Opera seria in the sacristy
Nothing prepares you for the sight of the city riding on the water. or for the pleasing forms of its churches and palazzos, the walls of which seem to rise out of the blue-green waters of the lagoon. I have had a blissful few days in Venice, on tour with the schola cantorum of a leading Catholic secondary school.
Our hotel was by a quiet canal in the San Polo district, pretty much plumb in the middle of the arc described by the Grand Canal, near the magnificent Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Fran. In this magnificent 15th-century church are the tombs of the Venetian composer Claudio Monteverdi and of the sculptor Canova. Monteverdi has a simple slab in the pavement in a side chapel. Canova's tomb is a melodramatic monument in the broad nave. Its self indulgence would be too much were it not for the fact that Canova actually carved it for someone else, without realising that it would be his own mausoleum. Through the splendidly carved monks' choir towering above the high altar is Titian's masterpiece, The Assumption. Its triumphal depiction of Our Lady ascending to heaven on the clouds watched by crowds of apostles below and by expectant angels above is, I suppose, the kind of approach that characterises the treatment of this mystery in art.
Seeing me staring at it a sacristan beckoned conspiratorially and took me to the relics chapel, off the sacristy, and pointed upwards. There was an altar panel of a Madonna and child. But he motioned for me to look beneath it, at a carved medieval frieze. It was another representation of the Assumption, unlike anything I have ever seen. In it Our Lady lies on a bed; clearly this is the moment of her death, her dormition. The apostles stand around, looking down at her mournfully. Above them, out of their line of sight, Jesus moves heavenward cradling a child in his arms. The child is Mary. who at the moment of her death is "reborn" into heaven, becomes, as it were, new-created by the power of her Son's resurrection. The contrast between the conventional picture of mother and child in the panel above and the Son carrying the child Mary below was deeply touching and perhaps even more theologically thought-provoking than the triumphal glory of Titian's masterpiece.
In this chapel I was able to celebrate Mass for the boys on Sunday morning, one of those intimate, peaceful Masses you often get among a group of those who know one another well, and in whom being away from home engenders a powerful sense of community when gathered in the familiar ritual.
On the Saturday evening they had sung for the Vigil Mass in St Mark's. This was an occasion of curious contrasts. I was in the sacristy before and afterwards, marvelling at the thought that Pius X, John XXIll and John Paul I had all vested in this magnificent room, so I did not observe the extraordinary way in which the chair were treated. No one welcomed them or talked them through the liturgy before Mass began. At the end, as soon as the priests had left the sanctuary, the lights were turned off and the vergers began shooing people out, even though the choir were still singing. They sounded breathtakingly beautiful echoing round the gilded spaces of that building. The Mass common was sung to banal congregational chants led down a microphone by the priest. Amid the Byzantine splendours of that church 1 could not but marvel at how anything so lacklustre and mediocre as the Celtic Alleluia could have swept the known world with such fury as the best a "reformed" liturgy has to offer, or why a congregation of educated people and a thoroughly urbane priest would need to have their undivided attention glued to an A5 missalette throughout Mass as though it were the last secret of Fatima.
Amid so much that was inspiring and beautiful it seemed almost a kind of iconoclasm. And then there was the typical Italian liturgical obsession with microphones. One at the ambo had not been properly plugged in. Instead of simply cutting their losses and using the altar mic there was an ecstasy of running repairs, tappings and blowings, mutual recriminations among the servers. plugging in and plugging out of connections with deafening cracklings, and finally a huge opera seria in the sacristy afterwards.
More positively, the priest was a charming man who told me that he had been in London the previous week. He was accompanying five of St Mark's treasures which were being loaned to the Royal Academy for their Byzantium exhibition. That made me even more determined to go to it. He told me he had said Mass in West-, minster Cathedral. That must have been an interesting experience, a real home from home, for about the first 30 feet upwards!
Seeing St Mark's made me realise what it was that Bentley had in mind when he designed those vast domes, and to hope that the move to complete the decoration there gains ever more momentum. Otherwise I'll just have to keep going back to Venice.