In Assisi, a 14th Century Holy Thursday Ritual
I dropped in recently at Assisi’s Cathedral of San Rufino: I needed a couple photos.
Built in the 12th-century on the site of the martyrdom of Assisi’s first bishop and patron saint San Rufino, a highlight of Assisi’s Easter week events takes place here on Holy Thursday.
Inside, I took photos of the protagonists of that event: the 16th-century statue of the Crucifixion….
….in a side chapel, la Cappella del Sacramento…
…and the 19th-century statue of the Madre Dolorosa, the Sorrowful Mother, in a chapel across the aisle and facing her crucified Son.
Both will be carried in procession on Good Friday.
Intensely evocative and attracting full popular participation, the Holy Week celebrations in Assisi are directly linked to medieval Sacre Rapresentazioni and medieval lauds (hymns of praise).
During the Middle Ages at Easter time, the lay brotherhoods, the confraternities (from literally, “with the brothers”) brought to life a veritable sacred drama, the Passion of Christ and the intense pain of his Mother. These dramas – le Sacre Rapresentazioni – sought to transmit intense and moving immediacy so as to involve fully the faithful.
Assisi’s Holy Thursday evening ritual, la Scavigliazione ( the “de-nailing,” i.e, the Deposition of Christ from the cross), accompanied with song, brings to life a 14th-century dramatic laud, the Scavigliazione.
After the San Rufino Holy Thursday evening Mass called ” In Coena Domini” (“at the Lord’s Supper,” i.e., the Last Supper), the canon of the Cathedral and another priest move towards the side chapel of the Crucifix, la Cappella del Sacramento (the “Chapel of the Sacrament”).
A set of steep portable stairs had already been placed at the chapel entrance.
The priests climb the stairway to the Cross…
After passing soft cloths tenderly over the head, arms and chest of the crucified Christ….
…..they remove the nails – first from the right hand, then the left, then the feet…
..and fold the arms, then lift the Christ off the cross…
……and down the stairs.
Such a crucifix is called a Deposto as the Christ could be taken off the Cross – “deposed” – and carried in processions for popular veneration.
The Cristo deposto is placed gently and lovingly on a carefully-prepared baldacchino, a canopied bier.
Throughout the ceremony, passages taken from the treasured mid-14th-century Laudario Cortonese are sung…..
The baldacchino is carried toward the back of the Cathedral and the faithful move towards the Christ, some to kiss the feet or touch His face or the wounds on His hands, others to place flowers – and others to simply stand close by to murmur a silent prayer.
Another laud sung during the Scavigliazone ceremony, the Lauda della Scavigliazione, is also inspiration for Assisi’s two Good Friday processions.
Early on Good Friday morning, the Cristo deposto will be carried on the baldacchino from San Rufino – preceded by barefoot crociferi (those carrying crosses in penance) – throughout Assisi:
Stops are made at cloistered convents for veneration by the religious….
…and at the end of the morning Processione del Cristo Morto, the Cristo deposto is placed in front of the altar of the Lower Basilica di San Francesco for local veneration throughout the day.
As night falls, the Madre Dolorosa is carried in procession from San Rufino to the Basilica: the sorrowful Mother in search of her Son.
Both are then carried back to San Rufino, reunited once again in the Cathedral of Assisi….just the main aisle separating them.
(Mille grazie to Andrea Cova for his photos in black and white. Thanks, also to Marco Francalancia for his photos.)
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.