Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mary Ascends to Heaven and Pala D'Oro, The Golden Cloth - Venice

(VENICE, ITALY) Yesterday, I found myself in a miraculous position -- alone, on my knees, on the high altar of the Basilica in front of the tomb of Saint Mark, the brilliant gold of the Pala D'Oro shimmering in the background.

August 15th is Ferragosto here in Italy, and also Assumption Day, the day that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was assumed into Heaven. It is an ancient pagan festival combined with a Catholic holiday.

From Wikipedia:

"Ferragosto is an Italian holiday celebrated on August 15. Originally, it was related to a celebration of the middle of the summer and the end of the hard labour in the fields. In time, the Roman Catholicism adopted this date as a Holy Day of Obligation to commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the real physical elevation of her sinless soul and incorrupt body into Heaven.

Before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence, however, this holiday was celebrated in the Roman Empire to honor the gods—in particular Diana—and the cycle of fertility and ripening. In fact, the present Italian name of the holiday derives from its original Latin name, Feriae Augusti (Fairs of the Emperor Augustus)."

Many Catholic holidays and images can trace their roots to already established Roman celebrations. This year, the full moon also coincides with the holiday. Combine that with a partial lunar eclipse later on today, and we have some heavy duty cosmic energy.

As I've said before, some of the inspiration for my novel, Harley's Ninth, came from my fascination with feminine solar energy, which, to me, is dynamic, creative and sensual. I have never been comfortable with the image of the Virgin Mary presented to me in my youth, and spent a long time researching the changing image of the female throughout the millennium. In fact, my young protagonist, Harley Columba, creates a new Madonna out of oil and canvas, and names her the Madonna of the Sun.

Yesterday morning, I heard the church bells ringing, loud and long, commanding everyone to come to church -- or at least remember that there was something else to do that day except have a barbecue on the beach. Without planning it in advance, I threw on a dress and headed to the Basilica. That, too, is a little miracle -- that I can dash off to the Basilica of San Marco if the mood strikes me.

I caught the tail end of one service, and decided to stay for the next. I asked one of the ushers for some candles so I could light them at my favorite Byzantine icon, the Madonna Nicopeia, who also stars in Harley's Ninth. The Madonna Nicopeia used to march at the head of the army of the Holy Roman Empire, so I think she is not a shy girl.

I gazed at all the images inside the magnificent Basilica and thought about the state of the feminine in this day and age. To me, it feels like we are about to start spinning in another direction -- that the heavy hands that have been driving the world are about to lose their grip on the wheel.

Here is a blurb from Stephan A. Hoeller's The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead about how Carl Jung (one of my heroes) felt about Pope Pius XII's* decision in 1950 to declare Assumption Day a dogma of the Church:

"Toward the end of his life Jung perceived a sign of the times of great significance in the declaration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary made by Pope Pius XII. At the same time when Protestant theologians, and even some Catholic ecumenicists, threw up their hands in horror because of this new evidence of old papal mariolatry, Jung hailed the Pope's apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, as an evidence of the long-delayed recognition on the part of Christendom of the celestiality, if not outright divinity, of the feminine. In Answer to Job he went on record, writing that this recognition was welling or pushing upwards from the depths of humanity's unconscious and that it could have a deeply beneficial effect on human affairs in terms of world peace. The elevation of the Virgin, he said, was an evidence of a very real 'yearning for peace which stirs deep down in the soul,' and it would act as a needed compensation to the 'threatening tension between the opposites.'

I'm with Jung on that one. I think it would be nice to make August 15th an international holiday.

In any event, it is a rare occasion when the Pala D'Oro faces out toward the congregation, and something awesome to see -- if you are ever in Venice on one of the high holy days, I strongly recommend you make an effort to see it.

From Wikipedia:

"Pala d’Oro (literally, "Golden Pall") is a high altar retable of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. It is universally recognized as one of the most refined and accomplished works of Byzantine craftsmanship."

It was quite an honor to kneel at the tomb of San Marco, directly in front of one of the Pala D'Oro, one of the world's most sacred icons, which is about 900 years old. The sheer power of a wall of gold beaming at me... I felt all that power, all that sacred energy wash over me.. it was like taking a cosmic shower... I am optimistic for the future.

Ciao from Venice,

**A previous version inadvertently stated it was Pope Pius XXII [who does not (yet) exist.]


  1. Thank you for your description of the Pala d'Oro. I've had the chance to view it closely after closing hours and it's such an amazing piece of craftsmanship!

  2. I, too, have admired the Pala d' Oro, but not as lucky as to see it after hours. However, it seems to me I have had to go around the altar and pay to see it, not view it from in front of the tomb. Does it turn? Also wasn't it Pius XII in 1950, not XXII?

  3. Joan, I love readers like you. Yes, of course, it was Pius XII, not XXII -- that extra "X" is a typo. Thank you for that; I will correct it.

    Yes, the Pala d'Oro turns; they turn it on particular holy days, of which the Assumption is one. It is something splendid to do, to go to a mass with the Pala d'Oro facing front, which it was today. And I am not seeing it after hours. I am seeing it with everyone else by going to mass. The only difference is that I have sort of a tradition of praying (quickly:) in front the Pala d'Oro.

  4. I am just seeing Jessica's comment now, after I replied to Joan, and see it was Jessica, not me, who saw the Pala d'Oro closely after hours -- lucky you, Jessica!