Review of a Medieval Procession

Pict. 1- Gentile Bellini- Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco in Venice, 1496, tempera on canvas, collection of the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.


Author: Jovana Pikulić


A medieval procession looked just like you probably imagine it: a long queue with no end in sight, abounding in most bizarre and quite ghastly scenes: hooded black figures screaming about the end of the world, bare-chested mad-eyed people flagellating themselves to the bone, the sick trudging with their last ounces of strength toward the goal – the main city cathedral. Today’s processions are no less chaotic and horrendous, albeit not as bloody (though, due to the overall crowdedness and chaos, accidental injuries or sometimes even death still occur today). For you to get an impression of a procession’s epic dimensions it would suffice to have a look (online, although it is questionable in which form the upcoming edition will take place) at the biggest procession in this part of the world – the Festival of Saint Agatha (Festa di Sant’ Agata) celebrated on the 5th of February, in the Sicilian city of Catania.

Here we shall illustrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) in the late medieval Ferrara. Historical sources from the 15th century depict this religious procession as one of the most prominent city feasts. The description of the procession, as we find it in Ferrara’s chronicles, illustrates it as a unique exemplar of  the late medieval society. It represents some sort of collective liturgy, typical of the late Middle Ages, in which the faithful become responsible for the rite by taking active participation in it. As a result, the common folk’s interpretations of the events from Christian history became more and more dramatic, turning the procession into some sort of religious theatre. Procession had its political and social character given that the solemnity bringing together one whole nation – that is, all social classes – was considered an opportunity for asserting one’s own prominence and role within a society. Furthermore, it also mirrored the society, since the positions the participants took in the procession reflected their actual social statuses.

Historical sources depict the solemnity in its most developed and magnificent form – the one where the city rulers lead the procession and navigate its route. The first among many ensuing copious chroniclers’ records dates back to 1472 and portrays the ceremony held as a part of the great festivities organized in observance of the first anniversary of Ercole I D’Este’s dukedom.


Sl. 2- Aliprando Caprioli, Ercole I, 1596-1606, etching, collection of the Biblioteca Comunale di Trento.


A chronicler wrote that “[…]there was a great solemn procession, as it always is on the day of the Body of Christ  in Ferrara[…]“, and that on that occasion „[…] all workshops were closed and lessons dismissed (at the University), as if it had been Sunday[…]“ (PARDI 1928: 81).

The central place, at the head of the procession, was reserved for a baldachin beneath which there was a monstrance with the sacramental bread.  It was carried by church bishops and male members of the family d’Este, dressed in gold robes (PARDI 1928: 81). They were immediately followed by their wives and children, knights, court advisors, ambassadors, University rectors and other prominent courtiers (FERRARINI 2006: 44). Behind the courtiers there followed representatives from the church ranks and monastic communities, preceding the members of religious organisations, and finally plebs at the very back of the line. The procession’s route was carefully planned: it encircled the antique core of the city including all noteworthy religious centres where the city relics were kept, as well as religious charity centres. The walk would end with laying the Host in the main city square where a bishop was granting forgiveness of sins to the people (CALEFFINI 2006: 248-249) which is precisely what attracted so many of them, on the other hand being the “apple of discord” among the church ranks, whose long-term consequence would eventually be the Reformation.

The order of participants in the procession, placing the representatives of the family D’Este at the head of the line and shoulder to shoulder with most prominent individuals from the community’s religious life, points to the family’s social status, and positions the duke as the leader and people’s representative before God.

The model of a religious leader is embodied in the visual culture of the period. One of the most representative examples is Mourning over Christ by the sculptor Guido Mazzoni.


Pict. 3. Guido Mazzoni, Mourning over Christ, The Church of the Gesù of Ferrara  (El Gesù), 1483-1485 ca., terracotta, photo by Sailko (Wikimedia Commons).


The artwork shows a group of life-sized sculptures made in terracotta. What differentiates this presentation from other similar groups created in the same period is the fact that the figures representing Christ’s most intimate followers closely resemble the members of the family d’Este. The visages of Ercole and his spouse Eleonora of Aragon (Eleonora di Aragone) served as models for Joseph of Arimathea and Mary of Clopas (COLASANTI 1922: 461).


Pict. 4. Guido Mazzoni, Mourning over Christ, portraits of Eleonore Aragon and Ercole D’ Este, photo by Sailko (Wikimedia Commons).


Noble leaders under the baldachin were followed by the parade of masked characters, which towards the rear, took on an increasingly dramatic appearance. First to follow the noblemen and clergy were representatives from the Church ranks: Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians, who used the ceremony to deliver sermons and promote the characters and scenes from the Church history and the history of their ranks. For the purpose of a heightened dramatic effect they would use various props, primarily masks and dolls. Particularly interesting for the chroniclers was the procession from 1489 when Franciscans marked their participation by presenting „[…] all saints who originated from their religion, along with the pontiffs from their rank and also one emperor[…]” (CALEFFINI 2006: 324).  Among the presented personalities, the central place was given to the order’s founder – St Francis, that is the Franciscan who was impersonating him. He would carry a presentation of the Christ tied with white ribbons. The presentation of the Christ leaning over St Francis alludes to his vision which marked him with stigmas – his intimate union with the body of Christ.  

The church ranks were followed by the members of confraternities. Confraternities were lay religious associations made up of craftsmen, merchants and small landowners. Albeit non-clerical, they were established in line with the Franciscan model, and therefore immensely used painted presentations and different props so as to promote their own program and history. In this part of the parade, all moderation was lost. Procession was one of a few events where self-flagellation was allowed. Self-flagellation was done in silence or accompanied with pious chanting of psalms or sermons, and it represented the culmination of public repentance and identification with Christ Imitation of Christ – which was the main objective of the confraternities. 

Inventories and registers of the confraternities abound in expenses for masks, beards, wigs and other aids used to create dramatic spectacles at the procession of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Members of the confraternity Battuti Neri – whose very name (ita. battere- to hit, neri- black) alludes to the act of flagellation and their black robes– would often bring a horse ridden by Death, who was handing out pamphlets to the processors with rather optimistic messages such as Memento mori (“remember that you [have to] die“)…

The inventory of the confraternity of St John tells us that they owned: fifteen different types of beards, four pairs of angel’s wings, a devil’s mask, ten saws for St James the Mutilated (whose martyrdom included amputation of his body parts), one lily for St. Dominic, one Crucifixion for St. Catherine of Siena, twelve abbreviations of the apostles’ names and other props (PEVERADA 2003: 174).

Inextricable part of the procession were the confraternities’ embellished wagons (in the testimonies referred to as charobio,carobio, carrobio), painted crosses and paid professional singers. Motifs on the carriage were as optimistic as the pamphlets and they included, among others, presentations of the Dance of Death (PEVERADA 2000 : 207-208).


Pic. 5. – Michael Wolgemut, Danse macabre, 1493, woodcut.



The Dance of Death is a late medieval allegory that alludes to death’s universality. This motif points to one of the main activities of the confraternities: burying the Christians who could not afford a funeral and prayers for their soul.

After the 15th century, the city chronicles no longer wrote detailed descriptions of processions. The only one record dates from 1613 and it was made because two of the spectators were murdered.  The scarceness of sources corresponds to the weakening of D’Este’s influence, whose feudatory was in 1597 returned to the Vatican that eventually subordinated all religious presentations and ceremonies to the rigorous norm of the Council of Trident. The solemnity continued to live, but lost all its significance and magnificence by becoming just one out of many celebrations in the Church calendar.


Literature used

Published sources:

 Caleffini,Ugo, Chroniche 1471-1494, Franco Cazzola (ed.), Deputazione provinciale ferrarese di storia patria, Ferrara, 2006

Ferrarini, Girolamo, Memoriale Estense (1476-1489), Primo Griguolo (ed.), Minelliana, Rovigo, 2006

(Pardi 1928) = Pardi, Giuseppe (ed.) , Diario ferrarese dall’anno 1409 sino al 1502, Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 1, Zanichelli, Bologna, 1928

Electronic sources

Colasanti, Arduino , “Ritratti de principi estensi in un gruppo di Guido Mazzoni”, Bolletino d’Arte, 1, no. 11 (April 1922), 458-74.


(Peverada 2000 ) = Peverada, Enrico, Feste, musica e devozione presso la compagnia della Morte ed Orazione. Antologia dai registri contabili (1486-1599),  L’Oratorio dell’Annunziata di Ferrara. Arte, storia, devozione e restauri, M. Mazzei Traina (ed.), Ferrara 2000, 197-246.

(Peverada  2003) = Peverada, Enrico, “Tra carità, devozione e propaganda devota: la confraternita di S. Giobbe nel Cinquecento religioso ferrarese”, Santuari locali e religiosità popolare («Ravennatensia», XX), M. Tagliaferri (ed.), Imola 2003, 165- 97.

Saša Marčeta Foundation 

Bulevar Maršala Tolbuhina 38 Beograd

Artists, partners:



Sign up for the Newsletter Saša Marčeta Foundation to be always informed in advance about the activities, news, events, competitions, education and social gatherings.