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On Easter Sunday, an altar will rise by electronic miracle from a platform before the main door of St Peter’s. On it, Pope Francis will celebrate the Eucharist before the crowds. As he blesses the wafer, he will be surrounded by floral decorations, including tulips, daffodils and even some out-of-season roses. The flowers are not arranged by his cardinals or grown in the Vatican gardens. They have come all the way from the Netherlands and are arranged by Dutch designers and a team of 30 Dutch helpers. When His Holiness re-emerges on the balcony to bless the world, the team of Dutch arrangers will be waiting, unseen, in the loggia behind him, ready for their annual audience of thanks.
“Invented tradition” has been crucial in the history of the Catholic church. St Peter’s itself is an imposing monument to it. So, actually, is the Pope. But the Dutch? For 28 years now, Dutch growers, designers and arrangers have been making themselves indispensable to the world’s most-watched Easter event.
On Monday morning, the double lorry of Van der Slot Ltd halted as usual in Utrecht with its load of chilled flowers on board. A cardinal then sloshed a bucket of water over the lorry, wiped it down with a long-handled brush and asked for God’s blessing on the journey to St Peter’s Square. Since 6am, the Dutch team has been setting out the planned display. The colour theme will be heavy on yellow and white, the Vatican’s colours, and will include Narcissus Tête-à-tête. The rest of the details are secret until the arrangement is finished late on Easter Saturday. Last year, gerberas wormed their daisy-like flowers into the vases, but the delphiniums were magnificent. Big shrubs and trees are moved in on the lorry, including birch trees and some butter-yellow forsythias.
The “tradition” goes back to 1985. Then, Pope John Paul II made a trip to the Netherlands, the least obsequious province in Catholic Europe. The visit divided Dutch opinion, one wing protesting vigorously against the usual suspects – the Vatican’s stance on premarital sex and its teachings on homosexual relationships and the “curse” of Aids. The brightest welcome were the flowers. The Dutch national flower bureau – the Bloemenbureau – arranged floral decorations all over the country and followed up that success by asking the Vatican for permission to donate and do the flowers in Rome itself for Easter. Contracts were exchanged and thanks to Dutch donors, the Easter Eucharist now takes place in a superb array of tulips and Dutch spring flowers.
Do the arrangers use the modern miracle which is up there with the contraceptive pill, by which I mean the fixative Oasis used by flower arrangers? Indeed they do, but the design has been planned down to the last hyacinth and cannot be left to flap around. Charles van der Voort from Leiden now works with the designers Paul Deckers and Aad van Uffelen for the best possible display. Not all members of the floral team are Catholics. The leading grower and supplier for the past 20 years is Bart Bergman, who attends the Dutch Reformed Church when he is not busy on his bulb farm. The Catholics claim to be about a quarter of the Netherlands’ population which I had always believed to be mostly liberal and admirably sceptical of the whole thing. Their Easter flowers for St Peters are an ecumenical effort.
One of the assistants and carriers is that least likely thing, an academic and an ancient historian. Since 2000, Alexander Evers has been sure to leave the library to be in the Vatican City for Easter, not least because his fluent Italian is invaluable. We think of Dutch children as speaking every language imaginable, but Italian is as scarce as in Britain’s Spanish-mad schools. Evers relishes the team spirit, the camaraderie and bonding of the florists’ yearly adventure. It brings old and young, men and women, farmers and an expert, himself, on late-Roman north Africa, into a concerted team effort. It is part of the theatre of St Peter’s Easter. Afterwards, the team retires for a delayed Easter lunch in a nearby restaurant and sit down to an Italian menu, without a trace of a Dutch herring.
How have the popes responded? As a thank-you, they briefly speak Dutch. “Bedankt voor de bloemen!” is about it, but they have always practised their accent. On a wider front, Pope Francis has been the star turn, ever since he ended his first morning mass with the Italian greeting, “buon pranzo”. I do not happen to believe his Christian party line, but I give him full marks for his unpretentious and genuinely Christian style. This summer, he is following the English example and opening his gardens to the public. The gardens of his official summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, will be visitable for the first time. After adorning the Easter altar, many of the Dutch bulbs are planted out in the Vatican’s gardens, including those at Castel Gandolfo. They have done Dutch wonders for at least one type of Catholic bedding-out.
Last year was Pope Francis’s first Easter as pontiff, which came very soon after his installation. Evers is an assistant professor at the Rome centre of Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit Catholic institution. Pope Francis is a Jesuit and has presided over Jesuit seminaries earlier in his career. When Pope Francis received last year’s Dutch flower team, Evers told him how glad he was that the Holy Spirit had sent him to be bishop of Rome. “When I was elected,” His Holiness replied, “the Holy Spirit was surely asleep.”
His predecessor, Pope Benedict, was less adorable. Ignoring the usual protocol, Evers once pressed into his hand a copy of his 2010 book, a major scholarly study of the people and church in north Africa, partly in the age of St Augustine. Benedict was a distinguished scholar of Augustine, but he grunted and muttered in German, “a very important work”. The book was promptly diverted to a shelf in the Vatican library.
The Gospels have nothing to say about cut flowers. Early Christian writers were notably cool about them, regarding them as a distraction to the senses. Wild flower meadows were more to their taste. Nobody is said to have “done the flowers” for an early Christian house-church. However, less bigoted Christians were soon offering cut flowers to their martyrs on their feast days and, in due course, they were offering bunches on the days of commemoration of Christ’s death. Like so much of Catholic doctrine, the placing of flowers by the Easter altar can appeal to evolving tradition. In spring there are no finer cut flowers than those from the Netherlands. They are a happy instance of the best being chosen for the job in hand. Divine disapproval has not been in evidence. So far, there has been no accident to the lorry when it sets out each year from Utrecht with the Church’s blessing to deliver the flowers to the papal altar.
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