The Duomo of Milan and the poor

Milan’s cathedral, or Duomo, is a grand sight. It is a shining white, marble beacon of Gothic beauty in a foggy, greyish-hued city. Within, it is filled with beautiful works of art, carvings in stone and wood, stained glass, paintings on canvas hung alongside the nave. A nail from the True Cross is in the Duomo’s cross high above.

The place fills one with wonder. The Gothic nature of much of the space persistently draws the eyes upward, and the grace of so much of the Roman-style Renaissance architecture keeps the observer in good cheer.

The worship is beautiful in the Latin-Italian modernish Ambrosian rite, with incense, robes, choir, acolytes, deacons, priests, bishops. The devotion of the faithful lighting candles and kneeling in prayer at side altars make one wish more Protestants were so obviously pious — and that more Catholics were as well!

This building — which is surely the largest place I have ever been barring the Skydome or Air Canada Centre, with its expansive floor below and high vaults above — was begun in 1387. Santa Maria Maggiore, the old Romanesque cathedral, was demolished, though the original facade was initially incorporated in the new structure, and a new, glorious building was begun. The final touches on this building, primarily on its Neo-Gothic (Gothic Revival?) facade were added in the 19th century.

A lot of beauty. If you’re the sort of person who is drawn to the worship of God through the arts and through architecture, this is one of your places.

But a lot of money, right?

People often complain about places like this. They say that the Church wasted so much of its money building huge cathedrals when it could have been feeding the poor. If you go to the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio here, you do wonder a little at how St. Ambrose, famous for melting the Milanese church’s silver to redeem Christian slaves, would feel about the number of gold and silver vessels when there are hungry mouths abroad in the streets of Mediolanum to this day.

In response, people usually point out that the Church has fed many poor, built many hospitals, trained many jobless people, and so forth, marching through history. How many hospitals are named St. Joseph’s? Or what about the nuns a friend of mine volunteers with, giving food and friendship to the homeless of Edinburgh?

I would like to point out something else.

The Duomo in Milan did help the poor. And I don’t mean by providing them with the spiritual benefit of so lovely a building. I mean by providing them with what poor people need most: good, solid work.

Work for: the quarrymen who got the marble out of the earth; the people who dug the canals and worked on the canals and maintained them; the people who shipped the marble; the masons who shaped the marble and put it into place; the architects who designed the structure; the artists who made statues, paintings, stained glass; silversmiths who made chalices and patens and processional crosses; ditto goldsmiths; beekeepers who made beeswax for the candles; the people involved in linen production; and all the other varieties of tradespeople involved in the building of a mediaeval/Renaissance/Baroque/19th-century cathedral.

The Duomo provided them with work. Those men and women who work at maintaining and restoring the Duomo through the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano also get work from the Duomo. The Duomo draws visitors to Milan, thus making hundreds of businesses, small and large, succeed, producing many jobs, skilled and unskilled. And when these businesses and jobs succeed, so do others.

So, yes, the Duomo cost a lot of money. But without it, there would have been more poor folk for the past 600 years than otherwise.

Baby Jesus and his Mom

A Madonna & Child, Duomo in Milano

As I stood at the Capello di Crucifisso on Sunday (discussed here), I noted that the chapel to my left had more attendees. There, front and centre was a Madonna and Child, with a little railing and kneelers besides the tables of candles and pews that it had in common with the Crucifixion.

More people were there to pray and light candles and kneel before an image — beautiful, certainly — of Our Lord as a child in the arms of His mother.

Later, in the galleries of the Sforzesco Castello, I saw more Madonnas. All equipped with a baby, thankfully. One such piece by Andrea Mantegna was originally for an altarpiece and has been extensivelly restored, and is visible here.

I am not opposed to images of the Virgin being painted. And if she comes equipped with the Child, all the better! Indeed, since her Son is the entire reason she gets any attention at all, she had better come with him!

But in the crowds of Madonnas, I fear sometimes that something is lost. Every once in a while, one of my evangelical brethren makes a scoffing comment in the direction of crucifixes, declaring proudly, ‘My Jesus didn’t stay dead.’

I know a priest whose response to this, when people note his glow-in-the-dark crucifix (he swears he didn’t know it was glow-in-the-dark when he got it), is, ‘Do you have a manger scene at Christmas?’

St. George's Anglican Church, Prince Albert SK

‘Yes,’ comes the answer.

‘Is Jesus a baby in it?’


‘Well,’ he says, ‘my Jesus didn’t stay a baby.’

My Jesus didn’t stay a baby. In fact, the baby Jesus didn’t atone for sin. Certainly, the fact that God was eight days old and held in the arms of His mother makes for the beginnings of a new reality, but it’s not until we take God as a grown man and savagely put Him to death and He rises from the dead that he atones for sin and makes possible the new life to which all may enter in.

What I see as the detrimental effect of all these Baby Jesuses, eight days old in the arms of His mother, is not an elevation of the Virgin so much as a confusion about Who He really is. Thus, the many mediaeval saints who saw visions of the Christ Child speaking to them.

Or the tale of the Jews who stole some Host to desecrate it, and when they stabbed it, they saw the image of a Child, and the Host bled. (Not giving credence to the story in any way.)

The Christ Who is present in the Heavens now, Who watches over His people and hears their prayers, Who sometimes even speaks to them, is, in fact, adult, not infantile. The Christ Whose death is commemorated and Whose body, by Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and some Anglican theology, is present in the bread and wine, was and is an adult.

This is important, because acknowledging that the Child who was laid in a manger left this sphere of existence as a grown Man is an acknowledgement of the fullness of his human existence. Jesus lived a full human life.

I do not believe that the infant Jesus would have atoned for sin if slain. If what has not been assumed cannot be healed, then I believe that Jesus had to live at least long enough to be tempted to be able to atone for sin. How can one who has never been tempted by sin save me from it?

Irenaeus (or is it Athanasius?) takes it further, and says that Jesus lived to be an old man, thus going through and redeeming every stage of human life.

The Baby Jesus doesn’t save me.

The Man Jesus, crucified, risen, ascended, does.

Processional Cross, St. George's Anglican, Prince Albert, SK

Western Crucifixes

Capello del Crucifisso, Duomo, Milan

Yesterday morning, I stood at the Capello del Crucifisso — Chapel of the Crucifixion — while Ambrosian Rite Morning Prayer was sung in the Choir at Milan’s Duomo. A smallish (medium?) huddle had gathered at the chapel, and the tables in front were laden with candles representing the prayers of Milan’s Catholic populace.

As I looked at this crucifix, I noticed that there was a crown with it. Not a crown on the Lord Jesus’ head, but sort balancing there between him and the cross itself. The crown looks like the sort a Late Mediaeval or Renaissance king would wear.

Calvin criticises crucifixes, and all images of Our Lord, because they cannot show the glory. They are necessarily impious because all you can see is suffering humanity, not the correlative truth of glorious divinity. I imagine that an image of Christ the King in glory would have the opposite problem for John Calvin.

The Eastern Orthodox criticise our crucifixes because Christ is hanging there as just a dead or dying man, not standing as the king in control that he was. They say that the bare history has won over against the theology in western crucifixes.

That crown points to the barrenness of both positions, I think. Christ is King in every western crucifix, and He is glorious.

Later, in the museums found in the Castello Sforzesco, I found a few more carved Jesuses. My favourite was a bearded but bald wooden Christ from the fourteenth century. He looked like a man, like any man, hanging and dying on the cross.

And that is exactly the point, isn’t it?

God became a man, a particular man, but a man who was like any other man (except for sin, of course). And when he was hung upon the tree, he looked like any other man. And he died like any other man. That he rose himself on the third day is evidence that he is not any other man.

But this is precisely the glory of the Christian Gospel. God became a man. If you were alive in Judaea in the first century, you would have seen Jesus as a particular person, and you would not have seen him refulgent with his glory (unless you were Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor).

My favourite -- the Bernini Crucifix in the AGO

The glory of God is that he came ‘down’ from heaven and was incarnate as a baby, lived as a man, and died as a criminal. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus points to his upcoming crucifixion as the moment of his glory. This act of supreme weakness on the part of the supremely powerful One is his moment of greatest triumph, of most wondrous glory, for he is not a pagan God of old, but the God who loves his people with a neverending, sacrificial love that would give anything.

Contrary to Calvin and the Orthodox, these crucifixes in Milan are, in fact, images of glory. They are images of the greatest glory God has to show us — His Death in the Person of His Son, Jesus.

The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship

A church I know that made the transition from ‘High Church’ to ‘Low Church’ removed the statue of its patronal saint from the sanctuary into the vestry. This move was made on the grounds that, ‘This an evangelical church, not an Anglo-Catholic Church.’ The same minister, who had worn a cope in the past, refused to wear one on a later occasion on the grounds that you don’t wear High Church Vestments in an evangelical church.

The following has been floating around in my head for a while, but I feel it is appropriate to write now, since I was at the Duomo in Milan for Morning Prayer this morning. (I didn’t stick around for Eucharist because I felt uncomfortable with the guards staring down anyone who didn’t speak Italian.)

By evangelical, I mean Gospelly. Gospel-focused. Something or someone focussed on the Incarnation of God as a man and His death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in glory for the salvation of the human race, with a strong emphasis on Christ’s atoning death. Someone evangelical has a very high regard for Scripture as the revelation of God and our way of learning about Jesus and his life on earth. Evangelicals believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and his Gospel, available to those who believe.

By what follows, I don’t wish to minimise the differences between High and Low Churchmanship. Nor do I wish to downplay the worthiness of Low Church worship — I grew up Low Church, worshipped at my dad’s Low Church parish just recently, and worship with the Free Church of Scotland.

I hope, rather, to help Low Church Evangelicals to be more comfortable with their High Church siblings, and for High Church worshippers to realise the levels of Truth and Gospel witness found in their rituals — these rituals ought not to be dead, for in them is contained a witness to the glorious Truth of God made Man for our salvation.

Genuflection & the Sign of the Cross When you join your High Church friends on a Sunday morning, you may notice that many of them genuflect before entering the pew, and that many also make the sign of the cross. This is not mere superstitious nonsense, a hangover from those dark days of Roman Christianity.

Look to the front of the church. What stands on the Holy Table or hangs from the ceiling or is mounted on the back wall (or all three)? A cross or a crucifix. Why genuflect to a cross made of brass or wood? Is not the Lord Jesus risen and ascended to heaven? Yes, He is. And, ascended to glory, He is now everywhere, for heaven has not a fixed location (despite silliness from J S Spong). Yet you cannot worship Christ who died for you everywhere unless you worship Him somewhere.

In kneeling briefly before being seated in the pew, the worshipper acknowledges his or her debt to the One who died on the historical cross on a hill far away. He or she worships in his or her spirit, using the body and the physical space to honour the invisible God. It is a spiritual act of worship.

The same, needless to say, goes for making the sign of the cross, an act I am much in favour of (see this post and this post).

Regular, old kneeling If a person of particular outward piety, your High Church friend will probably proceed to kneel and pray for a bit. It used to be the case that most, if not all, western Christians knelt to pray. Most have a tendency to sit these days. Kneeling is a physical act of submission and humility. No matter how intimate we get with God — and He does call us friends and we are called his Bride — He is still God; still holy; still other; still wholly other; still almighty; still King.

We are to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. It is His will to lift us up. When we present our prayers and petitions unto the Most High, is there any posture more fitting than that of kneeling?

Standing There is always standing, of course. This is the first ritual act the whole congregation performs. As the clergy, assistants, and choir enter, everyone stands up. The cross, that great symbol of our salvation and the very reason we are present at church, goes before them. Out of honour to this cross, we stand. Out of respect for the clergy who have a duty and role to teach us and instruct us in the Faith and to lead us in worship and to draw us near to God through the sacraments, we stand — we stand even though so many, high and low alike, fail at most or all of the above often or sometimes.

And so they process in, the choir singing something, hopefully in English. Preferably, in my opinion, a congregational hymn. But maybe not. Maybe in Latin, even.

Things are just beginning. Stay tuned for more …