Visiting Loreto Aprutino’s ‘Festa di San Zopito’, held on Pentecost Sunday got me more interested in the stories behind the monumental, 13-tonne white ox with his carefully trimmed and polished hooves, multi-coloured ribbons and bells looped high over its head as he was led around the streets by an Abruzzese bagpiper, a Zampognari.
For those not up-to-date with the Christian calendar (like me!), Pentecost was taken from the Jewish harvest festival celebration, Shavout, when 50 days after Passover the law was received on Mount Sinai, a week of refrain and a day of non-work.
The Romans fashioned this into the Church’s birthday, Pentecost; instead of law, a time when the Holy Spirit descended and entered into the apostles on Whitsun or in Italian Pasqua rosatum, named after the priest’s red vestments, a colour symbolic of the Holy Spirit, those who receive their first Holy Communion on this favourable day wearing white.
After reading About Abruzzo’s post about the event, there was a v short comment referring to the Romans. It seems they loosely wrapped up two of their April festivals into this new feria (non-workday), the celebration of Ceres, Cerealiais’ who was, Jupiter’s wife, and goddess of fertility and whose followers wore white. The Romans believed that it was Ceres who taught man to plough and sow, unusual because it was juxtaposed with the people’s favoured offering, the white ox, to her husband, Jupiter.
Ovid, Fasti, Book IV: April 12: The Games of Ceres
“Ceres delights in peace: pray, you farmers,
Pray for endless peace and a peace-loving leader.
Honour the goddess with wheat, and dancing salt grains,
And grains of incense offered on the ancient hearths,
And if there’s no incense, burn your resinous torches:
Ceres is pleased with little, if it’s pure in kind.
You girded attendants lift those knives from the ox:
Let the ox plough, while you sacrifice the lazy sow,
It’s not fitting for an axe to strike a neck that’s yoked:
Let the ox live, and toil through the stubborn soil.”
Floralia was the 6-day lascivious celebration, part of which became May Day, banned by the Pilgrim Fathers, and celebrating Spring’s baroque blossoms, it was a time to wear nothing(!) or highly colourful clothes red, green, yellow and floral wreaths. A descendent of the flower offering remains in the traditional red flowers left at Church on Pentecost to signify the renewal of life, remembering family and friends no longer here and of course the warmth of the summer and blessed crops.
Ovid, Fasti (V.185-190)
“You start in April and cross to the time of May
One has you as it leaves, one as it comes
Since the edges of these months are yours and defer
To you, either of them suits your praises.
The Circus continues and the theatre’s lauded palm,
Let this song, too, join the Circus spectacle.”
San Zapito was a child martyr interned in Rome’s San Callisto catacombs in 300 AD
Relics were brought in an ornate box to Loreto in 1711, an arm and the skull donated by Pope Clement XI. They passed a farmer, Carlo Parlione who complained that he had to toil granite fields on Pentecost, asking where the damn justice was in that. Apparently, the convoy shrunk back from such double blasphemy, but at that very moment, the farmer’s oxen walked toward the entourage ignoring the farmer‘s calls and knelt as if he wanted to pray. “A miracle”, they joyously proclaimed and the farmer repented, returning home to observe the Pentecost.
The Festa di San Zopito is now a colourful 2-day festival celebrating this oxen moment. The trained ox, nicknamed the ‘White Knight’ wears a scarlet cloak with images of the Saints, and relics, kneels and gives praise in specific areas of the town as he is a tramite (vehicle of the divine). A local primary schoolgirl stands on its back representing San Zopito, with floral wreath, silver wings, a red carnation (representing the Holy Spirit and harvest) in her mouth and carrying an umbrella to protect from evil & disgrace. They are accompanied by a Processione dei Cavalli, with riders dressed in traditional costume and horses in stunning rustic dressage, bedecked with garlands, bows and pom-poms. They traditionally received a blessing to counter bandits and such as they delivered the area’s precious golden triangle’s olive oil and wines.
The ox is taken to 2 churches and onto Palazzo Valentini, a famous local winery who offers wines and taralluci biscuits to those that follow the procession. On Monday the bue (ox) makes another procession, this time to meet the silver statue of the Saint. It’s really worth a visit, particularly if you have children as the combined colour, music and of course animals are a dream morning out for the under 10s, it’s not bad either for adults especially if you’re a photographer.
Arrive early; it is like Abruzzo’s snake festival Cocullo, extremely popular, so best get there for 10 and then have a leisurely patisserie-led brunch in one of the many cafes on Loreto Aprutino‘s main drag, before you walk up to the historic centre and procession. If you fancy a Pentecostal picnic there are plenty of porchetta vans ready to oblige for your lunch!