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:



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:


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:


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.

‘Twas the Night Before Epiphany

Most of us, I suspect, have already begun taking down the Christmas decorations, whereas in Barcelona, which as regular readers know I visited recently, tonight things are ratcheting up to the peak of the Christmas season. This evening there will be a huge parade celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings or Wise Men, who sail into Barcelona’s harbor – yes, “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” – and then make their way accompanied by all sorts of attendants and entertainers up into the center of town, much to the delight of the children assembled along the route.  Tomorrow morning, the good children of Barcelona will wake to see what toys, gifts, and treats the Kings have brought them while they were sleeping, and of course adults will exchange gifts with each other as well.

We are all-too-aware of the fact that the celebration of Christmas begins too early and ends too quickly in the present day.  I say “Christmas”, though truthfully what we are often celebrating has little or nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but rather reflects the change of seasons from autumn to winter. It would be more appropriate to say that we begin celebrating the Winter Solstice around Thanksgiving, if not in some cases (such as with retailers) well before that.

Bearing in mind the traditional Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, we ought to remember that traditionally, everything leading up to Christmas Day is actually Advent, not Christmastide. Christmas celebrations start on the 25th, and run through tomorrow, the 12th day, when Christians celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, i.e. the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child in Bethlehem and the manifestation that Christ would be a Savior to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.  In many parts of the world, such as Barcelona, the major exchange of gifts occurs not on Christmas Day itself, even if some small gifts happen to be given on Christmas, but on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Apart from my admitted bias in favor of anything having to do with Barcelona and Catalan culture, and the fact that I am certainly no theologian, this practice has always struck me, as a layman, as being theologically sound.  Exchanging gifts on the day we commemorate the Birth of Jesus seems to take the focus off of the gift of God and put it onto ourselves.  How could one reasonably expect to compete with the gift of eternal salvation by purchasing items in a shop?  Whereas the Three Kings, in giving gifts to the newborn Savior twelve days later, give us an excuse to symbolically mimic their actions and give gifts that symbolize our love for one another.

I am always struck when I am in Barcelona during the Christmas season how even with the enormous quantity of lights and decorations spread all over the city, which in many cases far exceeds anything you have seen in any urban setting in this country, that there is at least still some element of a lessened materialism as compared to how we do things on this side of the pond.  Yes, people are shopping and there are advertisements for all sorts of gifts that could be given, but in the lead-up to Christmas Day itself there does not seem to be the same focus on the accumulation of material goods at the expense of tradition.  Even in a city as secular as Barcelona very often can be, there is still a love of family and community that seems to outweigh the amassing of things which no one really needs.

How long this will last, I do not know.  Over the years I have seen attendance at Midnight Mass at the Monastery of Pedralbes, where we always go when we are in town, steadily decline.  My mother can recall when Midnight Mass there was standing room only, and I would say ten years ago there was still quite a crowd of people – if not exactly standing room, at least it was full with perhaps a few stragglers standing in the back.  This Christmas the pews in the monastic church were perhaps 3/4 full, at most, and the over-60’s outnumbered the under-40’s by at least 5 to 1.

There is no question that there needs to be a new evangelization in Europe, and that it will take a long time to see the fruits of such efforts.  Yet here in America, we should not sit back and assume that we are in better shape, simply because the masses are still jam-packed at Christmas.  There will always be Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies, as a priest friend of mine likes to call them – those Catholics who only show up for mass on Christmas and Easter, like the flowers we associate with those major Feasts of the Church.  Yet we could and should be doing more to encourage those people to stick around for the rest of the year as well.

Christmas is not over yet, gentle reader, and indeed, one could even make the argument that the celebrations continue up through Candlemas on February 2nd, though I suspect by then most of us would be rather tired of dusting the tree and ornaments and so on.  However while there is still time do so, why not encourage a friend to attend church with you this weekend, when we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany at Sunday mass?  Let them ask questions and do your best to try to answer them, and see whether you can plant a seed that will germinate and take root – maybe not right away, but over time.  What a wonderful gift you would be able to give to Christ, as we remember the day He received the gifts of the Magi.

Parade of the Three Kings through the streets of Barcelona last year