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main index                         © Jeff Matthews                                          entry Feb 2010



The Quarantore Devotion in Baroque Naples

Altars produced during the Baroque in Italy were often quite elaborate, and the ones produced in Naples were particularly so, especially those used during the Quarant’Ore devotion. That Italian term (also written as one word, Quarantore) means Forty Hours. It is a Roman Catholic exercise of continuous prayer in the hours before Easter Sunday to commemorate the hours that Christ was entombed before the Resurrection. The devotion was introduced in 1537 in Milan and by the end of the 1700s was widespread in the Roman Catholic world. The special altar is called in Italian la macchina delle quarant’ore. The best-known Quarantore altar in Naples was made for the church of San Domenico Maggiore and is from the late 1600s. As part of the Back to Baroque events currently going in Naples, the altar, in its newly restored state
(photo, right), is on exhibit at the Castel Sant’Elmo, after which it will be returned to San Domenico Maggiore. The documentation at the exhibit regarding the altar is this:

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.

The Jesuits proposed that this devotional practice, which began in the early 1500s as part of the Easter rituals, should also be followed during Carnival, to distract the people from their bawdy celebrations. During the 1600s, the need to attract people into the churches led to a real spectacularization of prayer. Vying with each other, religious orders set up in the churches vast, showy apparatuses, as well as the enormous monstrance, lights, music and choirs. [ed. note: in Roman Catholic ritual, the “monstrance” is an open or transparent vessel of gold or silver, in which the host is exposed.]

The machine exhibited here is from the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore, where it was found dismantled. Restoring the machine to its original appearance required in depth research as well as finding all the scattered pieces and putting them together. Its extraordinary scenographic impact, typical of the persuasive power of the Baroque, is highlighted in the exhibition by the full-scale reconstruction of the altar of the Church of San Domenico, where the machine was originally erected. The machine, which can probably be identified with one described in a document from 1676, had parts added to it up to the early 1800s, almost certainly because of the need to restore or change parts that had worn out or been damaged when the monumental apparatus was assembled or disassembled. The main part is the cluster of great rays within which stands a small temple housing the monstrance with the consecrated host. The shaft bears the features of St. Thomas Aquinas.

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.


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