ON WE GO! : The use of Processional Banners in the Church
On we go to Jerusalem, the city of the house of God. Pilgrim people we seek the Lord, the Lord of the house of rock!
As the entrance hymn echoes the air, the processional cross bearer, the thurifier, the altar servers, the ministers of the Word, the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the co – celebrants and the main celebrant march forth onto the altar at every high Mass. Symbolically this serves to remind us that the Church (read people) is a pilgrim Church on a journey to an eternal destination, here symbolized by the altar.
Processions as such are not just restricted to the Eucharist but form an integral part of the Catholic faith and liturgy. The origins of this expression of faith can be traced to Pope Liberius (352 – 366 AD) who encouraged this form of community manifestations in Rome. In Mumbai (then Bombay) these walks of faith earned Bandra the appellation of ‘the land of processions.’ This was magnificently witnessed during the first Diocesan Eucharistic Congress in 1912 wherein more than 20,000 people treaded the streets of Bandra. (Ref: Fernandes, Braz, Bandra, Its religious and secular History, 1927)
Popular till the 1900’s and dubbed ‘ladainhas’ (litanies), processions were organized to mark any and every special event. This included liturgical feast like Corpus Christi, Candelmas, Thanksgiving Sunday, Palm Sunday, 40 hours Eucharistic devotion, Passo services, Parish feast days etc. They were also organized for certain purposes such as to intercede for rain, to drive away storms, pestilence, famine, wars etc. Many occupational guilds and confraternities, sodalities, leagues, societies, religious orders, educational institutes also organized processions on the feast day of their patron saint.
An important apparatus of any procession was undoubtedly a banner. It acted as the insignia or emblem of the concerned group. It often carried an embroidered or painted image of the patron saint. Today’s artefact in consideration is one such processional banner from the collection of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon.
Gonfalon in shape, it depicts the captivating image of St Francis Xavier at its centre. Carved in wood and dyed with polychrome, the face of the saint is surrounded by an exquisite braided zari halo. His right hand emerges through the brown appliqué holding his beacon, a wooden cross. Fluted white silk is sewn to the surface to create a unique appearance of an alb and a stole.
Impressive rinceaux patterns embellished with foliage, lilies, rosettes, wheat sheaves and grape vines in silver zari augments the ornamentation. In Christian art, the Lilies symbolize purity; the rosettes, martyrdom and faith and the wheat and grapes the Body and Blood of Christ. The central reserve on the reverse bears an ostentatious sunburst monstrance. The monogram IHS, signifying the Holy Name of Jesus, highlights its center. Hailed in procession on December 3 by the tailoring fraternity of St Francis Xavier, Dabul, this banner declares the devotion of the guild towards the Apostle of India and the Church.
In conclusion, processions formed a part of the ecclesiastical public manifestations of the pilgrim Church. The clergy and laity walked in communion for the love of their religion and their faith. They professed God as ‘a part’ of their lives and not ‘apart’ from them. Thus they loved and lived their creed!
Asst. Director – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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