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Martina, a witness of welcome

The saint of the month, recounted by Francesca Romana de’Angelis

"I would like a January with an April sun," sang Gianni Rodari in , Filastrocca di Capodanno the extraordinary storyteller for the "great men and women of tomorrow." And instead we have snow, ice, short days and long nights, because in January we are in the midst of winter. A nice little tale accompanies the last three days of this month which, according to tradition are the coldest of the year. In order to escape the intense cold a blackbird with its young found shelter in a chimney-pot and when it came out in February, hoping that the worst was over, its white feathers had grown dark with soot. Since then, black birds have turned a shiny black, even though they have retained their orange beak and their melodious and flute like song.

To warm the heart in the "days of the blackbird" is Saint Martina, celebrated on January 30th. Of her, as of the majority of the rest of the martyrs from the origins of Christianity, we know very little, because often the only sources that remain are the Passiones , hagiographical writings that wrap these figures up in legend and blur the historical truth. Unlike other more celebrated martyrs, Martina was not blessed with a constant devotion able to preserve her memory throughout time. Hers, is a fascinating story made up of a falling into oblivion and a return to memory thanks to the enthusiasm of a Pope and the emotions of a great artist who restored her voice, acts and feelings.

We are in the first half of the third century when the very young Martina, born into a noble Roman family, is orphaned losing both of her parents. Alone, a woman and a Christian: an extremely vulnerable state which Martina knows how to change into an inexhaustible strength. Her first act is to renounce all her wealth in order to donate it to the needy, proceeds by several centuries the joyful poverty of Francis. Martina makes herself a witness of welcome devoting her life to the poor and the sick and thus interpreting the active role that women played in the first Christian communities, a female model that was drawn directly from the word of the Gospel, where women know how to welcome and understand Jesus. At that time Alexander Severus reigned but the tolerance of this emperor, who came from distant Phoenicia, and who had included Christ in his lararium (domestic shrine), was not enough to protect Martina from the persecution of Ulpian, the well-known jurist and powerful prefect of the Praetorian. Arrested and subjected to cruel torture she was beheaded in the year 228. From this moment on Martina, sinks into silence.

Four centuries after her martyrdom Honorius I dedicated a small church at the foot Campidoglio to her. In the following centuries, as the church was assigned to civilian use, the memory of this martyr of the origins was lost again. In 1256, during the pontificate of Alexander IV, during the work of restoration of the church, the relics of Martina and three other martyrs, Concordio, and Epiphanius and a third without name, come to light. Restored and re-consecrated the church heads for a new destiny of abandonment and the memory of Martina is lost once again. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V grants the church of Saint Martina to the University of the Arts of painting, sculpture and design (the current National Academy of Saint Luke), in place of the church in the Esquiline dedicated to Luke the evangelical saint and protector of painters, which had been demolished. The work of reconstruction of the church, now dedicated to the two saints is initiated only in 1634 through the initiative of Pietro da Cortona, painter,  architect and at that time important protagonist in the Roman artistic scene. The rediscovery of the relics of Martina during preliminary excavations arouses the enthusiasm of Urban VIII, who going immediately to pay homage to the martyr, decides to finance the work together with his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini. He fixes January the 30th as the day of celebration of Martina and elevates her to co-patron of Rome.

With regard to Pietro da Cortona, the intense emotion that he feels upon the rediscovery of the relics changes his perspective and the architectural project becomes a witness of deeply felt devotion. He puts everything into the realization of the Church: talent, passion, commitment, money and the result is a jewel of Roman Baroque. In the heart of the Roman Forum, next to the illustrated marble Arch of Septimius Severus and the umbilicus urbis , that is the ideal centre of the city of Rome, stands the Church of Saints Luke and Martina, which ascends to the heavens, a masterpiece of harmony, of mellowness and of light, with the gentle curvature of its facade, the preciosity of the dome, the masterly series of indentations and projections, the purity of the highly ornate stucco-work and the reclining statue of Martina. The crypt, which preserves the relics of the saint and her companions in martyrdom, of bronze, polychrome marble, alabaster and darkness, is lightened by a ray of light that filters through a circular grate placed in the ceiling below the dome.

Perhaps, if we wish to put a face on Martina we need to imagine her as one of the virgin saints in the procession of the Church of St.Apollinaris Nuovo in Ravenna, immaterial and floating figures holding the crowns of martyrdom and the white veil, symbol of virginity, move forward looking towards the infinite and the divine. Martina has forever retained her solid shape, bright colours, the limpid and mild beauty that Pietro da Cortona, the painter who had "fire in his paint brush," gave her in his paintings. In front of the Mystical Marriage of Saint Martina, a precious little oil on copper which Cortona realized as a vow (ex voto), dedicated to Filippo Neri, the other saint to whom he was devoted, we feel the same enveloping sensation of serenity which we feel when entering the church which he created. The dramatic force of the hooks which the saint holds in her left hand, symbol of her martyrdom, gives way to the splendour of the lily which occupies the centre of the canvas. This is because the image relates more to how Martina lived in the world than how she left the world.

On January 30th, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was fatally shot. Seventeen centuries separate the violent death of the young Christian girl from that of the modern apostle of non-violence. The world has improved, but not enough. And so on the day dedicated to Martina, at the end of the month that opens the door to the new year, perhaps the best way to remember her is to repeat the words of St. Augustine: "Hope has two beautiful children: indignation and courage; the first when up against how things are going, the second, to change them. "

Francesca Romana de 'Angelis was born in Rome where she lives and works. After graduating in literature she taught at a classical high school. A scholar of fifthteenth century Italian literature she has published essays and editions of texts. For many years she has collaborated on cultural programmes and written scripts for RAI television. Her works include La divina Isabella (Sansoni, 1991), Solo per vedere il mare (Edizioni Studium, 2005, Massarosa Award ), Storie del Premio Viareggio Prize together with Gabriella Sobrino (Pagliai Editore, 2008), Con amorosa voce (Polistampa, 2008 ).




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 22, 2020