LIGNANO. Together with the rows of vines, the rows of mulberry trees and the expanse of cultivated fields as far as the eye can see, the rural churches make the landscape of the Friuli plain a book that better than others can tell the stories, life and art of a whole territory.
Witnesses of a time marked by the rhythms of work and faith, these churches tell of men and saints, of facts and popular legends; they are places where history has passed and continues to pass, “small and large”.
The sand nativity scene of Lignano, this year dedicated to the first diffusion of Christianity in Aquileia, wanted to focus on one of these stories: it is a very particular story that comes from very distant times and places.
Almost at the end of the crib itinerary, a splendid sculpture depicts, transfiguring it, the altarpiece of Sante Sabide (Santa Sabata) immersed in the rural landscape of Fraforeano di Ronchis.
The sand nativity scene is back in Lignano: more technological and dedicated to the mosaics of Aquileia
A mysterious female presence, interpenetrated in the arboreal vegetation, can be glimpsed next to the small chapel, suggesting the strong feeling of nostalgia that leads her back to this place: it is the presence of Sante Sabide hovering near her ancient home; a home she was driven from and one she wishes she could return to.
Anyone looking for Santa Sabata (Sante Sabide) among the saints whose cult is admitted by the Catholic Church would have no luck: this saint, in fact, does not exist. Yet in Friuli there are about twenty churches, altarpieces, votive chapels which according to tradition and popular memory have been dedicated to her over the centuries, all scattered along dirt country lanes, close to crossroads and crossroads, near spring water, fords or ditches.
There are still others in Istria and Slovenia, located in a strip of land that borders Friuli from the east and which traces an area where once the influence of the ancient Church of Aquileia was exerted.
Almost all the chapels once dedicated to Sante Sabide show traces of repeated alterations carried out on older structures; many overlapping and insistent building phases that allow us to glimpse both the use of setting up new religious buildings on top of previous sacred places and a precise desire to modify / correct / cancel the structure of the pre-existing structures.
From the sand crib to the New Year’s Eve, Lignano prepares for the holidays: the hotels are already sold out
The question did not escape the attention of Monsignor Guglielmo Biasutti, a highly cultured and refined scholar, animated by an inexhaustible curiosity and extraordinary methodological openness: the 19th edition is ideally dedicated to his memory – and to those of Don Gilberto Pressacco and Renato Iacumin of the Sand Crib of Lignano.
From the sand crib to the New Year’s Eve, Lignano prepares for the holidays with sold out hotels
Starting in the mid-fifties, Biasutti restarted the debate on the problem of pre-Constantinian Christianity in Aquileia and was the first to intuit the need to go beyond the usual research parameters – at the time based on the “positivist” positions of Pio Paschini – scientifically incontrovertible, but in the long run too limited and limiting. Biasutti became convinced that all the most ancient testimonies, both literary and material, should be interrogated with greater rigour, and at the same time with greater openness, which, almost like residual traces, seemed to be not aligned or in dissonance with the doctrinal arrangement achieved over the centuries from the “Great Church” of Aquileia.
The research undertaken ended up leading him to Alexandria in Egypt in the early Christian times (the economic importance of the bustling port of Aquileia was well known and the close economic and cultural ties between the two cities were already known) and from here he took I make haste with the analysis of issues such as the possible privileged relationship between the two metropolitan churches and the probable Judeo-Christian and Alexandrian matrix of early Aquileian Christianity, which was glimpsed in filigree in some stratifications deposited in the three peculiar theological variants of its Symbol of faith and in some folk customs, customs and traditions.
In particular, through a careful examination of the archives and documents, Biasutti highlighted how the rustics of the Aquileia area had observed the Sabbath rest for centuries, abstaining from agricultural activities and working, instead, on Sundays, while in the city and in the major centers the Sunday observance. In Canon XIII of the Provincial Council of Cividale in 796, Patriarch Paulinus of Aquileia wrote as follows: «The Jews celebrate the day of the Sabbath, which is the last day of the week, and our peasants also observe it».
From the municipal statutes it appears that there were places where the peasants had to abstain from servile work throughout the day on Saturday and other places where this obligation only began with the sound of the midday bells. The ecclesiastical authorities, in an increasingly harsh manner starting from the period of the Inquisition, forbade the rustics from observing the Sabbath; however, they found a way to keep it anyway, transforming it into the veneration of a non-existent saint, Sante Sabide, to whom they paid a very heartfelt and warm cult, scattering the countryside with altarpieces and small chapels dedicated to her.
And it is no coincidence that she is a female saint: Saturday, in the Friulian language, they say la sabide, a feminine noun. The numerous dedicationes to Sante Sabide for Biasutti would therefore be both the personalization and the cultic sanctification of the Sabbath day; some of these original dedicationes, after the interventions of the ecclesiastical authorities, were then transferred/translated into other tituli (Santa Sabina, Santa Maria in Sabato) or replaced with the cult of the Virgin; the alterations and building renovations, the detachment of the original frescoes, or the superimposition of new images on them are the admirable testimony of the damnatio memoriae to which Sante Sabide was condemned.
Damnatio memoriae which, however, did not have immediate effects. Until the Napoleonic era, in fact, the ringing of the bells at noon on Saturdays continued to notify the peasants of the cessation of agricultural work; Biasutti writes that in every ancient villa that was part of a municipality, among the lower officials who supervised the road system, the woods or the fires, there were also the sabatari, in charge of scouring the countryside and fining those who were still found at work Saturday after noon.
The fine was eight money and it is very probable that the sabbatarians were very zealous and fussy in their checks, since the money collected was often used for collective banquets. Until a few decades ago it was not uncommon to come across elderly ladies whose names went Sabata or Sabatina (in Friulian Sabide with its diminutives Sabidute, Sabidine) and even today in Friuli the surnames Sabbadini, De Sabata, Sabbidussi, Sabidutti, Sabot.
The rest on Saturday and the cult reserved for the non-existent Sante Sabide according to Biasutti bear clear traces of a very precocious original Christianity, connoted in a markedly “Judaizing” sense; the legend that made San Marco the evangelizer of Aquileia and its territory would therefore preserve a nucleus of historicity. Marco was the favorite spiritual son of St. Peter and he had been the evangelizer of those Jews who, despite converting to Christianity, did not intend to abandon the customs of the Fathers of Israel and above all, the strict observance of the shabbāt. But Mark was, above all, the first Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt.
Biasutti, therefore, hypothesized a remote antiquity of the links between the churches of Alexandria and Aquileia and, consequently, proposed the thesis of an early Christianization, of Judeo-Christian and Alexandrian matrix, of some groups that then became active in the upper Adriatic city. Trajan’s ferocious repression of the Jewish rebels of the Diaspora which led, in 115, to the almost total destruction of the Jewish community of Alexandria and the disastrous outcome of the Jewish wars may have caused a wave of refugees heading towards the Italian peninsula. Considering that Alexandrian Christianity was born in the bosom of the Jewish community, it is entirely plausible that the Roman repression involved both Jews and Christian Jews who could have reached the territories of Aquileia, a large city where it is probable that there was a sizeable Jewish community that could having created a support network by protecting refugees not in cities, but extra muros, in the countryside. And here the ancient Jewish customs, or rather, their traces would have endured for a long time.
Biasutti writes: «Aquileia was destroyed but the “Sante Sabide” survived it, fascinating paleo-Christian testimonies not only of antiquity, but also of the quality of primitive Aquileian Christianity and miraculous relics of a more than millenary Friulian religious custom».
The Sand Crib in Lignano can be visited at the beach office n°6 until 5 February. Info: presepelignano.it; facebook: Dome Aghe and Savalon d’Aur; presepelignano . —