Jul 262013
 
BorgiaFrenchTVPoster

A French “Spot the Saint” themed poster for “Borgia: Faith and Fear” assigning Cesare the attributes: archbishop’s robes, scythe, dagger, bloody hands, blood.  The French caption reads “Don’t have faith in them.” I can’t argue.

There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante.  Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011.  Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix.  I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.

I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television.  It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green.  I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie.  But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment.  More on that later...

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

The Borgias (Showtime)                                   Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)

  • Bigger budget  (gorgeous!)                                     Smaller budget
  • Shorter series/seasons                                            Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
  • Bigger name actors                                                  Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
  • More glossing over details                                       More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
  • Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan                Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
  • Focus on Cesare as mature and grim                     Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
  • Lots of typical TV sex and violence                         More period-feeling sex and violence
  • Generally less historicity                                         Generally more historicity

What do I mean by “more historicity”?  While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period.  Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:

71jtW-4usiL._SL1120_Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1.  One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can.  Now here is Orsini alone with his wife.  [The audience knows what to expect.  He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.]  Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead.  He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up.   Yes.  That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible.  When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course.  That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.

The-Borgias-Season-1-POSTER-Promo3The Borgias, episode 1.  We are facing the papal election of 1492.  Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway.  It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes.  Our modern audience is shocked!  Shocked, I say!  That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes!  Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked!  Shocked!  This is no longer a matter of politics but principle!  He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter!  See, audience!  Now is the time to be shocked!  No.  This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance.  After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards.  Ooooh.  Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century.  In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere.  Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere!  You have a mistress!  And a daughter!  And a brothel!  And an elephant!  And take your elephant to your brothel!  And you’re stalking Michelangelo!  And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election!  And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony?  That is not historicity.  It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.

Be shocked!  Shocked I say!  See!  It's so shocking there's fire!

Be shocked! It’s so shocking there’s fire!

These are just two examples, but typify the two series.  The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were.  Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down?  I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like.  Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on.  Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes?  Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses?  Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it?  Wait, they all have goons?  Even the monks have goons?  It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.

My hopes for "Faith and Fear" were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia.

My hopes for “Faith and Fear” were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia. Making her an intelligent, valued partner to Rodrigo’s labors instead of a scheming sex kitten makes the whole thing richer.  In their version she exerts real power, in a “separate spheres” way.

Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down.  A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part.  Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably.  Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock.  Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in.  Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us.  And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero's cowardace, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of poitical allies.  Even Borgias.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero’s cowardice, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of political allies. Even Borgias.

Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias.  This means that it is much harder to follow.  There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching.  I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever.  There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families.  They all hate each other.  The most feared is the Borgias.”  They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired.  Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way.  The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary.  The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it.  The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.

Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date.  He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.

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Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating.  Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means.  B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too.  Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare.  Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.

There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese sitting with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan.  Not a safe seat.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan. Not a safe seat.

Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.”  All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories.  I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder.  Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t.  Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was.  Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress.  I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode.  The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.

But what about historical accuracy?

I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better.  The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex.  The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!  But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction).  For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.

I remember the turning point moment.  I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany.  “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily.  I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century.  But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.”  It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before.  For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will.  There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know.  There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries.  There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand.  No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.

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See this real Renaissance portrait of a wealthy lady?  She has a bunny, and it’s a class marker, showing she’s wealthy enough to have domesticated rabits.  And this is in the south, centuries later.

Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute.  Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws.  But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla.  So much we know.  But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread.  All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet.  All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.

In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand.  The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles.  Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.  We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one.  The makers of the TV series  Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids.  They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens.  Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.

he Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor.  Communication can be more important than accuracy

The Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor. Communication can be more important than accuracy.

Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn.  Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine?  The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty.  Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress?  The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time.  I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide.  I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”  Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate?  I choose A.

Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story.  The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome.  If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice.  If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice.  If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story.  Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes.  (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)

Showtime's Borgias being Dramatic!  This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they're going for.

Showtime’s Borgias being Dramatic! This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they’re going for.  I also notice that her hair is a darker shade of blonde when they have her being ‘bad’. Before you complain, the historical Lucrezia did bleach it: lemon juice & lye.

I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction.  I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right.  Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history.  I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.

This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”.  It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it.  But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do.  It is a bit alienating but much more powerful.  It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection.  Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.

Final evaluation:

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I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that).  Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.  It de-romanticizes.  It feels period. It has guts.  It has things the audience is not comfortable with.  It has people being nasty to animals.  It has disfigurement.  It has male rape.  When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it  goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter's and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.  But ansewr me

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter’s and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.

Are they historically accurate?  Somewhat.  They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things.  The difference is what they change, and why.  If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes.  It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting.  But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one.  It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.

(I do get one nitpick.  When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English?  What was that supposed to communicate?  Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time?  Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else?  I am confused!)

If you have not already read it, see my Machiavelli Series for historical background on the Borgias.  For similar analysis of TV and history, I also highly recommend my essay on Tor.com about Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix (focusing on the BBC “The Hollow Crown” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad).

May 022012
 

It’s been a while, so here are some extra trixy new saints to add to our challenge.  (Note, the Renaissance images featured in this post will feature nudity, so if you’re not comfortable with that skip this entry):

John the Evangelist (Giovanni Evangelista)

  • Common attributes: Eagle, book, pen, Roman robes, EITHER beautiful young man OR old man with very long beard
  • Occasional attributes: Chalice with a snake or dragon crawling out of it, often dressed in pink
  • Patron saint of: Friendship, everyone in the bookmaking industry (writers, editors, compositors, booksellers, bookbinders, print makers, engravers), protection from burns, protection from poison
  • Patron of places: Asia Minor, Umbria, Wroclaw Poland, Sundern Germany, lots of weird places like Cleveland and Milwaukee and Boise Idaho
  • Feast day: December 27th, also May 6th (his surviving being boiled in oil).
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, mourning at the Crucifixion or Deposition, asleep in Christ’s lap at the Last Supper, being boiled, in a set with the other three Evangelists
  • Relics: Ephesus (church has now been turned into a Mosque)

Due to the popularity of Crucefixion scenes, the most commonly depicted apostle in Renaissance art is not, shockingly, Peter, nor Paul, but John the Evangelist, who, like the fainting Virgin and tearful Magdalene, makes a mandatory cameo at the base of every cross.  Add to this the frequency with which artists decorate four matching surfaces (four vaults, four doors, four pinacles above central images) with the Four Evangelists, and the frequency with which John is depicted writing his Gospel or witnessing events of his Gospel, and he becomes one of the most familiar faces in our list.

Familiar but tricky.  John the Evangelist, or “the Beloved”, presumed author of the Gospel of John, is a great challenge to saint spotting for three reasons.  First: he often has no attributes, and has to be identified from his general bearing, location and activities.  Second: he appears at two completely different ages, which can throw one off.  Third: when young he often looks so female to the modern eye that the mind leaps straight to our list of female saints, looking for spiked wheels and eyes on plates, without considering the fact that this might be a boy.  The fact that he appears so often in the same scenes where Mary Magdalene makes sense to appear makes the two of them frustratingly easy to mix up.

John’s radically fluctuating age is due to the fact that he is believed to have lived a very long time, and did important things at many different points in his life, unlike martyrs who are pretty-much always shown at the ages they were when they died.  He was established as having been very young (and handsome) during Christ’s life, and can be spotted among full sets of apostles by being the most handsome, and often the only one without a beard.  He then went on to live a very long life preaching and writing, and survived numerous near-martyrdoms: He was arrested and beaten by Domitian, but remained impervious.  He was then poisoned, but he blessed the chalice and the poison turned into a snake or dragon and ran away (Where did it go?!  Is it still out there?…), hence his attribute of holding a cup with a snake in it.  He was then boiled in oil, but that didn’t work either, and he escaped to Ephesus where he lived a long and pious life.  He also supposedly got into a conflict with some worshipers of Artemis at one point, who tried to stone him, but the stones bounced off, and then at his invocation two hundred of them were killed by lightning, and then resurrected, in one of the largest mass-resurrections in the palette of saintly miracles.  But because none of the implements involved in these stories actually killed John, he does not carry them around with him in Heaven (i.e. in art), so while Lorenzo and Catherine and Paul have convenient death tags, John remains elusively short on attributes.

John is depicted either as a beautiful youth, or as an old man with a very long beard.  Modern gender tag conventions make his youthful form particularly easy to mistake for a woman, mainly because of his hairstyle, which is usually long and loose down to his shoulders or shoulder blades.  This style looks feminine by modern standards, but was not by Renaissance standards.  In Renaissance art, pretty-much no woman would ever have hair nearly that short.  Women’s hair is generally to the elbows, and is worn tied up in an elaborate hairstyle, or at least covered by a veil.  Loose hair with nothing tying it up is the style of a knight or dashing nobleman, never a woman.  The to-modern-eyes feminine presentation of John the Evangelist is enhanced by the fact that, at least in Tuscan art, he’s usually dressed in pink.  I don’t know why this is, and it certainly isn’t a solid rule, but just as the Virgin Mary is almost always in a blue robe, John is almost always in pink, which was not gender-coded in the Renaissance as it is now, but does rather add to the overall effeminacy of the young “beloved”.

The Four Evangelists have four winged animals that represent them: the Winged Lion for Mark, the Winged Bull for Luke, the Winged Person i.e. Angel for Matthew, and the Winged Eagle for John (no, no one has a non-winged Eagle as an attribute).  Sometimes just the animal is used to stand in for the evangelist, with no human figure at all.  The evangelists’ animals are sometimes depicted covered with lots of eyes, but more often John just has an eagle hanging out next to him.  This, combined with John’s youth and beauty, strongly invokes the Greco-Roman image of the handsome Ganymede being carried of by Zeus in the form of a lustful eagle, and puts John solidly with Sebastian in the palette of “sexy saints,” i.e. saints who are sometimes used as an excuse to show a sexy male body in a world in which eroticism, particularly homoeroticism, was controversial, yet religious content often eased criticism.  We have Renaissance diatribes in which theologians rail against the sensuality of paintings in aristocrats’ collections, citing nude Venuses and scandalous Ganymedes, but the same treatises often explicitly say that nudity is A-ok in religious art, because the bodies of John, Sebastian and Mary Magdalene point the soul toward heavenly thoughts rather than Earthly.  Looking at them, though, it is sometimes hard to see the difference:

Michelangelo’s Rape of Ganymede

John the Evangelist. Note the pose of the legs, and the position of the eagle.

The old John, author of the gospels, is often depicted with the other three evangelists in a set, but sometimes he is depicted as just a bearded sage with a book and an eagle, or, less helpfully, with just a book, or even less helpfully as just a bearded man, though, often, still in pink robes.  Sometimes, to mix things up, he’s just an eagle.

One way to spot John when he has no attributes is by his customary position.  At a Crucifixion, John is always depicted near the foot of the cross, mourning dramatically, accompanied by Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and ladies attending to the Virgin, usually including Margaret.  Thus, if there are several beautiful mourners at Christ’s feet, the one with the shortest hair is John.  The gender tags remain trixy, however, and unless one knows what to look for in the hair styles, it can be difficult to tell the difference between John and Christ’s other major mourner, Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene

  • Common attributes: Long loose hair
  • Occasional attributes: Ointment jar (often made of alabaster) or cup, skull, naked except for her hair
  • Patron saint of: Penitent sinners, converts, the contemplative life, apothecaries, women, reformed prostitutes, protection against sexual temptation
  • Patron of places: Atrani, Italy
  • Feast day: July 22nd
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, grieving at the Crucefixion or Deposition, anointing or embracing Christ’s feet, in the wilderness being a hermit, being airlifted to heaven by angels, with Christ in the garden attempting to touch him while he refuses (“noli me tangere”)
  • Relics: Either Constantinople OR the French hemitage on La Sainte-Baume, depending who you ask

Ah, Mary Magdalene, unofficial patron saint of conspiracy theorists, historical mystery fiction and feminist historicist conflicts.  There is either way too much information about Mary Magdalene or way too little, depending on what sources you listen to.  Our goal is to present the version which appears in Renaissance Art, as opposed to the skillion other versions, from Mary “Equal of the Apostles”, to Mary thesystematically-suppressed founder of a long-lost feminist Christianity, to… I don’t actually know what she is in the Korean comic “Let’s Bible!” but given that Jesus is a teenage girl with no pants and Satan is a Mexican guitarist, I think I am safe in assuming that she is a talking spider plant.

In the Gospels, apart from a vague reference to her being cleansed of “seven devils”, and being Lazarus’ sister (even this is debated), she pretty-much only appears during the Crucifixion process, at which she is a named and specified witness of (A) the Crucifixion, (B) the fact that the tomb is empty, and (C) the Resurrection.  Renaissance artists depict her consistently at all these things, accompanied at the Crucefixion and tomb by the Virgin Mary, the confusingly vague “Other Mary”, and at the Crucifixion by them along with John the Evangelist and, often, Margaret.

Gregory the Great (in 591 AD) is credited with establishing the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, who renounced and reformed her evil ways when she converted, and it is this version who populates Renaissance art as the second-most-commonly-depicted woman after the Virgin.  She is thus usually a very beautiful, sensual young woman, the cultural antithesis of the Virgin, and a figure which lets Renaissance religious art have a conversation about female sexuality in a way that the endless martyred virgins like Catherine and Lucy can’t facilitate.  The legend also has Mary Magdalene go out into the wilderness after the Crucifixion and live as a hermit, allowing her to be used as a prototype for serious female participation in the extreme religious life of total commitment, contemplation and self-denial which made hermits and, later, monks such a central part of medieval Christian ideas of true religious life.  Remember that, until St. Francis’s revolutionary program of bringing religious life to the urban lay population, the term “religious” in European culture meant a hermit, priest, monk or non, who were considered the only people with meaningful religious lives, and the only ones likely to go to heaven without being martyred.  The archetype of Mary Magdalane, female hermit, opened this to women.

As champion and representative of the Contemplative Life, Mary Magdalene is patroness of contemplative philosophers, and of the Dominican order, which so values contemplation as a path to the divine.

A depiction of the “Noli me tangere”

While the Mary Magdalene story could serve to open some doors of religious activity to women, it also closed some in the form of the “Noli me tangere” scene.  This scene, frequently depicted in art, was when the resurrected Christ appeared to Mary (before he did to anyone else) and, when she attempted to embrace him, said “Don’t touch me” (Noli me tangere).  This scene is sometimes used to justify refusing to allow women to be priests, where they have to consecrate and touch the body of Christ.  The scene in which Thomas, after doubting the resurrection and saying he won’t believe until he touches Christ’s wounds, is then actually allowed to touch Christ’s wounds is used to demonstrate that men can touch him but not women.  The fact that Mary Magdalene was allowed to anoint Christ’s body when he was dead leads to all sorts of confusing cultural attempts to figure out the correct divisions of male and female physicality in liturgical, medical and funerary situations which I will not attempt to sort out.

“Penitent Magdalene” in hermit mode, with skull

The thing which makes Mary Magdalene recognizable 95% of the time in art is the fact that she has long loose trailing hair.  This derives from (A) the pre-modern association between loose hare on a woman and wantonness/ sensuality/ prostitution, and (B) a medieval legend that, when Mary renounced being a prostitute and threw away her luxurious seductive clothes, her hair miraculously grew to cover her nakedness.  And even though the miracle of her long hair happens at a certain point in the logic of her linear narrative, the same special relationship with time that allows renaissance artists to cheerfully depict toddler-aged John the Baptist in a hairshirt and carrying a staff allows them to depict Mary Magdalene’s miraculously long hair at any point.

Another fun Mary Magdalene legend moment, also medieval, describes the fact that she refuses to eat while in the wilderness, so to keep her alive angels air-lift her to Heaven every day where she is fed divine manna and then set down again.

All this makes Mary Magdalene the top choice saint for painters who want an excuse to depict a sexy woman, just as the usually-nearly-naked Saint Sebastian is the top choice for depicting a sexy man.  Saint Sebastian can be depicted as a fully clothed guy holding an arrow, but is usually a luscious youth with a gauze-like loincloth, and in the same way Mary Magdalene can be a haggard penitent hermit, or she can be a luscious nude, chest heaving with ecstatic (religious) excitement, indistinguishable from Lady Godiva.  Thus we encounter extremes with Mary, as we do with John, ranging, in her case, not in age, but in sensuality, from the extreme of Titian’s Magdalene, whose luscious hare carefully covers everything except the naughty bits, to Donatello’s gaunt and stunning hermit.

Donatello’s Version

Titian’s Version

The disparity of how Mary Magdalene is depicted is perhaps best summarized by who artists tend to pair her with, since saints are most often spotted in symmetrical groups flanking Christ or the Virgin, and thus every one needs a partner symmetrically opposite.  Often “reasonable Magdalene” (as I think of her) beautiful, in nice clothes, with long flowing hair and her jar, is paired with John the Evangelist, the two beautiful, young people who loved and were emotionally close to Christ the man.  In contrast, “hermet Magdalene” is usually paired with John the Baptist (her hair paralleling his hairshirt), or to the old wasted hermit Saint Jerome, so the pair of them can kneel on rocks and beat their breasts and contemplate skulls and crucifixes in the wilderness in parallel.  Finally “sexy Magdalene” is usually alone, as an excuse to have a naked lady.

But don’t forget to look for the jar – she does have it sometimes.

Population of a Crucefixion Scene:

With John and Mary Magdalene under our belts, it is now possible to sort the population of a standard Crucifixion scene.  Generally not all of these figures are present, but the scenes often include:

  • Virgin Mary, generally wearing a hood/veil, and depicted fainting into the arms of companions
  • Mary Magdalene, with long beautiful hair, generally embracing the foot of the cross, or otherwise grieving very conspicuously, with arms flung wide
  • John the Evangelist, also grieving conspicuously, occasionally helping those who catch the fainting Virgin
  • St. Margaret and “The Other Mary”, nondescript women catching the Virgin Mary while she faints
  • A skull at the base of the cross, supposed to be Adam’s skull, because he was buried at the same place that the cross was set up
  • The Good Thief and the Wicked Thief, crucified on two other crosses on the either side of Christ, with the Wicked Thief on Christ’s left having his soul carried of by a (usually adorable) little devil.
  • St. Longinus, the centurion who stabbed Christ with a spear, depicted carrying a spear, sometimes on horseback.  May or may not have a halo, since at the moment he does the stabbing he hasn’t yet converted, so some artists show him not-quite-yet a saint and therefore halo-free
  • Other non-saint figures, including the soldiers playing dice to see who keeps Christ’s clothes, an unappealing man mocking Christ’s thirst by offering him a sponge dipped in vinegar on a long pole (the Holy Sponge!), and assorted random witnesses who are sometimes so plentiful that it starts to feel like they must be time travelers gathering to watch the occasion
  • Angels with cups (the holy grail) catching the dripping blood
  • Other random saints who logically shouldn’t be there, like John the Baptist, or Francis or Dominic, or whoever is the local patron saint is, stuck in by the artist and shown as witnesses, contemplating the scene and grieving, or, in John the Baptist’s case, pointing at Christ.

The population of a Deposition, when they take the body down and mourn it, is about the same.

Samples:

Quiz Yourself on the Saints You Know So Far:

 The next level of challenge in saint spotting is judging when you do and don’t know figures.  In the image below, you should recognize five of the seven figures.  (One figure is deceptive, since the figure on the left holding lilies is, in fact, a portrait of a more obscure local figure made to look like a more famous one, but you should be able to identify who he’s pretending to be).

Some comments on the old figure second from the right (read these after you have done your best to identify everyone in the picture).  It is often possible to figure out a fair amount about a figure even if you don’t know who it is from looking at details of costume.  Looking at this figure, you can tell first what religious order he is a part of from his clothes, and from the extra decorated band on his habit you can tell he held a high rank, probably a bishop.  Now, note his halo.  See how, while everyone else’s halo is a circle, his is instead a bunch of linear rays coming from his head?  Artists sometimes use this technique, employing two different halo styles in one painting, to differentiate full saints (with the round halos here) from someone who is beatified, i.e. who has gone through the first three stages of becoming a saint but not the last one.  Someone who is beatified has been examined officially by the Church, which has determined that the person is in Heaven and capable of using their position in heaven to intercede with the divine on behalf of people, but who has not yet had the three confirmed miracles necessary to establish sainthood.  Historically, beatification was controlled more by local officials, so that bishops had the authority to beatify local people, while sainthood always required Vatican approval.  Reverting to our Kingdom of Heaven terms for a moment, someone who is beatified is at court, but hasn’t yet succeeded in securing any notable favors from the king, so is a less certain benefactor than an established court favorite like John the Baptist or St. Francis.  For example, Pope John Paul II is currently beatified, but not yet officially a saint.  Long-term, cult followings for figures who are beatified but never canonized are sometimes actively discouraged by the Vatican, which usually has a reason for denying sainthood to such a figure if they do.  For example, Charlemagne was beatified but never canonized, and when the power struggles between Pope and Emperor as rival claimants to imperial power got tougher, the Vatican actively suppressed the cult of Beato Carlo Magno in order to monopolize heavenly authority – this, however, is why Charlemagne is sometimes depicted with a halo, and his remains are stored in fancy reliquaries and treated as holy relics.

Reliquary of Charlemagne

Thus, whoever this figure in the painting is, you can tell by looking, has been beatified but not yet canonized at the point that the painting was done.  Since beatified figures are usually only popular in the areas where they lived, when you see a beatified figure like this, it’s a safe guess that the painting was done in the figure’s home town, or somewhere (s)he was active, and that it may well have hung over the beatified figure’s tomb, or in a church where (s)he worked.

The presence of two different distinct styles of halo is thus a marker that can help you nail down a painting’s origin.  Note: some artists use linear halos for everyone, so you can’t always say a linear halo = a beatified figure, rather what you need to look for is two different types of halo in one painting.  At other times artists use the same technique to differentiate other weird kinds of things, for example an altarpiece I saw at the Academia last week which had round halos on a bunch of female saints and linear halos on some allegorical ladies who were hanging out with them.  This can also be used to differentiate saints from angels, and from Virtues, like Temperence and Strength/Fortitude, who also hang out in Heaven when they’re not busy crushing Vices underfoot or participating in Tarot readings.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Dec 012011
 

The ecstacy of St. Francis. He is accompanied above by the three angels of Monastic vows, Chastity (with lily), Obedience (with yoke) and Poverty (in patches), while under his feet he crushes the vices of Vanity/Lust, Vainglory, and Greed. This painting is heretical, by the way, since it’s totally not allowed for anyone other than Christ, the Father or the Virgin to have that red corona made of Seraphim, but people really, really love Francis, so just this once…

A dear friend’s visit and a weekend in Rome has delayed this update, but while I was trying to write up my recent tour of fascinating Roman churches, a mix of famous and obscure, I discovered that I couldn’t make the discussion make sense unless I covered a couple other related topics first.  I shall begin with the Order of the Friars Minor, aka. the Franciscans (just as the Dominicans are officially the Order of Preachers).

In art, Franciscans wear plain habits that are usually a gray-brown color, but sometimes gray and sometimes brown.  There are several sub-groups of Franciscans, including the Capuchins, but for our Renaissance purposes, and in art, we are concerned only with the main branch.  The Friars Minor are so called in memory of the focus on modesty, humbleness and obedience of their founder.  They were founded at the very beginning of the 1200s, just like the Dominicans.  This means that during the lives of early Renaissance figures like Dante and Petrarch, the Franciscans were a powerful but recent movement, something Italy could be proud of.

Saint Francis (San Francesco) 1181/2-1226

  • Common attributes: Franciscan habit, stigmata (wounds of Christ on his hands, feet, side)
  • Occasional attributes: lamb, bird, wolf, T-shaped cross (“Tau”)
  • Patron saint of: The Franciscan order, animals, merchants
  • Patron of places: Italy (yes, all of it), Assisi
  • Feast day: October 4th
  • Most often depicted: Receiving stigmata from an angel, nude as a young man being received into the Church, kneeling before the pope, preaching to animals, in front of a sultan intending to walk through fire, embracing Saint Dominic, dead with people examining his corpse
  • Relics: Assisi, Basilica di San Francesco

Francis is Patron Saint of Italy.   Not part of it, not a town, not a province, not an order, not a profession; Italy.  Italy had a lot of major saints to choose from: Peter, Paul, Mark, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Jerome, Ambrose, Gregory… the fact that the all-important home province went to a saint from the late twelfth century is proof by itself that Francis is something very special within Heaven’s high heirarchy.

Young Francis returns his clothes to his father, and is welcomed by the bishop.

Francis’ father was a merchant and his mother was French.  As a youth he spoke French, loved French clothes, French songs, French everything, and his baptismal name of Giovanni was soon forgotten in favor of the nickname “Francesco” i.e. little Frenchman.  He took part in some military stuff when young, during which time he seems to have had a religious crisis, and thereafter showed a growing interest in monastic life.  One day, on the way home from selling some of his father’s goods at market, he couldn’t take it anymore, went into a church and insisted he was going to stay there and become a monk.  The priests were terrified, knowing of his father’s wealth and inevitable wrath, and tried to force the boy to leave, but he refused.  He tried to give them the money he had been carrying home, but they didn’t dare touch it, and the bag of coin sat in the church, abandoned out of fear.  After a while Francis’ father came hunting for him, enraged, and insisted that he return.  Francis gave the money back, but refused to come himself.  His father continued to insist that Francis was his and was coming home with him.  Francis then stripped naked and handed his clothes to his father, saying he had returned everything that was his father’s and the rest belonged to god.  At this point, the bishop intervened, and wrapped his cloak around the young man, welcoming him into the Church.  Francis then went on to be the most enthusiastic and influential monk of all time.

Why was Francis so incomparably important?  Put simply, he changed what the word “religious” meant.  In the Middle Ages, when one said a “religious person” one meant a monk, nun or priest, or maybe a hermit.  That’s simply what the word meant.  There was not really the concept that a lay person, particularly an urban person like a merchant or crafts worker, could have a meaningful religious life.  One wanted them to be baptized and to try to live virtuously, but that was mostly in order to prevent earthly divine smiting, and expectation was that someone living a secular life was likely not heaven-bound most of the time, and certainly didn’t participate in religious life or thought any more than occasional churchgoing.  Francis changed that.  He came into the cities and preached to the urban poor.  He encouraged everyone to think about religious questions and have a personal intellectual religious life.  He suggested that merchants and workmen might gather once a week for religious meetings, wear monastic symbols under their clothes as self-reminders of their faith, and in other ways meaningfully do things “religious” people did despite, or rather as an enhancement to, their worldly lives.  He made Christianity welcoming and accessible to ordinary people in a way it really hadn’t been before.  He made people welcome, and for that people adored him, and still do.

St. Francis marries the Angel of Poverty (in the patched, brown dress) while her sisters Chastity (in white) and Obedience (in pink, carrying a yoke) attend.  Note how, unlike her sisters, Poverty has no shoes, and gazes wistfully after Francis as the three depart.

 

 

Francis was also very hard core about the monastic life.  Francis was so fierce in his renunciation of wealth and his fixation on wandering and begging that, even when he was an invited guest at someone’s house, he would nonetheless insist on going outside to beg for his supper on the street.  Francis was spiritually married to the Angel of Poverty, one of the three angels of monastic vows, who hangs out with the Angel of Chastity and the Angel of Obedience.

In honor of Francis’ dedication on this front, to this day the Franciscan order, is the only mendicant (begging) order whose members are still forbidden to own any property whatsoever.  All items possessed by Franciscans, from the grand Basilica of St. Francis to the sheets on their dormitory beds legally belong to the pope who lends them to the Franciscans, and the pope can walk up to any Franciscan and demand the shoes off his feet and he has to give them up (I am assured that popes don’t generally actually do this, but I imagine many popes have had fun thinking about it).  The Friars Minor also focus on humility, following the model of Francis who, despite being a great and popular leader, never let himself be in authority, always deferring to the commands of others, and preferring to be led, not followed.

Francis was also big on the mortification of the flesh.  He referred to his physical body as “Brother Ass” which had to be frequently beaten into obedience; he practiced intense fasting, as well as physical mortification, and, among other things, would often throw himself naked into snow (whenever Italy’s clement environment made snow an option).  So fierce was he in this self-mortification that he often made himself quite sick, and would likely have died sooner than he did had his fellow monks not frequently ordered him to eat more, take it easy on himself, permit himself richer foods, etc., and orders Francis eagerly obeyed (thank you Angel of Obedience).

Francis himself did preach, to anybody and anything who would listen (people, birds, wolves, insects), but he led mainly by example.  He himself was not particularly literate and did not know Latin pretty much at all, nor sophisticated theology, and the only book he left was a little collection of sweet prayer poem-songs.

Now, when a new, weird, popular and powerful movement enters a religion and starts getting a lot of momentum, attention, press and money, and is led by someone who isn’t quite preaching the usual, the religious leaders inevitably become nervous.  In the Catholic tradition, a moment of examination arrives, when the new movement hovers on the edge between being welcomed as a breath of fresh reform, and being expunged as a heresy.  It could easily have gone either way with Francis, whose changes to the usual way Chrisitanity had been practiced, particularly in urban settings, was so extreme.  But, especially since Francis was so keen on obedience, he was eager to be part of the Church rather than against it, and was happy to formally acknowledge the authority of the pope.

On the left, the pope dreams that Francis will hold up the crumbling Church; on the right, Francis presents the rule for his monks to the pope for approval.

When one sees paintings of scenes from the life of Francis, one of the most common and, on the surface, least interesting is a scene showing him kneeling before the pope, being received in Rome.  This may seem boring, the sort of moment which should go without saying, but the scene, and repeated images of the scene, were a critical reminder to all that, powerful as the Franciscan movement was, the Franciscans served Rome, Francis served the pope, and the old structure still stood.

The rivalry with the Dominicans came about mainly after Francis’ death.  It was partly a power and money thing.  Even though both orders were founded on the notions of poverty and modesty, there is a life cycle of monastic movements, which generally runs:

 

  1. Charismatic leader wants to live more modesty, without corruption, imitating Christ, so breaks off from the corrupted institutions of the Church.
  2. Many others find spiritual richness in this, and follow him/her.
  3. Movement takes off, gets official recognition from the Church, becomes established.
  4. People who like the movement donate wealth and land to it, both out of respect for the order, and in hopes that the monks/nuns will pray for them (and thus get them out of purgatory).
  5. Movement becomes wealthy and powerful, and noble families start sending their younger sons into it in order to gain wealth and power.
  6. Corruption leads a charismatic leader to want to break off and live more modestly, imitating Christ.
  7. A new order is formed… (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

This eventually happened even to the Franciscans, spawning the more extreme Capuchin sub-group, and it was mainly in the money and power seekers that the orders rivalry grew.  But there was also an intellectual contrast, as I mentioned.  The well-educated scholar-priest Dominic believed that the best way to reach God was through knowledge, since God is Truth.  Studying the nature of God, the soul, Christ, heaven, even the Earth would help the soul understand the divine and, through understanding, reach toward union with it (those of you who smell Plato’s residue in this are spot on).  The less educated and more passionate Francis focused in stead on reaching God through fierce desire, since God is Love, and that a heart that deeply and sincerely loved God would be drawn toward His heavenly light (those of you who also smell Plato here are also right).  Both movements, and both techniques, were much loved, but Francis’ focus on simplicity, and the idea that one could reach God through passion by itself, without the rigor and expense of education, made the Franciscan movement able to appeal much more broadly to the poor populace, in contrast with the inherent elitism of Dominican literate culture.  To Dominic went the universities, to Francis went the crowds.

Still, it was an amicable rivalry, since both groups had the same goals.  Perhaps my favorite token of this is in Dante’s Paradiso, where the great and ultra-educated Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, before administering the theology exam which Dante must pass to get to the upper levels of Heaven, recites a long, praise-filled biography of Francis, founder of his order’s rival, but still loved by all in Heaven.

Francis was the first saint to have stigmata, the wounds of Christ on his hands and feet, and the spear wound in his side.  An eyewitness account states that he was in the mountains one day when an angel (or possibly a flying crucifix) zapped him with rays of light, and gave him the wounds.  We have accounts of the examination of his body upon his death (often depicted in art, since many were curious to examine the famous wounds up close); medical scientists reading the descriptions of the wounds as having been strange and hard and bumpy believe them to have been some kind of cancer.  In art, Francis is usually holding his hands and feet out so you can easily see the nail marks on them, and often his robe has a slit so you can see the spear wound.  Sometimes rays of golden light are radiating from the wounds.  The stigmata and his Franciscan habit are usually more than enough to make him recognizable.  While he is often depicted in more recent art with a lamb or bird or animals, since the story of him preaching to animals is popular, in Renaissance art he didn’t need that; stigmata was enough.

Francis’ story also has enough interesting episodes that he has many distinctive common activities you can keep an eye out for:

  • As a young man, being wrapped in the bishop’s cloak as he stands naked before his father
  • Receiving the stigmata
  • Marrying the Angel of Poverty
  • Hugging Saint Dominic
  • Appearing in a dream, where the pope sees Francis holding up a crumbling church (prophesying how important Francis would be)
  • Kneeling before and being received by the pope
  • Dead, his corpse being inspected by curious mourners, one of whom is reaching into the wound on his side
  • “Walking through fire before the sultan.”  I put this in quotes because the standard image shows him standing before the Sultan, with a big bonfire, and Francis in front of it, while some Arab-looking people shudder and gawk.  The story is that Francis went to the holy land to try to convert the Sultan (or get martyred; it’s win-win!).  He preached earnestly in front of the Sultan, who said he was a sweet kid, and gave him some presents and told him to go home.  Francis then insisted he was going to walk through fire to prove his faith, and asked if the Sultan’s Muslim spiritual leaders would do the same.  Nobody but Francis thought this was a good idea, and, in the official story, the Sultan told Francis that he had convinced him, and that the Sultan had secretly personally converted, but that he couldn’t reveal that publicly without causing a civil war, so he told Francis to please go home and stay safe before someone murdered him.  Francis then went home, so the scene is actually a depiction of Francis not walking through fire in front of the sultan.

Saint Antony of Padua (San Antonio) 1195-1231

  • Common attributes: Franciscan habit, tonsure
  • Occasional attributes: Book, flaming heart, carrying Christ child, lily, occasionally bread or fish
  • Patron saint of: Lost objects (and those seeking them), travelers (and their hosts), the elderly, lots of other rather random typical stuff like barrenness, harvests, oppressed people etc.
  • Patron of places: Portugal, Brazil, Native Americans
  • Feast day: June 13th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other Franciscan saints, preaching, holding the Christ Child and looking friendly
  • Relics: Padua, Basilica di San Antonio

Antony, or Anthony, was originally named Fernando, and came from Lisbon, Portugal, from a noble family, but insisted on becoming a friar.  An Augustinian friar, at first, an old and lucrative order, which Thomas Aquinas’ parents would’ve approved of.  When he was still young, early on in the history of the order (11 years after Francis founded it) five Franciscans came through Lisbon on their way to Morocco, and stayed in the guest house young Antony ran.  He was impressed by them, and even more impressed when they got martyred (a great political coup for the Franciscans, and good proof of why the Dominicans made such a fuss over Peter “I have a big knife sticking out of my head” Martyr).  Seeing the five martyrs’ bodies as they were being brought home, young Antony was struck by their devotion and got special permission to quit being an Augustinian in order to become a Franciscan.

Since there weren’t Franciscans outside Tuscany yet really, Antony went to Tuscany and lived as a semi-hermit with the order, doing nothing in particular, until one day a bunch of Dominicans came over to, you know, do monk things together, and there was a bit of a fuss over whose job it was to preach to the assembly, each order expecting the other to step forward.  After some kerfluffle, somehow Antony wound up on the podium, and everyone discovered suddenly that he was an extremely well educated child of the nobility and preached with extreme clarity and erudition.  A stellar career of preaching, fame and distinguished service followed.  He did not succeed in his childhood dream of martyrdom, but did become one of the best loved and most famous of his order and a major international hero of the church.

In art, Antony is very tricky.  His attriutes have varied a lot over time, tending gradually toward the more adorable.  Early on he usually has a lily and a book, just like Dominic except with a brown/gray Franciscan habit.  Later he often has a flaming heart, representing his passion for preaching.  Sometimes he has flame and separately a heart, just kind-of sitting there, on a tray or something.  He also, in early art, often had a book with an image of the Christ Child on it, then later a book with the Christ Child kind-of coming out of it as if it were coming to life, and, eventually, he just holds the Christ Child (do not confuse him with the equally adorable St. Christopher who does the same, and who is, with Antony, co-patron saint of travelers).

These days Antony almost always has the adorable Christ Child with him and the whole thing is terribly cute.  Often in early art, though, the best way to spot him is process of elimination: there are two Franciscans here and only one can be Francis, therefore the one without stigmata is probably Antony.  Antony is also the only major Franciscan to carry a book, since Francis was not particularly literate, and left only a few vernacular songs.

As patron saint of lost objects and those seeking them, Saint Antony is a very popular and frequently-invoked patron in practical and everyday life.

One of my favorite proofs of how incomparably valuable relics were in the Renaissance is the official Life of St. Antony of Padua.  The little book is divided into three sections of roughly equal length.  The first describes his life.  The third describes his posthumous miracles.  The middle one describes the virtual civil war which broke out in Padua after his death, when it was obvious he would be made a saint, so the different groups who had a potential claim to his body (the monastery he lived at, the one he was visiting when he died, local lords, local communal government) divided into fiercely-opposed camps even before he died, and in the end martial law had to be declared and the force of the Holy Roman Emperor called in to settle the dispute.

Saint Bernardino of Siena, 1380-1444

  • Common attributes: Franciscan habit, plaque or other item with the Coat of Arms of Christ! (Christogram), narrow chin and dour expression
  • Occasional attributes: Three mitres (representing 3x he refused to be made a bishop; note, despite looking I have NEVER actually found him with this attribute).
  • Patron saint of: Advertising, advertisers, public relations work & PR employees, chest conditions (coughs, asthma etc.), gambling addicts
  • Patron of places: Aquila (Italy), San Bernardino CA
  • Feast day: May 20th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other Franciscans, glaring at you looking angry, brandishing the Coat of Arms of Christ! (Christogram) and making you feel guilty you don’t have one.  Yes, you!  I’m talking to you!!
  • Relics: Aquila, Italy; his personal tablet with the Coat of Arms of Christ! is at Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome.

Bernardino was an orphan from a noble family, and became an extremely popular preacher.  He resolved feuds, reconciled enemies, fired hearts, drew crowds, held vast bonfires of the vanities, and, when he was eventually called to Rome by the inquisition, who needed to make sure everything he did was orthodox, he impressed the pope so much that the pope had him preach in Rome and held a big procession.  He turned down offers of being made bishop of Siena, Ferrara and Urbino in turn, to focus on his preaching rather than career things.  He also ministered to the sick, and contracted the Black Death himself, from which he recovered.

Bernardino’s big thing was the Christogram, aka. the Coat of Arms of Christ! A Christogram is when you use an abbreviation of some part of one of Jesus’ names, i.e. X for Christ, or IHS for the Greek form of Jesus.  Bernardino used a certain common version of the IHS monogram, surrounded by a distinctive circle with radiating sun rays, which had been a favorite of, among other figures, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernardino would end every sermon by dramatically unveiling a tablet with the Coat of Arms of Christ on it, gilded, to the great excitement of the crowd.  Bernardino encouraged people to put it everywhere, and even suggested that in a perfectly pious world all coats of arms would be replaced with the Coat of Arms of Christ!  Thanks to him you see the Coat of Arms of Christ! on Churches and even simple houses all over Tuscany and central Italy, and in a rather Kilroy-esque sense, it always translates in my mind to “Saint Bernardino of Siena was here.”

The Coat of Arms of Christ! It’s so exciting!

In art, Bernardino wears a Franciscan robe, and usually carries the Coat of Arms of Christ!   He also generally looks like he’d be no fun at a party.

Bernardino is one of the few saints who lived late enough that Renaissance art was developed enough that there were good, lifelike portraits of him made while he was still alive.  As a result, actual images of his real face were available when the first icons were made, so he doesn’t have a generic face in art but a distinctive one, based on what he seems to have really looked like.  He looks… like he’d be no fun at a party.  That’s my best description: a narrow, dry, bony face with a very pointed chin and sunken cheeks, who just looks like he’s about to go on and on about, well, in his case probably the the Coat of Arms of Christ!

The unique face does make him extra fun to spot, though, since it feels more like recognizing a real person than a symbol of a person, and sometimes it’s enough by itself to spot a dour, prune-faced Franciscan to know it’s him, even if some artist didn’t include his Coat of Arms of Christ!

Here, by the way, here is the actual Saint Bernardino of Sienna, visible in his tomb in Aquila, Italy, which proves that his particular Franciscan habit was more on the brown side than gray:

The variable attributes on Antony make Franciscans a little hard to tell apart, but usually a simple mental order of operations flow chart will do the trick:

  • (1) Does he have stigmata?  If yes, it’s Francis.  If not…
  • (2) Does he have the Coat of Arms of Christ!?  If yes, it’s Bernardino.  If not…
  • (3) Does he have a lily, a book, a heart, fire, or a baby?  If yes, it may well be Antony.
  • (4) Does he lack all of the above, and look like a narrow-chinned un-fun guy?  If so, back to Bernardino as our prime suspect.
  • (5) If none of the above, you may be dealing with a different Franciscan.

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

 

Spot the Saint: Dominicani

 Posted by on November 16, 2011  Spot the Saint  3 Responses »
Nov 162011
 

St. Francis and St. Dominic meet, and bond about how much they love being monks.

Since a friend I recently visited wanted something more challenging in our saint spotting, I’m starting in on some of my favorites, the monk saints, very easy to separate from non-monastic saints, but sometimes a real challenge to separate from each other.

I’m going to start with the Dominicans, who, as the most scholarly order (unless we want to argue about Jesuits) are near and dear to my heart.  There are also Dominican nuns, but the monks are enough to start.

First-off, there are a lot of orders of monks.   There aren’t as many orders of monks as there are of nuns; in fact, in chat around the Vatican, “How many orders of nuns are there?” is often held up as an example of an unanswerable question, since new unknown orders, often from the far east, are even today constantly showing up on pilgrimages with unfamiliar habits, novel origin stories and astounding enthusiasm.  But there are still a lot of orders of monks.  I spent a month once studying the differences between different mendicant orders beginning with the letter C, and after a month I was still shaky.  There are, though, a few orders who, especially in art, far dominate the monastic landscape: Benedictines, Augustinians, Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, and, later, Jesuits.  (Carthusians not so much, since living in isolated hermetic cells, they don’t generally go out in public enough do things like work flashy miracles, become pope, or pose for altarpieces).

The Dominican and Franciscan orders  were both founded at the beginning of the 1200s (in our mental chronology of Florence , Guelphs are fighting Ghibellines, universities have only existed for about a century, Dante and Giotto won’t be born for another half century, and the majority of historians will still say this is medieval, not yet Renaissance).  Both orders, Franciscan and Dominican, began as movements away from the opulence, corruption and politicization of the church, toward a greater focus on austerity, poverty, and reaching out to the people.

These were, at their inception, orders one joined when one wanted to become a monk in order to actually have a religious life, as opposed to older, more established orders which were a standard worldly career choice for a younger son.  This didn’t stop both orders from becoming lucrative career options as they gained power and prestige over the next centuries, but one can’t help but respect the desire of Francis, Dominic and their early supporters to create an order for monks who wanted to be monks.

As for spotting Dominicans in art, there is no way around the simple characterization: Dominicans are the monks that look like penguins.  They wear white robes with black cloaks and chaplets over them, producing a white underbelly with black around the top and sides.  Dominican nuns look the same, only with headdresses.  Confusingly, sometimes Dominicans (especially in summer) don’t wear the black overcape, so you do occasionally see them (in art and in real life) wearing all white, and thus practically indistinguishable from when Benedictines also sometimes wear all white, but happily, since the artists want us to be able to tell which saint is which, you can generally rely on them to paint the major Dominicans in their full penguinesque glory.

Saint Dominic (San Domenico) 1170-1221

  • Common attributes: Dominican habit, lily, star above head
  • Occasional attributes: book, dog, rosary
  • Patron saint of: The Dominican order, astronomy/ers
  • Patron of places: Dominican Republic, to some extent Bologna, Calaruega (Spain)
  • Feast days: August 8th (or 4th)
  • Most often depicted: Preaching, receiving the rosary from Mary, standing around with other saints
  • Relics: Bologna, Basilica di San Domenico

Dominic of Osma, as he’s sometimes called, must be differentiated from the earlier  Benedictine bishop St. Dominic of Silos, but in general if someone says “Saint Dominic” they mean the Dominican.  Founder of the Dominican order, Dominic was born in Calaruega Spain, but traveled extensively, and spent a lot of time in Italy, eventually dying in the university town of Bologna.  He is often depicted with a star above his head, usually inside his halo, because before his birth his mother is supposed to have seen a miraculous star which foretold the coming baby’s coming greatness.  This, and not any actual personal astronomical activity, is why he is the patron of Astronomers, but his general scholarly bent, and the even stronger thirst for knowledge which would characterize his order, make it a good fit.  He was a bright young man, and attended university, but during a famine he sold all his possessions including his (expensive!) books in order to help the starving.

Arriving in Rome, he criticized the pomp and sparkly decor, and created his new order to reach people through direct preaching and good personal example, demanding inward and outward simplicity and austerity in order to provide the public a model of pure and pious living.  The lily branch he carries represents his lifelong virginity, and is not specific to him, since technically any virgin saint can hold a lily branch, but usually it’s reserved for figures for whom virginity was an extra-big deal, like maidens who were martyred for refusing pagan husbands, or Gabriel, who makes the annunciation to the Virgin.  If you see a Dominican with a lily, it’s Dominic.

He also focused on intellectual rigor and the fierce pursuit of truth, since he believed truth of all kinds would lead one to better understand and therefore approach God, so he encouraged his followers to enthusiastic academic study.  The dog which sometimes accompanies Dominic is a a pun, and a venerable one.  The Dominicans are named after Dominic, but in Latin the plural “Dominicani” separates into Domini (of God) and cani (dogs), i.e. hounds of God, who sniff out truth.  This was why he held major meetings in Bologna, home of the oldest university (founded ~1088).  This thirst to sniff-out truth is also why the Dominicans, once they grew in power and numbers, were trusted by the papacy to be in charge of the Inquisition.

 

Dominic often holds a book in art, both because of his general scholastic interest and because he left some writings; generally any saint who wrote a book is entitled to hold one if the artist so chooses. The Dominicans are largely responsible for the spread of the rosary as a Catholic devotional tool.  The Virgin Mary visited Dominic in 1214 and personally gave him the first rosary (archaeological evidence to the contrary not withstanding).  You can still see the divine rosary in the Rosary Chapel in San Domenico in Bologna, just opposite the chapel where Dominic himself is buried in a stunningly-sculped tomb which everysculptor who was anysculptor at the time worked on (yes, even Michelangelo), and in the back of which you can see his skull (removed and set in an elaborate gold and crystal reliquary), and, posted on the wall behind, an X-ray of the tomb, so you can see the black & white outline of his skeleton within.

Dominic remains the most respected and important Dominican, so if you see a painting with just one Dominincan in it, and he doesn’t have anything distinctive enough to tell you who it is, it’s probably Dominic.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274

  • Common attributes: Dominican habit, chubby, sun or star shaped burst of divine radiance in the middle of his chest (representing his brilliant scholarship), book (often glowing with divine radiance)
  • Occasional attributes: Accompanied by angels carrying his books, and often whacking heathens over the head with said books.  Don’t mess with Thomas Aquinas.
  • Patron saint of: Universities, scholarship, students, scholasticism, exams
  • Patron of places: Toulouse, Aquino, all universities
  • Feast days: Jan 28th
  • Most often depicted: Triumphing over Averroes and other “heathen” scholars, standing around with other saints
  • Relics: Toulouse, all over the place

Son of the Count of Aquino and related to Holy Roman Emperors, young Tomas was earmarked in his youth to become a Benedictine monk, and likely take over for his uncle who was abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, preserving a valuable political and economic seat for the family. Unfortunately, young Thomas was too pious and excited by theology to want to do anything so worldly as become a Benedictine abbot (Church reform; we needz it!) and determined instead to join this upstart, totally unimportant new order of Dominicans, who were all preaching to people and studying stuff, and had no money, and no cardinals and no lucrative landholdings, and only one saint, and even he (Dominic) had only been a saint for, like, a decade.  Parents did not approve.

Ruins of the tower where Thomas was imprisoned, infested with Latin students.

Thomas’s official hagiography describes many attempts by his parents to break his spirit and get him to become a Benedictine, including locking him in a remote tower and saying they wouldn’t let him out until he agreed.  But even that didn’t do it, so his mother and/or brothers took the extreme step of sending a prostitute into the tower with him, because obviously if he broke down and slept with a prostitute that meant he would become a Benedictine?…  Medieval parent logic is not the best…  Nonetheless, Thomas was miraculously liberated from the tower by a well-timed lightning bolt, which broke open the tower wall and let him escape, and as implausible as it sounds, I’ve been to that hilltop and seen that tower and the scorch-marks and lightning damage are clearly visible, so it’s an undeniable fact that God/Zeus/Thor/Entropy was quite determined that Thomas Aquinas must become a Dominican.

A tower on the hill next to the one where Thomas was held, not damaged by lightning.

His family gave up at that point, and sent him to Naples, then Rome, to meet what Dominicans there were, since the order was very popular and charismatic and much-discussed (Monks who act like monks?!), and he was sent thence to Paris, to the Great University, where it was quickly discovered that he was very, very, very, very smart.  The floodgates opened and the crowning masterpieces of scholasticism poured forth for the rest of his career.

In one sentence: Thomas Aquinas’ importance in the history of philosophy lay in his taking the works of Aristotle, which were at the time the only  comprehensive set of textbooks on philosophical and scientific topics, and whose Organon(logical works) outlined clear, teachable methods for the organization of thought and logical proof, and reconciling them with Christian theology, thereby both making Aristotle’s textbooks usable in Chrisitan classrooms, and simultaneously providing scientific and technical answers to an enormous array of theological questions which had been hitherto unclear.

View from Thomas’ Aquinas’ tower.

An example of the sort of question he took on was the question of Heaven and Judgment Day, i.e. if people who are dead now are in Heaven why do they need to be resurrected later on Judgment Day, or if they aren’t in Heaven now where are they?  His special focus was the detailed mechanics of the soul, and its interface with body, emotion, thought, memory, sensation, pain, Heaven, Hell, knowledge and God. I cannot overstate the degree to which Aquinas’ application of Aristotle to these questions is dense, and meticulous, and dense, and erudite, and dense, and enlightening, and dense, and geometrically strict, and dense, and rigorous, and, did I mention, dense enough that I can assign two pages, count them, two pages of the Summa Theologica to my students and they come back the next day red-eyed and desperate.

Thomas Aquinas presents his opera omnia to the Virgin Mary in Heaven. Below, Aristotle kicks himself: “Dangit! I knew I should’ve brought her more than the one scroll!”

Even more desperate, however, was 13th century Europe’s thirst for a functional, systematic theology which could answer the accumulation of detailed questions that Christianity had picked up over the centuries, and Aquinas accomplished this so spectacularly that, despite the odd condemnation of specific comments here and there, he became the core of education, and through him the Dominicans skyrocketed in influence and fame.  At the debate over his canonization, posthumous miracles were declared unnecessary since every article in his Summa was a miracle, and soon, just as one could call Aristotle simply “The Philosopher,” and Averroes “The Commentator,” Aquinas was, “The Theologian”.  So synonymous was Aquinas with theology that in Dante’s Paradiso, it is Thomas Aquinas who comes and administers the oral masters’ exam in theology which one must pass in order to enter the higher levels of Heaven (Study up, folks!), and in 1568 when the decision was made to supplement the original Four Doctors of the Church (Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory and Jerome) with four more great theologians who made Christianity what it became, Aquinas was the youngest nominee by almost a millennium and the only one post-Charlemagne (his peers were Gregory Nazianus, Basil, & John Chrysostom).  It was Aquinas who cemented the Dominicans’ position as the order of scholars, theologians, truth-seekers, and the appropriate group to lead the Inquisition.

In art, Thomas Aquinas’ overwhelming brilliance is depicted as an overwhelming brilliance, radiating in a sun-like burst of gold from the middle of his chest (which is apparently where divine brilliance lives.)  He is also usually chubby, one of these rare moments of physical honesty, indicating a saint who lived late enough that when he’s painted there’s somebody around who knew somebody who knew him and could tell the artist that Thomas Aquinas was, in point of fact, incredibly, credibly fat.  So fat was he that the story I heard (and I heard it from a member of the Papal Curia so am inclined to accept it) is that when he died, upstairs in a little monastery at Fossanova outside Rome, they couldn’t get his body down the stairs.  They had to break the window open and lower it with a pully, and then they didn’t have the means to carry it to town, so they employed mos teutonicus, a technique popularized during the second crusade, in which natural decomposition made it impractical to transport the bodies of crusader martyrs back from the holy land, so they would boil the corpse (with great ceremony) in a vat of vinegar to remove the flesh and separate the clean bones for transport.  Only Thomas died at a little tiny monastery which didn’t have a good supply of vinegar, so they boiled him in red wine,  so his bones are, to this day, rather purple, making fake relics easy to spot.

Other than standing symmetrically next to St. Dominic, Thomas Aquinas’ favorite activity in art is to sit on a throne surrounded by divine glory while he, or angels at his behest, clonk unbelievers over the head with his collected works.

Here angels best Aquinas’ intellectual opponents while he visits the Virgin Mary in the panel above.

There’s a lovely fresco of this in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and a charming one in the Louvre (to the right) about 2 rooms away from the Mona Lisa.  Averroes, the great Islamic commentator on Aristotle, is his most commonly-depicted enemy in these panels, since, while Averroes’ commentaries were indispensable reading for all students of Aristotle across Europe, certain details of his interpretations, and European interpretations of his interpretations, led Averroism to be so disproportionately demonized as a pernicious and contagious plague on scholars and universities, that in a lecture on Pomponazzi, I once heard a great professor attribute the general pessimism of Pomponazzi’s philosophy to, “Well, but he was down there in Minas Morgul in Padua which was full of Averroism.”  Clearly, it is the most natural of human desires to want see Sam squash Shelob with the Summa Contra Gentiles.

Before moving on, let me share a few more photos from the lovely, and peculiarly Gothic, Cistercian (more Cs!) monastery at Fossanova where Thomas Aquinas died, or, to be more accurate, where the substantial form of his existence terminated material contact in order for its Intellect to participate directly in the Divine essence, which will serve as an immaterial but completely perfected substitute for the material Passive Intellect until Judgment Day:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, wait, there’s more!

After all, when you have Dominic in the middle of a painting, you need TWO other major Dominicans to stand on either side and be symmetrical:

Saint Peter Martyr (Pietro Martire) aka. Peter of Verona, 1206-1252

  • Common attributes: Dominican habit, big knife sticking out of his head, lots of blood streaming down his head
  • Occasional attributes: Knives sticking out of his shoulders or back, martyr’s palm, book, more blood!
  • Patron saint of: Inquisitors, midwives
  • Patron of places: Puerto Rico, Verona, Milan
  • Feast days: April 6th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, especially Dominicans, being murdered
  • Relics: Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, Milan

“Peter Martyr is a martyr!  Did we mention he’s a martyr!  Because he’s totally a martyr!  Look, he has blood and knives coming out of him and everything!  Because we Dominicans totally have a martyr, and that totally makes us as good as all the older monastic orders!  So people like Thomas Aquinas’ parents can totally stop picking on us now!  Also, we totally got a martyr before the Franciscans did!  Because Francis totally failed to get martyred that one time he went to the Holy Land and met with the Sultan and was gonna throw himself in fire to prove his faith, and the Sultan was like, ‘No, no, you’re a sweet boy, I believe you, now go home’.  Because we’re totally better than the Franciscans if we got a martyr first!”

I wish this were more of an exaggeration than it was, but there was a lot of politics and competition in the first decades of these new orders, and one really did have to get a martyr to be taken seriously.  There was a genuine race.  The friendly rivalry between the Franciscans and Dominicans did have a legitimate doctrinal crux, the Dominicans believing that the best road to heaven is through truth, knowledge and study, i.e. the mental organ of the intellect, and the Franciscans believing the best road to heaven was through love, emotion and passionate faith, i.e. the mental organ of the will.  But they were also two new growing powers in the Church, exercising influence, and through which the ambitious could aim to exercise influence, and there was a power race as they established themselves.  They needed Saint Cred, as one might call it.

Peter Martyr was knifed (or axed) in the head by a Milanese Cathar, a blow which cut off the top of his skull, and after writing “Credo in unum deum” in his own blood, was stabbed some more, then taken home by friends, where it took him five days to die.  The fact that he still gets to have blood dripping down the sides of his head to remind us of this is not unreasonable.  What may be unreasonable are some questions about the motives for the murder.  Peter had been appointed Inquisitor General for northern Italy, where his main job was to weed out the Cathar heresy, yet another version of the old Manichean heresy (belief, not in one all-powerful God but in the semi-independence of an Evil Force opposing God’s Good Force) which plagued great men from Augustine to Voltaire.  The heresy was rampant in northern Italy, especially around Milan and ever-impregnable and equally-incomprehensible Venice, and there is some debate over whether the assassins went after Peter over theology and his assaults on Cathars, or whether it was because he’d been violently badmouthing Milan and Venice in his sermons, damaging the cities with his political influence, and generally making worldly enemies.

Either way, the Dominicans knew how to lobby, and after dying April 6th 1252, Peter Martyr was declared a martyr and canonized March 9th 1253, a record-breaking seven-month turnaround, still the fastest canonization on record, which proves both that the current administration actually are taking a sensible amount of time with John Paul II, and that the Dominicans were really, really ready to to publicize their martyr.

Peter Martyr was also the one who expelled the possessed/demonic horse that molested a crowd he was preaching, one of few accredited miracles (apart from St. Zenobius’ posthumus resurrection of an elm tree) to have actually taken place in good old Florence.

And now, Spot the Saint quiz time.

You know everyone here except the figure in armor all the way on the left, and there you can probably guess.

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Oct 312011
 

Since I talked recently about the Heavenly Court, comparing the office of Patron Saint to nobility holding landed titles, I would like to pause a moment to discuss Florence’s two former patron saints.  Just as cities and counties move from noble house to noble house and dynasties replace each other over the course of meandering politics and war, so cities can change hands from saint to saint.  John the baptist is not, in fact, Florence’s first patron saint, but its third (fourth, if you count the very early patronage of San Lorenzo).

Saint Reparata (Santa Reparata)

  • Common attributes: Crown, martyr’s palm frond
  • Patron saint of: nothing specific, really
  • Patron of places: Florence, Nice
  • Feast days: October 8th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints
  • Relics: Nice Cathedral

Santa Reparata falls into that palette of early martyr saints which historians constantly point out may be mythical.  If she existed, she did so in Caesaria in Palestine, and was martyred under Decius.  She was saved from being burned alive by miraculous rain, was then forced to drink boiling pitch, but still refused to recant, so was beheaded. Thus she falls into the same general late Roman virgin martyr category as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, but was never nearly so popular.  Her relics were (much later) brought to Nice.

Santa Reparata doesn’t have much distinctive iconography becuase she is a very obscure saint, and never depicted, really, except in her own territories of Florence and Nice.  Much as you don’t find portraits of a low-ranking baron in faraway cities, you don’t find Santa Reparata in Rome and Paris, she’s just not high up enough in the heavenly court.  She often has a crown–as martyrs frequently do–and a palm frond–ditto–but other than that she’s just a girl in late Roman clothes.

How then can you spot her?  She’s one of the saints you have to sort by taxonomy, i.e. looking for generic attributes then using common sense.  “There’s a woman here with a palm frond and no other attributes–wait, I’m in Florence, so it’s probably Reparata!”

Florence was Santa Reparata’s major cult site throughout the Middle Ages.  Her church stood in the center of the city opposite the baptistery.  When the growing power of Florence demanded a correspondingly large and impressive cathedral, and inclined them toward higher ranking patron saints, the city had to secure special permission to consecrate the replacement church to the Virgin.  The Duomo stands on the former site of Santa Reparata, and parts of the original church are visible if you go down into the crypt.   The Duomo which replaced it is Santa Maria del Fiore, St. Mary of Flowers, the flowers referring to the Florentine Lilly and the papal rose, since it was personally dedicated (and permitted) by Pope Eugene IV who was in town in 1436 doing, you know, pope things.

Saint Zenobius

  • Common attributes: Bishop
  • Occasional attributes: Florentine red fleur de lis, flowering tree
  • Patron saint of: Florence
  • Patron of places: Florence
  • Feast days: May 25
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, resurrecting somebody
  • Close relationships: St. Ambrose, St. Eugene and St. Crescentius
  • Relics: Florence, Santa Reparata crypt

Saint Zenobius was the first bishop of Florence.  He supported St. Ambrose in battling the Arian heresy.  He brought several people back from the dead, and his relics resurrected a dead elm tree.  He used to be buried in San Lorenzo in Florence, but was later moved to Santa Reparata/the Duomo.

Saint Zenobius is one of these cases of an early Christian who did a good job and was pious and therefore got to be a saint just for that, without getting martyred or founding a giant order or anything.  I support this, but it means his primary role was in Christianizing Florence and putting it on the map, so he is not and never will be particularly beloved outside his native town.

Zenobius is particularly valuable for Florence since he’s a saint who’s actually from Florence.  The more one studies hagiography, the more one realizes that Florence had a rather embarassing paucity of saints.  Milan had Ambrose, Padua had Antony, Verona had Peter Martyr, Sienna had Bernardino and Catherine, Assisi had Francis and Claire, Dominic died in Bologna, even Pisa had Rainerius, while Florence… Florence…

Peter Martyr defeats a possessed horse, a minor miracle but it totally happened in Florence!

There was that one time Peter Martyr dropped by and defeated a possessed horse, and Francis and Dominic visited, and Bernardino of Sienna, but with such illustrious saintly neighbors, many from less powerful cities, Florence really needed a local saint, not just a patron but an actual Florentine, or it frankly looked bad.  Florence was one of the five largest cities on Earth during the Renaissance–shouldn’t it produce at least one local saint?  And the fact that the Medici had arranged for the city to bury the infamous antipope John XXIII in the Baptistery didn’t help matters.

The Florentines made a decent sainthood case for Dante (which I heartily support), and the optimistic Dominicans at San Marco have carefully preserved the relics of Savonarola just in case, but getting someone made a saint requires approval from the pope, and both Dante and Savonarola were… how to put this delicately… well, Dante made a special place in Hell for popes and wanted the papacy’s earthly power to be overthrown by the Empire, while Savonarola declared that the pope was the Antichrist (which, given that the pope in question was Alexander VI, aka. Roderigo Borgia, may not have been far off, but  it didn’t exactly endear Savonarola to said Antichrist’s successors, nor did the fact that Savonarola’s writings were so popular with Reformation leaders).  So both Florence’s leading candidates for sainthood were flatly on the wrong side of the official approval process.  Plus Dante was banished from Florence, so his relics are in Ravenna (not helpful), and the Florentines killed Savonarola, and he was from Ferrara originally anyway.  Not the best show, oh magnificant republic, and not the best P.R. situation for a city which already had a reputation as a bizarre and wicked sin-pit, whose economy was based on usury, whose greatest poet and saint-candidate declared that Florence’s name was famous throughout Hell, and whose name in verb form (“Fiorentinare” i.e. make like a Florentine) genuinely was a medieval euphemism for sodomy across Europe.  So, Saint Zenobius it is!

Zenobius, in partnership with Reparata and, to a lesser extent, Lorenzo, were the city’s patrons for many centuries.  Eventually Florence increased in importance (and relic possession) and the city became one of the territories possessed by that most favored of courtiers (and cousin to the King!) John the Baptist.  But, like any good fiefdom, Florence still honors its lower local patrons too.

Zenobius is impossible to recognize in art most of the time, since he has no unique attributes.  Even the facade of the Duomo had to label him so people would be sure.  He was a bishop, so he dresses like a bishop, but so do at least fifty other saints.  Sometimes he has a flowering branch, representing his resurrected elm tree, which helps, but usually all you can do is say, “I’m in Florence and there’s an unidentified bishop saint; maybe Zenobius?”  Occasionally a Florentine red fleur de lis is put on his clothing somewhere as a clue, but not always, and the fleur de lis wasn’t a Florentine symbol until many centuries after Zenobius’ death.

Saint Zenobius had two deacons who worked for him, Eugene and Crescentius.  They also get to be saints, because they worked hard and did a good job (reason enough for me).  They dress like deacons (i.e. like San Lorenzo does) and are easily recognizable because if St. Zenobius is standing around with two guys dressed like deacons then they’re Eugene and Crescentius; they are never depicted in any other contexts.

We now have our set of Florentine saints.  If you see a painting or mosaic that has Lorenzo and John the Baptist and a random bishop and a woman with a crown and martyr’s palm and nothing else, it’s a pretty certain guarantee that it was made in Florence.

AND NOW, QUIZ YOURSELF ON SAINTS YOU KNOW SO FAR:

You know everyone in this picture except the woman on the right hand side; but with her, you should at least be able to tell one important thing about her.

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