Sunday, 9 November 2008

St Simeon

Today’s contribution to my cyber ramblings is terribly late but I wish you all a Happy St Simeon’s day (for the 8th October. Note that date down for next year). This particular feast is rather significant in Zadar. The city has Simeon’s body. Not just a finger, femur, scrap of fabric or instrument of torture but the entire body. And not just one of your bog-standard early Christian martyrs, although Zadar has lashings of those in the guise of Saints Chrysogonus and Anastasia, but someone who not only gets a mention in the New Testament but actually held the Babe Jesus when presented at the Temple (Luke 2:22-35). Cue Song of Simeon or the Nunc dimittis of the Latin liturgy.

This then makes Simeon a bit of a trump card in the ongoing “my saint is better than yours” competition between urban centres of Medieval Europe, with the Adriatic cities of Venice and Zadar no exception to this hagiographic machismo. The Zadrani legend concerning the arrival of such an important relic is actually relatively late in their local pantheon of saints, 13th C rather than 6th, 7th or 9th C. The story goes that a nobleman from Northern Italy and the body of his “brother” were enroute home from the Holy Lands and the ship, as with most ships pottering about the Adriatic at this time did, stopped off in Zadar for a rest and refuel. Hostelries run by religious orders abounded in Zadar and the nobleman stayed in one of these establishments, having his decidedly moribund “brother” buried in the cemetery. Unfortunately the following night the nobleman himself came to a terminal end (apparently by natural causes). Before his death he told his monkish hosts to fossick through his personal effects and find something of great significance. This they did and they discovered a document that certified the veracity of the “brother’s” saintliness, in fact expressly stating that this was no “brother” but St Simeon himself!
Well, you can imagine the merriment amongst the monks. It’s a bit like the ecclesiastical equivalent of winning the Lotto or guaranteeing U2 and Queen at Live Aid. Superstar saints = pilgrims = money. “Huzzah!” though the monks, and bided their time until they could think up a plausible enough reason for the relic’s arrival.

Unfortunately for the monks, God moves in mysterious ways and the three secular representatives of the town, the rectors, happened to have a simultaneous dream that St Simeon’s body was in the cemetery of the hostelry. Cue much joyous surprise amongst the three when the next morning, whilst discussing issues of great fiscal import or somesuch, they discovered their shared dream and being sensible men of God, realised that something had to be done. Rushing to the graveyard, they caught the monks exhuming Simeon, and swiftly confiscated the body The image below is from the 14th C shrine of Simeon and depicts the discussion between the rectors and the monks starting to dig for the saint.
The body was then taken to the church of St Mary the Great situated on the east side of the city, next to the main gateway leading to the port. And what a jolly sensible choice of location, if I may say so. Pilgrims, sailors, merchants etc all stumble off their boats after stints at sea, wander into the city and low and behold! within spitting distance of the taverns and brothels where much of their time will be spent whilst in the city, there lies superstar St Simeon’s body. Guaranteed indulgences (or purgatory points) for the visitors before or after they indulge in the vice of their choice, guaranteed income for the college of priests running St Mary’s as well as the inevitable boost to the local economy and an official two fingers up at Venice.

You see, Venice ruled Zadar on and off for almost 800 years, with the occasional interruption in the guise of revolts and / or the Zadrani swearing fealty to the King of Hungary, be they Àrpàd or Angevin. Needless to say, relations between protector and protectorate were strained as a result. So, although Venice claims it has the body of St Simeon, appropriately enough housed in the church of San Simeone Grande, even today local atheist Zadrani will shout with vigour “No! Ours is the real one!” Add to this the fact that during a Hungarian stint (1358 -1409) Zadar gained the most ornate reliquary of the day for their saint (of which we have had a little taster) courtesy of Elizabeth Kotomarić, princess of Bosnia and wife of Louis of Anjou the king of Hungary. Between 1377 and 80 Francesco da Milano, a permanent resident of Zadar and rather talented goldsmith, fashioned this big, bling box for Simeon.

Its spectacular quality and beauty not only confirmed the veracity of the body (why bother spending so much money on it if you doubted the provenance of the relic?) but also was also a public relations coup for the House of Anjou over the Most Serene Republic, Venice.

After 1409 though, when Zadar returned to the Venetian fold, arguably it was the Republic who got the last laugh and lashings of income for all the efforts of the Angevins and Zadrani of the previous century. No wonder the cult in Venice stayed relatively low-key: why bother with its promotion when you can enjoy the fruits of a ready-made cult in one of you colonies?

But back to the 21st C, which, for reasons of rambling medieval context will be short(ish). Simeon’s body was moved to the church of St Stephen in the 1630s, and with a lick of paint and swift reconsecration of the church to its latest relic, the cult was revived. It had gone into decline somewhat with the destruction of most of St Mary the Great in 1570 to make way for fortifications (those blasted Turks) and Simeon’s body languished in what remained of the apse for another 60 years. Today it seems that in order to get past the Hitler-esque sacristan of the church to have a close look at the shrine, you either need a signed letter from the pope or to join the good burghers of the city on Simeon’s feast day. Hundred of people cram in to the church for the four masses that punctuate the day itself as well as file past the reliquary when mass is not on.

Now in the study of things older than the first photographs of the 19th C, ian over active imagination can be rather useful. So it is a special thing when your imagination is allowed a day off and contemporary humanity provides a show of medieval proportions and drama. Rather than try and describe St Simeon's day of 2008, I shall leave you with the words of Canon Pietro Casola, a Milanese pilgrim writing about his visit to Zadar in 1494.

I went with the other pilgrims according to arrangement to the Church of Saint Simeon, where after Vespers were sung the body of Saint Simeon was shown - a very remarkable relic - certainly the most beautiful I ever saw, either at Rome or elsewhere. The body is perfectly preserved, there is nothing in the world lacking, either in the face or in the hands or in the feet. The mouth is open and the in the upper jaw there are no teeth; I was not surprised at that, because he was very old when he died. ... I went several times to see the relic because there was a great crowd of pilgrims and also of people belonging to the city and country around who came there because it was a holiday. And the more I looked the more it seemed to me a stupendous thing, most of all when I remembered the time of his death which could not be less than one thousand four hundred and ninety-three years ago...
Pietro Casola, Canon Pietro Casola’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Year 1494, ed. by Margaret M. Newett, trans. by M. Margaret Newett (Manchester: University Press, 1907), pp. 166-67

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