Tuesday, January 7, 2014

An ancient church, three significant baptisms: San Rufino

San Rufino, Cathedral of Assisi (photo by Raffaele Carloforti, before 1901)

San Rufino.  This magnificent Romanesque church has stood on its elevated piazza in Assisi for around 900 years, and two earlier versions occupied its space before that.  From its vantage point on what was once Assisi's Roman forum, it looks down on the rest of that very vertical Umbrian hill town.  Named for Saint Rufino, the third century martyr and bishop of Assisi who is the city's patron saint, Assisi's cathedral has a magnificent 12th-century façade which I will be blogging about in the near future, complete with lavish illustrations, but for today I want to concentrate on three baptisms that occurred here in the 12th century:
  • Francesco di Pietro di Bernadone (who was to become Saint Francis)
  • Chiara Offreduccio (to become Saint Clare)
  • Frederick Hohenstaufen (to become Holy Roman Emperor and a whole bunch of other things)

Francesco and Chiara

Taking these baptisms in chronological order by birth, we'll begin with Francesco.

Francesco was born in 1181 or 1182, in Assisi.  He was the son of Pietro, a wealthy merchant, and his wife Pica.  Although biographical information about him is sketchy and draws heavily on legend, much of it supplied after his death and canonization, a few themes do recur.

It is said that his father was away on business, probably in France, when Francesco was born (Pietro bought and sold luxury fabrics).  It is also said that the child's  baptismal name may have been Giovanni, and his father Pietro may have changed it when he returned from his travels.  

Francis's parents (statue in Assisi)

One legend says that a pilgrim, begging for food, knocked at the door of Pietro and Pica's home on the evening of the day of the baptism.  After eating, the guest asked to hold the infant.  To the nurse's surprise, Pica agreed.  The mysterious pilgrim studied the child and then said, "Today two children have been baptized in this city; this one will be among the best of men, the other among the worst."  (This incident is cited in Adrian Houses's biography, Francis of Assisi:  A Revolutionary Life, and is based on one of the early Lives of Saint Francis.)  

As a novelist, I find that this legend raises two questions:  the first, naturally, is who was that other child?  But no one seems to want to tell us the answer to that, so we move on to the next question, which is:  why only two?  It was usual at this time, in the Italian communes, for a mass baptism to take place on Easter Saturday, involving all of the children born since the previous mass baptism, and performed with great pomp and circumstance, welcoming the new Christians not only to their faith, but to citizenship in their city.   The population of Assisi at this time was between 2000-3000, so Easter Saturday would surely have seen more than two candidates for baptism.

(As Dante has his ancestor Cacciaguida say, when they encounter each other in the Divine Comedy, "... and in your ancient baptistery, at once I became both Christian and Cacciaguida.")

Baptism was considered a vitally important sacrament, as it was believed that unbaptized children would not go to heaven when they died.  Thus, when there was any doubt about a child's health, emergency baptism could take place at any time.  In fact, laypersons could administer baptism in a pinch.  And given the extremely high infant mortality rate of the time, it's obvious that not every child waited for the next Easter Saturday to be baptized.  Francis had health problems all of his life; perhaps he was not a sturdy infant, and a baptism was performed soon after his birth. (Alternately, perhaps we shouldn't believe the legend.)

So we don't really know whether Francesco was baptized on Saturday, the 28th of March, 1182, or some other time.  But we do know that he (and also Chiara and Frederick) were baptized in this font, which you can barely see through the metal grille):

Chiara was born into a noble family in Assisi.  Like many others of their social caste, her family lived near the cathedral - in fact, pretty much right next door.  Here are pictures of the placque proclaiming that building to be Chiara's childhood home, and also the small shrine inside the doors of the house:

On our recent trip to Assisi, we also stayed within spitting distance of San Rufino, and were awakened to its bells every morning.  I think I can safely attest that the young Chiara rarely got a chance to sleep in.

There's a legend attached to Chiara's birth, too:  it's said that her mother, Ortolana, was fearful as her time for delivery approached, but when she prayed in front of a crucifix, she heard a voice telling her, "Woman, fear not, for safe and sound you shall give birth to a light that will greatly illuminate the world."  This is said to be why she chose the name "Chiara" (Clare, or clear) for her daughter.  Chiara's birthdate was July 16, 1194, so if she was included in the mass baptism, it would have been quite a few months later, in early spring of 1195. 

And that leaves Frederick.  Some of you may remember my most recent blog post, which concerned the unusual circumstances of his birth (see here). Things didn't get any more normal for Frederick, certainly not for a while, maybe not ever.  His mother, who was off to help her husband claim a throne, handed him over to the Duchess of Spoleto for safekeeping while she was away.

Constance, handing off Frederick to the Duchess of Spoleto

Some say that he spent his early years living in Foligno; others say it was Assisi, because the Duke of Spoleto was often in residence in the Rocca, a castle perched even higher up than the cathedral and dominating the town (in more ways than one). 

The Rocca

I think the latter may be more likely, since at that time Foligno was a bigger city than Assisi, and there would have been no particular reason for his baptism not to have happened there. 

I doubt if Frederick's baptism was part of a mass baptism on Easter Saturday.  It seems to have been a festive occasion, with processions, and with many dignitaries on hand to do honor to the royal boy.  Some say that the lad's parents had wanted his baptism to be performed by no one less than the pope himself, and that it was the Duke and Duchess of Spoleto who made the decision, in the absence of his parents, to go ahead and have it done in Assisi.  Here's a picture of Frederick's parents, and of his baptism:

Frederick had been born just a few months after Chiara; had they both been involved in a mass baptism, it would have been the same one.  His birth was on December 26, 1194.  His baptism was a public event.  Adrian House speculates that everyone in town would have known about this important occasion, and that it is very likely that the young Francesco (about 13 at this time) would have been there, to see the procession and the crowds if not to observe from within the church. 

I'd love to tell you more about what a baptism ceremony entailed in 12th century Assisi, but it is fiendishly difficult to pinpoint exactly how it was done at a particular time and place.  

We do know some things.  Preparations for the mass baptisms began months ahead of time, with infants being enrolled and then attending scrutinies, during which they underwent exorcisms, vows (usually spoken by their godparents), and anointings.  We know that a male child likely would have had two godfathers and one godmother, and a female child two godmothers and one godfather.  We know that the first male child baptized would receive the name Giovanni (in honor of John the Baptist) and the first female child would become Maria (for the Virgin).  (We don't think, however, that this explains Francesco's original name of Giovanni, if indeed that's true, because we suspect that the honor would have gone to a child born to a family of the nobility.)  We know that the newly baptized infants would be clothed in pure white garments (though how long the garments stayed that way on newborns is anybody's guess).  

But every city had different rituals, different traditions.  Nothing was standardized yet, and everything was in flux.  So for much of what went on, we can only guess. 

But we do know that the baptismal font pictured above hosted three remarkable individuals, and that the magnificent church of San Rufino looks very much today as it did to Francesco, Chiara, and Frederick.

Images in this post are in the public domain or are my husband's photographs (to which he holds copyright), with the exception of the baptismal font photo, which is licensed to Georges Jansoone (User name JoJan) via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.


Louise E. Rule said...

I really enjoyed reading this. Very informative, and such an interesting blog.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Louise!

Judith Starkston said...

I loved the contrasting stories of these famous people joined by a baptismal font.