Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:

Esgles

SantDom

Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:

Capella

The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:

Mullers

Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.

Art Lesson: Getting Down With Jesus And Mary

When strolling through a church or an art museum, it is quite easy to become bewildered by the profusion of images of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. The casual viewer, seeing century after century of different interpretations of the Madonna and Child, could be forgiven for thinking that these images were created entirely at random. Yet this is in fact another example of why paying attention to detail, and knowing your history, is so important in understanding Western culture.

The earliest known example of Mary holding Jesus dates to about 150 A.D.; it is located in the Greek Chapel inside the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Since that time, there have been tens of thousands of different depictions of the Madonna and Child. Because the Bible does not tell us what Jesus or Mary looked like, and we have no contemporary images of either to use as reference points, artists use their imagination in the creation of these pieces.

The majority of earlier paintings, sculptures, or mosaics typically depicted Mother and Son in one of two ways. Either the Virgin Mary was shown seated on a throne, holding the Christ Child in her lap, or she was shown standing and carrying the Infant Jesus in her arms. There are countless examples of these two archetypal images in Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic Art, and they are still popular today. The seated image, in particular, was often used as a way of representing not only Christ’s Divinity and Majesty, but also of His Mother’s own special role in salvation history.

Beginning in the 14th century however, and lasting up through the early 16th, an interesting way of depicting Mother and Son became popular. This was a form called “The Madonna of Humility”, which was particularly popularized by the Franciscans. While this sometimes took the form of Mary breastfeeding the Infant Jesus, more critically this type of image showed the Madonna and Child seated, not on a throne, but either directly on the ground or on a cushion on the floor.

This is a detail one can easily overlook. When seeing a myriad of images of the Madonna and Child in a gallery or cathedral, the eyes can blur over, and one painting or statue can seem very much like another. It is an important detail to remember, however, because it goes to the intent of the artist.

Stop and think for a moment about what this type of image conveyed to the viewer at the time it was created. After having become accustomed to seeing the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ as lofty, regal figures in churches and public buildings, seated upon a throne, here was something quite different. This type of image reminded the Medieval viewer of the humanity and humility of the two people being depicted. In representing a Jesus and Mary quite literally come down to earth, showing them actually sitting upon it as we ourselves might, the artists who created these images were expressing that love of humility which was so much a part of St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality.

Thus this seemingly innocuous detail, which we can so easily overlook, meant a great deal to the people of the time in which these works of art were created. It allowed them – and us – to reflect and mediate on how God humbled Himself to be born as a human baby, with a human Mother to care for Him. It also demonstrates why paying attention, when looking at a work of art, is so important in understanding the reasons why it was created, particularly in an age which has long abandoned not only Christianity, but also the study of Western history and culture.  

image

An Urgent Call: Helping The Hermit

I have something of a pressing need for your help, gentle reader:

Regular readers know that I’m part of a non-profit group trying to raise funds to establish a permanent hermitage up in Maine, where Brother Rex Anthony Norris is serving his vocation as a Franciscan hermit.  You can read more about what we’re trying to do over on the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage site, and you can also follow Brother Rex’s daily postings on the FLPH Twitter account and Facebook page. We recently received 501(c)(3) status, so any donations you make are tax-deductible.

However we have a more immediate concern, which is that Brother Rex is about to lose his home.  He has been renting an apartment in a house which is going up for sale very soon.  He hasn’t received an eviction notice yet, but it could come any day now, and he is having difficulty finding new rental accommodation that he can afford in the Portland area, where he must stay because he is under the canonical jurisdiction of that Diocese.  Of course, if any of my readers are in so fortunate a position as to have a small fortune sitting around in search of a worthy project such as this, please let me know.  For most of us average folk however, meeting Brother Rex’ immediate need is a better way to go.

If any of you are in the Portland area and in a position to rent an apartment, little house, or chicken coop to Brother Rex and his kitty Clare, please get in touch with me using the Contact form on this site.  If you can’t help but know someone who might be able to, or who might know someone who could, please share this blog post with them and let them know that I would be glad to put them in touch with Brother Rex.  Time is really of the essence in this situation, and since Brother Rex spends most of his day in prayer, those of us who care about him are left to try to help with many of the mundane things which we lay people can often do much more easily, given our resources.

Thank you for your charity, and God bless!

Detail of St. Clare and St. Francis from a processional banner from Assisi by Niccolo Alunno (c. 1470) Der Priesterhaus, Kevelaer, Germany

Detail of St. Clare and St. Francis from a processional banner from Assisi by Niccolo Alunno (c. 1470)
Der Priesterhaus, Kevelaer, Germany