Tapestries of the Papal Court for Holy Thursday

If you take a look at images or photographs of papal ceremonies from prior to the 1970's you will frequently see large tapestries forming a part of the liturgical or ceremonial setting (which, it should be noted, take place outside of the context of Mass; see the end of this article for a full ceremonial description). We will attempt to look at this topic more broadly at some point, but for today I wanted to focus on an exhibition that took place this past spring showing two tapestries that have historically been used in the context of the ceremonies of the papal court for Holy Thursday. 

The tapestries in question were used for more than 400 years every Holy Thursday during the ceremonial "mandatum" (or washing of the feet) that was performed by the pope.  The tapestry that is most symbolically linked to this event is that which is a replica of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper" -- a rarely displayed tapestry:

This particular tapestry is woven from gold and silver coloured silk which was made as a gift to Pope Clement VII by King Francis I of France on the occasion of the marriage of the King's son to the Pope's niece, Catherine de Medici.  The tapestry therefore dates to the early 1500's 

Around this same point of time, Pope Clement VII had also commissioned a new canopy and tapestry for the papal throne from the same workshop that had produced the Raphael tapestries destined for use in the Sistine Chapel, that of Pieter Van Aelst of Brussels. That tapestry features an allegorical depiction of the Prudence flanked on either side by Justice and Charity.  The lions, who hold papal standards, are no doubt representative of Clement himself and the Medici family from which he hailed -- for Clement VII was the son of Giuliano de Medici and nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent. 

The tapestry on display inclusive of its canopy

To gain a sense of how these tapestries were ceremonially used in the context of the pontiff's mandatum ceremonies, we need only look at this 19th century painting showing the ceremony taking place within one of the transepts of St. Peter's Basilica:

Prior to this the ceremony had taken place within the Apostolic Palace, as shown in this 18th century painting by Veraria Reale:

Here then are these same two tapestries shown as part of the exhibition, placed back into this interactive, ceremonial context:

As a point of note, following the washing of the feet there was then a banquet which saw the pontiff serve a meal to those whose feet were washed during the ceremony:

Interestingly, the papal ceremony of the washing of the feet saw enough interest that soon various cardinals and other secular princes saw fit to imitate the pope's example, performing their own. In rome, these took place in what is now the familiar parish church of the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) in Rome: Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini. 

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A Description of the Papal Mandatum Ceremony by Msgr. Baggs
"The Ceremonies of Holy Week at Rome" (1846)

After the benediction, the cardinals and others take off their sacred vestments, and resume their cappae, which they wear during the lavanda or washing of the feet. This now takes place in S. Peters, in a side-chapel adorned with two arazzi; one representing Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper is placed behind the benches prepared for the priests whose feet are to be washed by the Pope: and the other, which represents Providence seated on the globe between Justice and Charity, above two lions holding banners of the church, is placed over the throne. The Pope is habited in a red cope, and wears a mitre. Seated on His throne, and surrounded by cardinals, prelates, and other dignitaries of His court, He puts incense into the thurible, being assisted as usual by the first Cardinal priest. He then gives the blessing, usual before the gospel is sung, to the Cardinal-deacon habited in his sacred vestments, who sings that beautiful passage of the gospel of S. John, which explains the origin of this ceremony: "Jesus knowing that his hour was come, that he should pass out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. Knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands, he began to wash the feet of his disciples, and wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded, and he said to them; If I being Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one anther's feet; for I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also." At the end of the gospel, the Pope kisses the book, the Cardinal Deacon incenses Him as usual, and the choir begins to sing beautiful anthems allusive to the affecting ceremony, and recommending charity, the distinctive virtue of Christians, more precious than even faith and hope. The Pope's cope is then taken off, and a towel is fastened to his girdle by the assisting Card. deacons; and then, in imitation of his Divine Master, he washes and kisses the right foot of 13 priests, called the apostles, dressed in cappae of white cloth, and wearing high cap, which in form resemble those on the bas-reliefs of Persepolis: each of them receives from Him a towel, and a nosegay, besides a gold and silver medal presented by the Treasurer. The Pope then returns to his throne, washes his hands, is vested once more in the cope, and recites the Our Father and the concluding prayers. His Holiness afterwards waits on the 13 apostles at table, in a hall in the Vatican palace, (at present in the hall above the portico of S. Peter's), giving them water to wash their hands, helping them to soup, one or more dishes, and pouring out wine and water for them once or twice. The plates are handed to him by prelates of mantelletta, and during the ceremony one of His chaplains reads a spiritual book. He then gives them his blessing, washes his hands, and departs.
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