The Venerdi Santo procession and “great buns” with new friends

Just as I was leaving on the way to Le Marche and Jesi to visit Irmy (a visit delayed by VinItaly first, and then Irmy’s flu), I ran into Graziella (“La Gazzetta,” who knows all of the information—and gossip—of Spello). She asked if I would be back in time for the Good Friday (“Venerdi Santo,” or “Holy Friday”) procession from the Santa Maria Maggiore church—after dark on Friday night. No, I told her, I was not coming back until Saturday morning, because I had made plans with Irmy to stay until Saturday.

Bless Irmy, when I told her that I was struggling with missing the procession, and didn’t know when I would be in Spello again for Easter, she told me to go back a day early on Friday, after our last walk into the hills behind her home. I was back to Spello by early afternoon, and had the rest of the day to wait for the procession after dark, at 9 p.m. With the rosemary thriving in my little garden, I clipped off a bunch and made a double batch of pan di ramerino, a Tuscan semi-sweet yeast roll that contains raisins and chopped rosemary—a very delicious combination that I discovered with my friends for Easter (“Pascua”) 2003 in Florence. These rolls are the Tuscan equivalent to England’s hot cross buns, and are served on Venerdi Santo—Good Friday. They rose all afternoon in the oven that I had warmed just a bit, and were golden and hot from baking at about 8, in time for me cover them, grab my little camera and to go downhill to the church to see the gathering crowds for the procession.

Pan di ramerino "buns" shaped, egg-washed for gloss, and ready to proof before baking

In the church, there were printed programs for us all, and the church was packed.

Programs for the procession, available for all in the church

I met an American couple—Steve and Denise Haerr, from Temecula, CA—who are living in Spoleto for a year, and came to Spello to watch the procession with their guest from England, Jean. I recounted the plan for the procession that Graziella had told me: the priest leaves the church with the cross, and proceeds with all of the pilgrims to the stations of the cross, which are all of the other chapels and churches inside the old city walls of Spello—fourteen places to stop for prayer and contemplation on the crucifixion and the sacrifice of Christ. At each station, there were two paintings from the crucifixion, all in place for several days in advance of Venerdi Santo—and now their presence made sense to me. Each one was about six feet tall, and three feet wide—very difficult to miss, even casually passing by in the days preceding Venerdi Santo and the procession.

Crucifixion paintings at Station V in the Piazzetta Mazzoni

Paintings at Station VIII, Oratoria San Giovanni Battista

Terracotta candles lead up the steps to Station VI, Chiesa Sant' Andrea Apostolo

Close-up, from Station VI at Sant' Andrea Apostolo

Station VIII, at the Loggiato Palazo Communale

Station VI at Sant' Andrea Apostolo

Station VIII, at the Loggiato Palazzo Communale

Station IX, Chiesa di San Gregorio Magno

Station IX, Chiesa di San Gregorio Magno


Station X, Oratorio di San Biagio

Steve, Denise, Jean and I watched from our seats in the church as the cross was illuminated—and the priest began to come down the aisle carrying it before him, followed by all the other deacons (or other priests?) and choir members, in their robes.

The Cross is brought down the aisle of Santa Maria Maggiore for the procession

Waiting inside the doors of the church, before stepping outside

They made their way to the door of the church, and then went outside, where a few hundred people were waiting for the arrival of the cross.

Waiting at the street, surrounded by the crowds waiting to join the procession

Some in the procession carried bamboo torches, lighting the way, but all paused outside the church to have the people gather for the procession. The priest had a microphone, and all could hear his calls to prayer, before the procession began.

From the street, looking back toward Santa Maria Maggiore and the bell tower

A pause and a blessing before the procession forms (cross painted by Paola for Don Vernanza!)

A small sample of the people assembled for the procession, waiting outside

The procession getting underway with the Cross leading the way

(An aside: Giorgia told me that a few years ago, all of the people in the procession were given candles to carry, and they dripped wax on the cobbles of the street as they made the circuit first down the hill and then back up and to the convent near my house, and then down again to the Santa Maria Maggiore church where the procession began. The cobbles are already very slippery even when dry, worn smooth by the tires of carts and cars for many centuries, but then they were covered with drops of wax. According to Giorgia, the following day people were slipping and falling all over town, thanks to the waxed stones. In addition, cars were spinning their wheels, unable to get traction to get up the hill. Since then, no more candles—only the torches, and only in the hands of the group coming along with the priest.)

Passing by on the way to my house, the view inside Sant' Andrea Apostolo

We four watched the procession begin, all a bit concerned for Jean’s tired legs, and the Haerr group was going to watch one or two of the stations, and then leave for Spoleto and “home.” Instead, I told them about the warm pan di ramerino back at my place, just out of the oven before I came to the church, and covered in towels to retain the heat. I offered tea and rolls, and got enthusiastic takers, so we were off up the hill while the procession went down.

As we passed the churches on the way, we could see each one that was one of the Stations of the Cross—easily recognized by the terracotta candles leading up to the doors, wide open to receive the procession when it arrived later. The photography, for me, was a real challenge. Not only were there hardly any streetlights for the procession, the people and priests were moving. I could barely capture still images in the late hour, and the moving procession was just a blur on my images, so the images were mostly deleted—dark blurs told no real story. It was a frustrating challenge, but using a flash would have been difficult, too, without my Nikon here with me in Italy. I have grainy, softly focused images, and am grateful for them. It was another case of “you had to be there.”

Darned if I didn’t even pick UP my camera while we had a good hour or two in my kitchen, making tea and coffee, and diving into the rolls. Yes, they were still warm, and no one thought they were less than fantastic—plus, they were SUPPOSED to be eaten on Venerdi Santo, and we had just barely made it in time! Jean was a recent widow, out to start her new life and traveling to Italy to visit Steve and Denise. She was charming, and was surprising, wanting coffee instead of tea (I didn’t dare point out to her that she was British, and was SUPPOSED to drink tea).

We made a wonderful chance connection in the church, and I am expecting Denise back for the night of the Infiorata, when I promised to find her work with our team, setting down the flower petals on the street. She will join one friend coming from Sacramento for 3 weeks to stay here and help for the Infiorata(Melba Martin), and then another coming for just that night from her home near Florence (Pat Hanna). We’ll have a hen party, but mostly we’ll be working through the night, finishing up the design, and lining up for the traditional “pasta asciutta alla mezzanotte,” the cooked dried pasta and tomato sauce at midnight—a break for all of the workers on our team, with wine on the side, before we all go back to work on the flower designs until they are done.

When I had told Paola and Leonardo that I was going to the procession (they were surprised that I was back a day early), I could not quite understand what Paola had said about taking out her cross. I did understand that she had been commissioned to paint a cross for Don Vernanza, the priest that once owned the building where my little house is. (I have met him, and shown him my completed kitchen, and he is still a priest here in Spello, and drives a gray Mercedes.) I looked at their porch as I headed down to the church for the procession, but saw no cross out on display, thinking she had a painting that she would be putting out for Good Friday.

The next morning, sharing the photos of the procession with Paola and Leonardo, I heard “Ecco la!” “There it is (the cross)!” Paola had painted the symbols on the illuminated cross that had been carried in the procession, to the specifications of Don Vernanza, and I HAD seen Paola’s cross the night before. Maybe, someday when my Italian is more perfected, I will “get it” the first time!

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