Monday, May 06, 2013

Tales of Otranto

The Martyrs of Otranto
c. 1640 - 1660
Oil on panel
99.0 x 146.0 cm
Diocesi di Altamura - Gravina - Acquaviva delle Fonti, Puglia, Italy

Phillip Hackert (1737 - 1807)
The Bay and Port of Otranto
Oil on canvas
143 x 218 cm
Pinacoteca, sala dei porti di Puglia, Reggia di Caserta

If one mentions the town of Otranto in Southern Italy, most would simply assume a reference to the popular eighteenth century novel by Horace Walpole The Castle of Otranto which began a new literary genre, the Gothic novel

Set in the time of the Crusades, it involves castles, monks, ghosts, battles and murder: absurd, fluffy, Romantic fiction

If one visits the Cathedral in the town of Otranto, one would see an altar which on the face of it is high Gothic. The altar is surrounded by the dismembered skeletons of townsfolk who died in 1480 as the result of an invasion and siege: the Martyrs of Otranto

The Chapel of the Otranto Martyrs
Source: Flickr

They will be canonised by Pope Francis later this week

Mathew Bunson`s article How the 800 Martyrs of Otranto Saved Rome in Catholic Answers is probably the best account of the tragedy

The comments section to the article in The Catholic Herald and Alfredo Mantovano`s article in Il Foglio indicate that for some although this event happened more than 500 years ago, passions can get heated by the subject and people can lapse into polemic

However, in a letter published in December 2012, Archbishop Donato Negro of Otranto said that the martydom of the townsfolk must represent a 
“purification of the memory of the Catholic Church and a rooting out of every possible lingering resentment, rancor, resentful policies, every eventual temptation toward hatred and violence, and every presumptuous attitude of religious superiority, religious arrogance, moral and cultural pride.” 
Remembering Christian martyrs is an occasion to examine one’s own life and make sure it corresponds with the Gospel call to love and forgive, he added

Blessed Pope John Paul II visited the city in 1980 and delivered five speeches including one homily. Not once did he mention Islam

The theme of his visit was faith and what it meant to be  a martyr to the faith. In this Year of Faith it is quite apposite to go back to it

He quoted the words of the martyrs. First the leader Blessed Antonio Pezzulla. Ironically his profession was miller and baker  and seller of bread, In response to the call to give up the faith or be killed he said:
  “Noi crediamo in Gesù Cristo, Figlio di Dio; e per Gesù Cristo, siamo pronti a morire!”
The others took up the call and cried:
“Moriamo per Gesù Cristo, tutti; moriamo volentieri, per non rinnegare la sua santa fede!”
It is perhaps not surprising that in his speech at the airport his theme was that of the First Letter of Peter perhaps written during the persecutions of the Emperor Domitian

The receivers of the letter were undergoing “various trials” (1 Peter 1:6), being “tested by fire” (1:7), maligned “as evildoers” (2:12) and suffering “for doing good” (3:17). 

For a modern up to date historical treatment of the martyrs you may wish to consult extracts of a book (alas in Italian) entitled I Beati 800 Martiri di Otranto by Quintino Gianfreda