In my novel The Echoes of Love Paolo and Venetia take some time out to get to know each other on the island of Sardinia. There, they attend a very special ceremony in Castelsardo, in the northwest of the island, which is a key part of the town’s cultural identity.
The Lunissanti takes places on the Holy Monday right before Easter, and it involves a procession focused onthe Mysteries, the instruments of the Passion of Christ –different objects relating to Jesus’s crucifixion: the chalice, the glove, the pillar, the chain, the scale, the crown of thorns, the cross, the ladder, the hammer and tongs, the spear and the sponge.
Early in the morning, at sunrise, the people of Castelsardo attend a mass at the Church of Santa Maria. Then the apostuli (those chosen to bear the Mysteries) begin the procession to voices lifted in song provided by the cantori – three choirsof twelve members each, called lu Miserere, luStabat and luJesu.
The procession winds through the streets, lined with people, to its destination: the abbey of Nostra Signora di Tergu. There, the apostuli place the Mysteries in front of the altar, andanother mass is held.
Afterwards, the people feast before the abbey to celebrate the arrival of spring. And then, as the sun lowers in the sky, the procession reforms and returns through now candle-lit streets to the Church of Santa Maria, for a rite of thanksgiving. I describe the scene thus in The Echoes of Love:
Suddenly from afar burst the swelling melody of the Miserere, throbbing through the night, sung by a perfect choir and perfect soloists. An impressive silence blanketed the town while they listened to the exquisitely mournful sound. Soon the procession came marching up the narrow medieval street on their slow way home to the Church of Santa Maria where it had all started at dawn.
Men that were part of the Confraternita di Santa Croce were dressed in white tunics and cloaks with thin, high-tapering hoods… The cowled men and the pilgrims all held torches or candles, the golden glow of which threw a warm tone over the attendant multitude, swarming like bees to get a nearer view. As the procession passed by, the crowds lining the streets fell devoutly upon their knees.
Paolo and Venetia joined the worshippers on their way to the Church of Santa Maria, following the wooden cross and the human skull set on a tray, both carried by the apostles and accompanied by prayers and religious chanting of the three choruses.
There was an intensity about the worship which Venetia had not observed before, even in Spain. It was as if a great mystical shadow was being cast by the twenty-four hooded men and it stirred Venetia’s emotions profoundly. She could well understand how this sort of rite recalling the Passion of Jesus and involving legions of devotees would awaken a lagging faith and leave an indelible and unforgettable impression for all time – for who could ever erase the memory of one of these processions wending its glimmering way at night through the narrow medieval Sardinian streets into the immensity of the dark, waiting church?
‘The Miserere’, to which I refer, is a psalm by the sixteenth-century Italian composer and priest Gregorio Allegri. It really is beautiful, as this video portrays.
This song, and others, are core elements of the Lunissanti, and deeply moving ones. Paolo tells Venetia, ‘It is a profoundly spiritual ritual. I found it cleansing somehow.’ And as she watches him in the church, she sees how engrossed he is in the ceremony, and it touches her. I write:
She had sometimes wondered if Paolo had a faith, and now she found a potential new facet to his personality that intrigued her. Her heart flooded with compassion and love for him. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to make him happy, to compensate for all the countless years and memories he no longer had.
Perhaps not the most conventional of dates for a courting couple. But I love the connection it creates for them.They are not so much people in that church, they are souls. Soulmates.