Venice: the sacred and the profane

Rachel Webster (University of Leeds)

Procession through Venice. Picture taken by author

Walking through Venice, late Sunday afternoon (2nd June, 2013), in search of gelato, I found myself in St. Mark’s Square, and was absorbed into a crowd of people. Crowds in Venice, particularly in tourist hotspots, are not unusual, but it was apparent straight away that this crowd had spontaneously formed with a common intention: to observe a religious service. Before I could take in the details of what exactly was going on, I was overwhelmed with a cacophony of stimulants, and my senses tried to compute white robes, communal chanting, organ music, and the smell of incense. The discordance that I experienced largely stemmed from the contrast of this religious ceremony against the backdrop of profanity: restaurants, tourists, pigeons, vendors and the general chit-chat of passers-by, who felt compelled to stop and stare. I too felt compelled to end the gelato hunt, allowing myself to get caught up in the spectacle (as it first appeared to me), observing and taking photographs of the procession. Retrospectively, it is still difficult to identify the impulse that was guiding my curiosity. Perhaps, if I am honest, I was motivated by the ‘foreignness’ or the unfamiliarity of the scene, acting the part of ignorant tourist, secularist or protestant. Or maybe it was the unexpectedness of happening upon the ‘living’ sacred. Venice’s architecture and history is awash with religious iconography but here was a physical display of religious people living and chanting out their faith.

I weaved my way through the crowd looking for the perfect vantage point. As it happens, a flooded section of the square, which was carefully avoided by most, had a centralised position, directly to side of the make-shift altar. All around this raised platform, priests in white robes were bowed low, in reverence to a cloaked figure – a cardinal – orchestrating the chanting, conducting the organist from a distance. Facing the Basilica di San Marco, the cardinal raised his hands to the sky and said what I can only surmise was a prayer or a blessing. All around me, from those who understood and were participating in the service, I could hear voices responding in song. I was made increasingly aware of the importance of the individual’s role in creating the collective display. Suddenly, there was a signalled movement, and the cardinal, flanked by his priests, walked towards the Basilica, under the cover of a carried marquee. Here ended the public scene, as they filed into the Church, I assume, to continue the service unobserved.

The next day, ‘The Global and the Local’ conference started at San Servolo, and in preparation, I was reading through my own paper, when I was struck afresh by a letter that I had quoted, written by Catherine Winkworth. Catherine Winkworth was a nineteenth-century translator of German hymns (Lyra Germanica 1855), who in 1857, had travelled to Rome, in the company of Elizabeth Gaskell. Her letters are intriguing for the detail that they contain, describing observations, particularly towards the country’s religion. On two separate occasions, Winkworth came across, in a similar fashion to my own experience, a public procession and a Church service, with both events impacting her deeply. Here are her observations:

Suddenly, in came a troop of monks and penitents, dressed in brown robes, and hoods completely covering their faces, with two holes for the eyes – a ghostly-looking company – who threw themselves on the ground round the central cross, and hauled out a sort of chant. It was an eerie mix of old things and modern factions and penance.

As I watched the quiet worshippers of all ranks and ages in the little old Church, with its quaint solemn mosaics and associations carrying one back to the primitive days, I felt strongly inclined to join their number for awhile, and say my prayers there too. I wonder sometimes whether it is a right or wrong impulse that holds one back in such cases.[1]

What is fascinating about Winkworth’s thoughts, in the light of our 21st Century context, is the importance that ritual has played and continues to play in the Catholic faith. In fact, such a public presence, enacted through ritual, has been essential for its survival, cementing not only its relevancy in the cultural imagination of its followers, but in the consciousness of a wider society. However, Winkworth’s experience suggests that it was the dynamic, theatricality of the faith coupled with an individual piety that had the greater impact in fostering an appreciation of the faith.  Winkworth was a practicing Anglican and, like many Protestants, distrustful of Catholicism’s superstitious practices, but her letters do reveal the slow seduction taking place, as she witnessed sincere, individual acts of pious worship. One of Winkworth’s motivations for translating German hymns was to help promote a unified Christian Church, so it is significant that she is driven by an unknown inclination to worship alongside the ‘quiet worshippers’. She is temptingly close to participating in an enactment of unification, through the offering of her prayers. It appears that a procession followed by individual acts of piety draws the faith into dialogue with other forms of Christianity, and more relevantly today, with the profane or irreligious. Passers-by were stopped in their tracks, and regardless of their religious position, became engrossed in a religious service. It was the picking out of individual singing voices that made me realise that I was not just observing a spectacle, but an act of worship. The public, ritualistic dimension of Catholicism, therefore, continues to be of vital importance in allowing the faith to intersect with a growing secular world.

[1] Letters and Memorials of Catherine Winkworth, ed. by her sister (Clifton: E. Austen and Son, 1883), p. 112, 127.

One comment

  1. I enjoyed very much Rachel Webster’s insightful comments on ritual, religious faith, and individual belief. Catherine Winkworth’s puzzlement over her reactions to liturgy are importantly typical of the divided reaction of Victorian Protestants to Italian Catholic piety. One of the most interesting match texts is Robert Browning’s “Christmas Eve and Easter Day,” which can be coupled with Clough’s “Amours de Voyage,” George Eliot’s “Romola,” the Roman scenes in Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” and so on. Of course Dickens’ “Pictures from Italy” pulls no punches and is vigorously anti-Catholic. Fascinating too is the complex effort of Ruskin in “Stones of Venice” to seek out a sort of proto-Protestantism in what he considers the greatest period of Venetian history. I’m just back from Venice too and reeling from Tintoretto: whom, by the way, Ruskin considered one of the greatest painters of all time [he is] and whose ferocious form of Catholic belief can, at least for a while, sweep away everything in its path.

    John Pfordresher, Georgetown University

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