In addition to the ceremonies associated with Christmas and Easter,
other winter religious ceremonies are worth attending: some of them were very popular in the past and were described by many travellers,
others are relatively recent. All are interesting because of their historical and artistic background.
While Ferragosto celebrates the peak of the summer and can be traced back to Feriae Augusti (the festivities introduced by Emperor Augustus), the ceremonies held in winter have their very ancient origin in the Roman Saturnalia which took place between December 17 and 23 and were basically the celebration of the new (solar) year.
On December 8, 1854 Pope Pius IX defined as a dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary; according to it the mother of Jesus was preserved by God from the stain of original sin at the time of her own conception. Two years later the pope erected in the eastern part of Piazza di Spagna a monument to the Virgin Mary made up of a statue placed above an ancient cipollino column which in turn was supported by a high pedestal.
In the morning flowers are brought to Colonna dell'Immacolata
The festivity of the Immaculate Conception has a link to Festa della Chinea, a previous Roman holiday, associated with the annual gift of a white mule or horse to the pope by the King of Naples: this tradition went back to the time of Pope Clement IV and King Charles of Anjou; in 1788 the King of Naples decided to stop this practice which constituted an act of feudal subordination to the pope; this led to a quarrel with the pope which lasted until 1855, when the King of Naples agreed to financially support the construction of the monument and in return the pope gave up his rights on the kingdom.
Today Piazza di Spagna and the nearby streets (chiefly Via dei Condotti) are the heart of the city shopping district and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception marks the beginning of the Christmas season. So the crowds who gather to see the pope take advantage of the chance to start looking at the shop windows.
The Holy See flag on Palazzo di Propaganda Fide salutes the arrival of the pope in the afternoon
Other views of the same ceremony showing the Pope while he talks to sick/disabled people
Nowadays on January 6, the Epiphany, the Romans bring their children to Piazza Navona to see its traditional fair. In the past the religious aspects of the holiday prevailed and large crowds attended the ceremonies celebrating il Bambino (Infant Jesus) dell'Aracoeli.
You can read here below an enthusiast description of the Bambino by
Reverend Jeremiah Donovan:
The famous Bambino of Aracoeli was carved, about 200 years since, by a member of the Franciscan Order, from the wood of an olive of the Garden of Olivet; and, although despoiled by French cupidity, it is still richly gemmed. It is exposed in scenic state to the veneration of the faithful, during the octave of the Nativity, in the second chapel of the left aisle, which is then converted into a "presepio", brilliantly adorned. Every day, during the octave, boys and girls relate, from a sort of pulpit erected opposite the chapel, the wonders of the Nativity of the Incarnate God, thus realizing the prediction of the Royal Psalmist: "Out of the mouths of infants and sucklings, thou hast perfected praise".
Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern and its environs - 1842.
Almost at the same time Charles Dickens was a bit more sceptical about the Bambino:
I met this same Bambino in the street a short time afterwards going , in great state, to the house of some sick person. It is taken to all parts of Rome for this purpose, constantly; but, I understand that it is not always as successful as could be wished; for, making its appearance at the bedside of weak and nervous people in extremity, accompanied by a numerous escort, it not unfrequently frightens them to death. It is most popular in cases of childbirth, where it has done such wonders, that if a lady be longer than usual in getting through her difficulties, a messenger is dispatched, with all speed, to solicit the immediate attendance of the Bambino. It is a very valuable property, and much confided in - especially by the religious body to whom it belongs.
Charles Dickens - Pictures from Italy - 1846
January 6: (left) the statue is removed from the crib; (right) the procession exits the church
The fame of the Bambino declined with the annexation of Rome by the Italian Kingdom.
This can be perceived in the words of William Dean Howells:
The shrine of the miraculous Bambino in the Church of Ara Coeli is lighted by electricity, which spares no detail of the child's apparel and appearance. To other eyes than those of faith it has the effect of a life-size but not life-like doll, piously bedizened and jewelled over, but rather ill-humoured looking, or, if not that, proud looking or severe looking. To the eyes in which its sickbed visits have dried the tears it must wear an aspect of heavenly pity and beauty; and I am very willing to believe that these are the eyes which see it aright. As it was, and taking it literally, it seemed far less mechanical and unfeeling than the monk who pulled it out and pushed it back on its wheeled platform. But he must get tired of showing it to the unbelievers who come out of curiosity, and very likely I should, if I were in his place, as nonchalantly wipe across the glass front of the shrine the card with the Bambino's legend printed in various languages on it, which you may then buy with the blessing from the glass for whatever you choose to give.
William Dean Howells - Roman Holidays and Others - 1908.
January 6: (left to right) procession in Piazza del Campidoglio (the image used as background for this page is based on a photo of the procession); the banner of S. Francesco d'Assisi; the statue in its lighted canopy; the blessing of Rome from the top of the steps by the cardinal in charge of the church
In 1994 the statue was stolen and it has been replaced by a copy. The procession which takes place at sunset ends with the Bambino being carried to the top of the steps leading to the church: from there a benediction to the City of Rome is said. It is the final event of the religious ceremonies which began on Christmas' Eve.
It is not clear how S. Antonio Abate (St. Anthony the Hermit or of the Desert - more on him in this external link), the Egyptian IVth century founder of Christian monasticism,
became regarded as a tamer and eventually the patron of the animals.
It could be a reference to the wild beasts he met in the desert or to the pigs raised by the members of his order to heal with the
animals' fat the effects of St Anthony's Fire, a dreadful illness that was common in the Middle Ages.
Maybe in the popular imagination he was seen as a Christian version of the myth of Orpheus, the taming of the animals by Orpheus being very often portrayed in mosaics and statues by the Ancient Romans.
J. W. Goethe who attended the 1787 Feast of St. Anthony made this remark in his Italian Journey:
"It is a matter of historical observation that all religions, as their ritual or their theological speculation expands, must sooner or later reach the point of allowing the animals to share to some extent in their spiritual patronage."
Goethe enjoyed the atmosphere of the ceremony:
"The church stands on a square which is so large that, normally, it looks empty, but today it is full of life. Horses and mules, their manes and tails gorgeously braided with ribbons, are led up to a small chapel, detached from the church proper, and a priest, armed with an enormous brush, sprinkles them with holy water from tubs and buckets in front of him. He does this generously, vigorously and even facetiously so as to excite them... Donkeys and horned cattle also get their modest share of blessing."
The church of S. Antonio Abate is no longer the site of the celebration which was moved to the nearby church of S. Eusebio because with the urban development of Rome in the late XIXth century the large space before the former church was occupied by buildings, while the latter church retained a small square where animals which cannot enter the church can wait for the end of the mass.
The blessing of the pets at the end of the mass
On January 17, St Anthony's day, the ceremony is reserved to pets, while on the nearest Sunday horses are blessed.
According to tradition Agnes of Rome was put to death because she refused to marry; for this reason she is the patron saint of chastity and of virgins; her name is similar to agnus, the Latin word for lamb, and the saint is usually portrayed with a lamb in her arms or at her feet.
The two lambs waiting for the ceremony to begin
At S. Agnese fuori le Mura, where the saint is buried, on the feast of S. Agnes (January 21st) two lambs are blessed, and given in care to some nunnery; and of their wool are made the palliums, emblems of meekness and purity, worn by the Pope, by Archbishops and the Bishop of Ostia, and blessed by the Pontiff (Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern and its environs - 1842).
The lambs are brought into the church in baskets: one lamb wears a crown of red roses, the other a crown of white roses, symbolic of St. Agnes as virgin and martyr.
Although many Grand Tour travellers visited Rome in winter, it does not appear they were particularly interested in attending this ceremony.
The Blessing of the Lambs (the apse is decorated with tapestries bearing the coat of arms of Luigi Valenti Gonzaga, titular cardinal of S. Agnese in 1778-90)
The lambs come from the Monastero di S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane in the outskirts of Rome and their wool is woven by the Benedictine nuns of S. Cecilia in Trastevere. Because the lambs are stressed by the event their attendance to it is limited to a couple of minutes preceding the mass in honour of St. Agnes.
The lambs leave the church in high spirits
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent: during each of the forty days of the Lenten Season the faithful pray in a different church of Rome (list of the Lenten Stations in an external link). The first station is S. Sabina and the pope himself leads a short procession which moves from the large modern Benedictine monastery of S. Anselmo to the very old basilica which is part of a Dominican monastery.
Ash Wednesday 2006: Pope Benedict XVI leads the procession to S. Sabina
For the occasion the pope may deliver a homily of particular relevance, not restricted to the traditional religious aspects of Ash Wednesday. On March 5, 2003 Pope John Paul II strongly advocated the need for peace (read his homily in an external link).
Pope Francis, Cardinal Francis Arinze, an Archbishop of an Eastern Church and a Monsignor showing his Burberry overcoat at the 2014
Ash Wednesday procession
In the past it was a grand ceremony: February the 26th, 1659 and first day of Lent, I went to the Pope's Pallace, where was a Cappello of Cardinals,
and masse said after the usual manner. Afterwards he
was not carryed out In his Chaire by sound of Trumpetts,
but walked out of the Chappell on foote, which was
accounted for a great matter; then he went into his
Sedan. Before him Marched 6 or 7 stately horses. Then
some of his Guard of Swizzers, Then came his Holinesse (Pope Alexander VII),
and after him 16 Cardinals upon Mules, Every one of them
having his Hatt upon his head, which the Pope used to
send to a Man when he makes him A Cardinal. After
these Marched 10 Monsignors upon their Mules, having
there Capps of the same fashion of the Cardinals, but
there's was blew, and the Cardinals' Capps red. After these Marched about 200 light horsemen;
having there swords drawne as they marchd along, the
Pope never going abroad without these Men to attend
on him, and after him Moltitudes of Coaches and people
in them to see him passe, and soe passing up the Hill called
the Aventine to the Church named Sabinia where going
behind the Altar he read a little in a Booke, with his Capp,
where I could see his shaved Crowne, and there, as others
say, gave Ashes to his Cardinals, but I did not see it.
Having stayed about halfe An hower in the Church, he
went again into his Litter, where, all the way as he went,
he was making Crosses with his hand and blessing the
People. The People also, being so nursd up in superstition,
that as soone as ever they had but a glimps of him,
presently they downe upon their knees, and continue
crossing themselves till he is passd by them, esteeming
themselves most happy if they can but run after him as he
passes a long, to receive his Blessing from him.
Francis Mortoft's Journal of his travels in France and Italy
Quarant'ore means forty hours and it refers to a special practice of Eucharistic devotion which consisted in forty hours of continuous prayer. According to St. Augustine, the body of Jesus remained in the tomb for forty hours. It was first introduced in Milan in 1537; St. Ignatius Loyola suggested this practice as a means to prevent people from sinning during the carnival (or for expiating the sins committed during that period).
"Macchina delle Quarant'Ore" in S. Maria dell'Orto in the process of being lighted on Holy Thursday 2009
The Quarant'ore became very popular after Pope Clement VIII recommended it as a mean to obtain the peace of Christendom.
Changes such as spreading the ceremony over three days and on different churches were introduced to facilitate attendance. Gian Lorenzo Bernini and all the main Baroque architects designed "Macchine delle Quarant'Ore", i.e. elaborate and spectacular chandeliers which were lighted for this devotion with the objective of attracting more people.
Procession of the Blessed Sacrament
Today the only Macchina delle Quarant'ore which is still in use in Rome belongs to the brotherhood of S. Maria dell'Orto. It holds more than 200 candles which on Holy Thursday are lighted by the members of the brotherhood, who wear for the occasion their blue uniform.
Fully lighted "Macchina delle Quarant'Ore"
After Easter the "Macchina" is taken down and stored away until the following year.
Other Days of Peace pages:
A Sunny Day in Villa Borghese
At the Flea Market
At the Beach
Voicing Your Views ..... and feeling better
Christmas in Rome
Celebrating the Foundation of Rome
A visit to Roseto di Roma
The procession of La Madonna de Noantri
Running the Marathon
Watching the Parade
Finding Solace at the Protestant Cemetery
Attending 2007 July Events
Rome's Sleepless Night
Jogging at Valle delle Camene
Sailing on the River to see the Bridges of Roma
An October Outing to Marino
A Special Spring Weekend
Embassy-hunting in Parioli
Attending a Funeral ...and enjoying it!
Celebrating Eritrean Michaelmas in Rome
Visiting Rome at Dawn
Visiting Rome in the Moonlight
Visiting Rome on a Hop-on-Hop-off Bus
Visiting Multi-ethnic Rome
Playing in the Snow at the Janiculum
Watching the Pride Parade
Reading Memoirs of Hadrian at Villa Adriana
Visiting the Movie Sets at Cinecittą
Looking up at the Ceilings of the Vatican Palaces
Spending the Last Roman Day at St. John Lateran's Cloister
Reading Seneca at the Baths
Reading Ovid at St. Peter's
Walking the Dog at Valle della Caffarella