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Sunday, December 14, 2008

St John of the Cross

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek, 1541–1614)
View of Toledo 1596-1600
Oil on canvas
47.75 × 42.75 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Francisco de Zurbarán, (November 7, 1598 – August 27, 1664)
Saint Serapion, 1628,
Oil on canvas, 120 x 103 cm,
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford
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Today is the Feast of St John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) (24 June 1542 – 14 December 1591), who was born Juan de Yepes Alvarez. He was a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and priest.

Here is a meditation on his life and significance by Thomas Merton. The full version can be accessed by clicking the link above.

"IF YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN El Greco`s View of Toledo, you might take a look at it. It will tell you something about St. John of the Cross. I say it will tell you something - not very much. St. John of the Cross and El Greco were contemporaries, they lived in the same country, they were mystics, though by no means in the same degree. In other ways they were quite different.

Father Bruno, in the best life of St. John of the Cross so far written, reminds his reader several times not to go imagining that St. John of the Cross looked like an El Greco painting. He was more like one of Zurbaran`s Carthusians. Even that comparison is not altogether exact. The original and authentic portrait of the saint shows him to have an innocent and rather expressionless face. He does not look in any way ascetic. In fact you would think you were looking at the portrait of a Madrid shop-keeper or of a cook.

El Greco`s View of Toledo is very dramatic. It is full of spiritual implications. It looks like a portrait of the heavenly Jerusalem wearing an iron mask. Yet there is nothing inert about these buildings. The dark city built on its mountain seems to be entirely alive. It surges with life, coordinated by some mysterious, providential upheaval which drives all these masses of stone upward toward heaven, in the clouds of a blue disaster that foreshadows the end of the world.

Somewhere in the middle of the picture must be the building where St. John of the Cross was kept in prison.

Soon after the beginning of St. Teresa`s reform he was kidnapped by opponents of the reform, and disappeared. No one had any idea where he had gone and, as St. Teresa lamented, nobody seemed to care. He was locked up in a cell without light or air during the stifling heat of a Toledan summer to await trial and punishment for what his persecutors seriously believed to be a canonical crime.

The complex canonical and political implications of the Carmelite reform had involved the saints of that reform in the kind of intrigue for which they alone, of all Spain, had no taste. And even St. Teresa, whose dovelike simplicity was supported by an altogether devastating prudence in these adventures, seems to have rather enjoyed them.

John of the Cross found little that was humanly speaking enjoyable in his Toledo jail. His only excursions from his cell came on the days when he was brought down to the refectory to be publicly scourged by his jailers, who were scandalized at his meek silence, believing it to be the sign of a reprobate con science, hardened in rebellion. Why didn`t the man do some thing to defend himself?..."