Friday, February 26, 2010

St Anthony and his Sermon to the Fishes

Paolo Veronese 1528, -1588
St Anthony Preaching to the Fish
c. 1580
Oil on canvas, 104 x 150 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome

Arnold Böcklin (16 October 1827 – 16 January 1901)
St Anthony Preaching to the Fish 1892
Oil on canvas
152 x 105 cm
Private collection

The Fioretti is a collection of legends about early Franciscans of whom Saint Anthony of Padua was one

According to Fioretti 40:

"St Anthony being at one time at Rimini, where there were a great number of heretics, and wishing to lead them by the light of faith into the way of truth, preached to them for several days, and reasoned with them on the faith of Christ and on the Holy Scriptures. They not only resisted his words, but were hardened and obstinate, refusing to listen to him.

At last St Anthony, inspired by God, went down to the sea-shore, where the river runs into the sea, and having placed himself on a bank between the river and the sea, he began to speak to the fishes as if the Lord had sent him to preach to them, and said: "Listen to the word of God, O ye fishes of the sea and of the river, seeing that the faithless heretics refuse to do so."

No sooner had he spoken these words than suddenly so great a multitude of fishes, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood, that never before had so many been seen in the sea or the river. All kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony’s face; all were ranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, after them came those a little bigger, and last of all, were the water was deeper, the largest.

When they had placed themselves in this order, St Anthony began to preach to them most solemnly, saying:

"My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment. God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm. He has given you fins to enable you to go where you will. To you was it granted, according to the commandment of God, to keep the prophet Jonas, and after three days to throw him safe and sound on dry land. You it was who gave the tribute-money to our Saviour Jesus Christ, when, through his poverty, he had not wherewith to pay. By a singular mystery you were the nourishment of the eternal King, Jesus Christ, before and after his resurrection. Because of all these things you are bound to praise and bless the Lord, who has given you blessings so many and so much greater than to other creatures."

At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, endeavouring as much as was in their power to express their reverence and show forth their praise.

St Anthony, seeing the reverence of the fish towards their Creator, rejoiced greatly in spirit, and said with a loud voice: "Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honour him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to his word with greater attention than sinful heretics."

And whilst St Anthony was preaching, the number of fishes increased, and none of them left the place that he had chosen. And the people of the city hearing of the miracle, made haste to go and witness it. With them also came the heretics of whom we have spoken above, who, seeing so wonderful and manifest a miracle, were touched in their hearts; and threw themselves at the feet of St Anthony to hear his words.

The saint then began to expound to them the Catholic faith. He preached so eloquently, that all those heretics were converted, and returned to the true faith of Christ; the faithful also were filled with joy, and greatly comforted, being strengthened in the faith.

After this St Anthony sent away the fishes, with the blessing of God; and they all departed, rejoicing as they went, and the people returned to the city. But St Anthony remained at Rimini for several days, preaching and reaping much spiritual fruit in the souls of his hearers."

The Sermon to the Fish was obviously based on the story of St Francis` Sermon to the Birds.

The fish, the Creatures of God, set an example to the human race: obedience to God`s will and participation in His purpose.

Obviously the story is a parable, an allegory.

Gustav Mahler (7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911), the Austrian composer and conductor wrote "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" – St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish (July/August 1893). It was part of his rendition of some of his songs on 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' ('The Youth's Magic Horn'), a collection of anonymous German folk poems assembled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano and published by them, in heavily redacted form, between 1805 and 1808

Mahler characterized the “Fish Sermon” as “my satire on mankind”: the swirling piscine congregation listens and swims away “not an iota wiser, even though the holy one has performed for them!”

In an explanation of the song, Mahler declared this to be a satire on humanity that he believed “only a few people will understand,”

He said:

"In the Fischpredigt … the prevailing mood is one of rather bitter-sweet humour. St. Anthony preaches to the fishes; his words are immediately translated into their thoroughly tipsy-sounding language (in the clarinet), and they all come swimming up to him—a glittering shoal of them: eels and carp, and the pike with their pointed heads. I swear, while I was composing, I really kept imagining that I saw them sticking their stiff immovable necks out from the water, and gazing up at St. Anthony with their stupid faces—I had to laugh out loud! And look at the congregation swimming away as soon as the sermon's over: “Die Predigt hat g’fallen/Sie bleiben wie alle” [“They liked the sermon/But remained unchanged”]. Not one of them is one iota wiser for it, even though the Saint has performed it for them! But only a few people will understand my satire on mankind."

Most hear it as a satire on the way typical congregations listen appreciatively, but then return to their lives as if nothing has happened.

But the song probes deeper than this, as Mahler indicates, for it also satirises St. Anthony himself, who seems quite as content to have a congregation of appreciative, uncomprehending fish as he would have been had real people come to his church. And it satirises the smug complacency with which humanity goes through the motions of communication without anything whatever actually being communicated, beyond the roles themselves, of preacher and preached-to.

The pictorial dimension of this song was undoubtedly reinforced for Mahler by his having an engraving of this scene (apparently the one by Arnold Böcklin) on the wall of his Hamburg studio (La Grange, Mahler 883, n53) Bochlin was a Swiss painter who exerted a great influence on the German-speaking countries through the expression of a heightened Romanticism and poeticism.

It is not without significance that Mahler composed his work at roughly the same time as his Second Symphony and before his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Here is the song as performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone with Wolfgang Sawallisch, piano.

The translation of the Germany lyrics are:

St. Anthony arrives for his Sermon
and finds the church empty.
He goes to the rivers
to preach to the fishes;

They flick their tails,
which glisten in the sunshine.

The carp with roe
have all come here,
their mouths wide open,
listening attentively.

No sermon ever
pleased the carp so.

Sharp-mouthed pike
that are always fighting,
have come here, swimming hurriedly
to hear this pious one;

No sermon ever
pleased the pike so.

Also, those fantastic creatures
that are always fasting -
the stockfish, I mean -
they also appeared for the sermon;

No sermon ever
pleased the stockfish so.

Good eels and sturgens,
that banquet so elegantly -
even they took the trouble
to hear the sermon:

No sermon ever
pleased the eels so.

Crabs too, and turtles,
usually such slowpokes,
rise quickly from the bottom,
to hear this voice.

No sermon ever
pleased the crabs so.

Big fish, little fish,
noble fish, common fish,
all lift their heads
like sentient creatures:

At God's behest
they listen to the sermon.

The sermon having ended,
each turns himself around;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.

The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

The crabs still walk backwards,
the stockfish stay rotund,
the carps still stuff themselves,
the sermon is forgotten!

The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.