Shrouded in mystery: La Sindone

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the strangest day in the Christian calendar. Its description as the ‘day when we cannot see’ which I heard on my first visit to the Taizé Community 25 Easters ago still resonates with me; whereas consideration of Good Friday, for all its uniqueness, remains anchored in history, Holy Saturday is a complete blank, a ‘time out of time’. Faced by the silence of the tomb of the Son of God, the refusal of the Gospels to speak at this point is surely more eloquent than words. And yet to hurry through this day in our eagerness to reach Easter Sunday would be overly hasty. Of all times in the course of the Triduum Paschale, Holy Saturday is the one that perhaps most closely mirrors our present human experience, poised somewhat uneasily between Cross and Resurrection.

The mystery of this unsettling moment between Christ’s burial and the Easter Vigil finds itself reflected in the paucity of musical treatments of this profoundly silent hiatus. One piece that does however come to mind for this day is Arvo Pärt’s extraordinary orchestral evocation of the Turin Shroud entitled La Sindone, composed for the celebrations connected with the Turin Winter Olympics of February 2006 (and subsequently recorded in a revised version on the In Principio CD (ECM New Series 2050)). One of Pärt’s most grippingly intense scores, the work begins with a huge sonorous outpouring of pain evoking the Crucifixion, with a gradual and inexorable descent of massive string chords in something akin to a musical Pietà. This gives way to an extended and startlingly original section in which the orchestra, as if numb with grief, stammers broken snatches of melody, interspersed with distant drumbeats and tense silences. What opens us here is an almost cosmic sense of staring into ‘a deep and dazzling darkness’, to quote Henry Vaughan’s celebrated phrase (conveyed by the orchestral space between the highest register of the violins and the lowest notes of the double basses and cinematic washes of tuned percussion). The music slowly coalesces into a fabric of interweaving lines of a sombre, elegaic grandeur before fading into the blackness. Then with a powerful timpani roll and sudden orchestral upthrust the Resurrection breaks through with eruptive force, with a searing ascending trumpet line that seems endowed with an eschatological intensity, reminiscent of Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg’s famous statement that ‘if Jesus has been raised, then the end of the world has begun'[1]. And yet the work does not conclude triumphantly, but rather with a hushed and mysterious E minor-major chord that seems to epitomize the ambiguity of Holy Saturday.

Turin Cathedral

Although Pärt visited Turin Cathedral in 2005 prior to the composition of the work, he did not himself see the Shroud. What impressed him was rather the quality of the silence in the edifice:

‘I made a tabula rasa within myself […] I heard a silence so absolute that it was deafening, as if there was a ‘rumble’ of eternity in the background. If we stop and multiply this silence by a hundred we would still be far from the silence in which the chapel of the Shroud is immersed. I watched and learned from the faces of the people around me absorbed in prayer. And I asked myself: how can I put into music this “inner” silence, a silence which can inspire prayer? Thus La Sindone was born.'[2]

Describing his work on the piece as a ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ from the starting-point of his own human poverty, Pärt affirmed in a press conference his belief that the Shroud genuinely bears the imprint of the face of Christ; however, when asked whether he wished to see it during his lifetime, he replied with an enigmatic smile ‘I would like to, maybe in the future […] but perhaps it will not be necessary.’[3] His point is surely well-made; La Sindone is all about spiritual vision, which is why its impact is not dependent on what one may or may not think about the historical authenticity of the controversial cloth in Turin Cathedral. It is rather a meditation on the mystery of the incarnation, the human visage of God, the pain of our world which calls us to bow our hearts in silence, and the miracle of Resurrection in the indestructible power of the Spirit. I find myself reminded of some words I read recently by the brilliant American Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in his reflections in the wake of the Indonesian tsunami in December 2004 entitled The Doors of the Sea; in the face of the seemingly impenetrable mystery of evil and suffering, we can only find an answer in the promise offered by the shroud found in the empty tomb (whether it eventually made its way to Northern Italy or not):

‘there is in all the things of the earth a hidden glory waiting to be revealed, more radiant than a million suns, more beautiful than the most generous imagination or most ardent desire can now conceive.'[4]

_____________________________________

NOTES

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology: Volume 1. trans. George H. Kehm (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), 67.

[2] “Ho fatto tabula rasa dentro me stesso […]  Ho ascoltato un silenzio talmente assoluto che era assordante, come se di sottofondo ci fosse ‘un rumore’ di eternità. Se noi in questo momento tacessimo e moltiplicassimo per 100 volte questo silenzio saremmo ancora lontani dal silenzio in cui si è immersi nella cappella della Sindone. Guardavo e imparavo dai volti della gente intorno a me raccolta in preghiera. E mi chiedevo: come posso mettere in musica questo silenzio ‘interiore’, un silenzio che può ispirare la preghiera? Così è nata “La Sindone”. Quoted in Mario Lomunno, ‘La “Sindone” di Arvo Pärt, la musica nasce dal silenzio’, La Voce del Popolo, April 26, 2009, re-printed on-line at http://www4.diocesi.torino.it/diario/20090423/arvo_part.htm . Translation mine. La Sindone was originally entitled La tela traslata (‘The transferred cloth’), a reference to the Shroud’s supposed journey from Jerusalem to Italy via Aleppo, Constantinople, Cyprus and Paris among other places, arriving in Turin in 1578. 

[3] ‘Alla gentile signora preoccupata di sapere se chiederà al cardinale Poletto di poter vedere la Sindone dal vivo, risponde con l’accenno di un sorriso enigmatico. «Mi piacerebbe, magari in futuro; non questa volta, visto che domani sono già di partenza». Poi, dopo una pausa di lunghi istanti, aggiunge: «Ma forse non sarà necessario», e ti fa percepire che lui alla Sindone si è già avvicinato con l’anima‘ (Giorgio Gervasioni, ‘Musica di Arvo Pärt dedicata alla Sindone’ in Il nostro tempo, February 26, 2006, available on-line at http://www.ilnostrotempo.it/archiviopdf/2006/tempo_08/ILNTEMPO008G1K_010.pdf ). Translation mine.

[4] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 102.

Pictures from the first performance of La Sindone can be seen at http://www.comune.torino.it/scatTO/archivio/2006/febbraio06/20060215.shtml

 

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