Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Miracle of the Mule – A Corpus Christi Reflection

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Anthony and the Mule
From the Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 187v

In this strange year of 2020 we have been confronted by many challenges and many worries.  There have also been some strange coincidences.  One of these occurs this weekend.  June 13 is the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua and also the eve of the great feast of Eucharist, Corpus Christi, which for most of the world falls on Sunday, June 14.1    The coincidence of the dates has reminded me that the two are closely related. 

Most Catholics think of Saint Anthony of Padua in somewhat sentimental terms.  He’s the saint who finds lost things, he’s the saint so often depicted holding the baby Jesus in his arms.  However, Anthony is not the somewhat colorless person I had always subconsciously assumed him to be, but a formidable intellectual and very effective preacher, in addition to apparently being a humble and holy individual. 

Unfortunately, not too many Catholics recognize this.  A few may be aware that he was an important early Franciscan theologian and preacher and a doctor of the Church.  Fewer still probably remember that he was once called the “Hammer of Heretics”. 

He was renowned in his lifetime as a preacher, especially a preacher to the heretics of the Mediterranean region in his own day, the Albigensians or Cathars and others.  Belief in the reality of Christ present in the consecrated bread and wine has often been challenged in church history.  Indeed, as John 6:60 points out even some of the disciples who heard the words, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51) from Christ’s own mouth refused to believe him.  So, it is hardly surprising that skeptics have always been around. 

As the story goes, St. Anthony was preaching in a town (variously called Toulouse or Bourges in France or Rimini on the Adriatic coast of Italy) where the Cathars denied that at the Consecration Christ Himself became present in the bread and wine.   One of these gentlemen challenged Anthony to a kind of contest.  If it was so evident that the bread became Christ’s body at the consecration, how about testing it 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.  Anthony accepted.
The Limbourg Brothers, The Holy Eucharist (Viewing the Mass and the Miracle of the Mule)
From the Tres riches heures of  Jean de Berry
Chantilly, Musée Condé 
MS 65, fol. 129v

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.  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 and even some of the faithful 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. 2
Taddeo Crivelli_Miracle of the Mule
From the Gualenghi-d'Este Hours
Italian (Ferrara), c. 1469
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 13, fol. 93v

The charm of this story, real or not, lies in the animals kneeling gesture.  As anyone who has watched an animal in the equine, bovine, ovine or camelid families recline knows, the gesture of kneeling with the front legs is quickly followed with a corresponding movement of the hind limbs.  To have an animal kneel and hold that position is rare, though not unheard of.  So, the image gets our attention and holds it.  It has been a favorite one for many artists through the years.
Jean Poyer, Saint Anthony and the Miracle of the Mule, Saint Anthony Preaching
From the Hours of Henry VIII
French (Tours), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H 8, fol. 186v

One of the first images that comes to mind is also one of the most famous.  This was an image by the great Quattrocento sculptor, Donatello, from the monumental altar of St. 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. 

Donatello, Miracle of the Mule of Rimini
Italian, c. 1446-1453
Padua, Basilica of Sant Antonio
In the central arch, in front of what appears to be an altar, are four figures rather incongruously brought together.  They are
  • *      St. 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 of Rimini (Detail of the central arch)
Italian, c. 1446-1453
Padua, Basilica of Sant Antonio

However, while the Donatello image is of major importance in the history of western art, some of the other images are more charming and also convey more seriously the real importance of the point of the image, the reality of Christ present in the Holy Eucharist.  Which is why the juxtaposition of the feasts of Saint Anthony and of Corpus Christi in this troubled year is so fortuitous.  No matter what the situation of the world, Jesus is present among us through the sacrament of his presence.

Miracle of Saint Anthony of Padua
Flemish, c. 1500
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Master of the First Praybook of Maximilian and Workshop, Miracle of the Mule
From the Hours of Queen Isabella the Catholic
Flemish, c. 1500
Cleveland, Museum of Art
Acc. # 1963.256, fol. 187v 

Master of Claude de France, Saint Anthony and the Mule
From the Prayer Book of Claude de France
French (Tours), c. 1515-1520
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 1166, fol. 41v

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

Att to Scarsellino, Miracle of the Mule
Italian, c. 1600-1620
Paray-le-Monial, Musée du Hieron

Giulio Cromer, Miracle of the Donkey
Italian, c. 1600
Ferrara, Pinacoteca Nazionale

Style of Eustache Le Sueur, Miracle of the Mule
French, 17th Century
Clamecy, Musee d'Art et d'Histoire Romain Rolland

Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Anthony and the Mule
Flemish, 1627-1630
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts

It can also remind us that, even though we may not be able to participate in a live Mass at present, we still have more opportunities to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, via television or the internet, than our ancestors did. 
Joseph Heintz the Younger, Miracle of the Mule
Swiss, c.1650
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo

_Johann Jakob Zeiller, Miracle of the Mule
German, c. 1757-1764
Ottobeuren, Monastery Church of Saints Theodore and Alexander

Let us, therefore, kneel before him in the flesh if we can, or in our hearts if we cannot, with the same faith as shown by the humble donkey almost 800 years ago.

© M. Duffy, 2021

1.  In a few countries it still falls on its former date, the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, which this year was June 11. 
2.  Antony, C.M., Saint Anthony of Padua, the Miracle Worker (1195-1231), London, Longmans, 1911, pp. 38-41.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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