Epiphany in Rome: Leo the Great and Pope Francis

Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter's, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)
Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter’s, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)

Part of what sets Rome’s liturgy apart from that of the rest of the Latin West is the Stational Liturgy. The Stational Liturgy developed over the course of the Middle Ages, and it sets out where the Bishop of Rome (‘Pope’) will celebrate the Mass on the major feasts and the Sundays of Advent and Lent. For example, on Pentecost, the Bishop of Rome celebrates Mass at Santa Maria ad Martyres (the Pantheon), and red roses are thrown through the oculus, representing the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis will continue the ancient tradition of the Stational Liturgy by celebrating Mass in the morning at San Pietro in Vaticano beneath Michelangelo’s grand dome. There will be a procession to San Pietro of pilgrims dressed like their mediaeval ancestors and bearing symbolic gifts. While most Anglicans today simply parade about inside their churches when they feel like having a procession, Roman Catholics to this day still have proper processions through city streets with banners and thurifers.

Liturgy, as I like to observe, is a living link between us today and earlier generations of Christians. It is not merely prayers read off a page and rubrics to be followed, but, if done with the heart and spirit, is a way to connect with the Divine and the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ of Hebrews 12:1. With that in mind, I would like to connect today’s Stational Liturgy with the ancient sources using one of my favourite Church Fathers, Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461) .

Leo the Great is the first pope for whom a substantive body of sermons survives. These sermons are important sources for our knowledge of the Stational Liturgy in Leo’s time; in fact, as Michele Salzman argued in her 2013 JRS article, ‘Leo the Great’s Liturgical Topography’, much of the Stational Liturgy as visible in Leo’s sermons was itself a construction of this fifth-century pope.

97 of Leo’s sermons survive, all but two of them essentially festal or liturgical sermons. Many of these sermons are transmitted to us with details of where they were preached or have allusions and external evidence to suggest where the feast was celebrated — hence our ability to put together the Stational Liturgy of mid-fifth-century Rome.

For the most part, Leo preached at San Pietro in Vaticano. This basilica was already a focus of much Roman episcopal activity, and Leo’s expansion of its use had a lasting effect on the Stational Liturgy; as Salzman notes in her article, by the year 800, San Pietro had 13 stational services each year. Salzman also argues that Leo’s preaching at San Pietro was a way to stress the growing importance of the Bishop of Rome in the lives of the lay aristocracy.

Leo’s sermons are not explicit as to where the Epiphany sermons, of which we have eight, were preached, but Salzman believes them likely to have been preached at San Pietro in Vaticano, based upon Gregory the Great’s (pope, 590-604) use of San Pietro on Epiphany (p. 219). Given the traditionalism of Roman liturgy and Leo’s frequent celebrations in San Pietro, this suggestion is entirely likely.

Thus, simply by celebrating the Eucharist in San Pietro, Pope Francis is connecting himself to an ancient tradition that goes back over 1500 years to the 440s. Of course, the ancient basilica was very different from its Renaissance successor today — in Leo’s day, it would have had many of the images associated with other ancient Roman basilicas. The aisles of the nave would have depicted scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as in Santa Maria Maggiore. The apse would have had a mosaic of Christ, as in so many old basilicas. The facade acquired mosaics in the fifth century as well, depicting the 24 Elders of Revelation with wreaths, the four Creatures, and the Lamb — once again, a now-traditional mosaic in Roman basilicas. Much gold would have covered the interior of the basilica as well. According to the Liber Pontificalis 47.6, after the Vandal sack in 455, Leo ‘renewed St Peter’s basilica and the apse-vault’ (trans. R. Davis).

Here’s a mosaic from Old St Peter’s that I saw in San Marco, Venice:


Thus, the setting, the same but different. I am uncertain what the current Pope will preach, exactly, but it will, of course, be thematic — the visitation of the magi to the Christ child. In his first Epiphany sermon, from 441, Leo proclaims that this is a feast for the entire human race:

After celebrating very recently that day on which inviolate virginity gave birth to the Saviour of the human race, the venerable feast of Epiphany gives to us, dearly beloved, ongoing joy, so that the vigour of rejoicing and the fervour of faith may not grow cool amongst the neighbouring sacraments of related solemnities. For it is with respect to the salvation of all humans that the infancy of the Mediator between God and men (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5) was declared to the whole world at that time when He was detained in that small, little town. For although He had selected the Israelite nation and one family of this people from whom He might take on the nature of all humanity, nevertheless, He did not wish to lie concealed amongst the narrow relationships of His mother’s dwelling-place, but wished to be known by all soon — He Who was worthy to be born for all. Therefore, to three magi in the region of the East appeared a star of strange clarity, which was more shining and more beautiful than the rest of the stars, and easily turned the eyes and spirits of the observers to itself, so that immediately there was a turning that was not restful since it seemed so unusual. Therefore, He gave understanding to those watching, He Who furnished the sign, and that which could be understood, He made to be inquired after, and the One sought offered Himself to be found. (Sermon 31.1; my hasty trans.)

Leo offers the traditional reading of the magi’s gifts, ‘The incense they offer to God, the myrrh to Man, the gold to the King, consciously paying honour to the Divine and human Nature in union:  because while each substance had its own properties, there was no difference in the power of either.’ (NPNF trans. on CCEL) But he does not simply tell a Bible story or explicate a piece of theology; here, I believe, the ancient pope and today’s pope are similar, for Leo moves on to exhort his congregation to their own good deeds. Scripture, theology, worship, and the life of piety are all bound together in the minds of the ancient theologians and preachers. Leo thus closes Sermon 31:

Lift your faithful hearts then, dearly-beloved, to the gracious blaze of eternal light, and in adoration of the mysteries dispensed for man’s salvation give your diligent heed to the things which have been wrought on your behalf.  Love the purity of a chaste life, because Christ is the Son of a virgin.  “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul,” (1 Pet. 2:11) as the blessed Apostle, present in his words as we read, exhorts us, “In malice be ye children,” (1 Cor. 14:20) because the Lord of glory conformed Himself to the infancy of mortals.  Follow after humility which the Son of God deigned to teach His disciples.  Put on the power of patience, in which ye may be able to gain your souls; seeing that He who is the Redemption of all, is also the Strength of all.  “Set your minds on the things which are above, not on the things which are on the earth.” (Col. 3:2)  Walk firmly along the path of truth and life:  let not earthly things hinder you for whom are prepared heavenly things through our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth for ever and ever.  Amen. (NPNF trans. on CCEL)

Thus does Leo the Great, through the Stational Liturgy and his preaching on Epiphany, connect the world of ancient Roman Christianity with our world today. Let us not neglect his memory or his teachings as we enter the season of Epiphanytide!

Mosaics at San Marco: Theology in line and colour

I recently returned from a couple of weeks of research in Italy — a week and a bit at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, and two days at the Biblioteca Capitolare, Verona. The Marciana is located quite near the magnificent Basilica of San Marco, pictured at left. I, therefore, had many opportunities to visit San Marco and its mosaics.

The style of art that predominates in San Marco is called Veneto-Byzantine (my other blog on that); it is very similar to Byzantine iconography but also shares traits with Romanesque (no surprise, since both directly descend from Late Antique Roman art).

Today’s title takes a quotation from Rowan Williams’ book The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ — icons are theology in line and colour.

This is evident throughout San Marco.

Visually, I was impacted powerfully simply by setting foot inside San Marco — the brilliant gold of the place penetrates the soul. I could not help but utter praise to Almighty God under my breath the first two times I entered. The first time I entered I stumbled to a standstill as I beheld the glory of the place. (NB: In what follows, all images can be viewed full-screen if you click on them.)

It is a truly beautiful space. The golden field represents heaven. The iconographical plan of the main domes is Christological. As a visitor coming from the West, you encounter the mosaics in anti-chronological order, but they begin in the East with the rising sun, with the golden apsidal half-dome of Christ Pantokrator, the all-powerful. Above the chancel is the Dome of the Prophets, foretelling Christ with the Lord Himself in the centre. The next dome is the Dome of the Ascension, then the Dome of Pentecost, then the Dome of the Last Judgement. As the sun traces its trajectory, so does the story of Christ.

The Ascension Dome and the Christological vault. Click on the image to see it fullscreen.

In between the domes of Pentecost and Ascension is the Christological vault. On one side stands the Crucifixion, on the other the Resurrection (portrayed in the Byzantine manner as what we would call the Harrowing of Hell), and in the centre the Empty Tomb. Below, the mosaics tell the story of Christ’s final days.

What is the theological significance of the main decorative scheme? The apsidal mosaic reminds us — Christ Pantokrator, Christ Almighty, Christ our God who was crucified for us. Christ who lives and saves us.

There has often been a temptation to deny the fullness of Christ’s divinity, from certain Gnostic groups to Jehovah’s Witnesses. San Marco calls us to worship Christ as fully God. In the atrium, we see this in the depiction of the creation. For whom do we see making the animals? The cross in the halo gives away who this young, beardless man is — it is God the Son, the living Word, Christ, who creates.

Yet He is not merely depicted in glory, but also on earth; we see not only his last moments, as I mentioned above, but also the Garden of Gethsemane, the temptation by the devil, and some of his teaching ministry. The other temptation has been to deny his full humanity, from certain Gnostic groups to those who claim he was an alien — or those whose vision of him as God would swallow up the man he was as well.

The Temptations of Christ

San Marco’s mosaics are a testament to the full humanity and full divinity of Christ. They are a reminder of what the great theologians of history — Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Leo, Aquinas, Palamas — have sought to balance in our minds as we think on our Lord and Saviour. And they do it through a medium accessible to all — the domes of a basilica.