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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Feb 2010
The Machine for the Forty Hours is a complex liturgical apparatus that was used for the adoration of the Eucharistic Sacrament over a period of 40 hours, the time Christ spent in the tomb before the resurrection.
Although the name Forty Hours, itself, obviously refers to the hours before Easter, note that the devotional period was moved forward to include Carnival and then Lent. This gave rise, apparently, to the musical form we call the “oratorio”; musical performances on stage were not permitted during the period of Lent, so the church decided to bring some music to people in the unusual venue of a house of worship, itself. Thus, highly regarded composers of the Baroque were often employed to compose music for the period of Lent. This practice flourished under the Oratorian Fathers—thus, the oratorio. To see the altar in the photo as it must have appeared to worshippers, you have to imagine about two-hundred lighted candles in the spidery candelabras on either side of the figure of Aquinas, as well as a large canopy, elaborately woven from silk and gold threads above the entire apparatus. The underside of the canopy was ornately decorated with celestial images.
The keen-eyed will notice something else: at the bottom of this monumental affair is a small figure of...a dog! The dog is holding a torch in its mouth. The dog with the torch is the symbol of the Dominican order. First, the Dominic in question, and founder of the order, is St. Dominic de Guzmán (1170–1221). Second, the standard story is that his mother had difficulty conceiving a child and prayed at the shrine of Saint Dominic of Silos. The mother became pregnant and named the child in honor of the saint. While she was pregnant, she claimed to have had a dream that her unborn child was a dog who would set the world on fire with a torch it carried in its mouth.
Or you can believe that it is a rebus, an iconographic pun! (And I have just listened to an art history lady with lots of letters after her name explain this, so please don’t think I am being irreverent!) That is: Dominic (in English) and Domenico (in Italian) are from the Latin Dominus, meaning God. Then, cane means dog. In an age not known for thigh-slapping and guffaws, maybe two monks, who had been down in the wine cellar too long...well...
Fr. Guido: Vinnie, what’s that?
Fr. Vinnie: Oh, just a little figure I’ve been carving.
Fr. G.: It’s a dog.
Fr. V.: I know. Get it? San Domenico! Domenico comes from Dominus...God...
Fr. G.: Uh, did you hear me ask you for a Latin lesson?
Fr. V.: ...and 'domenicane' is the Italian plural feminine form of the adjective!
Fr. G.: Again...I have books.
Fr. V.: ...but 'cane' also means the animal. You know—bow-wow! Thus, the figure can either refer to that dream or...get this!...to the sisters of our order! I mean, have you ever seen those women? So we mount this at the bottom of the altar when no one is looking...
Fr. G.: Brother, do not pass Purgatory; do not collect 200 ducats. You are going straight to Hell. I hope you know that.