Wednesday, August 8, 2012

St. Dominic

Fra Angelico, St. Dominic
Italian, 1447-1448
Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria
St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), along with his near contemporary, St. Francis, was one of the most influential saints of the middle ages, whose personal qualities continue to live on in the contemporary world through their spiritual sons and daughters.


Dominic, or Domingo de Guzman y Aza, was born in northern Spain around the year 1170. His family appears to have belonged to the minor nobility of Castille. As a child and young adult he studied at the University of Palencia, the first university established in Spain (later absorbed by the nearby University of Salamanca). In his early life, while still a student, he became a canon of the cathedral of Osma and was ordained for that service, in which he assisted his bishop in reforming the cathedral chapter into a congregation of Augustinian canons.

Bartolo di Fredi, St. Dominic
Italian, 1397
Chambery, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Dominic must have been a very outstanding person because he was chosen by the King of Castille to undertake various diplomatic missions, while still quite young. It was on one of these missions, to southern France, that he first became aware of the Albigensian or Cathar heresy, which was then sweeping through that region.
The Albigensians (the name comes from the town of Albi in southern France) were essentially Manicheans, holding “a dualistic conception of reality, that is, with two equally powerful creator principles, Good and Evil. This group consequently despised matter as coming from the principle of evil. They even refused marriage, and went to the point of denying the Incarnation of Christ and the sacraments in which the Lord "touches" us through matter, and the resurrection of bodies.”1

Some of the success which this view of reality had achieved came about because the people of the region were not well instructed in the faith. Preaching and instruction were virtually non-existent in the region and the lives of the clergy were often not models of good Christian life. Itinerant preachers with austere lives were hallmarks of the Albigensians. Dominic saw that what was needed was a Catholic response which provided excellent preaching from men whose lives were as austere as those of the Albigensians. This was the mission that he now took on.

Giovanni Bellini, Portrait of Fra Teodoro of Urbino
as St. Dominic
Italian, 1515
London, National Gallery
Initially, he was alone in his mission, but gradually he was joined by other men who wanted to follow his example. The Order of Preachers was founded in 1216 in the city of Toulouse, in southern France. It was eventually followed by an order for women and, finally, by an associated order for lay people (a Third Order). Dominic’s religious men were known as friars (like the followers of St. Francis) and they were assigned (again like the Franciscans) to missions in towns and cities.

El Greco, St. Dominic in Prayer
Greek, 1586-1590
Private Collection

Higher education was an important goal for them, as they needed the knowledge and skills learned in universities to perform their preaching function. To this end Dominicans were associated early on with the first universities, especially with the University of Paris and the University of Bologna. From this focus on education quickly came two great Dominican saints, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.

Giuseppe Maria Mazza, Death of St. Dominic
Italian, 1715-1735
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo

After many years of hard, but successful, work Dominic died in 1221 at the age of 51.

He was canonized thirteen years later, in 1234. His feast day is October 8th.

Pierre le Gros the Younger, St. Dominic
French, 1706
Vatican, Basilica of St. Peter










Earliest Images

 The earliest images of St. Dominic appear just after the middle of the 13th century, just a few decades after his death. They appear in a manuscript prayer manual intended for the formation of Dominican novices, called
De modo orandi.

Unknown, St. Dominic in Prayer
from De modo orandi, 13th Century
Spanish copy, 15th Century
Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Lat. Rossianus 3

It purports to show the modes of prayer practiced by St. Dominic by showing the postures that Dominic had been observed to use in prayer. Approximately 150 years later it may have been highly influential on the Dominican painter Fra Angelico in his designs for the decoration of the cells of the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence. 2

Claudio Coello, St. Dominic
Spanish, 1685
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Later Image Types

Images of St. Dominic generally appear in several different types.

There is the iconic image of St. Dominic with his traditional attributes of lily, book and, often, a dog with a burning torch in its mouth. The latter is a reference to the sometimes nickname of the Dominican order, which is a wordplay on the order’s popular name in Latin (Dominicanes). By splitting the word into two other Latin words, Domini canes, you get – the dogs of the Lord. “This was itself based on a dream which St Dominic's mother, Blessed Juana de Aza, had in 1170 when she was pregnant: she saw a black and white dog with a torch in its mouth setting the world ablaze. This was interpreted to refer to St Dominic and his spiritual children, the Dominican Order - in their black and white habits - whose preaching brings the light of Gospel truth to shine upon and inflame the world with divine love.”3

At times Dominic is alone, sometimes he appears in the company of other saints in a “sacra conversazione”.

Simone Martini, Orvieto Polyptych
Italian, 1321
Orvieto, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Giovanni Bellini, Sts. Dominic and Sebastian
Wing of San Giobbe Altarpiece
Italian, ca. 1487
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia

Francesco Maffei, Madonna and Child with St. Dominic
and St. Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, 1650
Private Collection
Another series of images shows scenes from the historic life of St. Dominic.

Unknown, Scenes from the Life of St. Dominic
from Hours of Louis of Savoy
French (Savoy), 1445-1460
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9473, fol. 173v

Leandro Bassano, Honorius III Approving the Rule of St. Dominic in 1216
Italian, 1600-1622
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo
 Others show legendary scenes, scenes from the realm of faith, that may or may not have happened.

Miracle of the Book
from Book of Prayers
Flemish (Brussels), 1276-1296
London, British Library
MS Harley 2449, fol. 160r
There are scenes from his days of preaching.  Especially popular was a supposed episode from his early career in which, in a kind of trial by fire, a manuscript written by Dominic that listed the scriptural authorities for Catholic doctrine was cast into the fire by the Albigensians.  The manuscript sprang out of the fire unharmed again and again. 4

Jacques de Besancon, Miracle of the Book
from Legenda Aurea by Jacopo de Voragine
French (Paris), 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 245, fol. 23

Dominco Ghirlandaio
Miracle of the Book
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence, S. Maria Novella,
Tornabuoni Chapel

And there are

  • two raisings from the dead,

Benozzo Gozzoli, St. Dominic Raises a Child
Italian, 1461
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Lorenzo Lotto, St. Dominic Raises Napoleone Orsini
Italian, 1513-1516
Bergamo, Accademia Carrara
  •  a miraculous feeding of his friars by angels,
Giovanni Antonio Sogliani, St. Dominic and His Friars Fed by Angels
Italian, 1536
Florence, Convent of San Marco

  • An apparition by the Blessed Virgin during which she presented him with the rosary, a prayer discipline that he helped to popularize.

Lorenzo Lotto, Madonna of the Rosary
Italian, ca. 1539
Cinoli, Church of San Nicolo
Caravaggio, Madonna of the Rosary
Italian, ca. 1607
Vienna, Kunsthistorische Museum

Bernardo Cavallino, Vision of St. Dominic
Italian, ca. 1640-1645
Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada

Images by Fra Angelico

Among the most affecting images of Dominic appear in the paintings by Fra Angelico in the cells of the friars at San Marco in Florence. In many of these paintings the saint appears as a prayerful observer of the event depicted.

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with St. Dominic
Italian, 1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco, Cell 17
Fra Angelico, Entombment of Christ
Italian, 1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco, Cell 2

Fra Angelico, The Mocking of Christ
Italian, 1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco, Cell 7

The same motif appears in the work of other painters as well.

Rogier van der Weyden, Lamentation with Sts. Jerome and
Dominic and Donor
Flemish, ca. 1464
London, National Gallery

Hans Memling, Madonna and Child with Sts. James and Dominic
Flemish, 1488-1490
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Mario Vasaiti, Christ Praying in the Garden
with Sts. Francis and Dominic
Italian, 1510-1516
Venice, Accademia

There are also images of St. Dominic as a powerful patron of others.
Fernanco Gallego, Madonna of the Catholic Kings
Showing St. Dominic as patron of Queen Isabella and
his namesake, St. Dominc of Silos, as patron of King Ferdinand
Spanish, 1490-1495
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Albrecht Durer, Feast of the Rose Garlands
German, 1506
Prague, National Gallery

And there are many images, appearing rather later in time, of the reception of St. Dominic in heaven.

Guido Reni, St. Dominic in Glory
Italian, 1613
Bologna, Church of San Domenico
Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, St. Dominic in Glory
Italian, 1727
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Apotheosis of St. Dominic
Italian, 1737-1739
Venice, Santa Maria del Rosario
Among them are images of St. Francis and St. Dominic, who never met on earth, embracing.
Andrea della Robbia, Meeting of Sts. Dominic and Francis
Italian, 1493-1495
Florence, Convent of San Marco
These two great saints planted seeds in the 13th century that have grown and flourished through the centuries that followed and now, in the 21st century continue the mission of their founders.

1. Pope Benedict XVI, Catechesis on St. Dominic, February 3, 2010. Translation at :

2. Hood, William, "Saint Dominic's Manners of Praying: Gestures in Fra Angelico's Cell Frescoes at S. Marco", Art Bulletin, Volume LXVIII, Number 2, June 1986, pp. 195-206.

3. From Godzdogz, the blog of the English student Domincians at

4.  The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, Volume 4, p. 82.  Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.) at

© M. Duffy, 2012