The Oratory of St. Croce, known also as St. Sebastian, was erected in the middle of the 12th century. It is inconspicuously tucked into a narrow artery with other medieval buildings just off Mercatello's main street, past the statue of St. Veronica, Capuchin nun, mystic, and icon of the town's rich spiritual life. Mercatello lies snug in the Metauro Valley, one of the prettiest valleys in Italy.
The Society of the Holy Cross, headquartered in Mercatello, built the Oratory to promote their beliefs and to provide shelter to a very interesting artifact. You see, sometime in the 11th century a local physician, Giuseppe Olembrelli, had come into possession of a 185 cm high "statue" of Jesus Christ, a simulacrum with fully articulated joints covered with a polychromatic leather skin. It moves like any of us moves. The leather is, to this day, flexible enough at the joints to make this movement look entirely natural.
We don't know exactly where it came from, but Northern Europe is the best guess they tell me, some citing Germany as its likely place of origin.
Olembrelli donated the simulacrum to the brotherhood of the Holy Cross, and it began to be used in miracle plays staged during holy week.
For 364 days a year the simulacrum is hidden away in a covered glass case below Giorgio Picchi's 1595 painting The Miracle of the True Cross. The town's web site is none too enamored with Picchi's artistic abilities, calling the painting, "an exemplary testimony of the artist's taste for overcrowded compositions."
Then, on the night of Maundy Thursday the simulacrum is removed from hiding and taken to the Collegiate Church in the main square of town, where it is nailed to a cross in the presbytery and flanked by two other statues, these made of wood: Our Lady of Sorrows, she with a single sword buried in her left shoulder, and St. John the Apostle. The simulcrum is hidden from view with a cloth until the next day.
On the evening of Good Friday the church is packed with townspeople, important looking men in robes and capes of various colors, children clutching candles; everyone seems involved in the mass--confraternities, the citizens' band, the Franciscan order, clergymen, youths bearing the “mysteries” and a large number of devotees squeeze into every available space and watching attentively. When mass is over, Christ is wrapped in a shroud and laid in a coffin under a black canopy--and thus will form the head of a procession back to the Oratory of the Holy Cross, where the band will play and people will line up to get a last view of the statue, many gently touching the steamy glass surface behind which the simulacrum rests.
After they've left, the dead Christ will be returned to the urn which is then hidden by another Picchi painting bearing the reproduction of the simulacrum.
This unique Good Friday tradition is a meaningful religious experience for the community of Mercatello. We thank them for allowing us to be a part of it and inviting us to document the experience. For a virtual tour of the process, see the pictures below.
There is one other known statue called the Burgos Christ, the 14th century "master of Burgos", well known to the pilgrims on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. For a picture and interesting read about it, see: Macabre Simulacrum: the Burgos Christ.
For a concise travel guide, see: Mercatello sul Metauro Travel Guide and Visitor Information.
On good Friday you eat fish, of course, and we did, plus we got a bit of a preview of the spectacular breakfast bread they serve in the Metauro valley on Easter morning: Torta Brusca: the Easter Bread of Le Marche.