Viva Italia – 2: Santuario dell’ Arcella – Illustrious and Sublime

The Chinese have a saying: “Twenty cups of green tea a day saves from a bad day”. When that thought crossed my mind, I was sitting at a Trattoria in Padova, Italy with a cup of steaming green tea raised to my lips. No, I don’t care a great deal for green tea, but that was what I was having on that April day. The girl behind the bar-counter, with disarming warmth and beautiful smile was eyeing our table, silently urging us to finish our drinks in time for the taxi she had graciously booked for us and is expected to arrive at any moment. Italian drivers can get a bit impatient, at times. Having settled the check and ready to leave, we kept a cool face – after all, it is standard operating procedure among human beings to act as if everything is all right – all of the time.

Minutes later, we were driving past Padova railway station north-east bound towards Arcella on the other side. Having got down before the flower shop in front of the Il Santuario Antoniano dell”Arcella, we picked up a bunch of cream-tulips for our visit to the Santuario where Sant’ Antonio of Padova had died. I have a particular fondness for cream-coloured tulips which our jolly good flower-mart at Kensington High Street in London supplied us every time we happen to be there.

 

Quite oddly, we would have to settle for deep yellow-tulips when we reached Firenze the following week since the cream-coloured tulips were just not available, perhaps due to the Easter season.

The sight of the Santuario built with exposed bricks and stone decorations in harmony with the Romanesque and Gothic styles of the Veneto region has always sent my heart sailing. It is one of the places I loved to visit in Padova – so quiet, so cool, so inviting…, a place built up with the deepest patronage of the people of Padova. Undeniably, it is the devotion of simple people and patronage of the wealthy that has built most of the distinguished Christian shrines.

 

The Santuario, with its dignified interior featuring restrained neo-gothic style that resonate Italian and Franciscan influence, is situated on the site which was originally a Franciscan Monastery for the Poor Clares (Poor Ladies) founded by San Francesco d’Assisi in 1220 when he landed at Venice by the Spring or Summer and took a brief break at Padova on his return from Acre and the Holy Land. Some Franciscan chronicles push the year of founding the Santuario further ahead between 1225/1226 and also claim that it was established by Agnes of Assisi, St. Clare’s blood sister. Originally called Santa Maria de Cella (or de Arcella) which consisted of two separate convents: the monastery of Poor Clares; and a small friary of the “Friars Minor”, it will become famous as a place of worship for having witnessed the death of two saints: Sant’ Antonio (June 13, 1231) and Blessed Elena Enselmini (November 4, 1231/1242).

The present church built by Eugenio Maestri in 1895 on the site of the previous structures and enlarged by Nino Gallimberti in 1930 is the final version that derived from various reconstruction, restoration and modification through the course of its history. A later addition, the tall bell tower designed by Agostino Miozzo and inaugurated in 1922, holds the 6m tall statue of Sant’ Antonio (by Veronese sculptor Silvio Righetti) on its apex.

  

The Santuario escaped from fire during the winter of 1442-43 when its archive was totally destroyed obliterating valuable records. It was converted to a hospital when the Plague (Black Death) hit Padova in the fourteenth century and during 1509, it housed the headquarters of Emperor Maximilian I of Hapsburg (1459 – 1519) when he besieged Padova. While 90 percent of the Arcella area was destroyed by bombs during World War II, the present church escaped from destruction, together with the original cell in which Antonio died. Like Portiuncula (Porziuncola) within the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, the cell, called La Cella del Transito(the Cell of Transition), was incorporated to the Santuario during 1670-75 and now forms part of the center altar. Over the centuries, its spiritual appeal has grown and numerous Paduan families choose the Santuario for their place of burial.

After the Lent of 1231, Antonio who was staying at Camposampiero fell grievously sick, afflicted with dropsy. He opted to return back to the small church of Santa Maria Mater Domini and the convent founded by him in Padova in 1227 or 1229 since according to his will, he desired to be buried there. When the ox-cart carrying Antonio drew closer to Arcella on its way to Padova, his physical condition had worsened and the friars were constrained to take him to a small cell in the friary of the Franciscans attached to the convent of the Poor Clares just outside the city walls. It was in this cell that Antonio had his Sacrament of Reconciliation/Extreme Unctionand sang his favourite hymn glorifying the Virgin Mary (O Gloriosa Domina) which was followed by recital of the seven penitential Psalms before the holy man breathed his last at the sunset of June 13, 1231.

 

The life-size reclining statue inside la cappella del Transito nel santuario dell’Arcella depicts Sant’ Antonio at his death. This statue was sculptured in 1808 by Rinaldo de Rinaldi, one of A. Canova’s pupils and does not represent a truthful resemblance to the saint’s physical appearance sketched out from his skeleton in 1981 by the scientists from the fields of anthropology, anatomy, reconstruction of tissue and plastic moulding. As a reminder of the events of the life of Sant’ Antonio and of his final arrival from Camposanpiero, a historical reenactment of his death is held here in period costumes by the evening of June 12 every year.

Inside the Santuario to the left side lies the uncorrupted body of Blessed Elena (Helena) Enselmini (Elsimi), displayed in a glass and silver reliquary. Born in 1208 (1207?) to the noble family of Enselmini in Padova, she was brought up with the supreme religious principles and untainted ideals of virtue. Named after Flavia Julia Helena, the innkeeper’s daughter who became the mother of Emperor Constantine whom the Christians venerate as Empress St. Helen, at her very young age itself, touched by the examples of absolute poverty and zealous acts of charity of San Francesco, Elena, like St. Clare, wanted to follow the way San Francesco had chosen to imitate Jesus, his source of spiritual inspiration. Having opted to live in the harsh rules of Poor Clares which offered her a life of silence, prayer, fasting, extreme poverty and manual labour, she received the habit of a Poor Clare sister, according to a fresco, from San Francesco himself.

While living in holy obedience at the monastery dell’Arcella, then reputed to be the fourth foundation of the “Order of Poor Clares” in addition to Assisi, Firenze and Faenza, Elena was also fortunate to have met Sant’ Antonio with whom she developed a holy friendship.

Following the death of San Francesco on October 3, 1226, Antonio had returned to Italy in 1227 and was elected ministro provinciale of the Franciscan Order for the Province of Emilia-Romagna, a position he held from 1227 to 1230. Having taken up his last permanent residence at the convent of Santa Maria Mater Domini in Padova in 1228, his periodical visits to Santuario dell”Arcella, provided the great theologian with opportunities to pass on his fruits of experience to Elena, bestowing her with theological education and moral perfection. At the age of eighteen, Elena had turned lame, blind, dumb and later bedridden until her death on November 4, 1231.

The date of “November 4, 1231” provided by me here is based on a placard displayed in front of the chapel of the Blessed Elena inside the Santuario which is founded on a eulogy on parchment discovered in her coffin. Incidentally, there exists a mix-up in the date of expiry of Elena Enselmini of Arcella since some writings stipulate it as November 4, 1242. Whatever authentic documents that would have confirmed the actual date were amongst the records lost during the fire in the winter of 1442-43.

According to The Franciscan Book of Saints, by Marion Alphonse Habig (Publisher: Franciscan Herald Press (1959), Elena is remembered for her patience with the sick and the treatment of many ailments and credited with visions of purgatory. During her lifetime, the sisters had recorded many of her revelations, and after her death, numerous miracles began to occur on behalf of those who had sought her intercession. As per the initiative of San Gregorio Barbarigo, the then Bishop of Padova, she was beatified by Pope Innocent XII on October 29, 1695.

Reminiscent of her own earthly life which had been fraught with difficulties, the mortal remains of Blessed Elena went through many re-interments. During the siege of Padova in 1509 when the Poor Clares moved to Borgo Ognissanti in Firenze (painter Sandro Botticelli (aka. Alessandro Filipepi) would be buried there in 1510 near his beloved Simonetta Vespucci, popularly believed to be the model for the personification of sexual beauty in “The Birth of Venus”) they took the urn containing the sacred body of Elena with them and later to other sister-convents until in 1810, when the convent was closed due to Napoleonic suppressions, the relic was translated to the Basilica di Sant’ Antonio. She was finally interned in the Santuario dell”Arcella on May 5, 1957. In 2007, the clarissa Francescana’s 50th Anniversary of burial was commemorated. The Santuario once dedicated to Virign Mary, is finally re-dedicated to Beata Elena Enselmini and the road outside it is also named after her.

According to contemporary sources, Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714), the great physician from Carpi in the province of Modena in Italy (the founder of occupational medicine and the first professor of practical medicine of the University of Padova), is said to be buried there. Recognised as a doctor in attendance to the nuns of the Santuario, he is the author of “De Morbis Artificum Diatriba” (Diseases of Workers). Ramazzini’s burial in the Santuario is disputed from 1914 onwards since the skeleton believed to be of Ramazzini (81 at the time of his death) in the unmarked tomb was identified to be of a 60-year old abbot of the convent. It is presumed that the actual remains of Ramazzini were lost when the tomb was opened in 1852 and bones removed to facilitate reinforcement and restoration of the Santuario and the oratory. While it is claimed that the remains were returned to the tomb and was properly sealed before the Santuario was consecrated in 1852 and dedicated to San Francesco di Sales, a further study in 2002 revealed that one of the remains of the four individuals found in the tomb, according to carbon dating, is that of Ramazzini.

 

Basilica di Sant’ Antonio                    Basilica di Santa Giustina

Whereas Basilica di Sant’ Antonio is the primary pilgrimage destination in Padova, Basilica di Santa Giustina and Santuario dell”Arcella also form part of a trivium. Saints and mystics were not born saints. They have attained a life of perfection through prayer, meditation and benevolence.

Life improves if you look on the bright side. As you step into these sacred places with a calm self and clear conscience, chances are that your instincts could feel the saints take over the guidance, and if you care to listen closer, you could hear them whisper, imparting their thoughts and inspiration to you, to renew your spirit and uplift the general outlook – something your heart and soul will never regret.

 

Novitiate’s Cloister of the convent attached to Basilica di Sant’ Antonio

As the taxi took us back to Hotel Casa del Pellegrino near Basilica di Sant’ Antonio, the driver expressed his happiness to us for having visited the Santuario which he often frequented, definitely on his birthday, every year. Like his moving taxi, belief follows a path of least resistance! Ciao, Jo

 

(Photos: © JS-CS/Manningtree Archive.)

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