Anne's Blog

Gubbio’s Good Friday: Living Medieval Street Theater

Date: March 11, 2021 - categories: , , , , , , - 2 Comments

Easter liturgies have incorporated early forms of performances and role-playing – varying from short text passages to long presentations  – since the tenth century.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Passion plays grew into elaborate performances.  Called in Italy, “sacre rapresentazioni” (“sacred rapresentations”), the combination of liturgy, ritual and theatrical performances  often became veritable parts of a liturgical rite – and frequently took to the streets in the form of religious processions.

Like the evocative Processione del Cristo Morto (“Dead Christ Procession) on Good Friday in Gubbio,  organized by Confraternita’ di Santa Croce della Foce. Documented as of the 15th century (but probably existing long before), this confraternity is the only medieval confraternity still existing in Gubbio.

These voluntary associations of lay people had focussed on the promotion of piety and works of Christian charity and these same confraternities acted out the sacred mystery plays in town squares and on the thresholds of the churches so as to bring liturgies to life for the people at significant moments of the ecclesiastical year.

Due to the strong emotions evoked and the complexity of the scenography, the Passion was certainly the most frequently represented play – and in Gubbio on Good Friday, the Passion of Christ is the theme of the procession of medieval origin.
Central images in the procession are the statues of the crucified Christ (17th-century, probably) and his sorrowful Mother, la Madonna Dolorosa (19th-century),….
….both in the confraternity’s church of Santa Croce della Foce:
A medieval church was built on this site – in proximity to the pre-Roman walls of ancient Ikuvium –  probably in the 13th-century and then restored in the 17th-century and embellished with the works of various local artists:
The procession departs from here and opens with four confratelli (confraternity members), also popularly called “sacconi,” the name of their white tunics of the penitents marked with the red cross, symbol of their guild la Confraternita della Santa Croce.  These lay brothers’ wear the buffa (the term used in Gubbio for “cappuccio” or “hood”), worn for disguising one’s identity in acts of penitence. (Sadly, this dress of medieval pious penitents will be copied centuries later in the United States for clandestine groups also wishing to hide their identity…..and not seeking penitence)…
The Gubbio nighttime silence is broken only by the dull, pounding, eerie notes of the battistrangole they carry, shaking them as they walk.   Literally meaning “beat and strangle,” these instruments of wood flanked with iron rings announce the arrival of the procession while setting a slow, even beat for those walking in the procession.
The joyous ring of bells is silenced in most Umbrian towns – in our Assisi, too –  from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday.
The skull symbolizing Golgotha follows:
Many in the procession carry torches and falo’ (bonfires) are lit in various piazzas along the route of the procession, for fire is an ancient symbol of purification, as well as of strength, force.
The great cross, Albero della Vita, follows and then the three crosses of Calvary.
Symbols of the Passion follow: the cup, the thirty silver coins, the column, the rooster, the crown of thorns, “Pilate’s basin,” the I.N.R.I. inscription, Veronica’s veil, the shroud, the nails, the hammer, the sponge, the spear, Jesus’ clothing, the dice, the ladder, and the pincers….
….and then the clergy, the image of the Cristo morto on the cataletto (bier) following:
The Madre Dolorosa follows her Son, seeking Him….
The Sorrowful Mother grasps an ancient wooden “rosary” of 33 beads – like those used by pilgrims and the flagellanti (flagellants) to whip themselves for penance.
The two sacred images are accompanied by singing of the Miserere by two choirs, King David’s penitential psalm whose polyphonic melody has been passed down through oral tradition and has been an integral part of the Gubbio procession since the 19th-century….
….and sung with grande passione:
In  1911, Gubbio’s bishop mandated:
“A choir of cantors, all dressed in capes, under the guidance of a priest appointed by the Santa Croce Venerable Confraternity, will sing the Miserere quietly, solemnly and gracefully. It remains forbidden for others outside this group, not dressed in capes and not appointed by the Confraternity, to sing any prayers or hymns.”
The Procession winds along an ancient route that allows the Dead Christ to be “displayed” for veneration at some  monasteries, convents, and churches – and at the home for the elderly:

And just recently, the Procession was re-routed to include a stop to pay homage at the Mausoleum of the 40 Martyrs.

There will be a pause of 15 minutes for veneration of the Christ at the Pietrone (“Great Stone”) in front of a 14th-century Gubbio civic palace.

Prior to the Processione, vigil lights are lined up in the shape of a cross on this Great Stone, various stories linked to the stone’s origin including perhaps as an altar of the ancient pre-Roman inhabitants of Ikuvium, the Umbri.

The eerie pounding of the battistrangole, the rich symbolism, the haunting singing of the choirs, piety of the people, the fires, the torches, the enthusiastic participation of the eugubini of all ages, and the bellissima medieval scenography of Gubbio all unite to make Good Friday in Gubbio an event not to miss.

(Mille grazie to Paolo Tosti in Gubbio for use of many of his splendid photos).

Hear the Misereresee Gubbio’s Processione del Cristo Morto
Read about the celebration of the Passion in the Umbrian village of Fiamenga

Read about the Good Friday nighttime procession in Assisi

Read about the Good Friday morning procession to Assisi’s cloistered Clarisse

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 the running Cristo Morto in Bevagna on Easter Sunday morning.

See the dash of Bevagna’s Cristo risorto here

Click here to see the leap from the ladder and the run of Bevagna’s Cristo morto.

2 Comments

  • Michael Francis Kirylo says:

    Omg, as an American born and raised in Tuscany, with middle name Francis, first communion at St. Peter’s Church in Rome. I grew up Catholic, became Protestant and then return back to the Catholic Church. I’ve been to Gubbio many times with my family. I would strongly oppose this idiotic ceremony. This is the first time I am seeing this. Do they know what they are doing as thinking Catholics today?

  • Michael, an interesting comment from you. Yes, they know that they are doing: reliving the medieval traditions of their town.

    I hope you were able to see my ZOOM presentation on Good Friday celebrations in Umbria..?
    If not, glad to send you the link to the video if you wish to email me..

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