Was St. Martha a Cat Person?

I’ve always found St. Martha to be one of the most interesting figures from the Bible.  Last night I was out in the slightly overgrown back garden after dinner, and I reflected on her impending Feast Day today.  She would probably click her tongue disapprovingly at the state of the weeds, but as I watched The Cat picking her way along one of the raised beds, the thought suddenly occurred that St. Martha was probably a cat person herself.

Cats are fairly self-sufficient, but as cat owners know, they also like affection, albeit in measured doses.  The trick with cats, unlike with dogs, is to let them indicate when they want you to give affection, and when they want you to stop.  One could reasonably see how a fastidious hostess like St. Martha would be more likely to keep a cat about the house in Bethany.

We don’t actually know that much about St. Martha of course, or what happened to her after the Resurrection.  Popular medieval legends maintained that St. Martha and her siblings St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus were eventually banished from Judea for preaching Christianity, landing in southern Gaul in the region now known as Provence. Among the more fantastic of the tales associated with St. Martha’s arrival in France is her supposed encounter with a dragon-like creature called the tarasque, which I have written about previously.

As is often the case with strange stories, there may be a slight element of truth to this one. One of the more popular entertainments in Ancient Rome was going to the local arena to see gladiators fight wild animals to the death.  Towns who could afford them would import exotic animals from all over the empire for these contests.  While Rome naturally had the most exotic beasts of all, large amphitheatres existed in many provincial Roman cities around the Mediterranean, such as the 20,000 seat stadium at Arles, just downriver from Tarascon, where the tarasque took up residence, as well as that in the nearby city of Nimes, whose arena could host over 16,000 people.

Some speculate that a ship importing animals for one of these gladiator battles from elsewhere in the Mediterranean might have wrecked in the Rhône, an accident which would have proved fatal to many of the caged animals on board, but not to an aquatic carnivore such as a crocodile.  Freed from captivity and making a home for itself in the fertile marshlands around nearby Tarascon, it would naturally terrify the local people, who had never seen anything like it before.  It’s conceivable that over time, such an animal would have become a part of the popular imagination in the area.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a great story that goes to my point about St. Martha being a cat person.  Dogs are often so very easy to like, that it takes someone with very special qualities indeed to appreciate a good cat – or in this case, a tamed river monster.  For all of her supposed hauteur, the fastidious St. Martha reached out to a creature which everyone else had dismissed as unlovable, showed it compassion, and civilized it.  The creature’s downfall came at the hands of those too ignorant to appreciate the value of life, and indeed the possibility of conversion.

In retrospect, perhaps our contemporary society could take a valuable lesson from this legend, after all.

Detail of "St. Martha" by Unknown Artist (18th Century) Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris

Detail of “St. Martha and the Tarasque” by Unknown Artist (18th Century)
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris

 

 

 

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Persecution and the Thunder of Social Media

Today is the Feast of St. James the Greater, who among other things is one of the patron saints of Spain.  His role in the creation of that country occurred well before the age of social media.  Yet a debate which took place in Britain’s House of Lords yesterday, regarding the nexus between social media and increasing violence in the name of religion, should give us some food for thought as we reflect on the message of Christ which St. James himself witnessed.

It is believed by some that after the Resurrection, St. James (or Santiago, as he is known in NW Spain) preached in Spain in the first century before returning to Judea, where he was arrested and later executed by King Herod.  It is also believed that much later, in the 9th century, he appeared in a vision to Christians fighting against the armies of the resident Moors, helping the outnumbered Christians to win the day.  As a result, Santiago subsequently gained the sobriquet, “Matamoros”, or “The Moor-Slayer.” This is not, obviously, a term which finds much support today, but during this period known as the Reconquista (“Reconquering”), it had a tremendous impact.

Today its territorial empire is mostly gone, but the linguistic and cultural empire which Spain established still remains.  Ironically, while the Christian faith which Spain spread across the planet continues to grow elsewhere, in Spain herself the state of the Church is at present uncertain.  What is needed in Spain, and indeed throughout Western Europe, is an entirely new form of Reconquista: not one of violence, but rather of witness, winning souls in the way Christians live their lives and how they treat others. To that end, social media can and should be a significant component.

Yet all of us, not just Christians in Spain, need to take to heart what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in Parliament yesterday. Noting current examples of religious violence such as the attacks by ISIS on Christians in Iraq, mob rage against Jews in France, and sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Africa, he cautioned that fiery hatreds are increasingly being stoked via digital means.   “[W]e recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one,” he noted, later going on to state that it is “the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.”

Lord Sacks is absolutely right, of course, in that the online world can be a vicious place.  He who screams the most obscenities or makes the most outlandish statements about annihilating entire groups of people ends up getting the most attention.  What’s more, the media prefers to cover the rantings of fanatics, both religious and anti-religious, rather than the ordinary people suffering because of their faith.  I find it embarrassing, for example, to note how often secular news reporters trim their fingernails disinterestedly, or play political favorites, rather than report on persecutions of Catholics.  And while we may all point to Pope Francis as someone who not only has the will, but the popular reach to bring words of reason and charity to millions of people through online media, more of us need to be doing our part to peaceably aid in this effort, rather than stirring the pot.

On his Feast Day then, we have a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened when St. James became a bit too hot-headed in his own faith.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus realizes it is time to end His public ministry, He and His disciples begin to make their way down from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing through the region of Samaria along the way.  Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him, so that any village He may pause in will be ready for His arrival.

Word comes back that one of the villages has refused to welcome Jesus, because His destination was Jerusalem; given the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time, this was perhaps not surprising. St. James, however, is absolutely livid at this news.  Along with his brother St. John, St. James asks Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to consume them?”  In doing so, the Sons of Zebedee are echoing the call of the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings, in his battle against the priests of Ba’al, and indeed the earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

However instead of giving His approval, as St. James might have expected, Jesus rebukes the brothers for their suggestion.  We are not told how He did so, or what He said, or how the “Sons of Thunder”, as they were later nicknamed as a result, reacted themselves.  Perhaps the two of them were still fired up with zeal from what they had seen at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor a few days earlier when, along with St. Peter, they witnessed a glorified Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, two prophets who were quite capable of calling down fire and brimstone when warranted, even upon their own people.  In this case, that kind of holy retribution was not to be.

Whatever St. James himself learned from this exchange with Christ, and he must have learned something to die a martyr’s death a few years later, the first of the Apostles to do so, we can learn from his experience ourselves.  Taking Lord Sacks’ cautions about social media to heart, if I am honest about it, I, too, have been guilty of calling down fire online, a temptation which I suspect many of my readers who use social media have also succumbed to from time to time.  So without dampening our enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel then, or defending our faith, perhaps my fellow Christians may want to take a lesson here, from the life of St. James, the man whose memory we honor today in the Church.

Detail of "St. James the Greater" by Alonso Cano (c. 1635) The Louvre, Paris

Detail of “St. James the Greater” by Alonso Cano (c. 1635)
The Louvre, Paris

When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome