Saint Nicholas was a 3rd to 4th century bishop saint, Greek by birth and active in the Middle East. He was of a wealthy family but orphaned and raised by an uncle. He came to the priesthood comfortably (no towers or evil parents or prostitutes or lightning) and progressed to bishop status in good time. Nicholas is remarkable for the large number of miracles he is supposed to have worked during his lifetime, and for that reason is a very popular saint to pray to, since he is obviously willing to use the powers all saints have. He saved ships from storms, multiplied grain to save towns from famine, and resurrected three kids.
Nicholas’ most famous story involves, not a miracle, but generosity. It has several variants, but all revolve around a poor man in the town who had three daughters but did not have enough money to give them dowries so they could marry. Nicholas stealthily provided the money, which is most commonly said to have been three bags of gold coins, but it varies. He did it on three successive visits (either three days or three years), each time tossing the money secretly into the house so the father never knew his benefactor. On the last visit (predictable due to the regularity of the first two), the father lay in wait, hoping to spot and thank his mysterious benefactor. The ending varies, but in one popular version Nicholas, realizing the man was watching the window, climbed across the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney. Some versions add the detail that one of the daughters had left her stockings hung up to dry by the hearth, and the money fell into one. He is also supposed to have given other charitable gifts, including leaving coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.
In 1071, when the area where Nicholas was buried fell into non-Christian hands, the relics were removed to the Italian town of Bari, sparking his large Italian cult. Some Venetians claimed to have a big chunk, spawning another major church to him in Venice (where a patron of sailors was very popular) but scientists and their x-rays have confirmed that the remains at Bari are mostly intact. Nicholas’ relics excrete a rose-scented liquid substance, referred to as myrrh, which has healing properties, much like the substance produced by the remains of Catherine of Alexandria.
Bishop saints are tricky to identify in art. They’re easy to tell from other saints, with their curved shephard’s-crook-shaped miters, their pointy, triangular bishop hats (not to be confused with the cone-shaped pope hats with three crowns on them), and their fancy robes, with a cloak with elaborate trim closed by a broach at the breast, and, frequently, gloves with gems on the back of the hand. Yet they can be very difficult to tell one from another, because their attributes are often unclear, or omitted.
How can we be expected to tell them apart if they have no identifying attributes? Often the original context of the painting would make it clear, since it would be commissioned by or for devotees of a particular bishop saint, or in a city where a specific one was most popular. But since pieces are so often in museums now, sometimes all one can do is guess. Nicholas was one of the most popular bishop saints, along with Augustine and, in Florence, Zenobius, so in general Nicholas is a safe guess. When in doubt, the artist sometimes provides separate scenes as hints. Sometimes these are painted on separate panels below or above the main painting, showing a recognizable scene from the saint’s life. With bishop saints, sometimes scenes from their lives are embroidered on their robes, though this can be deceptive, since I’ve seen Saint Augustine with scenes from the life of Saint Stephen on his robe.
As for Nicholas specifically in art, three golden balls or golden coins or bags of gold are the clearest sign, or a bishop accompanied by ships or standing near the sea. Beyond that, though, Nicholas is a decent generic guess if you don’t have a better clue for your unidentified bishop.
La Befana, the Epiphany Witch (not a saint, but…)
Common attributes: Pointy hat, dark shawl, rough dress, old, long nose with warts, scraggly gray hair, spectacles
Most often depicted: Flying through the air on a broomstick with a sack of toys
Since Saint Nicholas is not, in fact, a jolly, red-clad toymaker equipped with flying reindeer, someone else has to bring presents to the kids in Italy. This office falls to La Befana the Christmas Witch, or more accurately the Epiphany Witch, who flies on her broomstick with her sack of toys bringing presents to all the children on Epiphany Eve (Jan 5th). She looks like a witch in every classic sense, so Christmas fairs in Italy are packed with witches and Christmas decorations often look more like Halloween than Christmas to American eyes.
If you ask Wikipedia about La Befana it will tell you various origin myths. She was hostess to the Three Wise Men on their way to the Nativity; she regretted not following them and is still looking for the Christ Child so visits all children; she had a child which died so Christ let her be Mom to every kid in Italy; she’s the Sabine goddess Strina.
If you ask an Italian, in my experience you don’t get any of that. La Befana is a part of the holiday tradition, unquestioned as Santa in areas where he’s the gift giver, so just as most of those in the Santa region can’t tell you much about Nicholas of Bari, Italians are content with the witch they’ve known since childhood and don’t seem to wonder much.
I have to say, though, Italian kids have more excuse to freak out at shopping malls when parents set them in the lap of someone costumed as the Christmas gift-giver. A witch! Why are my parents handing me to a witch?
La Befana is also subject to the same bizarre cultural distortions as Santa:
So this year, if you’re the tree-trimming type, get out your broomsticks and pointy hats and have a nice witch-filled Italian Holiday!
And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:
(Click for more detail. If your eyes are sharp, you should be able to identify a few of the tiny figures on the sides as well as the main ones. Scroll down for a detailed view of the left-hand main figures.)
The Vatican museum: hall after hall of ancient Rome. Shelves crowd the corridors with busts of Caesar, of Cicero, of a hundred obscure Senators, of still more-obscure Romans, anonymous but vivid with two-thousand-year expressions of resolve or grit or whimsy crowded shelf on shelf. Here sits Penelope still patient, Diana hunting, Bacchus laughing merry, while somewhere in the distance the Sistine Chapel lurks, complacent in its celebrity. In the Hall of Animals, Roman hounds sniff at Roman horses, rabbits, crabs, crocodiles, camel heads with their enormous, gummy lips, all stone. The Belvedere Courtyard stunned you with its circle of masterpieces every one of which transformed the history of sculpture: the Belvedere Apollo, the Belvedere Torso that so fascinated Michelangelo, and, as matchless when the Renaissance unearthed it as it was when Pliny called it the best of sculptures 1500 years before, the real Laocoön. The walls and ceilings of the patchwork labyrinth-palace are such an ocean of gilded cornices and marble tracework that it becomes impossible to tell north from south or ground from upper floors, so all sense of grounded space is long gone as you turn the corner into a grand scarlet rotunda, floored with vivid Roman mosaics. Statues of gods and emperors loom, more than twice life-height: grim-faced Athena, tired Claudius, the massive gilded Hercules; while the friend beside you stops dead and, slack-jawed, points at a big stone tub in the middle of the room: “Look at the size of that hunk of porphyry!”
Yes, it’s porphyry, a dark, reddish-purple speckly stone, and this room, for the many who enter and ooh and aah and glittering Hercules, is another moment of material illiteracy. Just as a Catholic spots John the Baptist by his hairshirt, and a fashionista a Gucci handbag by whatever alien cues its curves contain, so from the Roman Republic to Napolean a European knew what porphyry implies: Wealth, Technology, Empire, Rome.
Porphyry has become a generic term for igneous rock containing large spots (crystals), but the source of the name is the Greek word for purple, and the purple form is the true original. This is referred to as Red Porphry, Purple Porphyry, or, most aptly, Imperial Porphyry.
The Imperial Porphyry found in Italy came from a single mine in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites. It was imported by the Romans as a decorative accent stone, for use in tiled floors, as colored columns, or occasionally carved into a vase or sculpture. Its color invokes Royal Purple, but is also very close to the color of the fabulously expensive shellfish-based purple dye which produced the purple stripe which marked the tunics and togas of the Senatorial class. This also dyed the completely purple toga worn by those who occupied the rare and severely powerful office of Censor, a special official created only on occasions, whose task was to examine the state of the Senatorial families and judge which were still worthy of office and who should be removed or added to the roster of Rome’s leading citizens.
Several Caesars held this special office, so purple, and porphyry, and as their palaces became more opulent it became increasingly an imperial symbol. In Constantinople, once the capitol moved in the late empire, the imperial palace contained an entire room covered in porphyry, and this was traditionally where empresses gave birth, giving imperial princes and princesses the title Porphyrogenos, “born to the purple”.
Porphyry is extremely hard, also dense and heavy. Even lifting a substantial hunk of porphyry is a great feat, let alone transporting it by ship from Egypt. It is also so hard that it takes very strong, well-tempered steel to cut it, and even then, achieving any great degree of precision is very challenging. The Romans had steel good enough, but it too was lost in the Middle Ages, making Roman porphyry artifacts not only symbols of the Caesars but of the impossible godlike skills of the ancients, which their weak successors could only marvel at. It was physical, recognizable proof that the Romans could do the impossible. In addition, the location of the mine in Egypt was lost around the fourth century AD, and not successfully rediscovered until 1823.
Imperial Porphyry has a cousin, green porphyry, or Lapis Lacedaemonius, commonly called Serpentine. It is just as hard, coming from a mine near Sparta (or near the modern Greek town of Krokees). It is speckled too though often with larger speckles, many somewhat rectangular or X-shaped. The combination of rich green and purple, usually set in a white Italian marble background, was an extremely popular decorative element seen all over Rome, in the houses of Rome’s imitators, and especially in palaces and churches which re-used floor tiles looted from Roman sites. Porphyry ornaments the floors of Rome’s greatest churches, with the size and density of porphyry among the framing stones increasing toward the altar. The header at the top of this very blog shows a porphyry section from the floor of the Sala della Disputa, the frescoed room in the Vatican which hosts Raphael’s incomparable School of Athens, while the Sistine Chapel Floor (not a phrase you hear often enough) completes the opulence of the other decoration with a dense decoration more purple than white.
In the Middle Ages, then, porphyry meant Rome, specifically the lost power of the Caesars who could reach across oceans and achieve impossible feats. Anywhere porphyry appeared it was a Roman relic, and anyone who had it could claim thereby to be an inheritor, in some small way, of that lost Imperium. Porphyry also came, over the middle ages, to symbolize Christ (reddish purple = blood), but in the Middle Ages everything came to represent Christ, from griffins and unicorns to pelicans and pomegranates (no, it’s totally not a co-opted pagan symbol, why do you ask?), so what distinguished porphyry from the zillion other things that represented Christ was still its imperial connection and its technological unachievability.
Thus everyone who’s everyone wanted porphyry, and if you wanted it, you had to steal it. The only porphyry in Europe lay in things the Romans built, so every prince and republic and sculptor who wanted this symbol of Roman power had to steal it from the source. Want to put in a nice porphyry floor for a Church? Loot it from a Roman temple. Want to advertise the imperial majesty of Mary Queen of Heaven? Make the altar out of an old, repurposed porphyry sarcophagus. If a pope wanted porphyry columns for his tomb, he had no better source than to go to some surviving Roman temple (say, the Pantheon…) and rip out the porphyry, perhaps if he’s polite substituting some less valuable stone to keep the looted edifice from falling down.
Some places already had porphyry brought there by the Romans, and in these cases it was proudly displayed as proof of the noble Roman origins of a town or province. Even in Florence, on the baptistery which is the literal heart and center of the city, the gilded Gates of Paradise are still flanked by two old, cracked and mended, asymmetrical dark reddish columns, built into green and white facade despite a complete chromatic mismatch. So old and dull are they that many don’t even notice them upon first or even third visit, but these are porphyry, relics of the Roman-era Church of Santa Reparata, or its predecessor, preserved and re-used here as proud proof of Florence’s Roman roots.
Porphyry sculpture was even more impressive than a tile or column, since working such an adamantine substance into complex shapes required immense time and skill. Diamond was rare and valuable and not a practical tool for trying to make a large chisel to work large stone, but short of diamond the only means to shape porphyry was to rub it against another piece of porphyry for a very long time, grinding both down, a clumsy, labor-intensive and imprecise technique. Many, especially the Medici family, poured funds and efforts into researching ways to make a metal sharp enough to carve porphyry, or a solvent capable of weakening it, in hopes of adding this to their list of resurrected Roman achievements. Even before they succeeded, however, possessing a Roman porphyry sculpture was an even grander boast than possessing simple tiles, and at last now we can understand why, in the Uffizi Gallery, where the great Roman sculpture treasures of the Medici are still housed, one comes around the corner to the very center of the U-shaped gallery, expecting to see in the center some exceptional masterpiece, an Emperor or bold Athena, one sees instead the mangled, limbless torso of an animal. Look again: those hips, those hanging teats. This is the mangled, limbless torso of a porphyry she-wolf, the symbol of Rome herself.
Naturally, the greatest concentration of porphyry lay (and lies) in and around Rome itself. The farther you are from Rome, the scarcer (and more impressive) porphyry becomes. Florence had a couple columns and the odd basin, but for more porphyry they had to buy or steal from Rome, or elsewhere. The Venetians carried off large pieces of porphyry from Constantinople when they looted it, and still display them proudly as pulpits on either side of the main alter in San Marco. Porphyry in northern Italy is comparatively scarce, so a Venetian palace with a few roundels in its facade makes a real statement. Even as far as France, when Louis was decorating Versailles, porphyry was scarce indeed, but what few busts and vases he got hold of went straight into the best places: the throne room, and the Hall of Mirrors where every visitor would see, and understand, Louis = Caesar.
The pope always wins the Who-Has-The-Most-Porphyry Competition, and the Vatican is its grand display case. The staggeringly enormous porphyry basin in the round sculpture room in the Vatican palace is referred to as Nero’s bathtub, and is the largest piece of porphyry I have ever seen; I would not be surprised to discover it is the largest in the world.
One is generally still reeling from trying to imagine the staggering cost and difficulty of creating and moving such an object, when in the next room one encounters an even more impossible vision: two enormous solid porphyry sarcophagi, both taller than a standing person, and covered in deep relief carvings of horsemen, prisoners and acanthus leaves. This is Rome indeed. Specifically, these are the sarcophagi of the women of Constantine’s family, including the tomb of his mother, Helen, or more specifically Saint Helen, who traveled to the holy land and brought back the True Cross and the Lance of Longinus and… at least one other major relic, but I can’t right now remember whether it was a nail or part of the Crown of Thorns, or perhaps that piece of the Holy Sponge they have in Rome… (Spot the Saint moment: Helen’s attribute in art is that she carries the cross.) Regardless, the two tombs have no Christian imagery, just the most Roman of Roman decorations, horsemen leading vanquished prisoners for Helen, and for the other fertility images. In deep, impossible relief. In an era when it was a substantial feat to scrape two looted pieces of porphyry into sufficiently matching shapes to make them seem symmetrical in a floor pattern, there is no purer proof of the godlike power of the ancients. After that, there is just too much, and every further encounter with porphyry in the Vatican labyrinth feels like one, two, three, five, ten too many.
St. Peter’s is just as much a showroom for porphyry, with columns, tiles, tombs. Every purple object that, from a distance, makes you think “is that porphyry?” turns out to be the genuine article. And it’s worth keeping in mind that, except for the most modern pieces, they’re all relocated chunks of what were Roman temples scattered around the city from the Caesars’ days.
One large porphyry round in the floor close to the entrance is supposed to be the stone from the original St. Peter’s on which Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor (and successor to the Caesars) on Christmas day, 800 AD. It’s just inside the entrance in the exact center of the Church, sort of balancing the altar, secular power facing sacred.
Perhaps my favorite piece of papal porphyry, though, is this set of porphyry keys carved and set into other stonework in the threshold of the Church, so every visitor who enters walks across them. Most ignore them, but in the pre-modern world one glance at heraldic papal keys in porphyry spells a very special kind of awe: not only does the pope have Porphyry but apparently he has the power to carve it into a Christian shape. Clearly he is Rome’s successor. With so many visiting feet for so many centuries, the papal threshold keys are also the best proof I know of the extreme hardness of porphyry, since the stone around them is worn down by more than a centimeter, while the keys stick up, unharmed by the tread of millions. The Florentine Museum of the History of Science has examples of scientific instruments and grinding stones fashioned from porphyry, chosen for its rigidity and inelasticity as well as for its opulence.
The ability to carve porphyry was eventually recovered, and in the 18th century Roman relics were transformed into large numbers of sculptures, especially busts, of rather questionable taste and quality. Porphyry remains hard to work with, so the very subtle curves and scratches necessary to make a really lifelike human portrait are simply impossible in it. Its products are always a little too smooth and shiny, the edges of the eyes clumsily cut, the wrinkles a little too smooth, like waves rather than folds. Also, purple with speckles is not the most flattering skin tone.
Fake porphyry was, naturally, an industry as well, and many of the most famous buildings in Europe contain not only real porphyry but painted fake porphyry, made of plaster or wood painted with the signature purple and speckles. This was most often done for bases on which statues sat, or for trim around rooms, but the Villa Borghese in Rome contains whole tabletops of fake porphyry, with real porphyry busts nearby to make them plausible. Porphyry was also a popular ingredient in painted scenes, especially paintings of imagined palaces, and of places intended to be ancient Rome. And heaven, of course. The halls of Heaven, where saints and angels pose for altarpieces, have plenty of porphyry.
December has been extraordinarily productive for me, with a large number of small articles and other projects now plumply complete, but the down side has been no time to write about Roman churches or ancient marbles or bad gelato and its wicked ways. I hope to have such leisure again shortly, but in the meantime let me present an old piece overdue for posting in the fandom vein, my review of the MARVEL comics Thor movie which distressed everyone last spring by being nowhere near as awful as expected.
(For those unfamiliar, it will help you in reading this to know that Norse mythology, and Viking culture in general, are a secondary area of special academic interest for me, and also an area in which I compose and perform from time to time. In both research and on stage I specialize in a certain very important Norse deity who sure as heck ain’t Thor.)
An unbiased review of the MARVEL “Thor” movie. (Contains spoilers).
I have been driven to write this review since so many people seem to have missed the subtleties of this excellent and richly-worked commentary on Norse Mythology. First off, I should like to correct a common, basic confusion about the film’s plot, since so subtle was the crafting of Loki’s character that many viewers seem to have been taken in by his brilliant plan, which succeeded, and which was cunningly disguised as a terrible plan which failed. I apologize for the necessity of spoilers here. Loki’s primary objective, destroying Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge, was clearly seeded early, when Loki revealed that he had found his own, unique methods of inter-world transit. He thus ended the film with a triumphant monopoly on inter-world travel, whose consequences the viewer can look forward to enjoying in the sequel. Concealing all this with the fake throwaway throne-grabbing plan was elegant writing, and provided an opportunity to banish the Thunderer long enough to get in some thoroughly enjoyable cheap laughs.
I should quite like to know how this version of Loki managed to alter things to set everyone up to believe he was Odin’s adopted son rather than brother, but I agree it was a necessary step. It’s much easier to guilt-trip the Allfather in a father-son relationship than a blood-brother one, and the guilt-trip was integral to the plot. Far more integral than most of the content of the film, really, but therein too lay some of its brilliance, since the large palette of seemingly superfluous and out-of-place characters provided an opportunity for brief dips into many interesting commentaries on the theology. The Thunderer’s four seemingly-irrelevant friends, for example, especially the conspicuous ninja, settled in a few short scenes the oft-debated question of whether non-Viking warriors can go to Asgard. The fact that the non-Viking population of Valhalla both outnumbered and, in one very moving scene, criticized the mourning practices of the one real Viking amng them, brought before the viewer’s eyes the pathos of a dwindling, traditional culture being drowned out by internationalization even in its afterlife. The brief appearance of the woman identified as both the Thuderer’s mother and Odin’s wife was also a fascinating snapshot of imagined secondary consequences of the death of Baldur, since, indeed, if Frigg failed to produce any further heirs to Odin’s throne, he might of necessity disown his infertile queen and bring Fjorgen to Asgard in order to legitimize the Thunderer. Even something so subtle as the prop design of Mjollnir proves, by its full-length handle, that in this reimagining the entire creation of the Weapons of Power was conducted differently. The depth of the impacts of Loki’s deceptions has no limit.
Gender the film treated with rare and unexpected subtlety, and I stand in admiration of how it highlights and embellishes the unstable sexual categories of the Norse mythos. We are accustomed to Loki’s dual-gendered nature, but instead of re-treading that ground, we are presented instead with a deeper examination of gender imbalance in Jotun society. When we are informed Johtenheim has a single ruler, we might expect one of the great Jotuns the Thunderer usually battles, such as Bergelmir, or Utgardsloki, or perhaps Loki’s father Farbauti. Instead we find Laufi, Loki’s mother, on the throne, and having taken a male form, presumably in order to command respect from a patriarchal society, much as her famous son/daughter does. This pathos of this grim portrait of cultural pressures to use shape-shifting to renounce female form in a pre-feminist culture is then multiplied when we see masses of jotuns during the battles and destruction and realize that all of them have the same, hulking, distinctly male form. What might be attributed to bad CG or chauvinist casting reads now as a silent proof of the sub-human position of women in Nordic culture. Surely this common Jotun gender-switching is known to all-seeing Odin, but he has kept to himself in his kingdom—perhaps afraid of the ideas it might put into the heads of the Asynir. Or does Odin have a darker interest in pretending that he believes Laufi is Loki’s male parent? Is he covering a darker reality? Are we meant to realize how closely “Far-bauti” i.e. “Far striker” might invoke Odin, the wielder of Gungnir, who, we know, often disguises himself to sire children, and answers already to Hnikar (Spear-thruster) and Hnigakudt (Thrusting-god)? Is there yet another layer to the Allfather’s deceptions? The linguist is left delightfully tantalized.
I must confess that, at times, so subtle was the scripting that it was difficult even for an expert to quite make out what it was hinting at (either that or they were stuck with a poor translation of the Eddas). For example, Audhumla the Ice Cow, who freed Odin’s father (The first god, Bur) from the ice, must be the presumptive grandparent invoked by the Allfather in his reference to “my father and his father before him”, since no other being was responsble for Bur’s creation–unless this is perhaps intended as a roundabout hint that Loki had managed to confuse Odin about his own origins as well as Loki’s? Clarification is needed. At other points, though, the film provided almost too much information. While it’s certainly useful for those of us who might want to repeat the process to learn at last that Mjolnir was forged using the heart of a dying star, I suspect some rather angry and protective dwarven smiths will be demanding reparations for trade secrets lost.
The costuming was excellent, all around. The mostly-naked Jotun fan-service was much appreciated. The Thunderer was hilariously adorable with his puny child’s beard. The way Wayland the Smith went overboard designing these insane helmets was a great way of communicating his silent protest over being forced to build that ridiculous whopping robot thing. I also admire the hairdressers’ bold speculation that if Sif did follow Freiya into the warrior-maiden calling, it would also give her the guts to finally admit that she was never a real blonde.
My major objection remains the film’s title. While the Thunderer did get a lot of screen time, mainly because the writers were correct that watching his embarrassing antics on Midgard was a fine way to pass the time while important people were sneaking through inter-world rifts and casting endless incantations, he was so tangentially related to the film’s actual plot that it seems to me misleading to present him as some sort of titular and, presumably, central figure. If the writers thought they needed the extra deception to keep the viewer from figuring out Loki’s true plan too soon, they must, I fear, be accused of too much double-bluff, since as it is so many viewers seem to have missed the real plot. I have had it pointed out that the writers may have chosen the title for the merchandising, since I’m certain many lasses will soon be cuddling adorable Thunderer dollies, but I find it hard to believe a film, otherwise so sensitive and scholarly, would stoop to product placement. If the actual main character could not be titular, Odin at least might have been a better choice, if not something more neutral, like Sons of Asgard, or perhaps Mjollnir Saga, since the hammer did contribute meaningfully more often than its master.
All in all, a well-executed film, if a bit crowded with comic relief; we must hope the authors do not make a similar mistake in the sequel, which should be titled Loki’s Victory, at least in my unbiased opinion.
(P.S. I hear some rumors about a title involving “Avengers’? Vengeance is good too.)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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:
Charismatic leader wants to live more modesty, without corruption, imitating Christ, so breaks off from the corrupted institutions of the Church.
Many others find spiritual richness in this, and follow him/her.
Movement takes off, gets official recognition from the Church, becomes established.
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).
Movement becomes wealthy and powerful, and noble families start sending their younger sons into it in order to gain wealth and power.
Corruption leads a charismatic leader to want to break off and live more modestly, imitating Christ.
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!!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
I am traveling this week, so will leave you with a simple photo essay, demonstrating what I enjoy over the course of about 45 minutes at dusk whenever I have some evening’s leisure. Best when accompanied by a gelato.
And one more from a different evening; no, I don’t know why the flag is there.
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.
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…
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.
Drum roll please… time for the results of my Guess the Purse – Guess the Price challenge:
I often stroll through what I call the “thousand dollar purse” district, but even I stopped short the first time I spotted Purse #2 in the window. Did they put in an accidental extra digit? I was used to trying to guess from a distance whether any given purse cost 200 or 400 or 600, but nothing had quite prepared me for quintuple digits.
I had known fashion items in the ten grand range existed, so it wasn’t that which shocked me as much as my complete inability to tell why that particular purse cost ten times what its neighbor did. Not only did I not know, but I couldn’t even begin to understand how I might know, yet at the same time I’m very aware that for people connected with the world of fashion, all it would take is a glance to tell. It was a language barrier. Like how an architect fluently interprets the vocabulary of a facade, a mechanic the sounds of an engine, or a medieval person can recognize saints at a glance. A moment of feeling what illiteracy must be like.
Except at the same time, Reason rebels: 10,900 euros! It’s a purse! It’s a glorified sack! I could make one in 20 minutes out of fabric or duct-tape, and the materials can’t possibly cost more than a few hundred. Nice ones are nice, and I have some bags I’m very fond of, but… is it from the Moon? Made of the hide of the last surviving wyvern? Does it cure disease and repel undead? Is it electronically synched with a satellite which will shoot pickpockets with lazers from space? Was the leather bathed in the healing liquor which drips from the tomb of Saint Catherine of Alexandria ? Is it perhaps like George Jetson’s suitcase, and folds out into a car? I’d pay fifteen grand to never have to park again, but anything less…
Now, I don’t dislike fashion. I quite enjoy looking at interesting clothes, studying costume history, making costumes, looking at shop windows, get excited over a particularly rich fabric or elegant coat tail, and I do pay serious attention to how I myself dress. Fashion is a form of communication. That’s how I primarily think of it: a social tool whose vocabulary of gender, class, situational, ethnic, geographic and subcultural cues let people communicate to others a kind of instant introduction and self-presentation.
When a dolphin meets another dolphin the first thing they do is urinate at each other, because by tasting each other’s urine in the water they can tell a lot about each other: age, gender, health, “Hello, I’m a juvenile female who just pigged out after a long journey without enough food.” “Well, hello, I’m a middle-aged female local to this area and in heat; get stuffed.” Clothing accomplishes the same, in balance with function, comfort and expense, of course. On a bus or subway one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know a lot about what class and type of professional or hobbyist most people are trying to seem. I have a great respect for people who manage to use clothing to present themselves in ways which make them seem exciting and also give a good sense of who they are, and I strive to do so myself, and, in my case, maintain several different wardrobes (nerd, professional, historical, otaku) for presenting myself when I hop from hat to hat among my many spheres.
Like language, clothing as communication requires one to work within a set vocabulary. As an astute economics textbook I read on the matter once pointed out, it might be that to some person encasing herself in a two-foot-diameter aluminum tube perfectly summarized her thoughts about herself, but if she walked to a room like that no one would be able to interpret it, so it would fail as communication. Tweed jacket with leather elbow pads = professor, black with spikes = punk with all its countercultural associations; you can’t reverse or change that until the whole culture does, or no one will know what you mean.
But the fashion industry is something different: it changes constantly, every season, and it’s in its very changeability that it somehow communicates. Bowtie = quirky/geeky/old-fashioned; wearing the latest fancy thing that’s currently in shop windows, whatever that may be = fashionista. Thousand dollar purses do have a function, which is to communicate that this is a person of sufficient wealth and education and with the proper tastes to want one.
Returning to the familiar ground of the Renaissance, a blue garment or a lady with pearls woven through her hair is a declaration to passers-by of social class, and important for enabling the correct interaction between classes, and for making political and economic contacts and alliances. When Alessandra Strozzi writes in her letters of having a daughter married wearing hundreds of florins worth of pearls sewn to her garment, the wedding procession was an invaluable advertisement of the family’s wealth and status and its connection to its neighbors, which played a significant role in the political interplay between Strozzi, Medici and other rival powerful families in the city. This has a function, and even a wedding dress that cost as much as a house did have a function, and I respect that.
The problem comes in contemporary fashion from the fact that now one often has to be such a fashion-conscious person in order to interpret correctly, because to the untrained eye this year’s black Gucci purse looks exactly like last year’s black Gucci purse. It’s a private dialect spoken only among a specific type of wealthy, trend-minded elite.
This season’s trends prove precisely why the private dialect of high fashion baffles me where other regions of fashion seem reasonable and, indeed, fun. This season’s “look”, as one can’t help but notice on a stroll past Florence’s boutique windows, focuses on huge, rough, bulky, shaggy knitwear, mostly in brown, beige, gray or black, with accents in orange and teal.
Huge, shaggy knitwear of precisely the style that knitting hobbyists–a slice of society associated with old-fashioned handicrafts, tradition, nerd culture, and the shy prim crafts-doing girl type–produces. There is no way that I can perceive to tell the difference between these 300 euro Ralph Lauren shawls and scarves and something one might request from a grandmother, or see growing longer panel by panel at a con.
Communication has failed. Generally speaking,the presumed goal of a fashionable trendy dresser is to communicate to the layman that they’re generically nicely dressed and upper class or upper middle class, while to communicate to the expert that they’re savvy enough to know that boutique X rather than boutique Y is the correct space to spend a few hundred on sunglasses in 2011. This season’s fashion accomplishes B but fails at A, since passing such an outfit in the street, my first thought would be “oh, that person knits or knows someone who does,” not, “ah, that person is a fashionable dresser.” The vocabulary of fashion has left communication behind. The dialect is now incomprehensible to the bulk of the country.
As for the extreme edges of fashion, and fashion advertising, which too often leaves you uncertain even what they’re selling, there one can only revel as in surrealist art. Here are two choice specimens from the Milan train station billboards. What am I supposed to want to buy?
Following up on a comment (an as I sit here in my high medieval tower hearing the winds howl through the stone) I want to discuss the institution of Patron Saints.
To me, the key to how Patron Saints were understood in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is the concept of the Heavenly Court. Heaven was often imagined (especially by the less educated classes) as a direct parallel to feudal Earth, that is as a court, with God in the role of ruler, i.e. Emperor, King, Duke, whatever sort of Signore (lord) people are used to. Heaven in this model is the capital city, and the saints are the courtiers who enjoy the favor of the Lord and are invited to His court. Mary is the Queen of Heaven, and literally the Lady presiding over the heavenly court.
In normal feudal life when someone needs a favor from a lord, i.e. a tax break, help repairing a bridge, an office, permission to marry in odd circumstances, the settlement of a dispute, one doesn’t go directly from peasant life to the king, one goes through intermediaries, petitioning a local lord, who petitions a higher-ranking noble, who then sends the petition on to the sovereign, or, if nervous that the sovereign might be harsh, to the Lady of the court, who is supposed to be more likely to be sympathetic. The most powerful saints, Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, are the inner circle of favored councilors, and newcomers like St. Francis of Assisi sometimes join the ranks of inmost courtiers.
Mary, the queen, is the best positioned to secure favors, and, being the societally idealized mother archetype, is expected to be kind, generous, forgiving and nurturing. And remember that the Latin word “gratias”, often translated as grace, can also be translated as political influence or political favoritism. Thus “Hail Mary, full of political influence…”
Thus, in Dante’s Commedia, when Beatrice (a virtuous, deceased citizen of Heaven) wants permission to have Dante escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, she does not go directly to God to ask permission. She goes first to Saint Lucy, patroness of eyesight and some aspects of scholarship and one of Dante’s personal preferred patrons. Saint Lucy then presents Beatrice’s petition to the Virgin Mary, and Mary, then, presents it to her Lord/Son who gives final permission.
Focusing on the model of God as Emperor, the pope then is his vicar on Earth, which is to say the Emperor is resident in his distant capital but rules a foreign city through a vassal, as the Holy Roman Emperor might be resident in Germany but nominally rule Ferrara from a distance through the Duke of Ferrara, his vassal. Priests, then, are the bureaucratic agents of that vassal, who are trusted by the distant Emperor and can send messages to him and expect answers, and the hierarchy of the clergy is thus the hierarchy of a subsidiary Lord ruling under a distant overlord. This, in 1400, makes perfect sense.
The mass of intermediaries seems irrational given our modern individualist model of a world (and therefore universe) of dignified equals (liberty, equality, brotherhood here and in Heaven), and the Protestant model which focuses on a direct relationship between individual and god reduces the value of saints as intermediaries, but in the feudal world feudalism is normal, and the absence of this structure would be rather terrifying. Your average peasant doesn’t want to imagine himself directly in front of the King without the kind protection of his local patron.
Now, the Patron Saint bit makes sense when you realize that the nobility generally correspond to places: the Duke of Ferrara, the Marquess of Provence, the lord of this or that. Many nobles rule different scattered territories in different places, as the King of Spain might also be Duke of Athens, for example. But there are also Crown territories that belong directly to the monarch, rather than belonging to a vassal. The king may grant these crown territories to a vassal at any time, as a reward for good service, or a show of his love, and different vassals may also acquire territories through marriage, or conquest, or election, etc.
Thus, London is a city which, in the heavenly hierarchy, has been granted to Saint Paul. Philip the Apostle received the nation of Uruguay much as Spanish and English nobles received hunks of the New World once they became relevant to European courts. Thomas More was granted the city of Arlington, Virginia once it came into existence, but like any noble who hasn’t yet gotten a particular territory, he was still in the heavenly court before this and enjoyed the favor of the heavenly King, he just didn’t yet have the noble title Patron of Arlington, VA. Sometimes a town goes from having one patron saint to a different one, or gains a second, just as feudal holdings change hands. Meanwhile, before these places acquire patron saints, they are Crown Territories, governed directly by their Lord.
Patron saints of particular occupations and types of people also roughly correspond to medieval institutions. A Wool Guild has its earthly patron in the nobles or wealthy leaders who run it, and children do in the nobles or city lords who pay for orphanages; and they have heavenly patrons too, so if Florence’s gild of locksmiths looks to St. Peter and armorers and weapon makers to St. George, that too makes nice feudal sense.
This is, of course, one of the clearest ways of seeing how extremely medieval a lot of the accumulation of Catholic doctrine is, and why the modern progress of individualism and democracy has made some of that accumulation awkward in the modern world. Things which were obvious to medieval minds now have to be explained and justified to modern ones not used to the same assumptions about the Heirarchy of Nature etc. Rituals, allegories and similes which were developed by Medieval people to explain doctrine to Medieval people are being adapted and reframed by moderns for moderns. Attempting to explain a patron saint to someone who doesn’t have the medieval concept of “patron” is no simple task. I struggle in my teaching all the time to help students wrap their minds around temporally alien concepts like this, and there’s nothing harder. The fact that contemporary Catholic theologians have succeeded so well in re-framing and reexplaining so many of Medieval Christianity’s concepts in modern terms is, from a teaching standpoint, very impressive.
This mismatch is also another indicator of how strange Renaissance Florence was, with its Republican government. Feudalism, monarchy and hierarchy, was the norm, not just in political realities but in the way people thought, their general assumptions. Even the republican Florentines didn’t imagine Heaven as a republic, they imagined it as a feudal monarchy. The guilds would rebel violently against any single master on Earth, but were happy to look to their patron saints, and to John the Baptist as the city’s heavenly governor. The inscription over the Palazzo Vecchio makes it clear: republic-loving Florence still happily submitted to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but not to anyone else. In the medieval world, then, hierarchy and monarchy were not just the norm but literally worked into the fabric of Heaven and Earth; to have something so different required a truly extraordinary mental leap–though it is certainly debatable whether we should read the leap as forward to modernity, backwards to Athens, or sideways to the unique moment that was Republican Florence.
I mentioned a few weeks ago a busy week including a Joust. The Joust in question was the Giostra della Stella (Joust of the Star), is held in Bagno a Ripoli, formerly its own town, now legally a Florentine suburb. When it was annexed (20th century) in order to maintain civic identity it started having a reconstructed joust every autumn. This is not a tourist event–indeed it is hard to reach by any means, and nearly 100% of the audience were locals–but a civic pride event, and competition.
The town of Bagno a Ripoli is divided into four historic quarters, the quarters of the Mill, the Horse, the Tower and the Standard-Bearer, each with its own crest and coat of arms, and horseman. The four competitors, professionals brought in from out of town, joust for the honor of the four quarters, to loud and enthusiasm from the spectators. Shields and pennants bearing the quarters’ arms decorate the field and street, and the townsfolk dress in t-shirts and colors to designate their sides.
The joust is held at night, in the dark, hence the lack of good photos. One reason for the darkness is the temperature and blazing sun, but the other is that the afternoon is reserved for a different contest: an old-fashioned sports day competition between the quarters’ teams.
This I do have photos of, as the warring quarters compete at tug-of-war, sack races, a race with an egg balanced on a spoon, and, on the nearby roadside, running while pushing a wooden hoop along with a stick, and running while pushing a partner on a wooden cart. The tug-of-war was by far the most dramatic competition, with much preparation and debate and measuring to the inch where each starting foot is placed, while each actual competition lasted only a few seconds before one side fell, grumbling, in the dust.
Junior flag-tossers enter the field
I wish we did this in MY middle school
The flag tossers were also extraordinary, with an exhibition by the junior trainee flag tossing team, and a stunning performance by the adult team with double flags, one in each hand, which were tossed and spun in mesmerizing close-quarters patterns and tossed from person to person in complex, interwoven dances.
I have no decent photos of the joust itself because this is a night joust, held by electric light in a charming field well after dinner, so crowds can enjoy the late summer outdoors without baking in the sun. I can only describe, therefore, the stunning costume pageant which precedes it, in which at least a hundred participants in perfect sixteenth century costume parade along the street to take their seats in the reserved stands. The thoroughness and variety of the costuming puts most Florentine pageants to shame. Musicians in the town livery began the parade, and the town militia, and the Podesta of the town with his ministers following behind the city standard. Monks and an abbot joined them, touch-bearers, peasants with baskets of harvest foods, and a portable maypole which skilled children circled even as they processed. There were noble representatives of specific grand houses of Florence and its allies too, each group including lord, lady, clients, servants, even children in tiny doublets or toddlers’ bodices, all led by a standard bearer with the family crest, so a sharp eye might pick out a Strozzi and a Medici among the crowd. The detail was exquisite, from the strings of pearls woven through the ladies’ hair to the heavy texture of the gentlemen’s trailing sleeves. Many of the lords’ and ladies’ costumes were recreations from specific portraits, and even the gems embroidered onto layered pleats were executed to perfection. To perfect the display of civic pride, the part of the Podesta, in his long velvet, was played by the actual top official of the town, and several other leading magistrates participated as his entourage.
The Joust itself was a style I had never managed to see before myself. I am, of course, serious about watching jousts, both from attending numerous Renn Fests and from calling Maryland home, whose state sport is still jousting (though in 2004, despite the noble efforts of many, this noble remnant of grander days was perniciously adulterated by the election of lacrosse as the state “team sport”). I may not be so elite a jousting snob as I am a gelato snob, but I am picky, and this was excellent.
The “star joust” uses small, light horses, trained for speed, who race full tilt around a small looped race course while the rider attempts to capture a metal star with a hole in the center using–not a lance–but a sword. The rider must make two loops in 30 seconds, making one attempt at a star each time, receiving points for each star captured, and in case of a tie in points, speed is the tie-breaker. Three rounds of increasing difficulty are held, using stars with smaller and smaller center holes, and the later stars give more points. So trained for speed are these slim horses that, unlike the heavy, docile animals used at American fairgrounds, these were spirited to the point of disobedience, balking from unfamiliar objects, bursting into short jolts of speed without instruction, and one knight needed five attempts to get the beast to take him close enough to his lady to receive her favor.
The display of athleticism, on the part of horse and rider, was gorgeous, and in the electric light the smooth backs and haunches of the horses rippled and shimmered like silk, especially on the pale gray one that looked like polished pewter. One could see through the thin fur and taut skin the motion of the muscles, and, since the horses went one-by-one, the gallop was all startlingly quiet, not the thunder of hooves one generally hears with many horses racing, but a light percussion, barely audible except when the horse passed close.
Equally fascinating was the cheering, or rather the booing, of the crowd. The math will tell you why. In a town divided into four quarters with one rider representing each, three quarters of the audience are disappointed whenever one rider does well. Thus, the booing will always be as loud if not much louder than the cheering, and however much praise may rain down from sympathetic slopes, the capture of a star always solicits a general moan. Given the usual adrenalizing effect cheers have on an athlete, I do wonder what chill a string of gasps and curses instills. This was ever so much more true of the rider in red and white representing the quarter of the Standard-Bearer, because, (as a kindly old local rumormonger explained) due to one of those sorts of dramatic falling out incidents that often destroys a school club or bowling team, that quarter did not have a team in the earlier day’s athletic contests, and had no team spirit. Thus, when that rider succeeded, everyone, the whole crowd, booed, or condescended to recognize his skill with a spattering of disjointed, grudging applause. In fact, it was this lest popular horseman who triumphed that evening, to the general satisfaction of… me? No one else? The rider cast in that role was, in fact, the most experienced, and this was his eighth victory at this particular joust, though a different rider was riding the horse which (with a different man on his back) won last year.
A true shadow, which very nearly thwarted the joust entirely, fell across the camp mid-way through, and incited a half hour of eerily legend-like suspense. The sword broke. Mid-way through, it got dinged or bent or something, and the announcer in his grand robes declared a halt. Men in colorful livery scattered across the grounds checking equipment. They didn’t have a spare. There was only the one sword, and without it the jousters milled aimless in the courtyard, their horses becoming increasingly touchy and obstreperous as they milled the hedged waiting box. It was at this point that it occurred to me that we were at a joust, and somebody lost the sword, and squires were off looking for one, and while Italy seemed an unlikely place for a boy to suddenly become King of England, this was still quite the circumstance. In the end they turned to the costumed crowd, and asked all the gentlemen, the Medici, the Strozzi, the knights and guardsmen, to all bring their swords to the front so the officiators could select the one most physically similar to the lost official version. Thus we confirm that it is vital for half the crowd to come to any joust in costume. The sword replaced, the joust concluded with the victory of the very excellent knight-whom-no-one-liked, and fireworks. And a long, awkward attempt to get a taxi home at midnight.