Tag Archive | Easter

NOTRE DAME WILL STAND

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“The Gothic of Verona is far nobler than that of Venice;

and that of Florence nobler than that of Verona.

… that of Notre Dame of Paris is the noblest of all.”

  • The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin

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The day was bright and filled with leisure hours. We would not have wished to be anywhere else in the world on that day but in the grand Cathédrale of Notre-Dame in Paris, the capital of elegance and art. With the presence of our daughter Bianca, the last few days had swiftly accelerated and rolled away quickly. She was absolutely vibrant. Having visited the central landmarks and point of identification, viz., the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Sacré-Cœur, The Louvre and Mona Lisa, all of which has been absorbed into the tradition of Paris, we had decided to take her to other blessedly French places not to be missed including Palais Garnier (Opéra de Paris). She had done her homework and knew there was far more colour and nerve in Paris.

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Long before all the above landmarks came into existence and well before the city came to be known as Paris, “Lutetia” (Lutetium) as it was known during the Late Empire, was centred on a small island in the shape of a cradle in the Seine called Île de la Cité, the heart of the city. Years later, it was here on the pavement in the great plaza called Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II (1) before Notre-Dame de Paris that the official centre of Paris was landmarked with a bronze star on an embedded plaque – proclaiming the central place of Notre-Dame in the country’s life.

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This bronze star, (placed by André Jules Michelin), is the point-zero (Point-Zéro des routes de France) for measuring distances from Paris. The local tip-off is that: a) if you stand on the bronze plate, you will return to Paris; b) your love will last forever, if you stand on it with your lover and share a kiss. No reward for guessing what I have often done there.

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I know, so much has been written and said about Notre Dame. But, until last time I was here, I never thought that Notre-Dame de Paris is best seen from behind the flying buttresses at the east end. This time around, having reached the area via Quai Saint-Michel, we had crossed the Petit Pont (Little Bridge, erected in 1853) and entered the Parvis (square) which now dwarfs the apocalyptic west façade with its great area. The Parvis was indeed much smaller before Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), while remodelling Paris for Napoleon III in the nineteenth century, cleared the structures which clustered before the cathedral and enlarged the Parvis, adding different features to it.

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The Parvis was crowded with people – we could pick up the scent of liveliness in the air. Moving past the Crypte Archéologique du Parvis de Notre-Dame, we came across the high stone base bearing “Charlemagne et Ses Leudes”, the imposing bronze equestrian statue of Emperor Charlemagne accompanied by his leudes: Roland and Olivier. It was sculpted by brothers Louis and Charles Rochet in time for the L’Exposition universelle de 1878 (third Paris World’s Fair – open to the public: May 20 to November 10, 1878). Since its erection in the square, it not only has outlived the threat of displacement but also has remained a mute spectator at the area which has played a vital part in so much of France’s history.

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If one would track the olden times back from the time of Charlemagne to the origins of Paris, we would find that it was the military importance of Île de la Cité which had motivated the Romans to build the city of Lutetia where there was a small settlement of Gallic tribe of merchants and fishermen called Parisii. Given that the spot was already hallowed by a Druid shrine, no wonder a place of worship for Jupiter came up – the remains of this altar will be mentioned below.

The Roman occupation had ushered in Christendom and from the wreck of the Roman shrine rose a cathedral – just like many mediaeval churches of Western Europe which claim a pre-Christian origin. In his book about Paris, author A.J.C Hare relates that a church dedicated to Saint-Étienne (St. Stephen) was built on the islet about the year 375. (The website of Notre Dame states: This cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen was very large. Its western façade located about forty metres west of the current façade of Notre-Dame – which is where we are presently sitting now.) Adjacent to Saint-Étienne, an edifice far more rich and beautiful was built in 528 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame II), the substructions of which were found during excavation of the Parvis during the 19th century. Notre-Dame II had subsequently assumed a pre-eminence among the churches and for the faithful, became the center of the Christian cult.

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During the three hundred years between 1050 and 1350, 80 cathedrals, 500 large churches and hundreds of small parish churches were built in France alone which reflected the wealth and variety of the country’s history and architecture. It has also been regarded as the most typical expression of medieval civilization. It was a period when the country’s faith was humble, her love a mounting flame. Following the construction of the abbey of St. Denis (now Basilique cathédrale de Saint-Denis) on the grave of Saint Denis north of Paris in 1144, there was strong plea for a cathedral much longer and upward looking than Saint-Étienne’s in Île de la Cité, – a cathedral worthy of the great demographic expansion and economic dynamism of Paris. With the low hills region such as Butte Saint-Jacques, nearby Bagneux, Arcueil, and Montrouge dispersed with great beds of granite and limestone, there was hardly any shortage for building materials. Without totally destroying the existing two churches, Maurice de Sully (elected bishop of Paris on October 12, 1160 – died in 1196) commenced to build a new edifice on the same site. It is generally held that Pope Alexander III laid its foundation stone in 1163.

8 Prior to the start of the work, the Rue Neuve-Notre Dame was created to make it easier to bring the masonry. With the center of worship shifted to the nave of the older Notre-Dame II, the foundations of the new cathedral were dug thirty feet deep and filled with the hard stone of Montrouge on which the enormous weight would rest. The construction was done by professional workers organized in accordance with the traditions and rules of the guilds, and the powerful Chapter of Notre-Dame.  The underlying efficiency of the work done is that the vault webs of Notre-Dame are only 6 inches in thickness and they have held steadfast for 850 years!

The chancel was built first so that the church could function. The choir’s high altar was consecrated in 1182. The nave (with the exception of the extreme west end) was realised about the year 1195 (the year Santo Antônio de Pádua was born in Lisbon.) Under Eudes de Sully (died 1208), the successor of Maurice, the work on the west façade which begun in 1202 was completed to the base of the gallery by 1223. The galerie des rois (the Gallery of Kings) was completed under Guillaume de Seignelay (1219-1224).  The twin towers (without the spires) were realised by 1235. A transept was not in the original plan, but a short one was inserted before the nave was laid down. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was in Paris during the time the transept was being built. After visiting the chapel of the Virgin behind the choir in 1323, French philosopher, theologian Johannes de Janduno wrote, “On entering one feels as if ravished to heaven, and ushered into one of the most beautiful chambers of paradise.” Although the cathedral was never completed consistent to the plan of the original designers, when the work was finally realised circa 1345, the edifice presented an irregular alignment due to interruptions in its construction.

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God must have danced around me when I was born – for as it turned out, I have been generously blessed with occasions to travel far and wide – and most importantly in the presence of wonderful persons. For the past few days, Carina was having fun naming to me the various trees adorning Paris: the Linden- and Horse chestnut trees along the Seine; Honey Locust, Mimosa, Empress, Cherry…… and many others including the London Plane by the Avenue des Champs Élysées. That was hardly a fortuitous coincidence, but in lieu of the movie locations of Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler) which I pointed out to her in Rome on a spring-like day – few of which she knew!

My theory/schedules of longer periods of stay and repeated visits to a given place has aided my endeavours for in-the-field study of important subjects augmented with the minute details of history and architecture available in various writings. The day before, Carina brought me a book from a little shop across from our hotel, which I had been looking to buy for a long time. Everything comes to he who waits. This book to which the quote on the header relates, had given me the right disposition to write this article. But for me, to be in the presence of a cathedral of religious, cultural and architectural significance such as Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris is good fodder in that respect.

We have now moved closer to the cathedral. From where we sat, we could clearly view the features of the major divisions of the west façade crowned by two towers. Dissimilar in size, the towers rose from a parapet or pierced cornice which surmounts an open arcaded screen of gigantic proportions. The spires for the two towers of Notre Dame, originally planned by the builders, were never made.

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At the top of the towers are open arcades and small turrets where the staircases end. The panoramic view of Paris from up there is also complimented by the full structural beauty of the cathedral – its grand arrangement of flying buttresses, the great roof ridge, fléche (built in 1859-60 since the ancient fléche was destroyed in 1787), the circular chevet, the host of statues, gargoyles and other sculptured ornaments.

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Atop the south tower, one can see the great bell or bourdon of the cathedral which was re-foundered and re-baptized “Emmanuel” (Emmanuel-Louise-Thérèse) in 1686 in honour of Louis XIV, and Marie-Thérèse of Austria. According to a book by Esther Singleton, it was originally named “Jacqueline“ in honour of Jacqueline de la Grange, the wife of Jean de Montaigu (about 1349 – 1409) who had presented the bell in 1400 (very interesting – must read up this history). You could listen to the sound of Emmanuel, topping over the other bells, in Youtube videos featuring liturgical ceremonies of the cathedral.

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Under the division containing the wheel window is the Gallery of (28) Kings running across the entire façade. The figures we see now are restorations. Directly below, on ground level, are the three great portals – all asymmetrical in height and width and in sculptural subjects.

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Le Portail du Jugement – Central doorway

The Portal of the Last Judgment (Le Portail du Jugement) occupies the central doorway with The Portal of the Virgin (Le Portail de la Vierge) on the left, and commemorating the Blessed Virgin’s mother is The Portal of Saint Anne (Le Portail Sainte-Anne) to the right which is a composite work carved during Maurice’s time (between 1160-1170) but was set up only after Eudes de Sully took over the work of the west façade.

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Le Portail de la Vierge – Left doorway

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Le Portail Sainte-Anne – Right doorway

It was outside on the porch of the cathedral, in front of the “architectural glory of France”, that the marriage of King Henri of Navarre with Marguerite de Valois took place on August 18, 1572, owing that the King was a Huguenot at that time. In May 1625, the marriage of Charles I of England to the French princess Henrietta Maria (youngest daughter of King Henri IV of France and Marie de Medici) took place by proxy with the west façade as the backdrop (2)(3) (4),

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Dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Notre-Dame), the edifice was subjected to reckless mutilation between 1699 and 1753 when the Cloister, the stalls of the sixteenth century, the old high altar, many sepulchral monuments, and stained glass were destroyed – yet, considering the vicissitudes through which the cathedral has passed, it’s a blessing that so much remained unaltered in contour and general effect and also much of original sculpture has been preserved. While the mid-19th century restorer, Eugéne Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc has outshot the others in proving his efficiency for all of the present state of skilful restorations of Notre-Dame which included aesthetic and structural improvements; at any rate, Bishop Maurice de Sully, the ancient designers and premier massons (5) of the cathedral have ensured that everything was essentially arranged to concentrate the eye on the chief altar, and to provide dignity to its position.

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18Ever since the consecration of its main altar in 1182, the cathedral with its vast open space to accommodate the ever-numerous believers has served the religious services and frequent synods. I read somewhere that St. Dominic preached there. The new-born heir was blessed at its altar. Emperors were crowned there. Standing before the altar of the cathedral on December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte took the crown from Pope Pius VII (1742 -1823) and crowned himself. For being the venue, it was decorated for spectacular royal marriages like the fairy-tale wedding of Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) and Empress Eugenie (Spanish Eugénie du Derje de Montijo, Comtesse de Teba) in January, 1853, Little more than 100 years later, Princess Françoise of Bourbon-Parma married Prince Edouard de Lobkowicz there in January, 1960.

Prior to ceremonial interment of Saint Louis (Louis IX (1214 – 1270) at St. Denis, his body (having undergone the process known as mos Teutonicus) lay in state at Notre Dame – a custom followed for many French monarchs and princes. In October 1895, the cathedral was the venue for the State funeral of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur (reinterred at the Institut Pasteur). When Gen. Charles de Gaulle died in 1970, it was in Notre Dame de Paris, (the very place where gunshots were fired at him in August 1944), where the heads of nations gathered for a Requiem Mass on the day the funeral was held at his home village, Colombey-les-Deus-Églises where he was laid to rest by the grave of his daughter Anna.

19Bound in the developments of the times, Notre Dame de Paris had also served as a meeting place for trade unions, dormitory for the homeless, location for movies, while its nave was once used to store wine casks. According to media reports, in May 2013, a French historian pulled out a shotgun and shot himself dead in the cathedral.

Periodical repairs and modifications were done to redress the wear and tear it suffered by time, climate, intolerance and ignorance. In their book, authors Jean-Benit Nadeau and Julie Barlow wrote that by the middle of the 19th century, the cathedral had fallen into such neglect that authorities considered demolishing it and using the stones to build bridges. The restoration of the cathedral finally came when the government of King Louis-Philippe I (1773 – 1850) decided to counter the concerns with remedial measures.

Ever since our arrival, we had noticed that the porch of the cathedral was swarming with visitors of all shades and shapes. Right now, the line-up of people under the southern door: Portail de Sainte-Anne or St. Marcel, has swelled. It was time for us to join the queue.

Merci et au revoir. Jo

(End of Part One)

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Notes:

  • Named in September 2006 in honour of the pope who had died in 2005;
  • Charles I of England and Princess Henrietta Maria were married in person at St. Augustine’s Church, Canterbury, Kent in June 1625.
  • According to the website of Notre Dame de Paris, although masses, vespers and the sacrament of reconciliation are celebrated every day of the year, since the cathedral is no longer a parish, baptisms, marriages and funerals are no longer held there;
  • Currently, outdoor wedding ceremony packages are available for couples wanting a symbolic wedding ceremony or symbolic renewal of vows held at major Paris landmarks and in the vicinity of Place Jean-Paul II or at its fringes with Notre Dame Cathedral as backdrop. Of course, I mention here only about symbolic ceremonies.
  • Name of the first master of the work is unknown although, according to a book, a “Richard the Mason” witnessed a cathedral document in 1164.
  • I am indebted to many publications dating from the late 19th century onwards, for useful background data;
  • This article is dedicated to all the brave soldiers of India, the fallen and the living, for their courage and dedication in protecting our country from the menace lurking at our frontier.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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The Kaleidoscope of Hoof Prints

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(This follows my article The Ballad of JEANETTE and MICHEL  of March 2, 2016)

If there are phrases on my tongue which connote the blessings that can unwittingly come in many disguises to the gentle-natured donkey, it is those plans and purpose which chanced upon as revealed in some events of “The Bible”. With Palm Sunday (March 20, 2016) followed by Easter (March 27, 2016) coming up, bringing in a time when it is not unusual for people to be religious in thoughts, I take a little liberty to reflect on those events.

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Animals like sheep, camel, donkey, have afforded their presence to many episodes of the Bible. Indeed there are momentous occasions when the donkey was part of events that were important junctures in the life of Jesus Christ.

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The ass of Palestine and the Bible has been identified as the Nubian wild ass of Egypt. This common beast of burden, used for agricultural work and also for riding, is not in the East by any means a despised or a despicable animal – but considered part of a moderate household. Whole families rode him, shared food with him, and sometimes allowed him to stay in a section of the room with the family.

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Visitation: It is related that Mary, pregnant with Jesus, used a donkey when she set out on her journey for her ‘Visitation’ to congratulate cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with the child who would one day become known as John the Baptist. According to tradition, that donkey had travelled about seventy miles from Nazareth over hills and through valleys to the little town in the Judaean hills where Elizabeth and her husband, priest Zachary dwelt. Considering that the feast of the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus is held on March 25th, this journey could probably have occurred during the last days of March or early April when the rainy season was just over. Although Joseph is not named in this journey, it is unlikely that Mary would have ventured on a long and arduous journey alone and abode with Elizabeth for about three months before she rode back to her home in Nazareth. Besides, it was customary to have a driver for the donkey, when women rode on them.

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To Bethlehem: The initial scenes of William Wyler’s biblical epic movie “Ben-Hur” (1959) portrays Joseph, a village carpenter, leading a meek donkey by the bridle, on which sat his pregnant wife Mary covered with a long cloak, during their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea to enrol their names in a census which had been ordered by Caesar Augustus. The vague details of that journey of about seventy miles could be visualised as five days of privation, fatigue and discomfort through an uncomfortable path in the winter chill of December. A book on the Virgin Mary names this donkey as “Eleabthona”, but we could only wonder if it was the same animal which had previously been similarly used when Mary went on her “Visitation” to Elizabeth.

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To Jerusalem: Whichever donkey it was, that animal had the opportunity to be closer to the newly born Jesus in the stable outside Bethlehem. Besides, amongst the few other domesticated animals present there, he was the one who would render service as the mode of transport to Joseph’s family when, at the age of forty days, the infant Jesus was taken to Jerusalem for presentation in the Temple and return.

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To Egypt: Sometime thereafter, warned of an imminent danger to the child, the family hastily embarked on a journey in the middle of the night, with Mary and the child riding the donkey, as they rushed out of the territory of King Herod to retire into Egypt. With the winter still persisting, that journey of ten days covering about two hundred miles via the city of Pelusium (modern Tell el-Farama) was not without difficulties and dangers arising from cold, wet and stormy weather, lack of shelter over their heads, less water, attack by robbers and wild beasts, proceeding partially through the shifting sands of the desert as far as the land of Gessen, where they resided (1). Not until had King Herod died in the spring of 4 BC, did they retire to the early home of Joseph and Mary at Nazareth of Galilee.

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Soon after, the donkey of those journeys slips into obscurity even though according to a recorded event of Jesus’ youth, at the age of twelve, Jesus was taken on a long journey to Jerusalem to attend the Passover before returning to Nazareth when the service of a donkey would have been required.

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It is widely held that the dark line down a donkey’s back and across the forequarters in the shape of a Latin cross denotes the heritage of that race from the day one of their forebears carried Jesus on its back during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem which is commemorated as the first Palm Sunday (Dominica in ramis Palmarum), and marks the beginning of what is technically called Passion Week.

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To Jerusalem: According to the Gospels, Jesus, having come to the little village of Bethphage (Beitphage) on the summit of the Mount of Olives sent two disciples into the village to fetch an ass and a colt they would find tied there. Having brought the animals, they cast their garments upon the ass and made Jesus sit thereon. (2) The animal carried Jesus, sitting meek and gentle on its back, as it treaded over the olive palm fronds strewn over the garments laid on the path, amidst the joy and singing of a multitude of accompanying people wielding branches of palm trees as a testimony of honour and respect.

At that time Jerusalem was surrounded with fertile fields and trees, and on the southern slope of Olivet, where they were passing, date-bearing palm trees grew in great abundance. The Palm has been in all times and places the emblem of victory and its reward and it was the custom to carry and wave palm-branches as a sign of joy and victory.

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At length, the donkey carried Jesus down the hill, passed between the walls of Gethsemane and the Garden of Olives, crossed the Cedron valley (Kidron), through the road leading up to St. Stephen’s Gate (Lions’ Gate), and entered the Temple through the Golden Gate with its beautiful pillars. This occasion, commemorated on Palm Sunday with a Procession of Palms was customary in Jerusalem as early as 386 when it was first mentioned, and was adopted in the west by the seventh century as attested to by Isidore of Seville, who died in 636.

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Until the Reformation in the Middle Ages, the event was remembered in a folklorised ritual on Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) in some southern German speaking regions when, in addition to the tradition of the blessing of palms (Palmbüscheln), a procession known as “Palmesel” (Palm Sunday donkey) was held when a statue of Jesus mounted on a wooden effigy of an ass fixed on a wheeled wooden bier was taken round the streets spread with clothes and strewed with palm branches. To mark this joyous occasion, people sang hymns and waved fronds of palm or of some other similar tree, while at some places bouquets of flowers attached to boughs of trees were sometimes carried in the procession calling it the Easter of Flowers.

The ass was not forgotten either. A book on ecclesiastical architecture relates an old tradition that “the ass on which Christ made His entry into Jerusalem left Judea immediately after the Crucifixion, and passing over the sea dry-shod to Rhodes, Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, and Aquileia, finally reached Verona, where it lived to a very old age. After its death its bones were collected and deposited in the belly of the wooden ass of Santa Maria in Organo, which was made as a memorial of it and its exact image.”

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Just as that event at Jerusalem made them an object of peculiar reverence to the early Christians, the cross on its back inspired belief that children suffering from whooping cough will be cured if they are made to sit on the mark and the donkey walked in a circle nine times.

It is interesting to think, with what different sentiments one regards the donkey at different periods. The poor quadruped which tradition says earned its reputation for stupidity in the Garden of Eden when it could not remember its name when God asked it, is actually, as one of my friends wrote, a poorly understood animal.

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Ass, when properly kept, is a handsome animal – much stronger in proportion, and much more hardy than the horse. The positive efforts of institutions such as Kölner Zoo in Germany, The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, England, etc, very much help the welfare of the docile and friendly donkey to save them from becoming snapshots of a bygone era. Let us be glad that they are there and keep alive the age old tradition that to see a donkey will bring one the good luck. Until next time, Ciao, Jo

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Notes:

  1. According to some publications, the particular place where Joseph settled in Egypt is probably Metaryieh, near On/Heliopolis, about two hours distance north-east of Cairo.
  2. A Franciscan church, built on the foundation of an ancient shrine, stands to commemorate the place where Christ mounted the ass, contains a stone traditionally identified as used by Jesus to mount the ass for the journey to Jerusalem.
  3. Thanks to: Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, AG Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany for the picture of Michel and Jeanette; to Ms. Pippa Helock of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon for the picture “Looking Handsome”; and to Stefan Ahrens of Bistum Regensburg, Germany for the four pictures.
  4. Print and visual versions of “Ben-Hur” is available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.

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Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

SURVIVING WITH DIGNITY

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The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.

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Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.

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One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available.  “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.

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A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).

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Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.

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These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).

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The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.

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Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.

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Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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12The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.

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The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.

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The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.

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The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.

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Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).

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Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.

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The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.

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21Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.

Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.

Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!

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Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.

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26As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.

Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.

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Now with the three wise women  in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama.  Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.

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Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.

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31As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.

Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo

Notes:

  • In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
  • The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
  • In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
  • The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.

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(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)