The Saint, the Book, and the Lily

Much of the world’s great art is part of the patrimony of our Church. Every Leonardo; every Michelangelo; every Caravaggio belongs to all of us.

Without Catholic artists, there would be art, but there would likely be no art periods. No Romanesque; no Gothic; no Renaissance; no Mannerism; no Baroque. I could list other periods up to the 20th century, though Catholic art diminishes. It does not disappear.

Not every Catholic artist created Catholic art – and few restricted themselves exclusively to Catholic themes. Da Vinci painted the astonishingly beautiful Virgin of the Rocks, and he painted the enigmatic Mona Lisa: the first is religious, the second is not. Michelangelo: Sistine Chapel ceiling, sì! His sculpture of Bacchus, no! Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus, definitely! The Musicians, definitely not.

Many of the Catholic painters, sculptors, and architects who worked between 1000 and 1900 made a part of their living fulfilling commissions from Church leaders and institutions and from wealthy, often princely patrons. Leonardo da Vinci lived well but eccentrically and peripatetically. He died at 67, still touching up the Mona Lisa. One has the sense that Michelangelo had trouble enjoying his success: he never retired and died at 88, working on another Pietà. Caravaggio is the exception. He died at 38, probably from wounds suffered in a vendetta attack.

Each had his imitators (call it paying homage), many of whom painted versions of subjects first put on canvas by the masters, especially when an image had become cultic. For instance, the iconic Salvator Mundi. The most famous version is Leonardo’s, now the world’s most valuable painting – by the standard of its 2017 sale price of $450 million. Others who painted it (Christ holding an orb – the universe – in His left hand while blessing us with his right) include Carlo Crivelli, Gerard David, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Memling, and Titian.

Another example of a cultic image is St. Dominic in Soriano.

By Francisco de Zurbarán

A story holds that early one morning in 1530 (it was the eve of the octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin), a sacristan, Lorenzo da Grotteria, at a Dominican friary in Calabria (the “arch” in the Italian boot) rose at 3 AM to illuminate the sanctuary only to discover there three women “of wonderful appearance.”

“What church is this?” one of the luminous ladies asks.

“This church is dedicated to Saint Dominic,” Lorenzo replies. “We have no paintings on the walls, except for that crude depiction of our founder behind the altar.”

The women unroll a canvas, and one venerable matron says, “So that your church may have another icon, take this and give it to your superior. Then tell him to place it above the altar.”

The women have come from far away (or is it very near?): Heaven. They are St. Catherine of Alexandria (who speaks to Lorenzo), St. Mary Magdalene, and. . .Our Blessed Mother herself. Surely, she is there because Dominic gave us the Rosary.

We know the tale from Silvestro Frangipane, another Dominican, who lived a century later. But the story was charismatic from the start (in that it had Our Lady’s charism), and a cult grew up around the image, which depicts Dominic de Guzmán, in the habit of the order he founded, holding a book in his right hand (many possible interpretations: the Bible, learning, prophecy), and in his left hand a lily (Our Lady’s purity). [See the 1626 painting by Francisco de Zurbarán above.]

As the story spread around Calabria, people flocked to the friary church to be in its presence, and it is said miracles occurred:

No less than 1,600 of these miracles, juridically attested, took place within the space of seventy-eight years. Pope Innocent X, in the year 1644, granted a festival in commemoration of this event and of the vast number of miracles attributed to the holy image. [N.B.:This Providence College source says “Innocent XII,” but he did not become pope until 1691.-ABM]

That feast day was celebrated on September 15th – from 1644 until 1913.

Juan Bautista Maíno’s version

That original, miraculous painting, the existence of which is disputed (some art historians call the original a “fake relic” commissioned by Frangipane), is now lost – to war, or earthquake, or theft – a reminder that history is no kinder to art than to humans. We at least can reproduce.

What comes down to us, speaking of reproducing, are paintings that depict the visit to Soriano of the three venerable women presenting the icon of St. Dominic (1170-1221) to the grateful and astonished sacristan.

The best of the paintings of the event is at Santa María Magdalena in Seville, Spain: the one painted by the great Zurbarán in the mid-1620s.

In addition to Zurbarán’s, during the first half of the 17th century there was a veritable explosion of renditions, including very fine ones by: Giovanni Battista Giustammiani (now in the Museum of Saint Francis, Greve in Chianti); Carlo Bononi in 1620 (Church of St Dominic in Ferrara); Juan Bautista Maíno (Prado in Madrid); Matteo Rosselli (Church of San Marco in Florence); Alonso Cano (Indianapolis Museum of Art); Antonio de Pereda (Museo Cellabro, Madrid); Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (Santa Maria di Castello, Genoa); Pedro Atanasio Bocanegra (Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia); Andrés Amaya (Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, Spain); Jusepe Leonardo (National Gallery of Ireland); Jean Daret (Provence Art and History Museum, Grasse, France); Baltasar Vargas de Figueroa (Colonial Museum, Bogota);

Perhaps most notably (except that, in my opinion, his isn’t as beautiful as Zurbarán’s) is Jacopo Vignali’s, also at San Marco in Florence – notable because Vignali is said to have copied the proffered canvas from the original – the one the venerable women brought to Soriano. As in all the versions, the “original” is shown within the tableau depicting that morning in 1530.

And that original calls to mind the origins of both the mysterious staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, memorably described here by Matthew Hanley, and the image of Our lady of Guadalupe on St. Juan Diego’s tilma, now at the eponymous Basilica in Mexico City, and beautifully discussed here by Michael Pakaluk. (The links to both columns are below, under “You may also enjoy.”)

All this art is defined collectively as “thaumaturgic,” from the Greek thaumatourgia, for wonder-working. And no wonder.

Jacopo Vignali’s version (inset based on the original):

You may also enjoy:

Matthew Hanley’s St. Joseph and the Staircase

Michael Pakaluk’s Queen of the New Evangelization

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.