Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Saint Andrew. And Amalfi.

Amalfi's Duomo

I used to know the names of all of the Twelve Apostles back in the day...generally they were all fishermen from Galilee. After the crucifixion of Jesus they spread around the known world and came to a variety of different ends. Andrew was said to be Jesus’ first disciple. His activities after Jesus’ death (and, of course, resurrection) took him far afield; he went evangelising as far as modern-day Russia, reaching the lands of Asia Minor on the shores of the Black Sea. He came to a sad end himself, also being killed by crucifixion by the Greeks in Patras.

St Andrew's Crypt
Later, the Papal Envoy to the Fourth Crusade, whose name was Cardinal Pietro Capuano, took  Andrew’s body to Constantinople, and then to...yes, to Amalfi. How Cardinal Pietro could be sure that the bones he took so far were actually those of Saint Andrew (as Andrew was by then) is just one of those mysteries. But the bones in question reached Amalfi on 8th May 1208, apparently not completely disintegrated. Cardinal Pietro built a crypt for them, and you can visit this very crypt today under Amalfi’s Duomo. The occipital bone is kept behind the altar in a golden box with closed doors, and is brought out on special occasions. The remaining bones are hidden under the altar, sealed away under a slab of marble.

The crypt is decorated with frescos and stucco reliefs, paintings of the life of Saint Andrew, and lots of marble in the Baroque style. The Duomo above is also generously Baroque, but this decoration covers a much older Gothic cathedral. Fascinatingly, there are two churches next to each other – one left in its baroque splendour, and other stripped back to its Gothic bones. This second space is used as a small museum now. There is also a lovely little cloister, built in the Moorish style with overlapping arches. At one spot, you can see the square medieval bell tower (built 1180 – 1276), decorated with majolica tiles, through the arches. There is even a Giotto-school (Roberto d’Oderisio, 14th Century) fresco clinging on to the walls in a small chapel in the cloister.

The lovely Cloister
But back down in the crypt, Saint Andrew is immortalised in a larger-than-life bronze statue on the altar, by a Florentine artist named Michelangelo Naccherino (1604) ( a student of the Michelangelo we have all heard of). On top of the sepulchre, on the Saint’s holiday, a crystal phial is placed to collect “Manna” – a dense liquid that (according to my guide brochure) has always appeared in Amalfi for 750 years, and the same thing happens in Patras and Constantinople, the other places of significance in the Saint’s life. And I quote: “For the Amalfitani it is a ‘sign’ that always inspires feelings of intense spirituality.”

Emerging from the spell of the crypt and these stories, you can take a walk along the bright waterfront. People may be sunbathing on the ‘beach’ (I never cease to be amazed by the predilection of people to sit on grit and pebbles; but hey, I’m from Australia where beaches have sand).  Parts of the beach may be entered only after payment, but you do get a stripy sun umbrella and a lounger to lie on. There are gelato shops everywhere; places to buy a panama hat, limoncello or painted ceramic ware. The houses of the town climb up the steep cliffs behind, which are topped off with a ruined battlement. Molto pittoresca.

The medieval belltower

Actually, it is not so surprising that a Crusading cardinal should have brought the bones of Saint Andrew back to Amalfi. The small village you see today was once, in the Middle Ages (about 840 to 1135) one of the four powerful Maritime Republics. Ships went out trading from here all over the world, including the Orient. Amalfi an independent republic and a great naval power, with a population of over 70,000. The English dramatist John Webster wrote a play in 1612 called ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ which is set in this thriving medieval town.  The Amalfitani establish outposts all over the Mediterranean. 

Times change, of course. The Normans conquered Amalfi in 1131; and there was a devastating earthquake in 1343. But there are still signs here and there around the now pleasantly crumbling town of these past  glories. Unless you prefer the ‘beach’.

Amalfi's 'beach'
Local produce, Amalfi

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