Essay | Rappresentazione: Thinking Dramatic Liturgy and Liturgical Drama in Italy

Architecture, Churches, Florence, ITALY, Liturgy, Rome, Siena

by Justin E. Crisp, M.Div. ‘14

The Sienese cathedral’s baptistery lay in wait beneath the hard floor of its nave, necessitating a little underground detour from our museum tour path. In our haste to descend the stairs we had nearly missed the small cross, embedded in the stone steps, marking the place where St. Catherine of Siena had fallen when tempted by the devil. Our attention was fixed squarely on seeing what might have seemed, in comparison, an unimportant architectural accident: a hole in the baptistery ceiling. As Professor Margot Fassler had explained to us just the day before in lecture, medieval Sienese Christians had made special use of this hole in celebrating the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. They would descend to the baptistery and, at the height of the liturgy, rapt in song and prayer, would pull a statue of the Virgin up through the hole, restaging the very event whose feast they commemorated. Surrounded by frescoes of cherubs and angels, this “ascending” Virgin would bring the whole space to life. Devotional statue turned prop turned actor—this dramatic reportrayal of the Virgin’s assumption enwrapped the faithful in a network of relationships traveling the length of heaven and earth, a communion of saints. Prayer, visual art, music, architecture, and drama coalesced, vivifying dogma by putting worshippers in the thick of it all.

Left to right: Jamilah George, Zack Nyein, Justin Crisp, Emilie Casey, and Meredith Day

Left to right: Jamilah George, Zack Nyein, Justin Crisp, Emilie Casey, and Meredith Day

This was not the only juncture at which liturgy met the stage during our travels. Indeed, the tales only seemed to increase in number and extravagance! While visiting the cathedral in Florence, for instance, Msgr. Timothy Verdon described for us the dramatic machinery Filippo Brunelleschi was commissioned to create for one of city’s late medieval sacre rappresentazioni, or holy performances. As recounted in the Vite of Giorgio Vasari, Brunelleschi’s machine was used to dramatize the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she will bear Jesus Christ. The machine consisted of an inverted dome, complete with clouds and twinkling lights—and real children strapped in on its perimeter as cherubs. When operational, the whole dome descended, rotating all the while, with Gabriel aboard and children dancing!

Detail of the sacristy in the Florentine Duomo, possibly representing Brunelleschi's machine. Photo by Justin Crisp

Detail of the sacristy in the Florentine Duomo, possibly representing Brunelleschi’s machine. Photo by Justin Crisp

As if this were not enough, Msgr. Verdon recounted to us the Florentine cathedral’s continuing invocation of its dramatic heritage, describing with vivid detail the Scoppio del Carro, or explosion of the cart, by which the cathedral marks the Easter Day liturgy to this very day. In the middle of the Mass, the clergy light a rocket-fitted mechanical dove attached to a wire stretching all the way from the high altar of the cathedral to a cart laden with fireworks in the middle of the square outside. The dove shoots down the nave, shimmering sparks sending it flying toward the cart whose explosion sets off a splendid display of light and noise. (There are must-see clips of this available on YouTube!)

During our visit to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Fr. Paul Murray recounted to us the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “I am a pilgrim of the future on my way back from a journey made entirely in the past.” Teilhard’s sentiment here is an apt description of my experience of this year’s study tour, which found in the many historic ecclesial spaces we visited startling and fantastic germs for future liturgical creativity and theological reflection.

These three—the ascending statue of the Virgin, Brunelleschi’s Annunciation machine, and the Florentine cathedral’s liturgical pyrotechnics—cast fresh light for me on the nature of worship, their sheer fabulousness foregrounding the performative dimensions of all our attempts to offer God praise and be re-formed by grace. And they recalled me to a perspective on liturgy that did not see in “performance” and “praise” a relation of opposition but of synergy, that found in drama not falsity, illusion, or insincerity but a means by which the church re-presents the mysteries of its faith. These kinds of realizations are the privileges we students owe to interdisciplinary experiences of the sort the Institute of Sacred Music makes possible, born of the irreplaceable opportunity to feel these pasts reverberating through our bodies as we walk through the spaces they brought to such fantastic life.