Santa Felicita and Mrs Macabee – two tragic mothers – and much confusion!

Whilst in Florence, I recommend a visit to the Santa Felicata Church. Often missed on the tourist agenda, partly because it is obscured by stalls and restaurants, this church is argued to be, after San Lorenzo, the second oldest site of Christian worship in Florence, possibly founded by Syrian merchants as early as the 2nd century. This current church was amended by Ferdinando Ruggieri, in 1736–1739 and the Monastery attached to the Church was suppressed under the Napoleonic occupation of 1808–1810.  Nonetheless, it still contains some lovely early frescos and is still dedicated to Saint Felicity of Rome.

This is the nearest church to the Pitti Palace so after their move from north to south of the river Arno, this church became the place of worship for the Medici Grand Dukes and Princes. They only needed to take a quick walk, or, as the race became more idle, a litter ride, through the Vasari Corridor to a balcony position specially designed to allow them to take Mass away from the masses.

In 1600’s they were given a special concession to be able to sit and eat their paninis in peace during the service, naturally shielded from view by their height above the congregation.

inside the Vasari corridor – view of the Medici Chapel

This concession had to be confirmed, in gold-plate handwriting, in the regulations of the Church after the fumes of their hot chocolate drinks drove the hungry congregation below to revolt. A special page has been inserted in their missal to confirm that this dispensation has been agreed with the controllers of Santa Felicita at that time – probably the Medici themselves!

But all this distracts from the point of my story of Santa Felicita and some of the images on display in the Church.

It seems to me a right old muddle!

There were two grieving mothers, who both suffered terrible losses, watching all of their seven children being tortured for their faith and then slaughtered in front of their eyes, and there remains a lot of confusion, over the centuries, about who was who!

Santa Felicita, gruesomely pictured above with her dead sons, was a far from happy Roman widow about whom the only thing known for certain is that she was buried in the Cemetery of Maximus, on the Via Salaria on a 23 November having been killed after watching the sacrifice of all her children. 

Legend presents her as the mother of seven Christian martyrs whose feast is celebrated on 10 July.  A devout Christian, the widowed Felicita’s charitable works and unshakeable faith annoyed the pagan priests to the extent that she found herself facing the wrath of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  The Emperor tried in vain to persuade her and her sons to renounce Christ and follow pagan gods but even under pain of death for herself and her children she wouldn’t budge – her only request being to allow her to die last so she could exhort each of her children to keep the faith whilst they were killed. So this incredible woman went with each of her children to oversee their various grizzly deaths – sustained by the belief that this way they were going to a better place – before she too was martyred.

That’s not a pleasant story on which to build a church, but I queried one of the key paintings in the church of Santa Felicita is Antonio Ciseri‘s Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863), depicting a woman grieving over the bodies of her dead sons.

This painting could well be set in Rome with Marcus Aurelius looking on – but the Maccabees were actually Jewish martyrs in Syria in 166 BCE. A different group of seven sons also put to death one by one in front of their equally encouraging mother, variously known as St. Solomonia, Hannah or Miriam,  for refusing to break God’s law and eat pork. Before their tongues were cut out for blasphemy and they were tortured to death each son made an impassioned speech to their persecutor, the Syrian King Antiochus IV, explaining why they preferred death to dishonour and they were only “dead under God’s covenant of everlasting life”. Their terrible deaths inspired Jewish dissident Judas (the Hammer)Maccabeus, to lead the Maccabean revolt against King Antiochus.

The individual tortures of these Holy Maccabees are detailed in the book of 2 Maccabees, which is a deuterocanonical book of the Bible. They are recognized as saints and martyrs for their steadfast faith and as such can also be venerated by Catholics everywhere on their feast day of 1st August, especially in relation to the later tragedy of Santa Felicita.

The Church literature and the Nun with whom I discussed this confusion is happy to admit to the difficulties, particularly in the case of the later Renaissance painting of Santa Felicita, in which the children are depicted alive in the main painting with their mother Felicita, but were shown in the predella below, clearly by an earlier artist,(attrib. Neri di Bici (1419-92) suffering the tortures described in the Jewish book relating to the Maccabees. For some reason, the faces of the torturers in these paintings have all been scraped off.

Evidently, the problem of differentiating between the two Saints had continued for many centuries until the two groups were given different Saint’s days to accentuate the fact that they were different ladies, in different places, who faced an equally terrible loss.

In the Middle Ages, various mystery plays portrayed these Maccabean martyrs, and it is suggested that their terrible martyrdom could have led to the use of the term “macabre“, perhaps also derived from the Latin Machabaeorum.

Santa Felicita isn’t only about grieving mothers watching the death and dismemberment – it is well worth a visit on a Friday when additional chapels are open and you can see some beautiful early frescoes – particularly if you are lucky enough to get into the Gothic Chapterhouse and see the Giotto like faces on the 14th Century painting by Niccolo di Pietro Gerini .He was one of the first painters ever to sign their work

( see below)

Maybe I should add that this is part of an image of a Crucifixion, where there is usually an image of another grieving mother.

 After the Crucifixion, the dead body of Christ was placed into the lap of his mother Mary and there are few more poignant images of this tragedy than the Deposition from the cross by Pontormo 

This painting has recently been restored to take a pride of place position with other Depositions by Rosso Fiorentino and Bronzino in the wonderful current exhibition The Cinquecento in Florence at the Strozzi Palace. 

This Exhibition closes on 21st January 2018 so hopefully, this masterpiece will shortly be back in place in the Capponi Chapel in Chiesa Santa Felicita.The Church is worth visiting for this painting alone but, as with practically everything in Florence, if you go a little deeper you will discover a whole lot more.