Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I am sure you don't need telling that on the 14th of August the Catholic Church remembers the "eight hundred martyrs of Otranto". Just in case you do need reminding, their story is told here.

Very briefly, Mohammed II, who had taken Constantinople in 1453, decided in 1480 that it was about time he realised his greatest ambition: to take Italy and turn St Peters into a stable for his horses.

A fleet of 90 galleys, 15 galleasses, and 48 galliots [no, I don't know what they are, either], with 18,000 soldiers on board set sail for Brindisi, but adverse winds forced them ashore near Otranto, which they then set out to conquer. The small garrison of the town fled, but the inhabitants fought on, holding out for 2 weeks before the walls were breached and the cathedral taken.

Pasha Ahmed had the surviving men counted; the total came to 800. He offered them conversion or death. They said they were "ready to die a thousand times for [Christ]". They were all beheaded.

Strategically, their resistence proved fatal for the Ottomans' ambitions. The Neapolitans had time to put together an army and, a year later, reconquer Otranto and send the Ottomans packing.

Symbolically, the 800 were ignored until John Paul II initiated beatification. His homily in the 11th Century cathedral there included this paragraph.

[T]he blessed martyrs of Otranto have left us two essential gifts: love for one’s earthly homeland and the authenticity of the Christian faith. The Christian loves his earthly homeland. Love of country is a Christian virtue.
Unsurprising from a Pole, maybe, but a strong indication, nonetheless, that the tension between one's native land and one's international religion is permanent and not to be resolved definitively one way of the other.

The sainthood of the 800 was confirmed by Pope Benedict on July 6, 2007.

[To find out why, in the painting, the headless man is still standing, you'll have to read the whole story.]

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