Sunday, September 09, 2012

Not My Typical Friday Night

Thanks to the amazing if sometimes annoying phonomenon known as Facebook, I was able to meet up with some friends.....without even using a cellphone, believe it or not!

We had agreed days before via Facebook messaging that if I got to Florence on time, I would meet them at the Piazzale Michelango at 5pm, below the David statue replica. Having this appointment made me give Google Maps a try, to see if I could get a reasonable estimate of whether I could make it or not. And in doing so, I found a shortcut that halved the time it took me to walk from the guesthouse to the piazzale.

It meant acting counter-intuitively, walking back down toward town and then making a left onto via  dei Bastioni, and then taking this little street that I'd not known about before.

Not to the right, which would go down toward the Arno River,

but instead to the left, which meant going up, and up, and up.

My eyes thanked my calves and quads once I made it to the viale and had views like that below as I walked along.

I knew the Watkins family mainly via choral connections, so it had seemed like a good idea to see if they'd like to attend the chanted vespers mass at 5:30 at the church of San Miniato, one of my favorite places in the world. They said yes. I actually did make it up the hill (and, yes, the whole fifteen minutes was uphill) by 5, we found each other, and we got ourselves to the church on time.

It turned out there were only four monks present for the service, which meant each voice played an important part. If I were a chant expert, I could say more about it. What I can say is that I love liturgy, because even if you don't know a language well, or it is hard to understand because of being sung and having very resonant acoustics down in a crypt, you know what is being said and done. And at a certain point, the "Alleluia" was sung to the very same tune used at a church I sometimes attend in my own neighborhood. I'm guessing it's an ancient setting for the Alleluia, but again, I just don't know the history enough to say. What I do know is that it was joyful to be able to sing along.

It was also joyful to witness the passionate singing of an elderly monk of the group, who unfortunately tended to pitch the sections he led too high, leading another in the group to work hard to bring the chant back down to a more singable pitch. I loved this, just the homespun nature of it, the spontaneity of centuries-old chant being sung in this centuries-old church. Of course I didn't take pictures during the worship, but here are some pictures from inside the church.

This is where we were for the chanted mass, in the crypt down below, where it was much darker than it is in this photo, which was obviously taken in the morning hours because of the light shining in these eastern windows. I did not take this photo, but found it on a website. The rest are from our evening there.

It's one of the simpler churches, in Florence, spacious and without a lot of side chapels and decorative tombs and statues that came later in history. The high walls and ceiling are the "fanciest" part. I read that the ceiling decoration was completed by 1322, the construction of the church itself having ended in 1207. It began in 1018. That's almost 200 years for the construction alone.

[The only people I know who come close to this kind of patience in building are the folks over in the Ozarks, building a castle using medieval tools and techniques. If you aren't aware of that project, you should have a look (not right now, of course!):   Update: sadly that project has been discontinued. You can read about it here.)

The arched tabernacle was added later, in the 1390's-1400's. An art historian I once met at San Miniato said the tabernacle was not part of the original plan and actually messes up the highly symbolic construction of the church, which I won't go into in detail but will say more about in a moment. Of course, the wonderful part of the tabernacle is the way the gilded walls catch the sun coming in in the evenings. That is what you're seeing, sun reflected on the gold. There were no artificial lights on in the church.

I like the way these churches help you remember how small you really are. That ceiling is way, way  up there!

St. John, the Evangelist. I include his name here because he represents well what I learned from the art historian, a Professor Fred Gettings, who was, at the time I met him, writing a book about the church and its symbolism. It was my first time ever in San Miniato; I could hardly believe I got to meet someone writing about it. He even came and lectured to our class about his research, in exchange for having us participate in some research for him, which involved staring for hours at the ceiling panels of the Uffizi museum. I don't find the San Miniato book on Amazon, or I'd refer you there, but I know it was published, because I have a copy. I see his book on cats, which we helped out with, is on Amazon.

In brief, symbols and placement of various structures within and without the church, according to Prof. Getting, were done just as they were in order to symbolically refute a gnostic heresy going around at the time the church was being built, denying the foundational Christian belief that Jesus was both human and divine. I include St. John's name above, since he is known for having written "and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us...." and many other such words emphasizing the dual nature of the Jesus Christ.

And that is part of what I love of the memory of the monks chanting the liturgy. They were singing such spirit-oriented words, ideas and beliefs that I believe could not have come from man all on his own, and yet even in that ancient place, with that ancient, other-wordly text and music, they were completely human, struggling with the pitch of the chant, and perhaps with the hard realities of age, hearing loss, who knows what. And even as we sang "alleluia" and were caught up in beauty and awe, we also were distracted and had to stifle the impulse to giggle a little.

It was a wonderfully incarnational, joyful moment and a blessing.

 Walking out into the late afternoon light.....

which at that time of day creates such contrasts.....

and makes you want to see everything, really see it......

...and then we were outside again, where you can see the brass eagle, St. John's symbol, shining in the sun, atop the church. And if the photo were larger and I had more time, I would explain more of the symbolism and how it relates to incarnation, eucharist, and God with us.

Or perhaps you can go there yourself and buy the book and see the real thing someday, if you're interested. Or we could go together, and I could save you the trouble of buying the book.

So, this was a part of my atypical Friday night, and it's not even night yet. But the rest will have to wait, as it really is night as I'm writing, and I need to get out of these words and move my flesh into other activiites.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

What a really beautiful post, such lovely light in a lovely place.