Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Church as Boat

Fragment of a Sarcophagus with a Mystical Boat
c  AD 300
Marble, from the wall of Spoleto
20 x 46 x 7.5 cm
Pius Christian Museum, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

The photograph is from the website of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums

Of this small insignificant work, the Vatican Museums have written a meditation on the Church as a ship or boat, an image or metaphor which goes back to the earliest times of the Christian Church
"This small fragment on the top of the sarcophagus, from the beginning of the IV century, can be linked to the many maritime images that can often be found in ancient Greco-Roman art, and often used in the decoration of sarcophagi.  
One can see a boat with a slim prow and a low hull, navigated by a pilot with a full head of hair and rich clothing, while three rowers covered only with loincloths follow his orders. The ship moves over a choppy sea, while on the right one can just make out the remains of the base of a lighthouse.  
Inscriptions placed as captions next to the figures clarify the men’s identities: the pilot on the right is Iesus, Jesus - which can be guessed at from the iconography of the Apollinian face, even if vague - and the rowers who are instead, from left to right, Marcus, Lucas and Iojannes, the names of the three Evangelists, which leads us to expect for the sake of coherence, past the fracture, the presence of the fourth Evangelist, Matthew. 
The generic boat which appears on many sarcophagi and on ancient inscriptions thus receives, on this fragment, its truest identity: in fact it represents the Church, who, like the ship in the calm after the storm (cf. Mt 8:23-27 et seq), “she is disquieted "in the sea," that is, in the world, "by the waves," that is, by persecutions and temptations; the Lord, through patience, sleeping as it were, until, roused in their last extremities by the prayers of the saints, He checks the world, and restores tranquillity to His own” (Tertullian, De Baptismo, 12, 8).  
In the Letter addressed to James (14:1), at the beginning of his Homeliae (1, 14), the author of the Pseudo-Clementines also states that “the entire body of the Church looks like a great ship, which transports men from faraway places in a violent storm”. He points out also that Christ is this ship’s pilot - as our fragment clearly shows - the bishop is the look-out, while the deacons, the priests and the catechists are the rowers.  
Even Hippolytus of Rome picks up (De antichristo, 59) the same analogy, restating that “the sea is the world; the Church, like a ship, is rocked by the currents, but not submerged: in fact it has an expert pilot, Christ”, while “it has the two Testaments as its rudders”. 
Other Fathers underline the meaning of the various parts of this ship, in particular referring to the main mast, which symbolizes by its shape the Cross, however we would like to underline here the reference to the Scriptures proposed by Hippolytus and the importance given by Clement, about the composition of the crew of the ship, to the catechists: these in fact teach the faith to the faithful, and primarily based on the Scripture and the Gospels, and are the true protagonists in the work of spreading and understanding the “good news” of salvation.  
The evangelists who push the boat guided by Christ, can not but refer to the invitation that Jesus addresses to His followers at the end of the evangelical story: “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:15); “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). 
The boat rowed by the evangelists and guided by Christ to the port of salvation is also, in conclusion, an effective image of the unstoppable spreading of the Christian message (the kérygma, using a Greek word), of that evanghélion, the good news, which, when embraced leads to salvation (baptism, as the beginning of a new life), and which, thanks to the capillary spreading of the evangelical texts, was carried - truly by the ways of the sea - to the banks of the ancient world."
Here is a Baroque rendering of the theme from Herman Saftleven illustrating a particular episode from Scripture: Jesus used Andrew and Peter's boat to preach to the crowds, and then led the fishermen to a miraculous catch of fish. Luke 5: 1-10 After this he called on them to be fishers of men.

In Mark 1, and Matthew 4 there is a different version but Jesus` call to Simon Peter  and Andrew is “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Herman Saftleven 1609 - 1685
Christ Teaching from Saint Peter's Boat on the Lake of Gennesaret
Oil on oak
46.7 x 62.8 cm
The National Gallery, London

Monday, January 27, 2014

Mystici Corporis Christi

Jules Breton 1827 - 1906
Bénédiction des blés en Artois
Oil on canvas
130 x 320 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Arras, Arras

In the nineteenth century, despite or because of the drive from rural agriculture to urban industrialisation, there was a revival of the Doctrine of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ

Pictures show as these illustrated the close connection between rural areas and Catholicism especially in Brittany and Normandy, areas which had resisted the French Revolution at great cost

It was a popular Catholicism with very deep roots

In the towns and cities with greater change and movement, things proceeded at a different pace and in a different way

Metropolitans and intellectuals from an outside point of view could only look at such processions and try to explain them in anthropological terms

It was the view point of the scientist looking at specimens under a microscope

By its very nature there had to be separation between examiner and examinee and a certain attitude of mind of the examiner towards the examinee

In Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), Pope Pius XII  rejected absolutely a rationalistic or purely sociological understanding of the Church: simply a human organization with structures and activities. The Church is more: it is guided by the Holy Spirit

He also rejected an  exclusively mystical understanding of the Church because a mystical “Christ in us” union would deify its members and mean that the acts of Christians are simultaneously the acts of Christ

He emphasised the comparison of the Church as the "mystical body of Christ" was a metaphor, an important metaphor, but subject to limitations

This view came to be superseded by the image of the Church as "The People of God" in and during and after  the Second Vatican Council

Later came the concept of Church as "Communion"

The picture above really illustrates all three visions to a certain extent

There is also that most important element in the work - empathy - which is absent in a purely so called "scientific study"

Before his retirement in February 2013, Pope Benedict XVI talked about these three concepts: metaphors and visions of the Church, how they developed  and how they are all linked

"We know that the First Vatican Council was interrupted because of the Franco-Prussian War, and so it remained somewhat one-sided, incomplete, because the doctrine on the primacy – defined, thanks be to God, in that historical moment for the Church, and very necessary for the period that followed – was just a single element in a broader ecclesiology, already envisaged and prepared. 
So we were left with a fragment. And one might say: as long as it remains a fragment, we tend towards a one-sided vision where the Church would be just the primacy. So all along, the intention was to complete the ecclesiology of Vatican I, at a date to be determined, for the sake of a complete ecclesiology. 
Here too the time seemed ripe because, after the First World War, the sense of the Church was reborn in a new way. As Romano Guardini said: "The Church is starting to reawaken in people’s souls", and a Protestant bishop spoke of the "era of the Church". 
Above all, there was a rediscovery of the concept that Vatican I had also envisaged, namely that of the Mystical Body of Christ. People were beginning to realize that the Church is not simply an organization, something structured, juridical, institutional – it is that too – but rather an organism, a living reality that penetrates my soul, in such a way that I myself, with my own believing soul, am a building block of the Church as such. 
In this sense, Pius XII wrote the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi as a step towards completing the ecclesiology of Vatican I
I would say that theological discussion in the 1930’s and 1940’s, even in the 1920’s, was entirely conducted under the heading Mystici Corporis. It was a discovery that brought so much joy at that time, and within this context emerged the formula: We are the Church, the Church is not a structure; we Christians, all together, we are all the living body of the Church. 
And naturally, this obtains in the sense that we, the true "we" of believers, together with the "I" of Christ, are the Church; every single one of us, not a particular "we", a single group that calls itself Church. No: this "we are Church" requires me to take my place within the great "we" of believers of all times and places. 
Therefore, the primary idea was to complete ecclesiology in a theological way, but also in a structural way, that is to say: besides the succession of Peter, and his unique function, to define more clearly also the function of the bishops, the corpus of bishops. And in order to do this, the word "collegiality" was adopted, a word that has been much discussed, sometimes acrimoniously, I would say, and also in somewhat exaggerated terms. 
But this word – maybe another could have been found, but this one worked – expressed the fact that the bishops collectively are the continuation of the Twelve, of the corpus of Apostles. We said: only one bishop, the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of a particular Apostle, namely Peter. All the others become successors of the Apostles by entering into the corpus that continues the corpus of the Apostles. Hence it is the corpus of bishops, the college, that is the continuation of the corpus of the Twelve, and thus it has its intrinsic necessity, its function, its rights and duties. 
To many this seemed like a power struggle, and maybe some were thinking of their power, but substantially it was not about power, but about the complementarity of the different elements and about the completeness of the corpus of the Church with the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, as structural elements; and each of them is a structural element of the Church within this great corpus. 
These, let us say, were the two basic elements – and in the meantime, in the quest for a complete theological vision of ecclesiology, a certain amount of criticism arose after the 1940’s, in the 1950’s, concerning the concept of the Body of Christ: the word "mystical" was thought to be too spiritual, too exclusive; the concept "People of God" then began to come into play. 
The Council rightly accepted this element, which in the Fathers is regarded as an expression of the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. In the text of the New Testament, the phrase Laos tou Theou, corresponding to the Old Testament texts, means – with only two exceptions, I believe – the ancient People of God, the Jews, who among the world’s peoples, goim, are "the" People of God. 
The others, we pagans, are not per se God’s People: we become sons of Abraham and thus the People of God by entering into communion with Christ, the one seed of Abraham. 
By entering into communion with him, by being one with him, we too become God’s People. 
In a word: the concept of "the People of God" implies the continuity of the Testaments, continuity in God’s history with the world, with mankind, but it also implies the Christological element. Only through Christology do we become the People of God, and thus the two concepts are combined. 
The Council chose to elaborate a Trinitarian ecclesiology: People of God the Father, Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit. 
Yet only after the Council did an element come to light – which can also be found, albeit in a hidden way, in the Council itself – namely this: the link between People of God and Body of Christ is precisely communion with Christ in Eucharistic fellowship. This is where we become the Body of Christ: the relationship between People of God and Body of Christ creates a new reality – communion
After the Council it became clear, I would say, that the Council really discovered and pointed to this concept: communion as the central concept. I would say that, philologically, it is not yet fully developed in the Council, yet it is as a result of the Council that the concept of communion came more and more to be the expression of the Church’s essence, communion in its different dimensions: communion with the Trinitarian God – who is himself communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – sacramental communion, and concrete communion in the episcopate and in the life of the Church."

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Good Samaritan in Rome

Martin van Heemskerck (1498-1574)
View of Rome with the Good Samaritan
c.  1550
Oil on panel
71,5 x 97 cm
Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

Heemskerck presents an unusual rendition of the parable in Luke 10:29–37

A traveller is beaten and robbed by bandits who leave him for dead on the road. A priest and a Levite pass by without stopping. 

Only a Samaritan, a people the Jews regarded as ungodly, came to help him.

But the setting is not the Jericho-Jerusalem highway, it is on the outskirts of Rome in the sixteenth century

Heemskerck was a pupil or assistant of Jan van Scorel,  from whom he learnt an Italianate style. 

His understanding of Italian and ancient art was intensified by a visit to Rome in 1532-6, when he recorded the monuments of the city in a series of famous drawings.

He used these drawings many times in his works when he returned to Haarlem and in his later career

The context of his visit to Rome is important. It was after the Sack of Rome in 1527 when the Emperor`s troops had ransacked the city slaughtering thousands. 

Clement VII was in the last years of his reign which had been a disaster for the Papal States as well as the Catholic Church. He was a broken reed

Law and order had broken down.

Pope Paul III became Pope on 13 October 1534 until  his death in 1549. 

He was to convene the Council of Trent in 1545

The imperative was peace between the Emperor and the King of France. There was a 10 year truce. Religious reform was also required

In his reign he was to encourage and support the Capuchins, Barnabites, Theatines, Jesuits, Ursulines, and many religious orders

It seemed to be a religious renaissance

However Paul III was followed by Julius III (reigned 7 February 1550 to his death in 1555), a compromise candidate who was weak and pusillanimous and whose administration was racked by scandal

In this work Rome is seen as the new Jerusalem but one where the word of God requires to be preached and put into effect

But there is perhaps a more general message applicable to all places and all times

This was seen in the Holy Father`s recent message for World Communications Day:
"What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel?  In spite of our own limitations and sinfulness, how do we draw truly close to one another?   
These questions are summed up in what a scribe – a communicator – once asked Jesus: “And who is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29).  This question can help us to see communication in terms of “neighbourliness”.   
We might paraphrase the question in this way: How can we be “neighbourly” in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology?  
I find an answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is also a parable about communication.  Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours.   
The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.   
Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.  I like seeing this power of communication as “neighbourliness”. 
Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.  The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance.  
In those days, it was rules of ritual purity which conditioned their response.  Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour. 
It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. "

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Saint Agnes of Rome

Joseph Désiré Court (1797-1865)
Le Martyre de sainte Agnès/ The Martyrdom of St Agnes
(Salon de 1865)
Oil on canvas
496 x 812 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen

The scale of the massive work can be seen from the following image:

The exact title of the work is: Martyrdom of Saint Agnes in the Roman Forum, in the Year 303, under Diocletian

Which is really what sums up a huge and massive work in a comparatively few words

It is however rather difficult to see the actual martyrdom notwithstanding that she is at the centre of the work and her death is the theme of the painting

The martyrdom is really subordinate to the study of Imperial Rome

It used to hang in the town hall of Rouen from 1897 to 1925 when it was transferred to the Museum

A distinguished history painter and portrait painter, Court won the Prix de Rome in 1821

In 1853 he was appointed the Curator of the Museum at Rouen where his work now stands

Last year the work was the subject of a number of news articles after it was reported that the French President, M François Hollande, had declined to deliver a speech for the opening of an arts festival in front of the painting and when it could not be moved that it was covered by a blue sheet

In fact he cancelled the visit for some unexplained reason. Vatican Insider also picked up the story

Some said that it was because of its religious subject. Others simply that the glare from the painting would cause problems for the photographers and cameramen who would be there to record the event. Others that he had simply good taste

However it is strange that the story of a martyr who was killed 19 centuries ago for the faith can still cause an Imperial sovereign to stop in his tracks

St Ambrose in his panegyric explained why this young girl was such a great force in her time:
"A new kind of martyrdom! 
Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valour while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the couch, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ. 
All wept, she alone was without a tear. 
All wondered that she was so readily prodigal of her life, which she had not yet enjoyed, and now gave up as though she had gone through it. 
Every one was astounded that there was now one to bear witness to the Godhead, who as yet could not, because of her age, dispose of herself. 
And she brought it to pass that she should be believed concerning God, whose evidence concerning man would not be accepted. 
For that which is beyond nature is from the Author of nature"

"As an alternative to the many things we could own, the Lord offers the one thing that is essential: to leave everything for love and to follow him: "Come, follow me" (Mk 10:21). 
The virgin and martyr Agnes responded with total generosity and an undivided heart to Christ's invitation: she made her own existence an "eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendour of moral truth" (cf. Veritatis splendor, n. 93). 
Because of this, she herself was able to brighten "every period of history by reawakening its moral sense" (ibid.). 
Her example encouraged many believers over the centuries to follow in her footsteps."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Goldfinch

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) 
The Goldfinch
Oil on panel 
13 ¼ x 9 in. (33.5 x 22.8 cm) 
The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague 

Fr Z recently referred to the painting in his post entitled The Goldfinch

He has a penchant for Italian Christological goldfinches as all we readers of his blog know

The painting has caught public attention because of the exhibition of paintings from the Mauritshuis which has just closed  at The Frick Gallery and will be at the Palazzo Fava in Bologna from 8th February to 25th May 2014

But probably  more importantly because of the new novel by Donna Tartt based on the painting simply called The Goldfinch

It is a great novel. I read it over the Christmas break. I thoroughly recommend it. You will not put it down

If you enjoyed “The Secret History” you will love "The Goldfinch" 

It has been described by critics as Dickensian in its characterisation, plotting and the themes which it pilots through. Justly so

Throughout the novel there runs  the painting of the goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. 

At different times and at different stages the painting assumes different significances as the central character grows up

Theo Decker is the central character of the novel

Theo and his mother have been deserted by his father who has simply disappeared without trace. Theo, then aged 13,  and his mother (an art history graduate who works in an advertising agency) go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see an exhibition featuring one of her favourite paintings — “The Goldfinch” — when a terrorist bomb explodes. 

Theo’s mother is killed, and his life divides, forever, into a Before and After.

I will not say more in case I  ruin the pleasure of the novel for those who wish to read it

But as the novel makes clear there is a parallel

The painting was made in 1654, the same year the artist Carel Fabritius  was killed at age 32 due to an explosion at a gunpowder store in Delft, a tragedy that left more than a hundred people dead and half the city  in smouldering debris

Here is part of  the scene where the mother introduces Theo to the painting and then leaves him to meet later. 

But they never do. The blast intervenes.
"“This is just about the first painting I ever really loved,” my mother was saying. “You’ll never believe it, but it was in a book I used to take out of the library when I was a kid. I used to sit on the floor by my bed and stare at it for hours, completely fascinated—that little guy! And, I mean, actually it’s incredible how much you can learn about a painting by spending a lot of time with a reproduction, even not a very good reproduction. I started off loving the bird, the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended up loving the way he was painted.” ... 
“Anyway, if you ask me,” my mother was saying, “this is the most extraordinary picture in the whole show. Fabritius is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him—not even Rembrandt." 
Very softly—so softly I could barely hear her—I heard the girl whisper: “It had to live its whole life like that?” I’d been wondering the same thing; the shackled foot, the chain was terrible; her grandfather murmured some reply but my mother (who seemed totally unaware of them, even though they were right next to us) stepped back and said: “Such a mysterious picture, so simple. Really tender—invites you to stand close, you know? All those dead pheasants back there and then this little living creature.” ... 
“People die, sure,” my mother was saying. “But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.” ... 
“Theo?” my mother said suddenly. “Did you hear me?”"
We never actually learn what it was Theo`s mother thought that Fabritius knew that no one else before him did. Theo has been distracted by the sight of a little girl and an old man standing near them

So what possibly was it that Fabritius came to realise ? You will have to read the novel

But let us look at the painting and see why this work so simple and artless on its face has a resonance which over the centuries has compelled contemplation by the viewer

And oh, please remember mothers can be mistaken

If you look at it up close at the picture (click it  for an enlarged view) you will see that the brush strokes are simple but impressionistic. 

You are meant to view the work at a distance (click back for an ordinary view)

From a distance one could imagine that the work would easily be mistaken for a genuine pet goldfinch

The effect is one of trompe-l'œil

By the use of light effects and the posing of the body of the bird, he suggests movement and twitching

It is meant to distort the perception between image and reality

It requires a detailed knowledge of perspective to produce what appears to be a three dimensional image

An image of a live being with movement rather than an inanimate still object tests the artist`s skill to the highest

At once the viewer`s attention is captured

In 17th century Holland, it was extremely popular to have live birds as pets either in or outside of a cage. 

This was a great change from keeping birds as food

Their appearance and song were prized above their value as protein

Indeed there was a sort of mania about the fashion and many birds were shipped from the tropical Dutch colonies to satisfy demand amongst the wealthy burghers for such birds

It became a sort of symbol of social status the more rare and exotic a bird one had has a pet

The goldfinch was a popular pet in the Netherlands at the time

They were resident in Holland and the rest of Europe. They did not cost much

They would have been an ideal source of wonderment for a child 

Their little "trick" was drawing water. In Dutch the alternative name for them is "het putterje" (the water drawer) and that is the name by which the painting is known in Holland

As well as lifting up the box lid to peck at seeds inside, it would often use a little bucket to drop into  a small container then lift the bucket up with its beak and drink the water

But of course there is no such container here and no water

It needs water. With water it will perform

The little delicate bird chained at the ankle is at the mercy of the owner and outside forces beyond its ability to control or influence

It has of course no song which we can hear but there is a song. 

The bird looks directly at the viewer. 

In its dark gaze there appears to be a glimmer of recognition of its plight

What we know (and we know little) about Fabritius is derived from his fellow pupil of Rembrandt, Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627 - 1678) in his Introduction to the Academy of Painting (Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst) (1678)

We know that in the divided religious country we now call The Netherlands he was of the Reformed Protestant faith

Like Rembrandt he would have known his Scripture

He would have recalled Matthew 10:
"28 And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna 
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. 
30 Even all the hairs of your head are counted. 
31 So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
In Luke 12 there is the same message but with a difference
"4 I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. 
5 I shall show you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one. 
6 Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?  Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. 
7 Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows."
Two sparrows cost a penny (an assarion). But if a man spent two pennies he got five sparrows. He got one thrown in for free

The fifth sparrow had no value

But it was still noticed by God and received his attention

Life for Fabritius was indeed tragic

In 1641 he married his childhood sweetheart, the girl next door in fact, Hasselt wit Aeltje Herrmensdr 

In 1642 one of his children (one of twins)  died shortly after birth

In 1643, his wife died giving birth to their third child (who died shortly after)

He suffered money problems and debts

But in 1650 he married for the second time, this time to Agatha van Pruyssen. She was originally from Delft and in 1652 they moved back there

Only two years later he was one of the victims of the Delft explosion which destroyed his house and studio with almost all his works and took the lives of his mother in law and the sitter (the sexton of the Old Church of Delft) whose portrait he was painting

The Goldfinch seems to depict the fragility of life and how life is not a matter of man`s will but rather of chance, circumstance  and forces not within one`s control

But there is a peace and serenity about the work, an equilibrium, a coming to terms

Fabritius would have been very well aware of the artistic iconography of the goldfinch

It eats thistle seeds and its blood red markings are a symbol of the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord

There was a pious legend that a goldfinch attempted to remove the thorns from Christ`s head

Through its virtues of endurance, fruitfulness, and persistence, it was also known as the Paradise Bird

But as Fabritius would have been aware, after the Passion and the Crucifixion come the Resurrection and the Ascension

And there would have been water, the living water promised by Christ at his meeting with the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4

In this painting, one of his last, what we are perhaps seeing is a recollection of times past, a meditation, a reconciliation and a personal statement of faith

Monday, January 20, 2014

Vision of the Dove

Peter Paul Rubens 1577–1640
Teresa of Avila's Vision of the Dove
Oil on panel 
97 x 63 cm
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Rubens  was all his life a devout practicing Catholic. As ambassador to the court of Philip IV, he was always in close contact with  Spain.

It is not what we would call an "action" painting

It is the painting of a vision Baroque style

The vision of St Teresa is the subject of the painting which accords with the mysticism practised in counter-Reformation Spain

Rubens painted many pictures of St Teresa de Jesus

The popularity of her works was astounding. They even reached Reformed England shortly after they were written

Another version by Rubens  of the Vision of the Dove is in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. It can be seen here

Peter Paul Rubens 1577–1640
Teresa of Avila's Vision of the Dove
c.1612 - 1614
Oil on panel 
62.5 x  90.5 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Unlike representations of Doctors and Fathers of the Church, the dove representing the Holy Spirit  does not allude to any claim on Saint Teresa's part to divine inspiration. 

Her works although popular and respected were not regarded as on the same level as the Fathers and Doctors. 

She was only made a Doctor of the Church in 1970

You will note that the dove in the Fitzwilliam Museum does not really look like a dove. And in the painting in Rotterdam the dove is not wholly depicted

The painting represents a vision experienced by the Saint on the vigil of Pentecost 1569

St Teresa herself said that the dove which she saw  was not really a dove 

She described the vision thus:
"One day-it was the vigil of Pentecost-I went, after Mass, to a very solitary spot, where I used often to say my prayers, and began to read about this festival in the Carthusian's Life of Christ
As I read about the signs by which beginners, proficients, and the perfect may know if the Holy Spirit is with them, it seemed to me, when I had read about these three states, that by the goodness of God, and so far as I could understand, He was certainly with me then.... 
While I was meditating in this way a strong impulse seized me without my realising why.  
It seemed as if my soul were about to leave my body, because it could no longer contain itself and was incapable of waiting for so great a blessing....  
I had to seek some physical support, for so completely did my natural strength fail me that I could not even remain seated. 
While in this condition, I saw a dove over my head, very different from those we see on earth, for it had not feathers like theirs but its wings were made of little shells which emitted a great brilliance.  
It was larger than a dove; I seemed to hear the rustling of its wings. It must have been fluttering like this for the space of an Ave Maria.  
But my soul was in such a state that, as it became lost to itself, it also lost sight of the dove."

The English convert poet Richard Crashaw 1612–1649  had a great devotion to St Teresa. He composed three poems in honour of her: "A Hymn to Sainte Teresa," "An Apologie for the fore-going Hymne," and "The Flaming Heart"

Some saw her as this great indomitable passionate figure, a colossus, an eagle soaring over the spiritual plains

She was depicted in an erotic fashion as having her heart pierced and reverberated by a seraphim, an image which as Lord Rowan Williams St Teresa would not have approved

She was of course more than this, as Crashaw said in his poem. She was both eagle and dove, and simply like the Love who resided in her heart:
"O thou undaunted daughter of desires!
By all thy dower of lights and fires;
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;
By all thy lives and deaths of love;
Let me so read thy life, that I
Unto all life of mine may die."
But the Love which she had was combined with purification,  maturity and renunciation

That is the Love which Crashaw  extols

Like St Teresa, Crashaw had a deep prayer life. Like her writings, his poems had a very serious purpose

As the Preface to his Steps to the Temple (1646, enlarged 1648) makes clear
"he offered more prayers in the night, then others usually offer in the day; There, he penned these Poems, Stepps for happy soules to climb heaven by."
And that is why T.S. Eliot rated Crashaw’s overall poetic performance above the two esteemed romantics, Keats and Shelley.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Vision of Christ Crucified

Alonso Cano 1601-1667
The Vision of Christ Crucified to St Teresa of Jesus (St Teresa of Avila)
17th century
Oil on canvas
99 cm x 43,5 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Cano was one of the great Spanish Baroque artists.

He eventually took Holy Orders

The work was only acquired by the Prado in 2013 and information about the above work is limited

It may have been commissioned for the  church of the former Carmelite monastery of San Alberto de Sicilia in Seville, Spain but until further information is provided that is just speculation

Cano painted the same theme on a number of occasions: see here

In essence there are only two figures: Christ and the Saint. There is no noise only silence

The saint is in rapt attention on the figure of the crucified Christ

In his Apostolic Letter Multiformis Sapientia Dei (27th September 1970)  Pope Paul VI proclaimed St Teresa of Jesus as a Doctor of the Church

In it he wrote:
"As the centre of the spiritual doctrine of Teresa is Christ who reveals the Father, unites us to Him and joins us to himself. Therefore  the best foundations of this doctrine are Christian prayer as a life of love, and the Church, by which is achieved in us the Kingdom of God ... 
Man, in fact, reach perfection only when you can say with Paul: My life is Christ (cf. Mansiones , VII, 2, 5). On the other hand the life of prayer that Teresa teaches in the same book of his life (8, 5). It may be described as a lifetime of love, because prayer is the necessity of friendship, so we talk for a long time alone with God by whom we know we are loved"
St Teresa herself said that her prayer was  «a dialogue of friendship with One Who, we know, loves us» (Life, 8, 5)

On another occasion when she was faltering under the pressure of the setting up of her foundations in the period 1562 - 1572 she recalled that Our Lord said to her:
 «It cannot be otherwise ... But do everything you can to have the right intention and detachment. Fix your glance upon Me, and make sure that whatever you do be in conformity with what I did» (Favours, 11)

Next year is the 500th anniersary of the birth of the great Saint

Recently Kirsty Jane McCulloch published an interview which she had with Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury about the saint. In 1991 he published his biography of the saint

The interview will be published in the May/June 2014 issue of Theology.

In the interview Lord Williams discussed at length his fascination with the saint

Of her spirituality and mysticism he said:
"People have certainly tried to pathologise Teresa, in particular, and she undoubtedly had some very strange experiences.  
At the same time, people do still have these experiences and are sometimes very frightened of talking about them, because they don’t want to be thought insane or disturbed.  
People look with a mixture of suspicion, respect and envy at those who claim some sort of connection with the transcendent, and don’t quite know what to do with it.  
There are two problems, I think, in our modern discourse about mysticism.  
One—I hinted at this, I suppose, in the book—is to identify mysticism with a whole succession of odd experiences; whereas I think that for Teresa, and certainly for John [of the Cross], the really stomach-churning, dramatic and bizarre experiences are just your entry into another level. 
It’s not that you go on having stomach-churning, bizarre experiences and mystical ecstasy right up to the end. The whole point is to get you to another kind of normality, almost.  
So the mistake now is often to see mysticism as just about ecstasy.  
People look at Bernini’s famous statue and think that’s mysticism, whereas Teresa, I think, would have taken a very dim view indeed of that statue, very dim. “That’s precisely not the point: of course I had these extraordinary experiences, and I wished at the time I wasn’t having them, but eventually what it permitted me to do was to wash the dishes mindfully and prayerfully.” She more or less says that. 
Now the other error, I think, is the old chestnut about spirituality and religion: “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” A statement which drives me to distraction, as you can imagine, because there the spiritual becomes something very private, very interior, which doesn’t really threaten anybody very much and doesn’t do what people like Teresa are doing, which is to put a sharp question from the margin.  
To say, well, if you’re serious about being spiritual, you live differently: get used to it.  
Those two problems make these questions all the harder these day"

Temptation and Penance

Ambrogio di Stefano Bergognone 1453-1523
The Temptation and Penance of St Benedict of Nursia 
c. 1490
From the altarpiece with The Life of St Benedict from The Charterhouse of Pavia
Oil on wood panel
27 x 42 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes

Ambrogio di Stefano Bergognone  and his brother Bernardino were commissioned between 1488 and 1494 to produce altarpieces and frescoes for the decoration of The Charterhouse of Pavia in Northern Italy

This predella was originally a panel in the altarpiece in the Chapel of St Benedict of Nursia

One of the great Milanese painters of the fifteenth century, not much is known of his life except that he was from a family of artists

This predella is based on the incident narrated by St Gregory the Great in his biography of St Benedict (Dialogues Book 2, Chapter 2: "How he overcame a great temptation of the flesh")

"Upon a certain day being alone, the tempter was at hand: for a little black bird, commonly called a merle or an ousel, began to fly about his face, and that so near as the holy man, if he would, might have taken it with his hand: but after he had blessed himself with the sign of the cross, the bird flew away: and forthwith the holy man was assaulted with such a terrible temptation of the flesh, as he never felt the like in all his life. 
A certain woman there was which some time he had seen, the memory of which the wicked spirit put into his mind, and by the representation of her did so mightily inflame with concupiscence the soul of God's servant, which did so increase that, almost overcome with pleasure, he was of mind to have forsaken the wilderness.  
But, suddenly assisted with God's grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them,and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn: and so by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, did inwardly burn in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin, because he made a change of the fire. 
From which time forward, as himself did afterward report unto his disciples, he found all temptation of pleasure so subdued, that he never felt any such thing 
Many after this began to abandon the world, and to become his scholars.  
For being now freed from the vice of temptation, worthily and with great reason is he made a master of virtue: for which cause, in Exodus, commandment is given by Moses that the Levites from five-and-twenty years and upward should serve, but, after they came to fifty, that they should be ordained keepers of the holy vessels.   
PETER. Somewhat I understand of this testimony alleged: but yet I beseech you to tell me the meaning thereof more fully. 
GREGORY. It is plain, Peter, that in youth the temptation of the flesh is hot: but after fifty years the heat of the body waxeth cold, and the souls of faithful people become holy vessels.  
Wherefore necessary it is that God's elect servants, whiles they are yet in the heat of temptation, should live in obedience, serve, and be wearied with labour and pains.  
But when, by reason of age, the heat of temptation is past, they become keepers of holy vessels; because they then are made the doctors of men's souls. 
PETER. I cannot deny, but that your words have given me full satisfaction: wherefore, seeing you have now expounded the meaning of the former text alleged, prosecute, I pray, as you have begun, the rest of the holy man's life."
Nowadays we are probably apt to consider the teaching in the picture as rather quaint and "medieval" and possibly "naive"

We see the bird, black and mysterious, the harbinger of evil although it might remind us of a scene in Hitchcock`s The Birds 

We see the image of the temptation, the woman, as having the feet of the Devil, a rather comic possibly pantomime image in today`s culture. We do not believe in the Devil these days

We recoil at the extreme penance of Benedict depicted on the right hand side of the panel. The tearing of the flesh and the thorns remind us of the Passion of Christ. This, we say, is surely excessive and disproportionate

As for Gregory`s view of sexual passion and activity after the age of fifty, this would be scoffed at and quickly discounted

As for Benedict never being subject to sexual temptation again and being able to resist it, we might these days find it rather incredible, a pious fable. We are all Freudians now

In any event the constant bombardment of sexual images from all sides and in all walks of life especially as a means to sell merchandise is a sad fact of life. It is now, as they say, "the culture"

But the important words in Gregory`s Dialogues are overlooked: "suddenly assisted with God's grace". 

Benedict does not overcome temptation by self help or those of his fellow monks. Only "by God`s grace". Modern man is either ignorant of or has despaired of God`s grace

He does not ask for it

But behind this tale and this picture is a rather complex and sophisticated view of the nature of sin, penance and reconciliation. 

In 1982 as a preparatory work to a subsequent discussion of a Synod of Bishops, the International Theological Commission (under the guidance of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) published Penance and Reconciliation

It said:
"1... In baptism we die as Jesus died on the Cross, and this is the fundamental basis of all Christian penance. 
2. The New Testament denotes the Cross of Jesus Christ with concepts such as vicarious representation, sacrifice, atonement. 
All these concepts are nowadays poorly understood by a great number of people and hence must be carefully deciphered and interpreted. 
In an introductory and preparatory way this can be done by pointing to the solidarity itself of human life: the being, deeds, and omissions of the other and the others affect the individual in his own being and doing. 
In this way, a new understanding can be reached of the fact that by his obedience and his self-surrender “for the many”, Jesus Christ’s work of redemption becomes fully understandable only if one adds to this that in Jesus Christ God himself has entered into the condition humana. In this way, through the Person of the God-Man Jesus Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself (cf. 2 Cor 5:14, 17). 
Redemption from sin, otherwise known as the forgiveness of sin, takes place therefore by means of the admirabile commercium. God has made “the sinless one into sin so that in him we might become the justice of God” (2 Cor 5:21; cf. Rom 8:3f; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24). 
“In the human nature united to himself the Son of God, by overcoming death through his own death and Resurrection, redeemed man and changed him into a new creation” (Lumen Gentium  7). 
“By the very fact that human nature was assumed, not absorbed in him, it has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond comparison. For by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man” (Gaudium et Spes 22; cf. International Theological Commission, “Select Questions on Christology” [1979]).
3. Christian penance is a participation in the suffering and death of Christ.  
This comes about per fidem et caritatem et per fidei sacramenta (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, q. 49, a. 3 ad 6).  
Christian penance has its foundation in baptism, which is the sacrament of conversion for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and the sacrament of faith. Therefore, it should have a determining influence on the entire Christian life (cf. Rom 6:3ff.). 
Christian penance must therefore not be understood in the first place as an ethical and ascetic event but as basically sacramental, viz., the gift of a new existence, granted by God, which also urges ethical and ascetical practice.  
It should not only take place in individual acts, but it should also characterize the entire Christian life.  
In this statement the justified concern of Luther’s first thesis on indulgences, 31 October 1517, is also intimated. As a matter of fact, penance should not be reduced by being considered in a personal isolation.  
Following Jesus as it does, it must be understood both as obedience to the Father and as a vicarious service for the others and for the world."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Blessed Giuseppe Antonio Tovini - a Blessed Banker from Brescia

Giuseppe Antonio Lomuscio b.1955
Canvas for the Beatification of Blessed  Giuseppe Antonio Tovini, 1998 (detail)
Oil on canvas

Today is the feast day of Blessed Giuseppe Antonio Tovini (1841 – 1897) - lawyer, banker and tertiary Franciscan

The canvas banner for the Beatification of Blessed Giuseppe Antonio Tovini was executed by the distinguished Italian religious artist Giuseppe Antonio Lomuscio (b.1955) whose work I have already touched on in earlier articles when, for example, his statue of St Michael the Archangel was unveiled recently in the Vatican Gardens

The blessed`s birthplace Cividate Camuno is shown in the background. It is near Brescia in Lombardy, hence the beautiful scenery

It is the Blessed`s feast day, the commemoration of the day of his death. 

The town is proud of their local son. A monument was put up for him in the town square. Here it is

Simone Magnolini 1895 -1982
Statue memorial to Blessed  Giuseppe Antonio Tovini
13 x 18 cm
Collection of the Lombardy Region, Milan

One great admirer of the Blessed was Pope Paul VI who in October 1953 as Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini wrote a preface to a Biography of the Blessed. The Book and preface can be viewed in Italian here

It is an interesting introduction by the young Montini and provides an insight into his view of Catholic social teaching which he saw as not starting with Pope Leo XIII but rather Blessed Pope Pius IX. 

In particular it shows how  he saw Catholic Action growing out as a reaction to and antidote to the secularisation of the Reunification of Italy and a United Italy after 1870

It was an alternative to secular Italian nationalism at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century

But it was more than a political party or pressure group. It was above all, a spiritual enterprise

Tovini was a lawyer who involved himself in social projects. He founded two banks: Banca di Valle Camonica and the Banco Ambrosiano in the area of Brescia

He was heavily influenced by Rosmini

It was of course the Banco Ambrosiano which collapsed in 1982 (with the Vatican Bank being its main shareholder)  and its chairman Roberto Calvi was found that year hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London, presumably murdered

Imaginations have of course gone into overdrive

Tovini however ran a clean establishment and that was the way it was for a very long  time

He cannot be blamed for corruption which set in nearly seventy years after his death

And so Blessed Pope John Paul II on 20 September 1998 journeyed to Brescia for the Beatification of Giuseppe Tovini. At the same time he celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pope Paul VI

In his homily he launched into an encomium of the Brescian church and at the same time the lives of Pope Paul VI and Blessed Giuseppe Tovini

He said:
"4. The roots of Pope Montini’s particular sensitivity to the great social questions of our century are sunk deep in his Brescian origins. 
In his own family and then during the years of his youth in Brescia, he breathed that atmosphere, that fervour of activity which made Brescian Catholicism one of the significant landmarks of the Catholic presence in the social and political life of the country. 
Addressing his fellow citizens at the beginning of his Pontificate, Paul VI expressed this debt of gratitude: 
“Brescia! The city which not only gave me birth but is such a part of the civil, spiritual and human tradition, teaching me as well the meaning of life in this world and always offering me a framework which, I think, will withstand future experiences ordained over the years by divine Providence” (cf. Address to a Pilgrimage from Milan and Brescia, 29 June 1963, in Insegnamenti I [1963], p. 647).
5. Bl. Giuseppe Tovini was certainly a great witness of the Gospel incarnated in Italy's social and economic history in the last century. He is resplendent for his strong personality, his profound lay and family spirituality, and for his generous efforts to improve society. Between Tovini and Giovanni Battista Montini there is — as a matter of fact — a close, profound spiritual and mental bond. 
In fact, the Pontiff himself wrote of Tovini: 
“The impression he left on those I first knew and esteemed was so vivid and so real that I frequently heard comments and praise of his extraordinary personality and his many varied activities; astonished, I heard admiring expressions of his virtue and sorrowful regrets at his early death” (cf. Preface by Giovanni Battista Montini to the biography of Giuseppe Tovini by Fr Antonio Cistellini in 1953, p. I)."
Perhaps it was the fact that his nuncio was having to explain the clerical child sex scandal to the United Nations in Geneva today. 

Perhaps it was today`s memorial to Blessed Giuseppe Tovini and how Tovini`s foundation had originally been a spiritual enterprise and a force for good which inspired Popes and Catholic foundations not only in Italy but throughout the Catholic world. 

He had very strong words regarding these scandals
"“Do we feel ashamed? So many scandals that I do not want to mention singularly, but we all know them. We know where they are! Scandals, some who have paid so much money ...The shame of the Church!” he exclaimed. 
“The Word of God in those scandals is rare; in those men and in those women the Word of God was rare! 
They did not have a bond with God! They had a position in the Church, a position of power, also of comfort. But the Word of God, no! 
‘But, I have a medal’; ‘I wear the Cross’’. Yes, like those who carried the Ark! Without the living relationship with God and with the Word of God! The Words of Jesus come to mind for them and for those involved in scandals. 
And here scandal has come: a decay of the people of God, to the weakness, to the corruption of priests”
The task of the Holy Father to reform the institutions of the Church is immense. 

He is up against huge vested interests who are self satisfied and at best blinded by their own corruption. 

He should not be criticised or vilified. 

Has the old Brescian model run its course ? Is it broken down beyond repair ?

Pope Benedict started the reforms. Pope Francis is now left to continue these reforms and expand them

We should pray for him as he seeks to restore the pristine face of Christ on earth - the Church


Blessed  Giuseppe Antonio Tovini had a nephew, Father Moses Tovini (1877-1930).  

Giuseppe was also Moses` godfather at his Baptism. Moses was close to his uncle and looked on him as a role model

Blessed Moses Tovini

Pope Paul VI  (when Archbishop Montini) said of Father Moses:
" A pious, learned and zealous priest; and one might add, a profusion of many other adjectives:  affable, humble, calm, refined, generous, patient, loyal.... He was a priest through and through, as priests should be. ... 
Indeed, he had unique qualities:  a strong speculative intelligence distinguished him from the ordinary; kindness, veiled by candour and timidity, on which he never went back; everything in him was so modest and thoughtful that to appreciate him for what he was worth, it was necessary to be close to him and to know him well.  
And after becoming acquainted with him and appreciating him, praise would not be so much confirmation of the uniqueness of his virtues as rather of the balance, harmony and range of his gifts, natural and acquired, that made the priest the rarest yet at the same time the most common man; the man relatively perfect to be admired.  
And all together accessible to all to be imitated".