We are in Italy right now. In fact we are the small town of Castiglion Fiorentino for a workshop held in an inn called Residence Le Santuccee. I may have more to say about the trip another time, but for now I want to talk about the inn and the church next door to it.
What is now an inn was once part of a convent and adjacent buildings that were bombed into unrecognizable rubble during WWII, and left for decades to lie in ruin. A local man, Alfeo Tangenelli, and his family, bought it a while back and began the slow process of restoring the structure, maintaining its architectural integrity, while crafting modern conveniences into it. Residence Le Santucce is perfection. A many storied inn working its crooked way by stages up the city wall. I’m not sure how many rooms it has, or even how to get to most of them. It’s a little like a cross between Hogwarts and an Escher painting. Our room, number 12, is a goofy combination of old, new, cheap, expensive, lovely bedroom, breakfast alcove, kitchenette of dubious parentage, bath down four or five twisting steps, and, for some reason, a sort of loft with another bed in it. The Windows look south over the valley. It’s a beautiful view.
Next door is the deconsecrated Convent Church of Santucee. Small, as convent chapels tend to be, and everything of substantial value, or that would have been consecrated for worship purposes, taken away. Open only for a few community events, we went in for a free piano concert on our first evening here. It was something to do. Ceramic tiles mounted high on the wall depicting the stations of the cross remain. So does a painting on the south wall, but from our place at the back of the crowded space, I could not see it. Maybe it is important. Probably not. What I could see was a huge, dark painting in dire need of repair that dominated what was once the eastern wall reredos behind and above what would have been the altar. I couldn’t see the pianist, so it captured my attention. In the upper right was Mary dressed, oddly enough, in red, holding the baby Jesus. Below her and to the left was a Franciscan priest, probably a saint, in a pose of supplication. His face turned toward Mary, his arms, overly long arms, stretched out toward the viewer, his enormous hands open with fingers reaching. He was begging Mary to intercede for the congregation seated below. Another figure lingered in the upper left background, undoubtedly the patron who commissioned the work. Other symbolism littered the painting, but they are not important to the question, which is, why?
Why would the priest implore Mary for her intercession? Why was Jesus portrayed as a baby? Some others in the workshop wanted to know. It’s complicated. By the time of the Renaissance, not long before the Reformation, the resurrected Jesus had been exalted to such high status that he had become unapproachable to the average person on the street. Holy Communion was taken maybe once a year, around Easter, and then with intense fear that any unworthiness in the communicant would condemn them to eternal hell. Even the consecrated bread, the body of Christ, was held in fearful awesomeness. It could not be touched by any but a priest, and then only after careful preparation. With Jesus so far away, and God the Father even more remote, to whom could one turn for help? Mary of course. She at least was human, full of motherly love for all. She could intercede on one’s behalf. She could be trusted to do the right thing. Her Son would listen to her.
The baby Jesus in her arms underscores her status. One cannot converse with a baby. Babies cannot understand. Babies are beyond the world in which adults live. Only the mother can be asked. A baby can be adored and worshipped, but only with the mother can one have a conversation. And so Mary, in whose arms the baby Jesus rests, is the one, the only one, to whom one can turn for divine help. Yet this baby is not like others. He sits erect. He looks out upon the congregation. His right hand is slightly raised in what? A sign of blessing? Perhaps. Tentative. There is hope.
The painting has been darkened by age and too much incense. There are holes in the canvas. Are they bullet holes? The artist gave hints of being influenced by El Greco, but who was he or she? Maybe no one knows. In any case it was left behind. The arms and hands of supplication extend out to an empty space. There is no one there to bless, unless one counts the occasional concert where music is adored and the musicians worshiped.