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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Flying the Banner

Last evening at the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., Father James Bradley gave a wonderful talk on “The Way of Beauty; The Way of Happiness”, as part of the TOT (Theology On Tap) Talks organized by the Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington.  Pointing to examples from areas such as art, music, and architecture, Father Bradley challenged his listeners to consider the impact of beauty in our lives, and how it points us to the transcendent.  He asked the deeply important question of whether contemporary acceptance of what was formally considered ugly or demeaning, as being equal or superior to what was formally considered beautiful, is leading us away from God.  You can listen to the audio of Father Bradley’s presentation when it is archived on the TOT page later today.

While the reader may, with good reason, assume that I would have quite a bit to say on this question, I instead want to focus on a comment which Father Bradley made in the course of his presentation.  He noted that when engaging with those who do not accept the Christian worldview on topics such as beauty, we often find ourselves getting nowhere by making apologetic arguments based on doctrines and principles which have been rejected by those who disagree with us.  To put it another way, if I might, when your neighbor absolutely insists that your cat is not a cat, but rather a dog, then all of your insistence to the contrary is not going to make much of a difference.

Father Bradley asserted that when discussion proves impossible, it is through example that we can make said difference.  How we as Christians live our lives can draw people to reconsider their entrenched positions about those very important subjects on which we disagree.  If we are seen as people of joy and love, engaging in acts of kindness and charity, and surrounding ourselves with beauty in all things, we are more likely to be able to engage with those who refuse to meet us on common intellectual or philosophical grounds.  In other words, it is time for us to recover not only the thought, but the actual practice of being a Christian in a time which increasingly rejects Christianity.

An early document written roughly a century after Christ’s Resurrection, known to historians as The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetesmay give us some idea of the sort of thing I mean.  In this letter, the unknown author writing in about 130 A.D. describes how Christians are both a part of the world, yet at the same time set themselves apart from that world by the manner in which they choose to live.  Note how the distinctions which the author draws between the practices of the wider of society of his day, and the Christians of his time, seem eerily reminiscent of some of the practices and ideas of the present age:

[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.  They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.

I wonder how many of us who today call ourselves Christians, could consider this early assessment of what our ancestors in the Faith were like, and still recognize ourselves in such a description. We have forgotten that ours is not simply another philosophy among many competing philosophies, but rather a complete way of life, one which is supposed to be manifest to the world, not donned and doffed like a pair of favorite socks.  One sees this type of Christianity throughout Western Europe for example, where apart from christenings, weddings, and funerals, the vast majority of Europeans never darken the doorstep of their local church; this phenomenon is sadly becoming all the more apparent in this country, as well.

As Christians are paid increasingly less attention in the marketplace of ideas, we see that simply the removal of our voices from the din has not been enough for those opposed to Christianity.  We must be made to conform to the zeitgeist, whenever possible; when this is not possible, then we must be silenced.  Given this, and if we consider the historical roots of Christianity such as in the passage given above, then Father Bradley’s reasoning that our lives must themselves be the argument for Christianity at all times, but particularly when words fail us, makes perfect sense.

Certainly, it would be far easier to simply take down the blood-stained banner of the Resurrection, and fly instead the white, surrendering flag of relativism.  Yet to do so would be to deny Christ, something which no Christian wants to do.  The Early Church understood, despite the difficulties which they faced in getting themselves heard, that when our words are ignored, a living Faith through our actions can speak volumes, especially in a highly mutable society.  It’s high time that we recall and re-embrace this lesson for ourselves.

Easter Banner at Golgotha Monastery Orkney, Scotland

Easter Banner at Golgotha Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery
Orkney, Scotland

 

Rose’s Turn: The Power of Painting with Pink

Ah, the time-honored summer art exhibition: when art galleries and dealers in big cities try to keep themselves from falling asleep out of boredom, waiting for customers to drop by.  The reader may not be aware, but from a business perspective, the selling of art is often as seasonal as is the selling of other commodities, from bikinis to snowplows. Just as art dealers in vacation areas tend to languish during the period between the end and the start of their area’s high season, so too galleries in urban areas often suffer from the doldrums during the summer vacations of their regular clientele.

To counteract this, a summer exhibition is a great way to generate some interest in what might otherwise be a period of lethargy.  The Royal Academy in London, for example, started hosting its annual Summer Exhibition way back in 1769, which over the centuries has proven to be a hugely profitable venture not only for the Royal Academy, but for the artists exhibited there and the galleries nearby.  The Academy gets a percentage of the proceeds of any of the works sold at the show, and the London art dealers rather than packing up and fleeing to the Rivera in search of their clients, will typically host their own, brief shows around the same time, so that potential collectors can drop by and see their works, as well.

Such is the case, I imagine, with the brief run of “Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown, which opened this past Friday.  The exhibition features a selection of works by a number of artists, all working in very different styles and with no thematic program, yet all are connected by their use of the color rose – or pink, depending on how you look at it, which of course for my Catholic readers brings back the old canard about the color of the priestly vestments for Gaudete and Laetare Sunday.  Appropriately enough, the opening reception for the show was accompanied by cocktails made with strawberries, rose sparkling wine, and Saint Germain.  My charming companion and I noted the refreshing recipe for future use, as we looked at the many types of painting on display, and chatted with one of the (always very gracious) gallery staff.

Pink is a color which today we often associate with the feminine – blue for boys, pink for girls – even though for centuries, that formula was reversed.  In an article about child-rearing in the venerable “Ladies’ Home Journal” published in June 1918, we read that when choosing a color for a baby’s clothing, outside of easy-to-bleach white, “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”  One may also note that in traditional Catholic images of the Madonna and Child, the Virgin Mary is almost always depicted wearing blue, and there are many examples of the Christ Child wearing pink.

It is the boldness of pink as a color, much like the use of red, which tends to attract the eye; such a powerful shade can often completely dominate an image, unless the artist is careful.  What is appealing about the Susan Calloway show is how the selection of works speaks to a variety of tastes, but nothing hits you over the head with “PINK”, like walking into a child’s bedroom.  Yes, there are a few very charming, dare one say “pretty” images, but there are also some bold, textural pieces as well, which use pink in different ways.

Take for example an arresting painting by David Ivan Clark titled “Untitled (Still #69)”, a very horizontal work which features a gradation of color from pale gray to puce to black.  There is nothing “Hello Kitty” about this picture, and despite its substantial horizontality, it is a decidedly masculine-feeling piece.  Another work in the show, “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers, features gleaming squares of silver leaf atop an underpainting of a deep, hot pink, reminding the viewer of the techniques employed in Medieval and Early Renaissance panel painting.  If, like this scrivener, you have certain magpie tendencies, you cannot help but be enthralled by the piece, so arresting is the juxtaposition of the bright undertone with the burnished, gleaming surface.

Arguably the star of the show is “Magnolia Swimwater” by Allison Hall Copley, a very large work on canvas which greets you as you enter the gallery.  Interestingly enough, the piece is framed, rather than stretched, leaving the unfinished edges of the piece exposed to look almost like rag paper.  The composition is a huge swirl of colors, a shower of bright pinks, oranges and blues against the plain white canvas.  Copley gives a wonderful sense of movement and flight to the painting, like a host of flower petals being caught up in a whirlwind and falling to earth again.

Although these three highlighted works are examples of different types of abstraction, those with an aversion to the non-representational need not fear. “Everything’s Rosy” additional features a number of charming, representational pieces, from artists such as the extremely talented landscape artist Ed Cooper, among others.  This is truly one of those bright and cheerful shows which has something for everyone, not only asking the visitor to consider pink in different ways, but also proving to be quite refreshing during yet another oppressively Washingtonian July.

“Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown runs from July 11th to July 22nd.

The wonderfully-textured "Departures" by Janet Fry Rogers,  looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown

The wonderfully textured “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers,
looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown