The miracle of Ferrara
When I was a tourist in Rome (and a newly-arrived expat) I was forever popping in and out of churches, curious about what I might find. Rome has over 900 churches, from grand basilicas like San Giovanni to gloomy little churches like Santa Maria della Vittoria, and I used to love visiting them, taking refuge from the heat and the traffic and stumbling across a hidden masterpiece – a statue by Bernini, a fresco by Raphael – or at least some odd relic.
Now that I’ve lived in Rome for a while, I’ve got out of the habit of constantly going into churches, as I feel like I’ve already seen the most interesting ones. Recent visits to San Silvestro (where the head of St John the Baptist is on display) and the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio (home to the Museum of Purgatory) have shown me that there are still plenty of secrets and surprises hidden in Rome’s churches. I might benefit from acting like a tourist occasionally, taking a minute to visit a church instead of rushing past on my way to the bus stop.
I may not be a tourist in Rome, but I was in Ferrara. On my recent trip to Bologna with my flatmate Tom, we spent a day in Ferrara, which feels more like a medieval town than a modern city. The highlight of Ferrara – apart from lunch, where we sampled the local speciality, cappellacci di zucca – was a church.
If it wasn’t for Tom’s suggestion, I might have easily walked past Santa Maria in Vado. It didn’t look like anything special from the outside, but then, the most interesting churches often have quite ordinary exteriors. We went inside, and spent a while just sitting down and resting our weary feet, while watching a jovial priest lecture a group of school children.
The children were gathered around a brightly-lit chapel to the side of the church, where a twin flight of stairs seemed to lead to some kind of display. After the priest and the children had moved on, we climbed the steps to investigate, and were confused to find nothing but an unremarkable section of wall behind the glass. What was so special about the wall? We went down the steps and found a sign in Italian that offered an explanation, as well as a rather comical painting, which serves as an explanation for those who can’t read Italian.
During an Easter mass in 1172, the Eucharist transformed into the literal body of Christ, splattering blood all over the walls. The painting depicts the exact moment of this disconcerting miracle – the congregation wide-eyed in astonishment, the priest watching the Eucharist turn into a fountain of blood.
We climbed up the steps again, looked closer at the wall behind the glass, and saw the red splatters of blood that had stained the stone nearly 1,000 years ago. “Fucking hardcore,” said Tom.
Whether you believe in miracles or not, what happened at San Maria in Vado is undoubtedly hardcore. Honestly, even as a non-Catholic, I want to believe that it happened. I have quite a vague, unprincipled belief system, where I’m a little bit agnostic about everything. I don’t believe, but I don’t not believe, and if the existence of something makes life more interesting, I try to keep an open mind. A world where bread magically turns to flesh and spouts blood everywhere is much more interesting than a world without miracles, isn’t it?
Rather like the burned fingerprints on display in the Museum of Purgatory, the blood stains remain tantalisingly mysterious. You can dispute the miraculous cause, but still, how did they get there? And how do you explain a vision experienced not only by one person, but by an entire congregation?
As a child my favourite non-fiction book was the Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena. Crop circles, poltergeists, rains of frogs, alien abduction, weeping statues, spontaneous human combustion…God, I loved that book. I don’t think there was a chapter specifically on Catholic phenomena, but there should have been. A chapter dedicated to stigmata, visions of the Virgin Mary, and masses that resemble scenes from Tarantino films. Even better, an alternative guidebook: “Top 100 hardcore miracles in Catholic churches in Italy”. If I wasn’t already busy attempting to write my third novel (while daydreaming about the next three), I would do it myself.
Getting there: Ferrara is an easy day trip from Bologna – about 30 minutes on the train. It’s pretty tiny for a so-called city, and the church is probably no more than a 15-20 minute walk from Castello Estense.