Festival Of Corpus Christi At Lisbon
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The following account of the grand Catholic Festival of Corpus Christi, which was celebrated at Lisbon on Thursday, the 14th June, will be interesting to your readers, as it is allowed to be the most gorgeously absurd spectacle of the kind in Europe, and is by far the best annual show of Lisbon. It is, therefore, always ushered in with great " pomp and circumstance," and attended by immense crowds of spectators from the country and neighbourhood. The square of the Rocio, where the Inquisition formerly held its sittings and perpetrated its autos-daft, is at present the scene of the exhibition. On Wednesday afternoon the inhabitants of this square had the lintels of their windows, from the top to the ground-floor, hung with crimson damask silk. The houses then appeared to a spectator as if they had their window-curtains turned inside out. This operation is performed by persons who undertake the job at eight testoons a window. A procession thus imposes a considerable window-tax on those who have numerous rooms or large apartments in the Rocio. At the same time that the fronts of the houses were thus adorned, cart-loads of sand were brought into the square to spread on the line of the pro-cession. That every part of the ceremony might wear the appearance of festivity, these carts, and the yokes of the oxen which drew them, entered the square crowned with branches of laurel, orange, or cedar. The market-gardeners within a certain range of Lisbon are bound to supply loads of flowers to strew the streets on the occasion. They come from the country in festive trains, crowned with flowers, and accompanied by a band of music. An immense awning was spread over the Largo, or open space before the church of the Dominican Friars, at the corner of the Rocio, next the Palace of the Inquisition, where the procession is marshalled. This space is so large as to admit several thousand people. The Church of the Dominicans, whence the consecrated Host starts, after the performance of Mass, was fitted up with benches covered with damask silk, and with a tribune for receiving the municipal authorities. The cap, or hat, and the other paraphernalia of St. George, was prepared in the castle; and the horses from the Royal stud at Belem, which were to accompany or carry the Saint and his page, were brought to the neighbour-hood of his chapel.
In the morning of yesterday, all the Portuguese troops of the line in Lisbon, together with the militia and volunteers, assembled in the public gardens near the Rocio, at the early hour of six o'clock. Even at that hour the gardens were nearly filled with persons of all ranks, so eager are the people to see a religious show, almost the only exhibition which excites any great degree of public interest. The different regiments formed there preparatory to their marching to take up their position on the line of procession. Their bands continued to play, and the people to promenade in the shade, till about nine o'clock, when, the preparations for the show in the Rocio being further advanced, the troops proceeded to the square, and formed a double line round it, keeping a space clear for the procession. By this time every window in the Rocio was filled with spectators, and great crowds occupied the square and the adjacent streets. Towards eleven o'clock the guns of the castle of St. George announced that the Saint had left his chapel, and was descending with his train to join the monks and military orders before the Church of St. Dominic. He soon made his appearance in the square, mounted on a white charger, attended by grooms on foot, and followed by a page and twelve led horses, richly caparisoned. He was dressed in the habit of a knight, carrying his banner in one hand and holding his bridle in the other. His cap was surmounted with plumes of feathers, and adorned with rich jewels. It is said (I know not with what truth, nor is it worth pains to inquire), that these jewels, which belong to the Duke of Cadoval, and which the duke is bound to lend for this occasion, are worth 500,000 crusados, or 50,000. The cap and dress of the page were likewise richly studded with jewels. It would really be too ridiculous to enter into any further description of this grotesque exhibition. The page rode on a beautiful cream-coloured nag ; the led horses were by no means handsome ; and, if they are the best in the royal stables, give but a poor opinion of the stud of his Faithful Majesty. As the Saint is a Lieutenant-General in the Portuguese army, the troops presented arms to him ; and Count Villa Flor, who commanded them, saluted him as he passed along the line. He had previously received the pay belonging to his rank in the morning, and is, probably, the only officer whose allowances are never allowed to be in arrear. He long continued to enjoy the rank and to draw the allowances of a Major-General; but on a representation being made that his length of service entitled him to promotion, he was some time ago advanced a step, and now receives proportionably increased pay. In England he would most likely be placed on the superannuation or dead weight list.
When the Saint, with his party, had arrived at the church whence the Host was to issue, Mass was nearly finished, and the procession began to form. About twelve o'clock the spectators were gratified with the appearance of the first banners, and, by half-past one or two, the whole ceremony was concluded. It could not be amusing to describe at length, and would scarcely be intelligible to sketch slightly the motley groups which composed the procession : St. George and his train ; the confraternities or brotherhoods of the forty parishes of Lisbon ; the tribes of monks of the different orders, in black, white, or grey ; the clergy, and the banners of the patriarchal church ; the members of the tribunals, and the costumes of the orders of knight-hood. The patriarch carried the Host under a rich canopy, supported by some of the nobility, in the habits of their commanderies. A surprisingly small number of the nobility or court attended. The train was, however, long, the first banners having reached the Church of St. Dominic on their return before the patriarch had left it, the whole thus forming a line round the four sides of the Rocio, and doubling on itself. None of the Royal family were present, as is usually the case. Most of the English officers, civil and military, were present. Sir W. Clinton, who had been at Cintra with his staff corps for some days, came to town to see this celebrated piece of absurdity. St. George was, immediately after the ceremony, reconducted to his chapel in the Castle, where he is laid up in ordinary till next June. His head was rather unceremoniously stripped of the hat covered with brilliants at the door, and ensconced in his old unadorned beaver. The Duke de Cadoval's steward seemed apprehensive that the diamonds, if they entered the church, might be claimed as a deodand to the altar, or retained as a pledge for the debts of the Saint.
It may not be uninteresting to some of your readers to learn a few facts connected with the history of this singular ceremony—facts which (so far as they regard Portugal) can be derived only from such monkish works as are not easily accessible, or would not be thought worthy of perusal in England. I need, therefore, make no apology for the following brief account.
The festival of "Corpus Christi," now one of the greatest and most essential of the Catholic Church, has this peculiarity, that it cannot boast of a very ancient origin, and that it commemorates no distant event separate from the mystery which is daily celebrated in the sacrifice of the Mass. It was instituted by Pope Urban IV. in 1264, and was suggested to that pontiff by a revelation, said to have been made to a holy dame of Liege, where his Holiness first commenced his theological career. This lady (called " Juliana ") was favoured with the miraculous vision of a full moon, having only a little slice pared off its disk, and was told by angels that this lunar anomaly represented the existing Church, as yet imperfect, because it wanted a special festival to commemorate the sacrament of Christ's body.
This pious nun could not get the moon out of her head, nor the warning voice from her ear, till she had partially succeeded in establishing this solemnity by the assistance of two other pious sisters who, without any communication with her, had enjoyed similar visions. Pope Urban IV., in adopting the idea and extending the festival to the whole Church, alludes in the bull of institution to the source whence he derived it : " Intelleximus" (says he) "olim, dum in minore essemus officio constituti, quod fuerat quibusdam Catholicis DIVINITUS revelatum, festum hujusmodi generaliter in Ecclesiâ celebrandum." To give the new feast greater éclat, his Holiness prevailed upon St. Thomas Aquinas—that expounder of mysteries, that sun of theology, that phoenix of learning, that angel of the schools (as he is called by his contemporaries)—to compose for it the office and the Mass, for which Christ is said to have appeared to him and thanked him, saying, "Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma." The festival has since been confirmed by every successive Council, and observed by every Catholic community. The Council of Trent even declared heretics, and anathematized, any persons who should venture to call in question its utility or Divine origin. Its establishment as a ceremony distinct from the administration of the daily sacrifice of the Mass, is justified, to persons little scrupulous about the reasons for a new holyday, on the same ground as the establishment of the solemnities of " All Souls " and " All Saints."
Though Catholics are called upon to celebrate the birthday of some saint in the calendar every day in the year, and are bound every day in the year to pray for some unhappy soul in purgatory, yet the Church has set apart two separate days in which all the hosts of these triumphant and distressed fellow-beings are lumped into one common service and share in one common address. The Bull of institution—which is a very curious production, and which, for its style, might have been composed by the angelic doctor, states this reason, and adds, " Licet enim hoc memoriale sacrosanctum in quotidiannis missarum solemniis frequentatur, conveniens tamen arbitramur, et dignum, ut de ipso semel saltem in anno, ad confundendam specialiter hereticorum perfidiam et insaniam, memoria solemnior et celebrarior habeatur." Heretics, in a certain sense, may be con-founded, but they are not likely to be convinced, by an exhibition like that of yesterday.
This festival, it would appear, though sometimes observed with great pomp in Portugal, never made, by its mode of celebration, a distinguishing feature of the national superstition till 1709—nearly at the commencement of the reign of John V. The sovereigns of Portugal had always been devout sons of the Church, and had always evinced a fondness for joining in religious exhibitions. Don Sebastian, who so religiously and so madly lost his army and his life in Africa, could not hear the tinkling of the bell which announced the passing of the Host to a dying person without sallying forth from his palace in all weathers, whether hot or cold, calm or tempestuous, and at all hours, whether night or day, and falling into the sacred troop, like an old cavalry horse when he hears the sound of a trumpet. His immediate successor, Cardinal Henry, had the same _processional taste; and, not to speak of the Spanish family, John IV., the first sovereign of the House of Braganza, had nearly lost his life by the hands of assassins in the Spanish interest, while walking in the train of monks on Corpus-Christi day. He was shot at in a narrow part of the streets through which the procession passed, and, had it not been (according to his historians) for the miraculous protection of the Host whom he was attending, he must have become the victim of his piety. This event is commemorated by the church of Corpus Christi, raised on the spot where his Majesty's deliverance was obtained. Peter II. did not yield to his father in his zeal for this locomotive piety—for these per-ambulating displays of devotion ; and his successor, John V., exceeded them both in his eagerness to honour the festival of Corpus Christi. This pious profligate and devout debauchee ordered his priests to suggest new modes of giving it splendour, and commanded one of his supreme judges and a member of the Academy (whose work now lies before me), to write the history of its renovated celebration. The latter did so in a folio of 216 pages, which he dedicates to his patron ; and in which he tells him, that "as kings are certainly the images of God upon earth, so they can imitate the divine operations; for as God called the heavens and the earth out of nothing into existence, so his majesty had called from the nothing of his talent the execution of this great undertaking." The task and its accomplishment, the writer and the patron, were perfectly worthy of each other.
According to the quaint language of the founder of this festival, it is ordered to be "universis Christicolis nova festivitate jucundus, et amplâ jucunditate festivus ;" but at the commencement of the reign of John V. the festivity is described as having very much fallen off. The parish clergy neglected it altogether, or attended it without their canonical habits ; the crosses of the churches, carried by sacristans, were mixed in confusion ; the streets were unadorned with flowers, and the windows devoid of silk or tapestry ; the inmates of the monasteries and the members of the military orders were equally negligent ; triumphal arches had not been thought of, and St. George had not been called into requisition. His said majesty, who visited the convent of Odivellas, and who, going on expeditions of profligate pleasure, was so attentive to the welfare of his soul that he used on occasions to be accompanied by a priest carrying the sacred viaticum, to be administered in case of accidents, reformed all this, and provided for the people of Portugal such a show of expensive and senseless magnificence as cannot be equalled in Christendom. His successors, down to King John VI., who died last year, always joined the annual procession. His late majesty seemed particularly delighted with the figure which he cut in the train of superstition, and particularly careful in requiring the attendance of his courtiers at Corpus Christi ; for his bitterest enemies must admit, that he did not fall short of a Carthusian in his practice of mummery, nor yield to a child in his fondness for toys.