Monday, February 03, 2014

The Saints in Art

Today I happened upon a rather striking image of the Presentation by Bl. Fra Angelico, the great artist of the Order of Preachers:

Fra Angelico frequently includes Dominican saints in his scenes from Scripture and Tradition.  At first glance, I assumed the kneeling friar was St. Dominic.  But upon closer inspection, it is clearly not St. Dominic.

St. Dominic is usually pictured with a star over his head.  There is no star over the head of this friar.  But look closely at his scalp.  His skull is split.

This is St. Peter Martyr, also known as St. Peter of Verona.  Born in 1205 in Verona, Peter was received into the Order of Preachers at age 16 by St. Dominic himself.  He was a great preacher, mystic and miracle worker, and was appointed Inquisitor for northern Italy by Pope Gregory IX.  Among other miracles, Peter predicted his own martyrdom, which took place near Milan, Italy on April 6, 1252.  Cathar assassins waylaid him on the road, striking his head with an axe and stabbing him.  Before he died, he traced in the dust, with his own blood, the first line of the Creed: Credo in unum Deum.  At the sight of Peter's saintly death, one of his murderers, named Carino, was converted and later himself took the habit of St. Dominic.  

Just as the resurrected Christ is always shown with the pierced hands and feet of His Crucifixion, martyrs are also frequently depicted in art bearing their mortal wounds, or with the weapons that dealt them their death blow.  St. Paul, for instance, usually carries the sword that cut his head off; St. John Houghton, one of the Carthusians hanged, drawn and quartered under Henry VIII, is shown with a noose; St. Maximilian Kolbe is shown wearing his prisoner's uniform from Auschwitz.  This is not only so that their images may be recognized and identified.  It is also because these symbols of their martyrdom, which seem gruesome and squalid from the world's point of view, are really trophies of victory.  They were borne out of love, and are therefore these saints' glory in heaven.

Here is St. Peter Martyr and his split skull again, in this scene of the Madonna and Child, also by Fra Angelico.  

Here we have Sts. Cosmas and Damien, St. Mark, St. John, and St. Lawrence, who carries the grill on which he was roasted alive.  The three Dominican saints are recognizable by their distinctive emblems.  A star shines over the head of St. Dominic.  St. Thomas Aquinas, who, in his humility, tries to hide behind St. John and St. Lawrence, can nevertheless be recognized by the sun shining from his breast.  And St. Peter Martyr bears the ghastly axe wound that sent him into eternal life.  Notice, too, that the halo surrounding the head of the Christ Child contains the cross, while His Mother is crowned with twelve stars, like the woman clothed with the sun in the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) of St. John.

Really good Christian art inspires, edifies, uplifts, and is rich in food for meditation.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post Anita. I don't understand why sacred art has taken such an awful turn. The bottom picture makes me uneasy and makes me think of hell more than heaven.