The Hand of God: Paint and Parchment

Pope St. Clement I, whose Feast Day is today, is one of those saints who, at least in the English-speaking world, has a name one rarely hears anymore. I often bring up in discussion with Catholic friends that there are many great old saints’ names on the calendar that for whatever reason have fallen by the wayside with respect to popularity. As it happens my goddaughter is named Clementina, and so in the fullness of time, when she makes her First Communion, my intent is to get her a statue of St. Clement from Barcelona. Though they are difficult to come by anymore, it is still possible to get one complete with the attention to decorative detail and the inset glass eyes one expects from traditional makers of religious items on the Iberian Peninsula.

In an earlier time period St. Clement was much more popular as a patron saint, and a very important example of this in Catalonia is the 12th century church of Sant Climent de Taüll in the Catalan Pyrenees. I have written previously about the magnificent Romanesque fresco of the Christ Pantocrator from the apse of Sant Climent, which is now housed in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona. It is a glorious, beautifully colored image, in a remarkable state of preservation, and I have a reproduction of it on wood hanging atop my makeshift oratory at home.

However another image from this church dedicated to St. Clement that is perhaps less well-known but just as interesting is that of the Hand of God the Father, which appears in the arched vaulting above the figure of God the Son. This disembodied hand, with its suggestion of a white robe, appears from within a sort of white disc surrounded by a stripped-down, patterned halo. It seems incredibly modern in design for something painted over 800 years ago. The simplicity of line and form would allow the casual observer, if taking the image out of context, to assume that the image was painted in the 20th century, perhaps in the Art Moderne period at the end of the Art Deco era.

This Divine Hand is a blessing one of course, and not condemnatory. It does not point to Hell, or write out “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” for the congregation to shudder over. Nor can it be mistaken for some sort of hippie-sixties peace sign. In fact it has a languid, regal grace to it: it is the hand of a ruler who is very much aware of the order of things and who is happy to dispense graces to all who ask Him. Personifying this understanding of what is ultimately an abstract concept in such a simple, yet effective design, is a mark of true genius on the part of the unknown artist who painted this fresco.

Pope St. Clement himself, disciple of St. Peter, wrote about the power of the Hand of God in his Epistle to the Corinthian church of his day. Some of my Protestant readers may not be familiar with this letter, as it is not contained in either the Catholic or Protestant Bible. Rather, it is one of the earliest non-Biblical writings we have from the early fathers of the Church.

In his letter, St. Clement writes that we should

forsake those wicked works which proceed from evil desires; so that, through His mercy, we may be protected from the Judgment to come. For where can any of us flee from His mighty hand? Or what place will receive any of those who run away from Him? For the Scripture says in a certain place, Where shall I go, and where shall I be hid from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there. If I go away even to the uttermost parts of the earth, there is Your Right Hand. If I make my place in the abyss, there is Your Spirit. Where then, shall anyone go, or where shall he escape from Him who understands all things?

Therefore, let us draw near to Him with a holiness of spirit, lifting up pure and undefiled hands to Him, loving our gracious and merciful Father, who has made us partakers in the blessings of His elect.

St. Clement I: 28-29

This seems a fitting passage to reflect upon, as we admire the work of the Romanesque artist who painted the gracious Hand of God in the apse of this church of St. Clement, so long ago. The original parchment or papyrus on which St. Clement wrote has, of course, long since vanished, and this beautiful painting is no longer in situ at the ancient church dedicated to him. Yet both St. Clement’s words and this image are reminders to us of God’s Grace, so much in the minds of my American readers this week as we head towards Thanksgiving, and for the Church universal as we prepare to enter the Season of Advent.

The Hand of God the Father from the
Church of Saint Clement in Taüll, Artist Unknown (ca. 1123)
National Museum of Catalan Art, Barcelona

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