Corpus Christi is the name of a Catholic festival, which takes place on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (which is the Sunday after Pentecost which is the Sunday 50 days after Easter). It was first established by the Council of Vienna in 1311 to promote the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the host consecrated in the Mass actually becomes the Body of Christ). It was really promoted during the Reformation as a demonstration of Catholic solidarity.
I still remember celebrations of Corpus Christi from my Catholic childhood. It was an opportunity for pomp and pageantry. There is usually a procession during which the priest displays the host in a monstrance, a golden vessel which is shaped like a sunburst. I often consider, since this festival falls so close to summer solstice, that the two holidays share a common underlying symbolism.
In France, this holiday is called Fete Dieu or the Feast of God. The priest wears red and gold lavishly embroidered garments. The monstrance is a golden vessel shaped like the sun. It is usually shielded by a canopy of silk and cloth of gold. Streets are scattered with flower petals and householders decorate their homes, often by pasting flower petals on a sheet and hanging them up.
Small altars are created along the roads. In France, they’re called reposoirs and are built at crossroads. They are decorated with flowers, garlands and greens and covered with canopies of interwoven boughs. The priest goes around and blesses them.
Corpus Christi is also a time for plays and pageants (although these were originally associated with Whitsunday). Fantastically dressed performers accompanied the processions and acted out scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints at stops along the way. In medieval times, each guild sponsored a scene in a grand play showing the whole scheme of Salvation. Some of the dramas were so long they could not be performed in their entirety: the Coventry cycle took two years.
Carol Field describes the way Corpus Christi is celebrated in Spello, Italy, where people transform the main street into a carpet of color using flower petals (infiorate). Collecting the flowers takes as long as two weeks. The oldest women are given the job of taking the flowers apart, petal by petal, and separating them by the subtle differences of hue. Pine needles, ivy leaves, camomile and fennel are ground up to make green. Poppies are used for red, broom for yellow and white from daisies. The designs are complicated, and often reproduce famous paintings, usually religious ones. The priest when he emerges from the cathedral holding up the Host walks down the length of flower carpet, and the petals scatter to the breezes. It is a display of beauty and richness that is as ephemeral as it is extravagant.
Julie Ardery of Human Flower Project wrote a column about the flower carpets of another Italian town, Genzano.
In keeping with the theme, my friend, Joanna Powell Colbert, recommended the spiritual and creative practice of making a flower mandala in her recent newsletter and illustrated it with this lovely example.
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, Morrow 1990
Painting of Corpus Christi procession by Carl Emil Doepler (found at Wikipedia’s article on Corpus Christi)
The photo of flowers at Spello comes from the French version of Wikipedia