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Mons Pietatis:
The Origins of the Lowly Pawn-Shop


[image ALT: zzz]

If those three rounded things under the cross look to you like the three globes over a pawn-shop, you're very wrong and sort of right: read on.

The freestanding Chapel of St. Mary Magdalen, a few steps from the main complex, was built in the 15c. It shelters the tomb of the Blessed Barnaba Massei of Terni (d. 1477), who is credited by some with devising the first modern pawnshop, in 1462, as a means for the poor to escape the clutches of usurers, naming it Mons Pietatis, literally "Mount of Piety". This odd nomenclature actually derives from a medieval commercial term, mons, a sum or heap of money, with "piety" added to indicate that it was not just another commercial usurer. (For full details, see the very good article Montes Pietatis in the Catholic Encyclopedia.)


[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the chapel of S. Maria Maddalena at the Eremo delle Carceri near Assisi in Umbria (central Italy).]
		
[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the chapel of S. Maria Maddalena at the Eremo delle Carceri near Assisi in Umbria (central Italy).]

As for those sugarloaf-like objects on which the cross is standing, their resemblance to the pawnbroker's globes is coincidental. These latter derive from the bezants on the Medici coat of arms — a much less nice group of people, and hardly given to charitable works — whereas what you see here is a common representation, usually found in escutcheons or supporting them, of mountains. Sometimes in connection with Crucifixion and Calvary, as in this example from the church of S. Maria del Suffragio in Empoli; but most often just representing a hilltop town or castle, as in the church of S. Cecilia in Acquasparta; here, the Mount of Piety, on Mount Subasio.


[image ALT: zzz at Eremo delle Carceri near Assisi, Umbria (central Italy).]

The interior of the Chapel. The painting appears to be of St. Mary Magdalen and St. John with the dead Christ still on the Cross, and probably dates to around 1450: these being just guesses on my part.

I do find the choice of titular saint here rather peculiar, though. As you probably know, when Mary Magdalen at a dinner party started to anoint Jesus's feet with some very expensive perfume, dissonant murmurs were heard wondering why she couldn't sell the stuff and donate the money to the poor; and Jesus responded by saying that there would always be poor people, and the exaltation of the human spirit, or at least right then and there the spirit of Mary Magdalen, was more important: not exactly a ringing endorsement of institutionalized charity schemes.


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Page updated: 17 Mar 12