The last moments of Mozart in a painting by or after HN O'Neil

5 December

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at 5 minutes to 1 o’clock this morning in 1791 (above), at the age of 35. He had spent his last couple of weeks in bed worrying about and working on his unfinished Requiem, and at 2pm the previous day he and a few friends had sung parts of the work in his bedroom. The day after he died, Mozart’s body was first taken to St Stephen’s Cathedral, where a priest read the funeral service, and then to a suburb of Vienna, to be buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of St Marx. It was the cheapest funeral available, and no family or friends attended, as simplicity was the custom of the time. The Requiem was completed by another musician and performed for the first time in memory of Mozart a year later.

‘Like a child I long to be home again to embrace my good friends, only regretting that I cannot do this to the great Mozart, if it is true – which I do not wish – that he is dead. Posterity will not have such a talent again in 100 years.’ Letter of Joseph Haydn, December 1791

The poet Christina Rossetti was born today in 1830. Her evangelical upbringing influenced her enough to make her paste paper strips over the anti-religious parts of Swinburne’s poem ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ so she could read it, and she refused to see Wagner’s opera Parsifal, because of its pagan mythology. Her religious poetry in later life is supposed to have sublimated her self-thwarted desire to marry.

My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall, the sap of spring,
O Jesus, rise in me.
Christina Rossetti

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a colossal and unlovely Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, was blown up at 12 noon today in 1931 on the orders of Joseph Stalin. Stalin had earmarked the site, close to the Kremlin, for an equally monstrous Palace of Soviets, topped by a giant statue of Lenin astride the building’s dome. However, once the rubble of Christ the Saviour was cleared, the palace ran out of money, and the hole in the ground was eventually turned into the Moskva Pool, popular with Muscovites who wanted to swim in the open air. The cathedral was rebuilt to the original overblown design in the 1990s and reconsecrated in 2000.

Pope Julius II, who personally led troops into battle, allowed Henry VIII to marry his first wife, and commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was born today in 1443. At the age of 28, he was made a Cardinal by his uncle, who had been elected Pope Sixtus IV a few months earlier. He became Pope himself 32 years later.

Pope Innocent VIII issued his papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (‘Desiring with deep anxiety’) regarding witchcraft today in 1484. The bull empowered two German inquisitors, Henry Kramer and James Sprenger, in their work of ‘correction, imprisonment, and punishment’ of witchcraft. Kramer immediately turned the text of the bull into a preface for his new book, Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Hammer of Witches’), making it look like the Pope had endorsed it. The Malleus Maleficarum quickly became an authoritative manual for witchfinders, fuelling the witch craze, which saw tens of thousands of people, mostly women, burned to death in Europe in the following 150 years.

‘They blasphemously renounce that faith which is theirs by the sacrament of baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from committing and perpetrating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls, whereby they outrage the Divine Majesty and are a cause of scandal and danger to very many.’ Summis desiderantes affectibus, 1484

Image: Wellcome Collection / Public Domain

Time-travel news is written by Steve Tomkins and Simon Jenkins

© Ship of Fools