Horse in a Church

Posted: March 29, 2015 in Europe
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The Tuscan city of Siena

Siena in Tuscany is the home of a rather unusual event, the Palio di Siena.

It’s a horse race that is held twice a year and it captures the imagination of the locals right throughout the year. Here in Australia horse racing and religion seem to be poles apart, but in Siena it’s a different story altogether.


Outside the Church of the Rhino. Each contrade is represented by an animal, and the church is the focal point for each contrade.

The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, a Marian devotion that is unique to Siena. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary. There is a great deal of ritual involved in the preparation for the race and the chosen horses are even taken into church the night before the race to be blessed.

The city is divided into 17 contrade (city wards) and each contrade puts up a horse to participate in the race.  Only 10 horses get to participate each year. Following a spectacular pageant, the race consists of three circuits of the central piazza, The Piazza del Campo, ridden by bareback riders. There is massive rivalry between the 17 contrade for an event that has been held in the city since medieval times.

As our guide told us the stories of the Palio, highlighting the deep religious traditions associated with the race, I was impressed with the level of fervour with which the locals embraced this tradition. The church is the focal point for each contrade and worship is intertwined with every aspect of the Palio. Unfortunately fervour for Jesus Christ seemed to be missing even though religion was held in high esteem.

This morning in church I read from Paul’s letter to the Romans where he said:

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

We may be devoted to many things, but devotion to Jesus should the highest goal. It’s a pity we couldn’t have the fervour for Jesus that the Sienans have for a horse race.

The Piazza del Campo, the central piazza of Siena where the famous horse race is held twice each year.

The Piazza del Campo, the central piazza of Siena where the famous horse race is held twice each year.

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