The Festa dei Gigli 2017. The towering festival structures outside Nola Cathedral.
The Festa dei Gigli – the Festival of Lilies – is held in this week every year to celebrate the city’s patron saint, St. Paulinus of Nola, whose feast day is today, 22nd June.
Who was St. Paulinus and what connection does he have with lilies? His full name was Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus and he was a Roman citizen. He was born in around the year 353 in Bordeaux into an influential senatorial family. His father was a prefect of Gaul who owned estates in France, Italy and Spain. Paulinus was thus able to receive a good education and his parents sent him to a teacher and poet who had been tutor to the emperor’s son, Ausonius.
Ausonius is one of those historical characters whose sexuality has often been subject to speculation. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it is said that he had a large collection of homosexual literature which shocked even the Romans by its explicit content. Secondly, Ausonius was famous for translating a Greek riddle which asked “how can three men engage in four sexual positions?” (I’ll let you work it out!).
Ausonius was of Greek ancestry and had spent some time at the court of the Greek Byzantine emperor. He was well aware of “Greek love”, the sexual activity between mentor and student which was common in ancient Greece (as illustrated on this blog in the numerous articles on sex between Greek athletes and soldiers). Paulinus became Ausonius’ student in the 360s. Ausonius found his pupil extremely intelligent and handsome.
Some of Paulinus’s later poems and letters indicate that a mutual love existed between the two, often expressed in physical terms, though whether this involved sexual activity cannot be proved. Even though the empire had been nominally Christian since 313 Paulinus had yet to adopt the Christian faith which throughout its first millennium celebrated same-sex attraction but demonised same-sex activity. Whatever their physical relationship Paulinus was Ausonius’s favourite pupil and they remained in touch right up to Ausonius’s death in around 394. The distinguished lgbt historian Dr. Rictor Norton is sure there was some relationship between them based on their letters. I tend to believe him.
Paulinus soon entered public office when, at the age of 24, he was appointed a suffect consul (a kind of substitute for the elected consul). This gave him senatorial rank. Within three years he was appointed Governor of Campania province in southern Italy. He reacquainted himself with Nola, a city he had visited as a child with his family who had estates near by. He had marvelled at the shrine of St. Felix of Nola and the devotion of its citizens. As governor Paulinus built a road for pilgrims to visit St. Felix’s shrine and built a hospice of the poor.
Paulinus relinquished his governorship at the age of about 30 to embark on a life of leisure. He married a Christian lady called Theresia and was himself baptised. Their only son died in infancy, and this was the cause which put Paulinus and Therasia on their road to a life of charity and austerity. They gave away many of their land and possessions.
To his surprise Paulinus was ordained in 394 and he and Theresia moved back to Nola. They “separated” in order for them both to pursue a near monastic life. After Theresia’s death Paulinus was consecrated Bishop of Nola in 409.
Now we come to the legend of the lilies. Medieval saints often had fabulous stories invented to link them with various patronages (as with St. George, St. Nicholas and St. Valentine, among others). Paulinus had several legends attached to him. One is that he introduced bells into churches. The legend of the lilies is another, and it goes as follows.
The Roman Empire was in decline and marauding forces were attacking southern Italy. Nola was attacked and Paulinus was able to lead all the children to safety in the mountains. All the men of Nola were captured and taken to north Africa as slaves. When the marauders had gone Paulinus returned to Nola with the children.
A widow’s only son and heir had been taken as a slave and she pleaded with Paulinus to get him back. Paulinus sailed across to Africa and tried to buy the widow’s son’s freedom. All his efforts were in vain. Eventually he offered himself in exchange for the man’s freedom. This offer was accepted and the widow was soon reunited with her son in Nola.
Paulinus gained the respect of his new owner his acceptance of his plight. Two years later Paulinus predicted some danger which threatened his master, and when the danger was revealed and avoided Paulinus was offered his freedom. He refused to accept unless all the men taken from Nola were freed as well. Surprisingly, this was agreed and all the men went back home. The citizens of Nola welcomed the return of their menfolk with arms full of lilies.
This is one version of the legend. There are variations. Following Paulinus’s death many years later the people of Nola began leaving lilies at the altar of the cathedral in his honour on the anniversary of his death (the usual date for saints’ feat days). From there an annual ceremony developed, and over the generation this grew into a week-long festival. The lilies were presented in more and more elaborate bouquets until eventually special wooden stands were built for them and carried through the streets. This developed even further into 80-feet-tall decorated structures that are carried through Nola in today’s Festa dei Gigli.
To finish with, here is a video of last year’s Festa dei Gigli. You can see very clearly the towering floral offerings which are carried into the city square, and the ceremonial boat in which sits a statue of St. Paulinus. He was truly a man with a lot of Flower Power to have the people of his city still celebrating his return from slavery with lilies nearly 1,600 years after his death.