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A rite entitled "De benedictione et impositione Primarii Lapidis pro ecclesia aedificanda" (Of the blessing and laying of the Foundation Stone for the building of a church) is provided in the Roman Pontifical. As it appears in the same form in the "Giunta Pontificale " of 1520, it is probably at least as old as the time of Patricius Piccolomini (fifteenth century), and it may in substance go back two centuries farther to the time of Durandus of Mende (see Catalani, "Pont. Rom.", II, 31). The rite itself is simple enough. Before the work of building a church is set about the rubric directs that adequate provision should be made for its maintenance, also the foundations are to be marked out subject to the approval of the bishop or his delegate, and a wooden cross set up to indicate the place where the altar is to stand. In the function which ensues the bishop first blesses holy water with the ordinary forms, then sprinkles the place where the cross stands and afterwards the foundation stone. Upon the stone itself he is directed to engrave crosses on each side with a knife, and then he pronounces the following prayer : "Bless, O Lord, this creature of stone [ creaturam istam lapidis ] and grant by the invocation of Thy holy name that all who with a pure mind shall lend aid to the building of this church may obtain soundness of body and the healing of their souls. Through Christ Our Lord, Amen." After the Litany of the Saints, followed by an appropriate antiphon and Psalm 126 , "Unless the Lord build the house" etc., the stone is lowered into its place with another prayer and again sprinkled with holy water. More antiphons and psalms follow, while the bishop once more visits and sprinkles the other foundations, dividing them into three sections and ending each little tour with a special prayer. Finally the "Veni Creator Spiritus" is sung, and two short prayers. Then the bishop, if he deems it opportune, sits down and exhorts the people to contribute to the fabric, after which he dismisses them with his blessing and the proclamation of an indulgence.
In the Middle Ages this or some analogous rite was not unknown, but the number of Pontificals which contain anything of the sort is comparatively small (Martene, for example, in his "De ritibus" gives no specimen of the forms used in any such function.) One of the few that provide such a rite is Archbishop Chichele's Pontifical, representing, no doubt, the use of Sarum in the early fifteenth century. The function in its details differs considerably from that just described. The only feature that is quite identical is the prayer above quoted, "Benedic, Domine, creaturam istam lapidis," for blessing the stone, but it is supplemented in the English rite by another and much longer prayer, containing many Scriptural allusions, among the rest, one to the "stone rejected by the builders." Moreover, in England the stone is anointed with chrism while a prayer is said which has reference to this ceremony. Of all this there is no trace in the Roman type of service.
It is not easy to assign a date to the beginning of this practice of blessing the foundation stone. An interesting fragment of evidence is, however, furnished by what is apparently the inscribed foundation stone of the first church of St. Mark at Venice. (See the paper of F. Douce in "Archaeologia," xxvi, 217 sq.) As it is roughly circular in form, between six and seven inches in diameter, and only half an inch thick, we have probably to do with a tablet let into the foundation stone proper. It bears a rudely scratched head (of St. Mark ?) and the inscription in ninth-century characters: ECCL. S. MARCI PRIMAM PETRAM POSVIT DUX IO. PARTICI [aco]; the rest is broken off. The Doge, John Particiaco, dedicated the first Church of St. Mark in A.D. 828. Of course this inscription does not make reference to any religious ceremony, but, as forms for the dedication of a church were employed much before this date, it seems unlikely that such a function should not have been accompanied by at least some simple form of ecclesiastical blessing. Moreover, the English liturgist Beletbus in the twelfth century was evidently familiar with a rite of this kind. "When the foundations have been dug," he says, "it is necessary that the bishop sprinkle the place with holy water and that he himself, or some priest at his bidding, should lay the first stone of the foundation, which ought to have a cross engraved upon it. And it is absolutely necessary that the church should be built towards the east" (Belethus, ii; P.L., CCII, 10). Similar language is used by Sicardus (P.L., CCXIII, 17 and 20) and Durandus (Rationale, II, 7) less than a century later.
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A question arises connected with the practice (1) of laying money upon the stone as a contribution to the fabric of the church and (2) of enclosing coins within or beneath it as evidence of the date. The former custom might not improbably be traced to the terms of the prayer quoted above, which, in blessing the foundation stone, in particular invokes special favours upon all "who with pure mind lend their aid to the building of this church." It is curious, however, that in the one detailed description which we possess of a pagan ceremony of the same sort, viz., that which preceded the restoration of the Roman Temple of Jupiter upon the Capitol in the time of Vespasian (Tacitus, "Hist.," IV, 53), we find not only that the foundations were washed with lustral water, but that attention was especially centred upon the great stone ( ingens saxum ) which was dragged into its place by magistrates and people together. Moreover, gold and silver in an unwrought and virgin state were scattered upon the foundations. Stranger still, a similar ceremony seems to have prevailed in ancient Assyria, where an inscription of Nabopolassar (604 B.C.) describes how that monarch, in building a temple to Merodach, cast gold and silver upon the foundations (Schrader, "Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek," III, ii, 5). Further, the ceremonial rite of laying a foundation stone seems to reach back to the time of Sargon, c. 3800 B.C. (ibid., pp. 85-93). The custom of placing coins in or under the foundation stone, now very general, needs further elucidation. The earliest definite instance at the moment discoverable is an entry in an account-book at Bruges, which records that, when the palace of the magistrates of the Franc was rebuilt in 1519, an angel (coin) was laid out to be placed under the foundation stone (W.H.J. Weale in "Notes and Queries," 27 Aug., 1870, p. 184). It is just conceivable that this burial of gold and silver may represent a more primitive form of sacrifice in which a human victim was immolated and buried under the masonry; but the evidence of any widespread custom of this barbarous kind is by no means so conclusive as is maintained by such writers as Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1903, I, p. 104 sq.) and Trumbull (The Threshold Covenant, pp. 45-57).
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