Sunday, 6 October 2013

Four cathedrals and a missed
opportunity for mission in Italy

Everyone wants to squeeze into the Piazzetta in Capri town, which is crowded by day and by night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The Piazzetta, in the heart of Capri town, is crowded by day and by night, with available space packed. The square buzzes with life, as the café tables fill what is officially known as Piazza Umberto I, and tourists crane their necks, hoping to catch a glimpse of preening glitterati and glamorous celebrities who can afford to holiday here while day trippers return to the resorts before evening falls.

I Faraglioni ... Capri’s striking offshore rock stacks that soar out of the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Everyone who comes to Capri wants to see I Faraglioni, the striking offshore rock stacks that soar out of the sea, and the Blue Grotto or Grotta Azzurra. Others want to see the Villa San Michelle, the home of Sweden’s best-known writer Axel Munthe, the site of the Villa Jovis, the luxurious home of the decadent Emperor Tiberius, and the Giardini di Augusto, once owned by the German industrialist Krupp. And some come to see the villa that inspired Gracie Fields lived as she sang On the Isle of Capri.

Everyone who comes to Capri seems to end up in the Piazzetta, enjoying the blue sea below or simple “people watching.”

The best views of the square – and of other people – are from the top of the flight of steps leading up to Santo Stefano, Capri’s former cathedral, built in the square in the 17th century, on the site of a sixth century Benedictine monastery. The church was built in Capri’s flamboyant baroque style, with small cupolas, vaulted ceilings and molded chapels. The cathedral clock tower and the archbishop’s palace nearby are now used as the Municipio or town hall.

Around the corner from the square, the façade of Santo Stefano is squeezed into a narrow side street. Inside, the inlaid marble floor surrounding the main altar includes fragments from the Villa Jovis, and the treasures include a silver statue of San Costanzo, the island’s patron.

But few tourists get to see inside the former cathedral. Outside, a sign warns people against sitting on the steps, and the church opens in the evening only. By then, the last day-trippers have caught the hydrofoils and ferries back to Sorrento and Naples, leaving behind only the rich and the famous who can afford the high prices of Capri’s hotels.

Peace and calm in the gardens of the Villa San Michele (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

It seems the church in Capri is missing a great opportunity for welcome and mission. Instead, we communed with nature in the gardens of the Villa San Michele, and said our prayers in the chapel in a small cemetery in Anacapri on the corner of Via Cimitero and Via Caproscuro.

The grave of Major John Hamill from Co Antrim in Anacapri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In a quiet corner of the Cimitero acattolico di Capri – literally “the non-Catholic Cemetery of Capri” – we came across the grave of Major John Hamill from Co Antrim, who was killed on 4 October 1808 while fighting with the British garrison resisting Napoleon’s invasion of Capri. The first plaque was placed on his grave by his kinsman, John Hamill, on 3 October 1831, and the grave was restored in 1914, after an appeal in The Irish Times, by the military historian and philanthropist Sir Lees Knowles, who was also involved in the Guinness Housing Trust.

Ravello’s pair of pulpits

Ravello is known for its beautiful views of the coast below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

If we were disappointed by the closed doors of Santo Stefano, we found warmer and heartier welcomes in three other cathedrals during our week in the Sorrento and Amalfi area: the cathedrals in Ravello, Amalfi and Sorrento.

Tiny Ravello (population 2,500) is known for its beautiful views of the coast below, for the Ravello Festival and for the Villa Rufolo, built in 1270, and its gardens. Boccaccio mentions the villa in his Decameron and it inspired Wagner’s stage design for his opera Parsifal (1880).

Preparing the cathedral in Ravello for a wedding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But visitors often miss out on Ravello’s much older Duomo or cathedral on the other side of the square, built in 1080. The entrance to the cathedral has two bronze doors depicting 54 scenes of the life and Passion of Christ. These bronze doors are one of only two dozen pairs of bronze doors in Italy.

Although the cathedral was being prepared that afternoon for a wedding, we were welcomed inside, entering through the museum on side street on the north side of the cathedral.

The ‘Gospel Pulpit’ in Ravello is supported by six roaring lions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Inside, the cathedral’s richly ornamented interior is a riot of sculpted white marble, which holds a third century sarcophagus, marble slabs decorated with mosaics, and the skull of Saint Barbara. Behind the altar, there is a vial that is said to hold the blood of Saint Pantaleone, the town’s patron saint, and a fragment of the Saint Thomas placed in the side of the Risen Christ.

But the gems in the cathedral are the two 13th century, decorated, marble pulpits in the central nave, adorned with glittering mosaics: the Gospel Pulpit on the right of the central nave, and the Epistle Pulpit on the left.

The ‘Epistle Pulpit’ in Ravello tells the story of Jonah and the Whale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Gospel Pulpit, dating from 1272, displays dragons and birds on spiral columns, supported by six roaring lions, and the heraldic arms of the Rufolo family who built the Villa Rufolo, with profiles of family members above the doors of the pulpit. The Epistle Pulpit depicts the story of Jonah and the Whale.

Wedding bells in Amalfi

Behind Amalfi’s lively seafront is an attractive small town with narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Earlier that day, down on the coast below Ravello, we visited Amalfi, once an independent Byzantine republic, then from 839 to 1135, one of Italy’s four great maritime republics with a fleet to rival the naval powers of Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Later, it was the Knights of Saint John were founded here. Today it has a lively seafront but it is an attractive small town, with narrow alleyways, hidden courtyards and a population of 5,500 – before the tourists and day-trippers arrive in the morning, or once they have left in the evening.

Amalfi also claims to be the home of Flavio Gioia, an imaginary 14th century mariner and inventor who never existed but who, nevertheless, is said to have perfected the compass and to have determined the direction of true north.

The Cloister of Paradise is enclosed by rows and colonnades of Moorish-style, white, slender, interlaced columns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A few steps north of the statue of Flavio Gioia on the seafront, the town’s main square, Piazza Duomo, is dominated by Amalfi’s Duomo or cathedral which stands over the town centre at the top of a steep flight of steps.

At the top of the steps, this cathedral also has an impressive pair of bronze doors, dating from 1066, but originally from Constantinople.

But the cathedral in Amalfi is, in fact, a pair of cathedrals: the Duomo di Sant’Adrea (Cathedral of Saint Andrew) and the older Duomo del Crocifisso (Cathedral of the Crucifixion). Beside the paired cathedrals is the Chiostro del Paradiso or Cloister of Paradise, and below the crypt with relics of the Apostle Andrew.

Once again, although the cathedral was preparing for a wedding, I was welcomed and allowed to enter through the Cloister of Paradise. This was once ancient cemetery of the nobility of Amalfi, and is enclosed by rows and colonnades of 120 Moorish-style, white, slender, interlaced columns erected in 1266.

The cathedral dates from 596, but the original cathedral now serves as a museum. The newer cathedral, built in 1100, was originally in Romanesque style, concealed by the sumptuous baroque reordering of the 18th century.

The shrine of Saint Andrew in the crypt in Amalfi’s cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In the crypt below, the cathedral claims its greatest relic – the head and bones of Saint Andrew, the first Apostle. During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the head and bones were removed from a church in Constantinople by the papal envoy, Cardinal Pietro Capuano, and were buried in the crypt in Amalfi in 1208.

To this day, a crystal phial is placed on top of the sepulcher on some days in the church calendar for the past 750 years, and a dense liquid is collected. But similar sepulchers and similar miracles are claimed in Rome and in Patras in Greece. The “miracle of the phial” overshadows the other treasures of the crypt, including statues by Michelangelo and Bernini.

The atrium in Amalfi is built of striped marble and stone in a mixture of Spanish baroque, Moorish-Arabesque and Italian Gothic styles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As the wedding was about to begin, I stepped out into the extravagant atrium, built of striped marble and stone in a mixture of Spanish baroque, Moorish-Arabesque and Italian Gothic styles, with open interlaced arches. Below me spread the delights of Amalfi as the clock in the campanile above chimed mid-day. The bride had arrived to applause from tourists and shopkeepers and was climbing the 62 steps covered with a long red carpet to.

Sorrento’s cathedral and cloisters

The cathedral in Sorrento is used by local Anglicans on Sunday afternoons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The fourth cathedral we visited was the Cattedrale dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo (Cathedral of Saint Philip and Saint James) in Sorrento (16,500 people). It is used at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoons by the local Anglican community, which is linked with Saint Mark’s Church in Naples, as well as Bari and Capri.

Although it was the height of summer, the parish was between incumbents, the parish website was down, and there was no Anglican service that afternoon. But we were not disappointed.

The Nativity scene inside the main doors of Sorrento’s cathedral is on display all year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Yet again, this cathedral, which stands halfway along the Corso Italia in the heart of the town, has 12th century doors from Constantinople. It was first built in the 11th century was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 15th century, and has a marble altar, pulpit and throne dating from the 16th century. It seems as it is forever Christmas in this cathedral, for the large presepio just inside the main doors is on display all year.

The Franciscan Cloisters, beside the Villa Comunale in Sorrento (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Away from the buzz of Piazza Tasso and tourist attractions of the Marina Grande and Marina Piccola, once again we found peace and quiet the shady gardens of the Villa Comunale and the 13th century cloisters next door to the Franciscan church, shortly before yet another wedding ceremony began.

Offering a warm welcome

The closed doors and the cold reception at Santo Stephano in Capri reminded me of a similar experience many years ago in Santorini, where I was stunned into silence as I watched a priest brush tourists off the steps of the church as they watched the setting sun. He had missed an opportunity for mission once again. With a little imagination, he could have affirmed their joy in God’s creation, and invited them in to pray and see the church once the sun had set.

Both experiences were in sharp contrast to the open doors we experienced in other three small towns, and with the liturgical and cultural vitality we experienced later this summer in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, and Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.

In those two Irish cathedrals, the dean and the community know visitors are neither a nuisance nor an easy source of income through entry charges. Cathedrals and their liturgical and cultural life are at the heart of the ministry and the mission of the church; otherwise, they are in danger of being irrelevant to the life of the world around us.

A secret garden with a decorative majolica wall in the courtyard of the Casa Grande Correale, the 18th century Correale Mansion, in Sorrento (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in October 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

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