes to Christ before He is born in solemn procession to the Basilica di San Francesco:
Hooded and crowned with thorns, barefoot penitenti (“penitents”) hefting heavy crosses will precede the Deposto. Some members of the lay brotherhoods, le confraternita, will carry the Cristo deposto…
…and others will flank the Christ while other groups follow…
A single black drum pounds the solemn, booming beat as all bells are tied from Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday:
Each year, the procession stops at three different convents of cloistered Clarisse (Poor Clares) so that the sisters can pay tribute to the Cristo deposto.
The stop might be at the Basilica di Santa Chiara…
…and also at San Quirico, where the sisters await in prayer and song:
…and near the nuns, a pallet covered with an embroidered cloth is ready to receive the crucified Christ:
The chant of those in the procession, the thumping slow boom of the drum will announce the arrival of the crucified Christ. The convent door is open and ready to receive Him:
Each nun will pay tribute to the Cristo deposto, some leaving flowers, others tenderly caressing Him or kissing His feet. as they sing and pray…
And then the Deposto is carried back to the baldacchino, the faithful awaiting outside….
…and the procession heads on towards the Basilica di San Francesco…
…the Carabinieri solemnly accompanying (no separation of Church and State in Italy!)…
The procession crosses the piazza flanked by porticoes in front of the Basilica…
…and the Cristo deposto – now adorned with flowers from the populace and the cloistered sisters – enters the Basilica Inferiore di San Francesco (the Lower Basilica of Saint Francis):
The canopied baldacchino is placed in front of the altar…
…and people will stop there all day to pay homage…
The return of the Cristo deposto to San Rufino takes place in the evening…in yet another evocative procession.
Torchlit – and hauntingly beautiful.
Read about the Good Friday nighttime procession
Read about the San Quirico clarisse hiding Jewish refugees in World War II
Click here to read about – and see! – the Holy Thursday scavigliazione ceremony
Click here to see Andrea Cova’s moving photos of Assisi’s Holy Thursday and Good Friday
Read about Good Friday in Gubbio
Click here to read about the Good Friday Passion play of the small town of Fiamenga.