The Holy Week – Rome

THE ceremonies of the Holy Week, giving at this season character to Rome, are very splendid. Yet, while contemplating the magnificence displayed in their churches, the heart involuntarily reverts, with a pleasing glow, to the memory of the simple forms of worship in our own country. There is nothing commendable in the Roman Catholic religion, but that the church is always open, a sanctuary to the afflicted. There he can lay his distracted head against a pillar, or sit upon the steps of an altar, to compose a mind ruffled with the cares of this world, or stung by its ingratitude. There the sinner may meditate upon eternity, and the blessed promise made to him ” that turneth away from his wickedness,” which speaketh peace to the contrite soul. It is pleasing to go into a solitary church in the evening hour, when the lamps on the distant altar are seen like dim stars through the red setting sun, and, in a scene of solitude and silence, like that of the desert, amidst architectural magnificence, and the gloom of the tombs of those that have passed away, soothe the over-fraught heart, and the grief that cannot speak.

There was a time, in ruder ages, when Rome saw her streets crowded with pilgrims from every distant land; when all the splendour of princely grandeur, and the influence of princely humility, were displayed; kings and emperors walking their penitential rounds, and receiving pardon and absolution.

Then was exhibited the imposing spectacle of our Saviour’s entrance into the Holy City. The priests, and the Pope himself, singing hosannas, carrying palm branches, and opening the gates. Then the washing of the pilgrims’ feet, placing them at table, giving them food, and dismissing them with presents, were acts of unaffected humility towards those who had traversed seas and deserts, to cast themselves before the throne of the Pope, to kiss his feet and his garment. The extinction of the torches, the singing at midnight in profound darkness, the beautiful and soul-touching music of the Miserere, while from afar, voices, imitative of the choir of angels, were heard, rising and sinking in the distance, must then have presented a solemn and impressive scene. But the littleness of the detailed exhibition now introduced in the churches, is calculated to disturb, I had almost said to grieve, the human spirit. The history of our Saviour is most pathetic, and most touching, when left to the unadorned sublimity of scripture; but the slightest innovation in the character of grand simplicity supported throughout, sinks, instead of elevating, the homage of the heart.

The service opens by a portion of the Lamentations of Jeremiah sung by the choristers, after which the Pope recites the pater roster in a low voice; then being seated on the throne, and crowned with the mitre, the theme is continued, sung loud and sweet by the first soprano, in a tone so long sustained, so high, so pure, so silvery and mellifluous, as to produce the most exquisite effect, in contrast with the deep choruses, answering in rich harmony at the conclusion of every strophe; and then again the lamenting voice is heard, tender and pathetic, repeating one sweet prolonged tone, sounding clear and high in the distance, till brought down again by the chorus. The exquisite notes of the soprano almost charmed away criticism; but yet we could not help being conscious of the difficulties attending a composition of this nature, even in the hands of so great a master as Allegri, whose music it was; nor of perceiving that, after a time, the continued strain and measured answering chorus becomes monotonous, and the mind insensibly sinks into languor. Yet the whole is very fine: it is as if a being of another world were heard lamenting over a ruined city, with the responses of a dejected people, and forms a grand and mournful preparation for the Miserere.

The last light being extinguished, the chorus, in hurried sounds, proclaims that our Saviour is betrayed; then, for a moment, as a symbol of the darkness in which the moral world is left, the deepest obscurity prevails; when at the words ” Christus est mortuus,” the Pope, the whole body of clergy and the people, knelt, (in former times, they fell down on the earth,) and all was silent, when the solemn pause was broken by the commencing of the Miserere, in low, rich, exquisite strains, rising softly on the ear, and gently swelling into powerful sounds of seraphic harmony.

The effect produced by this music is finer and greater than that of any admired art no painting, statue, or poem, no imagination of man, can equal its wonderful power on the mind. The silent solemnity of the scene, the touching import of the words, ” take pity on me, 0 God,” passes through to the inmost soul, with a thrill of the deepest sensation, unconsciously moistening the eye, and paling the cheek. The music is composed of two choruses of four voices; the strain begins low and solemn, rising gradually to the clear tones of the first soprano, which at times are heard alone .; at the conclusion of the verse, the second chorus joins, and then by degrees the voices fade and die away. The soft and al-most imperceptible accumulation of sound, swelling in mournful tones of rich harmony, into powerful effect, and then receding, as if in the distant sky, like the lamenting song of angels and spirits, conveys, beyond all conception to those who have heard it, the idea of darkness, of desolation, and of the dreary solitude of the tomb. A solemn silence ensues, and not a breath is heard, while the inaudible prayer of the kneeling Pope continues. When he rises, slight sounds are heard, by degrees breaking on the stillness, which has a pleasing effect, restoring, as it were, the rapt mind to the existence and feelings of the present life. The effect of those. slow, prolonged, varied, and truly heavenly strains, will not easily pass from the memory.