Sunday, May 27, 2012

Veni Sancte Spiritus

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Holy Spirit
Center of the Cathedra Petri, the final
point in the apse of St. Peter's Basilica
Italian, 1647-1653
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica

Happy Birthday Church! 

Pentecost Sunday is usually ranked as the beginning day for the Church as we know it.  Until the Spirit came to the still-shocked Apostles and other disciples, people who had suffered a terrible series of shocks in a short time (the betrayal and Crucifixion of their leader, His Resurrection, Appearances and Ascension), they were not yet more than a group of worried and probably confused individuals.  With the Spirit they understood and they wanted to share that understanding with the rest of the world.  From that moment of inspiration, understanding and sharing Christians every where and every when have been the beneficiaries. 

I've reviewed my previous comments on the iconography of Pentecost and refer you back to them.  You can read it here.

For this year I'd like to share with you the beautiful sequence for Pentecost Veni Sancte Spiritus, one of the four great Gregorian sequences that were preserved in the universal liturgy from the medieval liturgies by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). 
Here are the Latin words and a literal English translation. 

Latin text                                     English version

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,                     Come, Holy Spirit,
et emitte caelitus                            send forth the heavenly
lucis tuae radium.                           radiance of your light.

Veni, pater pauperum,                   Come, father of the poor,
veni, dator munerum                      come giver of gifts,
veni, lumen cordium.                     come, light of the heart.

Consolator optime,                       Greatest comforter,
dulcis hospes animae,                    sweet guest of the soul,
dulce refrigerium.                          sweet consolation.

In labore requies,                         In labor, rest,
in aestu temperies                         in heat, temperance,
in fletu solatium.                            in tears, solace.
O lux beatissima,                         O most blessed light,
reple cordis intima                        fill the inmost heart
tuorum fidelium.                           of your faithful.
Sine tuo numine,                           Without your divine will,
nihil est in homine,                         there is nothing in man,
nihil est innoxium.                          nothing is harmless.
Lava quod est sordidum,              Wash that which is unclean,
riga quod est aridum,                     water that which is dry,
sana quod est saucium.                  heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,               Bend that which is inflexible,

fove quod est frigidum,                 warm that which is chilled,
rege quod est devium.                  make right that which is wrong.

Da tuis fidelibus,                          Give to your faithful,
in te confidentibus,                       who rely on you,
sacrum septenarium.                    the sevenfold gifts.

Da virtutis meritum,                     Give reward to virtue,
da salutis exitum,                         give salvation at our passing on,
da perenne gaudium,                   give eternal joy.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Ascension

Salvador Dali, The Ascension of Christ
Spanish, 1958
Mexico City, Private Collection
Read the essay here

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Monkeys in the Margins - the Breviary of Queen Isabella

Monkey Playing the Bagpipes
from the Isabella Breviary
Flemish (Bruges), ca. 1488-ca. 1497
London, British Library
MS Additional 18851, fol. 270
This "monkey", despite the well-observed
paws, is more humanoid in appearance than
most.  Clad in a fool's hood (note the ears) he
is meant to be seen as grotesque.
I've been somewhat under the weather recently and so have not been doing much research.  However, I just came across this interesting and amusing article on the medieval manuscript blog of the British Library that I thought I would share with you.

To read the blog article and see the other illuminations, click on
Monkeys in the Margins - Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts

A Breviary, contains the psalms and readings and prayers for the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours.  Often associated with the clergy and religious alone, the breviary is an important prayer tool for the laity as well.  In the later middle ages especially, it was a well-used item by many in the literate classes.  A shortened version, for the use of the laity, known as the Book of Hours , is the most common book surviving from the middle ages.  Most of the manuscript editions we see today are the luxe versions prepared for and used by the noblility. Often these contained calendar pages , illustrations of Biblical events, devotional images and border decorations so that each was a little art gallery. 

Frequently, the border decorations on the pages included paintings of plants and animals from the natural world, sometimes providing thinly disguised commentary on the folly of human activities.  The artist (or artists) who decorated this manuscript Breviary, which belonged to Queen Isabella of Castille (the patron of Christopher Colombus) seems to have had a particular interest in the humanoid activities of monkeys, who preen, play the bagpipes, tend to the vines they live among and perform other activites. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

St. Joseph, Spouse As Mousetrap

Guido Reni, St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Italian, 1620s
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
The image of St. Joseph has had a curious history, reflecting the attitude to Joseph as it has developed through time. Today we tend to think of him as the supportive companion of the Virgin Mary or as the strong, silent protector of the Infant Jesus or as the craftsman going quietly about his work. But all of these images are only a few centuries old, if that.

For most of the history of Christian art St. Joseph was either ignored or treated as a very minor background figure. Early depictions of the birth of Jesus don’t include him at all! And, since his appearances in the New Testament end with the episode of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve, that (as a background figure at the Nativity) was pretty much the limit of inclusion for Joseph.

In early medieval images in both the East and the West Joseph, when he appears at all, is segregated from Mary and the Christ Child, even in Nativity images. Further, he is invariably shown not as a sturdy man in his prime, but as an old, indeed sometimes a very old. man.
Guido da Siena, Nativity
Italian, ca. 1270
Paris, Musée du Louvre

In this thirteenth-century Italian Nativity scene, Joseph (shown seating at the extreme left at the bottom) has about the same level of importance as the midwives who bathe the Baby Jesus or the kneeling shepherd and his dog.

Duccio, Nativity
Italian, 1308-1311
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art
In this picture, by Duccio, Joseph has increased in size, a sure indicator that he is becoming a more important figure.  So, he is now marginally more important than the midwives and the shepherds with their sheep and dog because he is bigger in size.
Both of these aspects of Joseph’s iconography, his advanced age and his detachment, spring from the concern to protect both the divinity of Christ and the perpetual virginity of Mary. It was thought that a younger, more involved figure might raise questions about his role.1

By the later middle ages this was beginning to change. While still shown as an old man, Joseph began to take a more active role in the scenes of Jesus’ life. He is brought into the same space as Mary and Jesus.  He begins to help at the birth, join Mary in adoration of the Child, welcome the Magi, take part in the Presentation in the Temple and to work.

Master of Flemalle, Nativity
Netherlandish, 1420
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Fra Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Shepherds
Italian, c. 1455
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Jacques Daret, Adoration of the Magi
French, 1433-1435
Berlin, Staatliche Museen 
Jacques Daret, Presentation of Jesus
French, 1433-1435
Paris, Musée du Petit Palais

Other scenes, taken from apocryphal stories of the life of Mary, began to appear, among them the story of his choice as Mary’s husband and the marriage ceremony itself.

Giotto, Mary's Suitors Bring Their Rods to the Temple
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

For, example Giotto's frescoes from the Life of the Virgin cycle in the Arena (or Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua, include the apocryphal story of the manner in which Joseph was chosen as Mary's husband.

Mary's many suitors were asked to each bring a wooden rod to the Temple, where they were given to the High Priest.  The rods were left on the altar overnight, while the men prayed over them.  In the morning one of the rods had bloomed with lilies.  It was Joseph's rod.

Giotto shows Joseph as one of the crowd of suitors, but not prominent.  He is an older man than the others and shown as standing and kneeling toward the back of the group.

Giotto, The Suitors Praying Over Their Rods
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

Giotto, The Marriage of Mary and Joseph
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel
In the scene of the wedding of Mary and Joseph he carries his lily topped rod as a symbol of his own purity and as the sign of divine appointment as foster father for Jesus.

Fra Angelico, Marriage of the Virgin
Italian, 1431-1432
Florence, Museo di San Marco
Raphael, Marriage of Virgin
Italian, 1504
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Rosso, Marriage of Virgin
Italian, 1523
Florence, San Lorenzo
Alonso Cano, Marriage of the Virgin
Spanish, 1655-1657
Castres, Musée Goya

One of the most interesting images of Saint Joseph from the later middle ages/early Renaissance period appears on the right wing of the Merode Altarpiece.

Workshop of Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle), Merode Altarpiece
Netherlandish, 1427-1432
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
This triptych, now in the Cloisters branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was painted by the Flemish artist Robert Campin and his workshop during the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The central panel shows the Annunciation taking place in a typical 15th-century town parlor. The right wing shows Joseph in his workshop.  He is seated at a bench and table by the open window of his shop, surrounded by the implements of his trade. Some completed projects appear, most conspicuous among them are two mousetraps (one is on the table, the other on display in the open window). Scholars have identified the symbolic meaning of these mousetraps. They are “the devil’s mousetrap".2

Robert Campin, St. Joseph, the Mousetrap
Detail of the Merode Altarpiece,  Right Wing

The idea of the mousetrap as a symbol for the Redemption is drawn from sermons of St. Augustine – the Incarnation is God’s mousetrap to catch the devil. The devil wasn’t expecting the Messiah to come in the form of a human baby, especially one born into such humble surroundings.  Further, St. Joseph himself is a third mousetrap. His presence as the apparent father of Jesus confused the devil further. The devil anticipated contending with a different kind of Messiah, not the child of a humble carpenter.  So, by inspiring the human death of Jesus the devil was himself destroyed.

This image, equating St. Joseph with the mousetrap, stands at a seminal point for the Josephite iconography. It is probably not a coincidence that this image appeared during the period in which devotion to St. Joseph began to develop. It was in 1479 that the feast of St. Joseph, celebrated on March 19, was added to the Roman calendar of commemorations.

During the later Renaissance and into the Baroque period Joseph became more and more evident and involved. His age began to change as well. Although some artists continued to depict him as an older man many began to depict him as young and vigorous. Even those who chose to make him older never again made him as old as did the earlier images.
Michelangelo, Holy Family (Doni Tondo)
Italian, ca. 1506
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Italian, 1596-1597
Rome, Galleria Doria-Pamphilji

Philippe de Champaigne, Presentation of Jesus
French, 1648
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Caesar van Everdingen, Holy Family
Dutch, c. 1660
Utrecht, Museum Catherijneconvent

Francesco Mancini, Holy Family
Italian, c.1730
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, Pinacoteca
Artists also began to depict a closer relationship between Jesus and his foster father. They were more frequently seen in close connection to each other. Joseph now carries and cares for the infant Jesus and teaches the boy Jesus.
George de la Tour, The Boy Jesus and St. Joseph  in the Carpenter's Shop
French, 1642
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Sebastian Martinez, St. Joseph with the Christ Child
Spanish, c. 1650
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, St. Joseph with the Christ Child
Italian, c. 1740
Private Collection

Noel Halle, Holy Family
French, 1753
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum

Finally, with Mary and Jesus, he forms a sort of terrestrial trinity represented by the familiar formula: Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Bartolome Murillo, The Two Trinities
Spanish, 1675-1682
London, National Gallery of Art

In more recent times Joseph has begun to stand on his own, as a saint in his own right. On December 8, 1870 Pope Pius IX, in the decree Quaemadmodem Deus (“As Almighty God”) declared him the patron of the universal Church and in 1899, in the encyclical Quamquam pluries (“Although many times”) Pope Leo XIII urged all Catholics to give Joseph special honor during the month of March and especially on the 19th of March, his feast day. Further the phrase “Blessed be St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse" was added to the Divine Praises by Pope Benedict XV on February 23, 1921. Benedict XV also encouraged devotion to St. Joseph in the Motu Proprio, Bonum Sane (It was a good thing), of July 25, 1920. And finally, in 1955 Pope Pius XII instituted an additional feast day for St. Joseph, under the title of St. Joseph the Worker. It is celebrated on May 1, although it is frequently displaced by the Easter weekday.

Currently, it is expected that Pope Benedict XVI, whose baptismal name is Joseph, will proclaim Joseph as patron of the New Evangelization during the upcoming Year of Faith.

© M. Duffy, 2012
1. A good summary of the history of images of St. Joseph is found at

2. Meyer Schapiro, "Muscipula Diaboli," The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), pp. 182-187.

Also see: Margaret B. Freeman, “The Iconography of the Merode Altarpiece”, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 16, no. 4, December 1957, pp. 130-139.