Thursday, June 30, 2011

First Martyrs of the Church of Rome

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer
French, 1883
Baltimore, Walters Art Museum

Today, June 30, we honor the memory of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. These are the mostly nameless men and women who were killed during the first organized persecution of the early church, under the Emperor Nero.

As the Roman historian, Tacitus, tells it, a fire broke out in the city of Rome during July 64. The extent of the fire is not known for certain. But it is known that it destroyed much of the area of what is now the Coliseum.

The Emperor made an effort to relieve the sufferings of those whose homes and businesses were destroyed. However, as people do, the Roman plebs began to blame him for the fire, once it became known that he intended to build a palace for himself in the burned area. In an attempt to divert suspicion from himself he looked for a scapegoat. And he found one among the strange new sect of Jews who were known as Christians. Known Christians were rounded up and tortured. Then others were also picked up, based on information extracted from the first group. They were condemned to death in several of the gruesome ways in which Rome punished criminals – as part of the entertainment in the arena, for example.

Not too many images of this episode in early Church history have been produced. Certainly none were produced at the time. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to have been memorialized artistically until the 19th century. One such is the painting by Jean-Leon Gerome. His painting of Christian Martyrs at Prayer in the Arena shows a group of Christians kneeling together in the center of the Coliseum, surrounded not only by the spectators, but also by other Christians who have been crucified and some who have, as Tacitus suggests, been burned alive to provide light in the evening. Gerome was a late 19th-century academic painter, with a fondness for the exotic and for imaginative reconstructions of historical events. In this case, imagination is certainly in play. For one thing, the Coliseum wasn’t built until after the death of Nero.  The lion is not a figment of his imagination, however.  The use of lions and other wild animals in the Roman amphitheatres is well attested.  They were used to entertain by fighting with each other, or with gladiators or as punishment of criminals, who were sentenced to "damnatio ad bestias".1

Henryk Siemiradski,  Nero's Torches
Polish, 1876
Krakow, National Museum
Another artist who took the deaths of the early Christians as a theme was the Polish painter, Henryk Siemiradski.  His paintings, "Nero's Torches" and "The Christian Dirce"2 were quite famous.  It is interesting that his contemporary and fellow Pole, Henryk Sienkiewicz, wrote what is undoubtedly the most famous novel about those first persecutions, Quo Vadis (1895).

Henryk Siemiradzki, Christian Dirce
Polish, 1897
Krakow, National Museum
However, whatever the reality of the settings in which the first martyrs met their deaths, or how many of them there were, they stand, nobly, at the head of a long and still growing list of martyrs for the faith and at the head of the Litany of the Saints, one of the great treasures of the Catholic faith.

In 2005, in the days between the death of Pope John Paul II and the inauguration of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, we heard the invocation of the saints in the repetition of the Litany of the Saints several times. Pope Benedict even mentioned it in the homily he delivered at the Inaugural Mass. And, what he said on that occasion is worth repeating.

On each occasion, in a particular way, I found great consolation in listening to this prayerful chant. How alone we all felt after the passing of John Paul II …….He crossed the threshold of the next life, entering into the mystery of God. But he did not take this step alone. Those who believe are never alone – neither in life nor in death. At that moment, we could call upon the Saints from every age – his friends, his brothers and sisters in the faith – knowing that they would form a living procession to accompany him into the next world, into the glory of God. We knew that his arrival was awaited. Now we know that he is among his own and is truly at home. We were also consoled as we made our solemn entrance into Conclave, to elect the one whom the Lord had chosen. How would we be able to discern his name? How could 115 Bishops, from every culture and every country, discover the one on whom the Lord wished to confer the mission of binding and loosing? Once again, we knew that we were not alone, we knew that we were surrounded, led and guided by the friends of God. And now, at this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this? How will I be able to do it? All of you, my dear friends, have just invoked the entire host of Saints, represented by some of the great names in the history of God’s dealings with mankind. In this way, I too can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. And your prayers, my dear friends, your indulgence, your love, your faith and your hope accompany me. Indeed, the communion of Saints consists not only of the great men and women who went before us and whose names we know. All of us belong to the communion of Saints, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we who draw life from the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood, through which he transforms us and makes us like himself."

The Litany reminds us of our heritage as Christians. It is our collective memory, our family history. As I listened to the Litany during those days of the funeral for Pope John Paul II I was deeply moved by the list of names. Here were great men and women going back and back through time. There were the apostles and the other disciples: Mary, Peter, John, Paul, Mary Magdalene. There were the great early bishops and doctors of the Church, east and west: Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, John Crysostom. And the great medieval saints who still influence our world: Catherine of Siena, Francis and Dominic and other great names: Ignatius Loyola, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa de Jesus. But most moving in the context of those days were the names of the martyrs of the early church in Rome and its empire: Lawrence, Tarsicius, Clement,  Agnes, Perpetua and Felicity, Cecilia, and the "Proto-Martiri Romani" some of whom may have died right on the site of the Vatican, in the Roman circus that once stood there, or nearby in Trastevere or just across the short span of the Tiber in the Colosseum or the Campus Martius and whose bodies repose all over Rome. By their lives and by their deaths these men and women showed all future generations the meaning of love for Christ and for the Church – and the price that may have to be paid for that love.
Procession of Female Martyrs
Byzantine Mosaic, second half of 6th century
Ravenna, Basilica of Sant'Appollinare Nuovo

The Litany is endlessly repeatable and endlessly powerful. As it moves forward in time and globally in space, names can be added to its list to honor newly recognized saints or those of particularly local significance.

Jacques de Besançon, Court of Heaven, the Martyrs
from Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 245, fol. 156r

In the ordinary life of a Catholic Christian the Litany is seldom heard. It occurs annually during the Easter Vigil. Otherwise, it is confined to special events such as confirmations and ordinations. In some ways, this is sad, because it restricts the hearing of this listing of the names of the “cloud of witnesses” to these events. On the other hand, perhaps hearing it more often would somewhat diminish its impact when heard.

For it does have impact. As one friend, a convert from a non-religious, vaguely Evangelical, upbringing said to me about her memories of the Easter Vigil on which she entered into full Communion with the Catholic Church, “The Litany of the Saints really packed a wallop for me. Here was something my Evangelical upbringing had no room for, here was my family history as a Christian. The knowledge that all these people of the past were alive and were praying for me, along with the people in the church that night was overwhelming.”

Moreover, when we pray the Litany of he Saints we are reminded that we are joined in the fellowship of prayer with those thousands of years of living faith. As Pope Benedict said, “We are not alone.” All of us are united in an eternal ‘now’ of God that destroys the barriers of time and space.

© M. Duffy, 2011

1,   Jacob Coley, Roman Games: Playing with Animals, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York at Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

2.   Dirce is a woman from Greek mythology who was cruel.  As punishment, she was tied to the horns of a bull to be gored to death.  In the Roman amphitheater "amusements" often included using the deaths contained in the mythical stories to put real people to death.   In his "Letter to the Corinthians", Saint Clement of Rome alluded to the recent deaths of Saints Peter and Paul and alluded to an additional
 "great multitude of the elect, who, having through envy endured many indignities and tortures, furnished us with a most excellent example. Through envy, those women, the Danaids and Dircæ, being persecuted, after they had suffered terrible and unspeakable torments, finished the course of their faith with steadfastness, and though weak in body, received a noble reward."
Chapters 5 and 6 of Letter to the Corinthians by Saint Clement of Rome. See: Translated by John Keith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9. Edited by Allan Menzies. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

Peter, Paul and Caravaggio

Cerasi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
(In reality, never as brightly lit as this photo)

Today is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The two are generally seen as the pillars of the early Church. Peter the Apostle chosen by Jesus to lead the Church into the future and Paul the convert and Apostle to the Gentiles. Between them they established the fledgling Church, carrying the Word far beyond the confines of Palestine and into the Greco-Roman world. And they both suffered martyrdom under the Emperor Nero.

They are also frequently seen together in artistic creations. In 2008 I wrote about Raphael’s inclusion of the two saints in his tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. Today I would like to look at the two paintings by Caravaggio in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

Completed around 1600 they have long been recognized as being among the finest works of Caravaggio’s early maturity. Typical of his work they feature startlingly realistic figures seen in strong chiaroscuro (dark/light). In the space of the tiny Cerasi chapel, they are overwhelming in their impact on the viewer.

I have already written about the Conversion of St. Paul (here)

Caravaggio, Conversion of St. Paul
Italian, 1600
Rome, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel

Facing it is the Martyrdom of St. Peter. As with the Conversion of St. Paul this is an exceptionally intimate experience.  We see St. Peter as he is being raised on the cross, head first, as tradition suggests. The three executioners, none of whose faces we can see clearly, strain to raise the cross. Only Peter’s face is visible. It is as though we were among the witnesses to his crucifixion.  Perhaps it is our own hands that have driven the nails into his.  This interpretation is suggested by the fact that we see his body turned in our direction and his eyes directed toward the nails. 

Caravaggio, Martyrdom of Saint Peter
Italian, 1600
Rome, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel
Such visionary immediacy is typical of the early Baroque. The intent is to involve the viewer of a work of art as immediately as possible, to force us to place ourselves in the position of participants, even to shock. It is a way of making the past real to us, part of our time.  We are called to both compassion and sorrow, even to guilt for our own sins. 

© M. Duffy, 2011

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Corpus Christi – Last Supper vs. Institution of the Eucharist

Anonymous, Last Supper/Institution of the Eucharist
French (possibly Corbie), ca. 1175
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 6v
(This medieval manuscript illumination shows characteristics of both image types.  The 
Apostles are grouped as for a Last Supper scene, but Christ appears as if the priest at 
Mass at the point just before Communion.)

The feast known as Corpus Christi or the Body and Blood of Christ was established as a feast of the universal Church in 1264. The focus of the feast is the Body and Blood of Christ. The mystery of the Eucharist stands at the heart of the Church and there are several different ways in which that mystery has been portrayed in images throughout history.

Eucharistic iconography is a very complex subject, but I will only look at one of the images today. This is the distinction between images of the Last Supper and those of the Institution of the Eucharist. At first glance this may seem confusing. After all, aren’t they the same thing? Well, yes and no. Although the events depicted are essentially the same, the manner in which they are depicted is different.

Both types of painting focus on the events in the Upper Room on the night before Jesus died.
As the Gospel of Matthew (and the other Synoptic Gospels) tell us:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body."
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you,
For this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.
(Matthew 26:26-28)

Both types of images are set in the Upper Room, both usually feature a table. Apart from that they are very different in the figural composition and narrative content.

Giotto, Last Supper
Italian, 1304
Padua, Arena Chapel

Images of the Last Supper present Jesus and the Apostles seated around or on one side of a table and engaged in a meal. Classic examples are the well-known images by Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci. Jesus may be seen to be blessing the bread or not. It is the moment just before or just as Jesus pronounces the words given in the Gospels.

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Italain, 1498
Milan, Santa Maria della Grazie

However, images of the Institution of the Eucharist are different.  In many of these images the distinction from a Last Supper scene is very subtle. The figures are shown seated at the table, but the atmosphere is less that of a meal than of a Mass. Jesus may hold a Host, just as a priest does during Mass, He may even make gestures like those made by the priest. This is an image of the Last Supper as the First Mass.
Fra Angelico and Assistants, Institution of the Eucharist
Italian, 1441-1442
Florence, Museo di San Marco

In some of them, neither Jesus nor the Apostles are seated. Jesus is shown standing and the Apostles are generally kneeling. It is the moment after the words of the Scriptures have been said. It is, in effect, an image of the Last Supper as the First Holy Communion.

Jean Colombe, Institution of the Eucharist
from Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry
Flemish, 1485
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS DB 65, fol. 189v

There are images of the Institution of the Eucharist that date from well before the Reformation (which began in 1515), such as the image at the top of the page, which dates from the late twelfth century.  This predates even the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.

Among these images is a page from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc of Berry, which shows Christ distributing Communion in the manner of a priest to the faithful at Mass.  In the small picture that forms the illuminated capital letter is an image of Christ holding the chalice and elevating the Host.

Another is a painting by the Flemish artist identified as Just van Ghent, but apparently painted in Italy.

Joos van Ghent, Institution of the Eucharist
Flemish, 1473-1475
Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche

Ercole de'Roberti, Insitution of the Eucharist
Italian, 1490s
London, National Gallery 

And there is also an example by Ercole de Roberti, in a tabernacle door probably from Ferrara in the 1490s

All of these pictures are dated to the last quarter of the 15th century (1475-1500).

However, there are many more dating from after 1515, indeed from the period known as the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reform. This is the period that includes the Council of Trent, which ran in three sessions from 1545-1563, and the period of Catholic recovery that followed it. It covers roughly the second half of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century.

That there should be many images of the Institution of the Eucharist in the Counter-Reformation period is not surprising. One of the principal Reformation attacks on Catholicism was on Transubstantiation, the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ that happens during the Consecration of Mass. Trent reaffirmed the traditional belief in Transubstantiation and in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist following the Consecration.

After Trent, artists were encouraged through commissions and instructions to paint pictures that would reaffirm and transmit Catholic teachings visually. And among the artists who responded with appropriate images were:

In an altarpiece from the Aldobrandini Chapel in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome by Federico Barocci.
Federico Barocci, Insitution of the Eucharist
Italian, 1608
Rome, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

A painting by Nicolas Poussin, in one of his series of paintings of the Seven Sacraments.
Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist
French, 1645
Paris, Musée du Louvre 

And by James Tissot for his Biblical illustrations at the end of the 19th century.

James Tissot, Institution of the Eucharist
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum 
These images show the profound respect for the sacramental Species due to these Elements (Bread and Wine) when transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Although images of the Last Supper continued to be produced both in Catholic and in Protestant countries after the Reformation, the Insitution of the Eucharist images are not found in the Protestant countries. 

© M. Duffy, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

“He will be called John” – Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Gabriel Announces the Coming of John the Baptist to Zechariah
Italian, c. 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel 

John the Baptist is one of the greatest of all the saints: herald of the Messiah, preacher, admonisher of kings, Baptizer of Jesus, and all these events in his life have been widely depicted in art, but his birth has not been widely imaged.

One of the most complete painting cycles of the life of St. John the Baptist was painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence between 1485 and 1490.

"In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.
Once when he was serving as priest in his division's turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great in the sight of (the) Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother's womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
Then Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years."
And the angel said to him in reply, "I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time." Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary.
But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute.
Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home."
(Luke 1:5-23)

Sometime during Elizabeth’s pregnancy Gabriel made another visit, to announce another impending birth, this time to a young virgin in the town of Nazareth. Unlike Zeccharias, she responded to Gabriel’s message with belief and acceptance, saying “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:26-38)

She then set off to visit Elizabeth, an event called the Visitation. 

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation
Italian, c. 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

"During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."
(Luke 1:39-45)

"When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:57-58)

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of John the Baptist
Italian, c. 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John."
But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name."
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God."
(Luke 1:59-64)
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Zechariah Confirms the Name of John
Italian, c. 1485-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

Among Ghirlandaio’s young assistants at this time may have been a teenager who would grow up to become one of the greatest artists of all time, Michelangelo Buonarotti.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Tale of Two Portraits – Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell

New York, Frick Collection, The Living Hall
(photo from 1927)
At the Frick Collection in New York, formerly the home of Henry Clay Frick and now a very intimate museum, visitors can walk through rooms that have been left much as they were when Mr. Frick died in 1919. However, one room has been left entirely unchanged, exactly as Mr. Frick left it, having supervised the hanging of the paintings himself. This is the Living Hall.

One of the walls is hung with three portraits by two Old Masters. The central painting is by El Greco, an imagined portrait of St. Jerome, dressed anachronistically as a cardinal. The other two are portraits painted by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg in southern Germany in 1497 (give or take a year, possibly). He was the son of Hans Holbein the Elder, a well-respected painter in the Gothic tradition, under whom (and other painters) he trained. In his early years he worked primarily as a painter of portraits in Basel, Switzerland. It was in Basel that he made several portraits of the great humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, which Erasmus used as gifts for his far-flung humanist friends. In his mid-30s (1526-1528) Holbein visited England, armed with introductions from Erasmus to his English friends. There, he painted several portraits and portrait sketches of the English humanist circle. Several years later, in 1532, he returned to England and remained there for most of the rest of his life, dying in London in 1543. He became the leading painter in England during this time and painted members of the court of Henry VIII, including the King himself. Indeed, most of the images that come to mind of Henry, his wives, his son and his courtiers come from the brush of Hans Holbein the Younger. And that brush painted with an almost photographic realism that has made Holbein one of the most respected of portraitists ever since.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Thomas More
German, 1527
New York,  Frick Collection

Here, in New York, two of Holbein’s English portraits sit facing each other across the fireplace – and what a pair they are! For here are

Thomas More, the humanist scholar, family man, author of Utopia, early proponent of equal education for women, lawyer, Lord Chancellor of England and martyr saint for refusing to accept Henry’s break with the Catholic Church;

Hans Holbein the Younger, Thomas Cromwell
New York,  Frick Collection


facing him,

Thomas Cromwell, one of the architects of England’s break with Rome, engineer of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and, eventually of More’s death.

Henry Clay Frick purchased the painting of Thomas More first, in 1912, and then, three years later, that of Thomas Cromwell. Therefore, it was he who decided to bring these two paintings together. He may have enjoyed the idea that he was bringing these two adversaries in life into opposition once again in his own living room. Since anyone seated on the sofa in the center of the room faces the fireplace, these are presumably the paintings that Frick himself chose to look at when seated, rather than at the many other masterpieces in the room (paintings by Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Gerard David; bronzes by Alessandro Algardi and Vecchietta and others; beautiful furniture by Boulle, etc.). You can see a current 360o view of the room on the portion of The Art Project (1) website that is devoted to the Frick (here).

Through the vehicle of Holbein’s paintings we can make a comparison between these two men, so fatally intertwined in life.

In the portrait of More,(2) painted during Holbein’s first visit to England in 1526-1528, the sitter is posed, seated before a backdrop of a green curtain, in full light. He is looking slightly to his left, not directly at the painter. He is dressed in an overcoat of what looks like black velvet, lined in brown fur (sable perhaps?) which also forms the broad coat collar, over an underjacket of deep red velvet, below which the edges of his white shirt can be seen. On his head he wears a black “Tudor bonnet” type of hat, with earpieces, which may be made either of velvet or sueded leather. Around his shoulders is a gold chain of office, formed of S-links, and from which hangs a golden Tudor rose.

On his left index finger he wears a gold ring with decorative engravings on the shoulders and a dark, bezel-set stone which may be black or a deep red, such as garnet. In his right hand is a piece of paper that appears to be a folded scroll. At this point in his life, More was about 48 years old, already a successful lawyer and judge, Utopia had been published, he had a high reputation among the learned of Europe and he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a friend and confidant of the King. Within two years he would become Lord Chancellor of England, chief lawyer of the realm.

His face shows some of the effects of his hard work and probably late nights by candlelight (he is said to have written at night so as not to take time away from his family responsibilities). His hazel eyes are surrounded by dark circles and slightly red-rimmed. And the creases in the corners of his eyes, across the bridge of his nose and on his forehead suggest someone who may have had to squint a bit to see to read and write in dim light. Grey strands appear in his dark hair, some of which peeks out from under his hat, and there is at least an entire days stubble on his cheeks, chin and upper lip (something I find rather endearing). He appears to be a straightforward man, not entirely concerned with his appearance, perhaps a bit preoccupied with his thoughts and ready to speak his mind.

Now, compare him to Thomas Cromwell in the opposite painting, dating from Holbein’s later residence in England (1536-1543). At first look they seem very similar, although there are some obvious differences. Unlike More, Cromwell sits at a table which is covered with a green cloth, on which rests a book, some papers bearing red seals, a quill pen, and two other objects I can’t identify. Thus, he is somewhat farther back in the visual plane than was More. The background is busier as well, being sharply divided into horizontal areas of light and dark which themselves have distinctive patterns. Cromwell is silhouetted against the back of a paneled bench, which stands in front of a wall covered in what appears to be dark blue damask. Note that the material appears to be tacked to the wall midway up the wooden object we can see at the far left of the picture, possibly a paneled window embrasure, as the light appears to come from that direction. There is some sort of surface, covered by a reddish fabric with black figuring that is probably a carpet, on which rests a partially seen scroll.

In dress Cromwell seems very similar to More. Again there is the black furred overcoat and black hat; although in Cromwell’s case the underjacket is also black. Unlike More he does not wear a chain of office, but like More he wears a patterned gold ring on his left hand. The ring bears a prong-set creamy blue cabochon stone, possibly an opal, agate or aquamarine. In his left hand he also holds a small folded note or scroll. His right hand is held unseen beneath the table.

At this point in his life, 1532-1536, Cromwell was also 48 years old and was well on in his rise to power. He had managed the Parliamentary actions which had begun the separation of the English church from unity with Rome, made it treason to resist and had gained control over church properties throughout England. He was made Master of the Jewels and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1532. In 1534 he became Henry’s chief minister and was instrumental in gaining passage of the Treasons Act and the Act of Supremacy, acts that made it a crime punishable by death to deny that the King was sole head of the church in England and in 1535 he was appointed “Vicar for Spirituals” which gave him authority over all of England’s churches and monasteries, which he began to plunder for the Crown and convert for Protestant-style services.

When we look at Cromwell’s face(3) we get a very different impression of a man than we did from More’s portrait. Cromwell is turned farther to the left than More was turned to the right, and, thus, gazes out of the picture to a greater degree than More did, so we see less of his eye area. But that is not the only difference. Whereas More seemed outwardly directed, Cromwell seems more closed, more indrawn, less ready to engage the outside world. His mouth and chin seem clamped closed and slightly truculent. His up drawn eyebrows and forehead crease suggest not so much concentration as a reflection of a skeptical attitude to the world. The overall impression is of a cold, grim, determined and somewhat pitiless man, not surprising, perhaps, for someone who had orchestrated the destruction of, not only several individuals, but of the religious culture of an entire nation to satisfy the vanity and fears of a single individual. (4)*

It was during the period in which Holbein would have worked on this portrait of Cromwell that More suffered his fall from the King’s “good grace”, his imprisonment for refusing to accept the Supremacy, his trial for treason and his eventual execution by decapitation. He died on July 6, 1535. In 1886 he was beatified and in 1935 he was canonized. He is the patron of statesmen and politicians. His feast day, which he shares with Bishop John Fisher, another victim of Henry and Cromwell, is June 22nd.*

Within five years of More’s execution Cromwell too would “fall from grace” over Henry's dissatisfaction with the Cromwell-arranged marriage to Anne of Cleves and Cromwell's increasing inclination toward more extreme Protestant reform.  Cromwell would pay with his life. He was beheaded on July 28, 1540.

* Update 2021:
For a discussion of the portrait bust of Saint John Fisher, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, see The Tale of the Third Portrait

© M. Duffy, 2011 with updates 2017 and 2021
1. The Art Project is a collaboration between Google and 17 major art museums, 12 European and five American, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Collection. {The other American participants are Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery.) Its purpose is to make high resolution, detailed pictures of selected works of art available for viewing online.

2. One of the high resolution images chosen by the Frick Collection for the Art Project is the Holbein portrait of St. Thomas More. You can see all the details I mention for yourself by referring to the picture at

3. Unfortunately, there is no high resolution image of the Cromwell portrait currently available.

4.  Some additional reading on Cromwell’s character may be found in a book review (of a fictional account of Cromwell’s life, by another novelist who writes about the period) from the  Daily Mail at

* Addendum:  Following the production and airing of the PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall one is tempted to observe that it is More whom Mark Rylance resembles, rather than Cromwell. Indeed, if one were to look for a contemporary person who resembles Cromwell, Vladimir Putin comes to mind.

You might also be interested in this blog "Supremacy and Survival"

© M. Duffy, 2011, with addendum 2017

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Living on a layer cake

Largo Argentina, Rome
One of the things I love best about long occupied cities is the thought that one is walking around on top of a human layer cake. Unseen under your feet are the remains of other humans and earlier civilizations. I was reminded about this again with the arrival of an e-mail from the Archaeological Institute of America, which included an article on a recently discovered Roman villa under a building at Assisi.
Read it here Assisi's Roman Villa - Archaeology Magazine
Largo Argentina, Rome (alternate view)

One of my favorite places in Rome is a small excavated area at Largo Argentina, where while waiting for the bus you can look down on Roman remains. There are four Roman temples and part of Pompey's Theatre down just a few feet below contemporary ground level. 

Although lower Manhattan does have underground remains, some of which were recently exposed when an 18th century ship was uncovered, one doesn't usually see them and they most definitely are not as impressive. 

Diagram showing relationship of (from bottom to top)
the Circus of Nero, Old St. Peter's Basilica and
the current basilica.  The boundary wall shown at the top
of the Circus, was the boundary wall of the cemetery
containing the grave on which both basilicas were built.
And, one of the most interesting elements in Rome are the layer cake churches.  St. Peter's is probably the most famous.  It sits on top of the remains of the original basilica, built on the orders of Constantine in the 4th century and incorporated into the "new" St. Peter's, built in the 16th century.  Constantine's building, in turn, sits on top of a Roman cemetery dating to the 1st century, which contains the remains of both pagan Roman and early Christian burials, including that of St. Peter. 

When walking in that cemetery (which is rather like walking through the mausoleum section of a modern cemetery) it is astonishing to think that above you are two large churches, and that the top of the two is the largest church in the world.
Portion of the necropolis underneath St. Peter's basilica

Rome has other churches similarly layered, among them:  San Clemente, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, San Crisogono.  All are built over early Christian places of note.
Life of St. Clement
Italian, 12th century
Rome, San Clemente
Fresco from underground portion of
San Clemente

All are well worth a visit.  And they are eloquent reminders of the continuity and survival of the Catholic faith from the first century to the 21st.   They remind us of the history that has come and gone in that time and the often hostile events the Church has endured:  the Roman Empire, the Barbarian Invasions, hostile medieval kings and emperors, the Avignon years, the Great Schism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Fascism, Communism.  As Jesus promised, the gates of hell have not prevailed, nor will they, for He is with us till the end of the world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Saint Anthony I Never Knew

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Saint Anthony of Padua
Spanish, ca, 1660
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes

Like everyone else who has grown up Catholic I have known Saint Anthony of Padua all my life – or at least I thought I knew him.

Among the "things" I knew were that:
- He is the ever popular saint who helps you find lost items.
- Scarcely a Catholic church in the U.S. is without a statue, painting or window depicting him.
- Here in New York City he is the patron saint of a well-known Franciscan church in the area between Soho and the West Village in Manhattan, where his feast day of June 13 is the occasion for a novena and a widely attended multi-day street fair with an Italian flavor.
- There is also an impressive shrine, containing some of his relics, in the lower church of Saint Francis of Assisi parish near Penn Station in midtown.
- His name is consistently popular for both boys (Anthony, Antony, Antoine, Antonio, Anton and, of course, Tony) and for girls (Antonia, Antonetta, Antoinette, Toni). Since I doubt that very many people are familiar with the earlier Saint Anthony Abbot of Egypt (3rd – 4th century AD), all these Anthonys and Antonias are likely to be named after the Paduan.
I now know, however, that my “knowledge” really didn’t amount to much.

For many years my impression of Saint Anthony was of someone a bit bloodless and remote, as in “Oh he’s the guy holding a lily and being embraced by the baby Jesus”. Yawn! 

Luca Giordano, Saint Anthony of Padua
Italian, 1675
Paris, Musée du Louvre

But then, in the middle of a class on the use of perspective in Renaissance sculpture, I was shown an image of Saint Anthony that made me sit up and wonder if there might be more to this saint than I’d thought.

Donatello, Miracle of the Mule
Italian, 1444-1450
 Padua, Basilica of San Antonio

This was an image by the great Quattrocento sculptor, Donatello, from the monumental altar of Saint Anthony in Padua (where else!). The altar has a series of bas reliefs of cast bronze, set into the marble altar structure. The panel that had particularly struck me shows a composition with the background space of a very classical three-arch arcade presented in beautifully laid out perspective. In the front plane crowds of spectator figures, filling the two side arches, strain to see the action in the central arch. To increase the sensation of depth, some figures are shown as if emerging from an internal passage within the arcade.

In the central arch, in front of what appears to be an altar, are four figures rather incongruously brought together. They are:
  • Saint Anthony dressed in vestments,
  • A man with a load of hay or straw over his shoulder,
  • Another man holding a bowl of some sort and
  • A donkey or mule.
Donatello, Miracle of the Mule, Detail of Central Panel
Italian, 1444-1450
 Padua, Basilica of San Antonio

What was this all about? In unraveling the tale behind the image, I learned a lot about the saint of lost things, and an eye-opening experience it was too. It turned out that Anthony is not the somewhat colorless person I had always subconsciously assumed him to be, but a formidable intellectual and very effective preacher and miracle worker, in addition to apparently being a humble and holy individual.

Although the event the image records is probably legendary it has, as most legends do, an undergirding layer of truth. As the story goes, Saint Anthony was preaching in a town (variously called Toulouse or Bourges in France or Rimini on the Adriatic coast of Italy) where some people, apparently Cathars, denied that at the Consecration Christ Himself became present in the bread and wine. One of them challenged Anthony to a contest to see whether a dumb animal would sense God’s presence in the Host and choose it over a good feed of hay and oats.

Jean Bourdichon, Miracle of the Mule
from Grandes heures de Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 187v

So, a donkey (or mule or horse) was denied food for three days to make sure that it would be really hungry on the day appointed for the test. Then the beast was taken to the location for the test, usually said to be the town square, but in Donatello’s image apparently a church. Food was offered to the hungry animal. At that point Anthony raised the Host and prayed “Creature of God, in His name, I command you to come here to adore Him, so that it will give truth to all, of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Surprising the unbelievers and the skeptics the animal ignored the food in order to approach Anthony and kneel before the Host, thus proving that even dumb animals believed in the transformation of bread into the Body of Christ. The heretic who had challenged Anthony came to believe through this miracle. 1

Domenico Beccafumi, Miracle of the Mule
Italian, 1537
Paris, Musée du Louvre

The truth behind the charming legend is that Anthony was a theologian, teacher and talented preacher. But he’s not Italian, as his name seems to suggest, and he began life with a different name, not Anthony.

Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Anthony of Padua
from Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainaut), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 94v

He was actually born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195 to a family of the minor nobility and was baptized Ferdinand. Young Ferdinand was well educated in the cathedral school of Lisbon and at age 15 became an Augustinian canon. As an Augustinian he continued his education, until exposed a few years later to some of the early followers of Saint Francis of Assisi. He joined the Franciscans in 1221 with the intention of becoming a missionary to the Muslims of North Africa. It is at this point that he adopted the name of Anthony. On his way to his mission in Morocco his ship was driven off course and was unable to dock until it arrived at Messina in Sicily.

At Messina he learned that a General Chapter of the Franciscans was then in progress at Assisi and he traveled through Sicily and then Italy in order to attend. At the Chapter he may have met and certainly saw Saint Francis of Assisi himself.

After the Chapter he was assigned to a church at Forli in the region of northern Italy known as Emilia-Romagna. There he began his career as a preacher, which soon brought him to the attention of the superiors of the Friars Minor (Franciscans). His superiors appointed him as a traveling preacher to the whole of the region.  Saint Francis also appointed him as the very first teacher of theology to his brother Franciscans.

His fame and success as a preacher was very great in his lifetime, as was his reputation for holiness. In fact, his preaching was so effective at combating heresy that he was known as the “Hammer of Heretics”. From about 1226 he lived in the north Italian city of Padua and from there also traveled through France teaching and preaching. He died on the outskirts of Padua in 1231 at the age of 36. Within one year he was canonized, the fastest official canonization in history. And in 1946 he was given the title “Doctor of the Church”. 2

Joseph Heintz the Younger, Miracle of the Mule
Swiss, c.1650
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Anthony has, therefore, always been a saint with an unusually great reputation in the Church and it is not surprising that many legends have become associated with him. Some of them were already well known by the end of the 14th century, approximately within 70 years of his death, when they were included among the Fioretti (in English, the Little Flowers of Saint Francis).

His reputation was so high that within a few years of his death a basilica in his honor was begun in Padua (1238-1310) and within a century thereafter Donatello was commissioned to create the beautiful altar from which our panel comes (1444-1450). It is interesting to note that this particular legend (and those in the other panels that also appear on the altar) had grown up within a very short span of time, between 1231 and 1444.

The altar in situ
Padua, Basilica of  San Antonio

The altar was moved at least once from its inception (in 1579-1582) and was redesigned in 1895. 3

Arnold Böcklin, Saint Anthony of Padua Preaching to the Fish
Swiss, 1892
Zürich, Kunsthaus Zürich

Although this story and various legendary miracles of Saint Anthony (such as his sermon to the fish) have been pictured through the centuries, it is that other image, Saint Anthony with the Child Jesus, which has come to dominate the iconography of the saint. That image is derived from another legend of Saint Anthony and emphasizes his reverence for the humility of Christ who came into the world as a humble Child, as well as his personal holiness. However, the tendency for pictures based on this legend to become sentimentalized and “prettified” has led to their being widely disseminated, to the point where this is the image that now comes to mind when one thinks of Saint Anthony. 
Gerard David and His Workshop, Saint Anthony of Padua
From the Saint Anne Altarpiece
Flemish, c. 1500-1520
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Master of Don Alvaro de Luna, Saint Anthony of Padua
Spanish, c. 1501-1515
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

El Greco. Saint Anthony of Padua
Greco-Spanish, c.1580
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Anthony of Padua with the Christ Child
Spanish, c. 1635-1650
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Antonio de Pereda, Saint Anthony of Padua with the Christ Child
Spanish, Second Half of the 17th Century
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Gaspar de Crayer, Saint Anthony of Padua and the Christ Child
Flemish, 1655
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francisco de Herrera El Mozo, Saint Anthony of Padua
Spanish, c. 1650-1685
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Claudio Coello, Saint Anthony of Padua
Spanish, Second Half of the 7th Century
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Giuseppe Bazzani, Saint Anthony of Padua with the Infant Christ
Italian, 1740-1750
London, National Gallery

Johann Jakob Zeiller, Saint Anthony of Padua and the Infant Jesus
From the Saint Anthony Altar
Austrian, c.1762
Ottobeuren, Monastery Church of Saints Theodore and Alexander

Giambattista Tiepolo, Saint Anthony of Padua and the Christ Child
Italian, c. 1767-1769
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

As such, it has pushed out the images that, although also legendary, are based on themes that are closer to the content of Saint Anthony’s active life of preaching and teaching. To that extent I fear that Saint Anthony of Padua has been poorly served by history, by art history and by popular piety.

© M. Duffy, 2011-2016, updated 2021
1. Antony, C.M., St. Anthony of Padua, the Miracle Worker (1195-1231), London, Longmans, 1911, pp. 38-41.
2.  Butler, A. Lives of the Saints, ed. M. Walsh (1984), New York, Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 179-180.
3. Information on the subsequent history of the altar comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum website.