Fra Angelico’s Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella – Part 4 of the “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition

Today’s post is Part 4 in my series that began on May 16, 2018 concerning the recently concluded exhibition of extraordinary egg tempera paintings by the Dominican friar Beato Fra Angelico. The exhibition was held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts during the Spring of 2018 and was entitled Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth.

Nathaniel Silver, Associate Curator of the Collection for this exhibition, includes in his book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, articles by eleven scholars. Each paper is a quality contribution to scholarship. There is one article authored by Chiara Pidatella, entitled “The Provenance of the Four Reliquaries for the Church of Santa Maria Novella.” It clarifies and answers the confusion surrounding the provenance of the four reliquaries. Ms. Pidatella has written an important paper in that it compiles the documentary evidence that proves that the four sacred images within the reliquaries in the sacristy of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, were painted by Fra Angelico. These reliquaries and other Angelico masterpieces were on display in the Gardner Museum.

A reliquary is an ornate elaborately constructed box, frame, etc. that is made of wood or precious metals and contains the remains of an individual or multiple saints. These remains may be small or large particles of bone, hair, etc of the deceased saint.  Depending on the design of the frame the openings for the relics are contained in the top or bottom, and in the center if it is a box with lid. You can see the potential opening for the relics at the top of the frame in The Dormition and Assumption of Mary.  It would be within the top circle that is vertically sliced in the center, the relics would be put in that small opening behind “the doors.” It should be noted that Colnaghi & Co. built a new frame for that painting in 1899. I presume they were loyal to the original design of a gabled early Renaissance reliquary, and that the vertical slice is actually an opening for the relic(s).

The reliquaries in the exhibition are embellished with four extraordinary paintings of events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ms Pidatella says that “The fact that the saints whose relics they [the reliquaries] contained are not explicitly named suggests that the relics were of minor importance, especially in comparison to others mentioned in the same documents and described with great precision (particularly those decorated with gemstones and precious metals). The third inventory also confirms that all four reliquaries stayed together in the sacristy until at least 1772″ [Pidatella, p. 25]. 

The history of the movements of the four reliquaries is interesting. I won’t go into the historic details yet one incident deserves mentioning  (I recommend that you purchase the book, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth, 2018, Gardner Museum, and Paul Holberton, London). The incident concerns the events of the early 19th century when the French government was required (under orders from Napoleon) to make an inventory of Italian artworks. The result being the French government took a very hard stand in relation to Italian art. Ms. Pidatella mentions their belief “that only France deserved to exhibit works from the most important moments in the history of art” (emphasis mine) [Pidatella, p. 27].   Pretty cheeky.

While three of the reliquaries remained in Florence, the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary (one of four seen below) made its way into a collection of an English family headed by Rev. John Sanford (1777 – 1855; he was the chaplain to the Duke of Cambridge, brother of the British King George IV). This acquisition occurred  in the early 19th century; however economic difficulties led to Sanford’s daughter, Anna Horatia Caroline Methuen, to put this Angelico painting on the market. When this occurred Bernard Berenson recommended Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston to purchase the piece, which she ultimately did in 1899, for £4000 [Howard, p. 18, Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth]. The Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting then became the first Fra Angelico to be displayed in the United States. Its current frame (that you will see below) was commissioned by Colnaghi & Co.(art dealers) in 1899. Their focus was to frame it in its original gable design {Howard, p. 18-19, ibid].

It is my privilege to present to you my quickly snapped photos of these masterpieces of the four reliquaries (through the courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) . I will also provide my photograph of the back of one of the reliquaries to show you the wooden panel on which the egg tempera paint was applied. You will see that the panel was covered with a decorated piece of paper-like parchment. The reliquaries are approximately 24 inches tall by 15 inches wide.

The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (painted 1426-27) egg tempera and gold on wood panel. This frame is not slightly tipped to the right in reality. It was my attempt to snap a photo before someone stepped in front of me; I didn’t realize the photo was tipped at the time!

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The above two are closeups of the Annunciation and Adoration. Slight tipping resulting from a quick snap occurred here, too. The green squares to the left of Mary’s head are not part of the painting. I did not use a flash. I don’t know what they are, possibly security lights. Notice the extraordinary grill work in back of the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, and the Magi.

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The Dormition and Assumption of Mary (1433-34, egg tempera and gold on wood panel). Purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899, making it the first Fra Angelico painting in America. The painting shows in the lower section the Dormition (falling asleep, death, and above it the resurrection of Mary, the Mother of God ( that is, Mother of Jesus’ human nature) and her simultaneous Assumption into Heaven. The angel, dressed in a blue garment to the left of the frame, is one of a number of larger than life size posters that graced the black walls surrounding the exhibit. These poster angels were copied from Fra Angelico’s paintings. They provided a dramatic effect to the entire exhibit.

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The above is a closeup of Mary which has also been expanded into a larger than life size poster image found in the above Assumption painting. This image was the first you saw as you rounded the second floor stairs into the exhibit at the Gardner Museum. It was taken from the above reliquary on the Dormition and Assumption of Mary and introduced visitors to the beauty of the exhibit.

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The Coronation of the Virgin (1429). The lower image within this reliquary is contained in a small rectangular panel called a predella. It shows the Adoration of the Christ Child by Mary, St. Joseph, and six angels. It also is completed in egg tempera, gold, on a wooden panel. You see more poster angels taken from the Dormition and Assumption of Mary painting in pink and blue garments to the right of this reliquary on the black walls of the exhibit.

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This is a closeup of the Coronation of the Virgin found within the above reliquary. Below are gathered a group of saints. The saint looking over his shoulder at the viewer near the extraordinary translucent stairs is Saint Peter holding the keys of Heaven. St. John the Baptist is on his left. Dominican saints, St. Peter Martyr and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas are also present, St. Francis of Assisi showing the stigmata in his hands, two deacons (St. Stephen, the first martyr (protomartyr), and possibly the deacon St. Benjamin, and some Old Testament prophets. St. Thomas Aquinas (above within the  bigger photo) is looking at the viewer. He is situated next to a pope (the Benedictine Gregory the Great?), possibly placed in that position because both Aquinas and the pope were not martyrs.

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The Madonna della Stella (The Madonna of the Star, 1433/34). Within the predella are the major saints of the Dominican Order (Order of Preachers). Saint Dominic (middle) flanked on the right by St. Thomas Aquinas and on the left by Saint Peter Martyr. The small circular photo of the Church of Santa Maria Novella on the back wall of the exhibit accidentally was included in my quick snap of this picture.  It is interesting that it appeared, I did not plan it. It is the church that the four reliquary paintings were originally housed before they were split up during the last two and one-half centuries.  Presently the Gardner Museum has the Dormition/Assumption of Mary reliquary staying in its collection and the other three will be returned to the Museo San Marco in Florence, Italy.

 

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Closeup of the Madonna della Stella, showing the symbolic colors of the garments worn by the figures. The color blue represents divine attributes, which in the Blessed Mother’s case, represents the belief that she was always immaculate – without sin – and that the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” her resulting in the Incarnation taking place within her physical body. The presence of her immaculate nature was within Mary from the moment of her conception. The Latin Rite, the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, the Coptic Church, and the Orthodox Rites believe that Mary is not God, or a goddess. All of these Rites and Churches do not worship Mary; she is venerated by them. Worship and veneration are two very different concepts; they should never be equated.

The color red of Mary’s inner cloak (as well as Jesus’ outer cloak) represents their human nature. The orange trim of her cloak represents the specific spiritual illumination, and self knowledge, of her status as the Mother of Jesus’ human nature, not His divine nature.

With the two lower angels you notice that the blue/red colors are reversed. The inner cloak is blue representing their spiritual illumination and unique qualities/functions, yet, their outer cloak is red. This is done because Fra Angelico represents them all with human features, but, in the case of the two lower angels he represented their outer cloaks as red. I can place no other interpretation on it other than to say that because Jesus and Mary were resurrected from the dead, and have new physical bodies (with unique and specific qualities) the angels dressed in red outer cloaks may be serving Mary’s physical needs (whatever they may be) in Heaven. Heaven is viewed as both a physical (while different from ours) and a spiritual dimension.

As you know, angels are spiritual beings living within the divine atmosphere of Heaven. According to the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) and other Rites, there are nine “choirs” of angels; each choir possesses specific attributes and functions. Fra Angelico may be distinguishing one “choir” from another through the different colors of the angels’ garments. Angels are pure spiritual beings; they do not have human features or bodies. They are represented that way in Latin and Greek Rite paintings, and some of them in the Holy Scriptures, in order to give the observer/reader a way to relate and understand their functions.

The Dominican Order was keen on expressing the theology of illumination as expressed in the Blessed Mother, their founder – St. Dominic (who illuminated Europe with his sermons against heretics) – and the illumination of the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic faith provided through the writings of 13th century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.

For Mary, Fra Angelico expressed that illumination through the orange pigment of Mary’s inner garment and the extraordinary gilding of the rays of light emanating from Mary and Jesus’ bodies. Notice that Fra Angelico shows the love between the two by having the child Jesus place His head close to His Blessed Mother as if He is about to give her a kiss with the Madonna lovingly holds Him.

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Closeup of the Madonna della Stella; also showing a lovely lavender angel on her left.

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The back of one of the reliquaries showing the structure of the wooden panel, and its decorated paper covering. On the front Fra Angelico applied a base coat of gesso, and then his egg tempera paints and gilding.

I hope you enjoyed viewing my four part series on this extraordinary work by Beato Fra Angelico – Fra (Friar) Giovanni di Fiesole. My deep gratitude to Peggy Fogelman  (Director), Nathaniel Silver (Associate Curator) and the very talented staff  of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for bringing these masterpieces to America. For my wife and I it was a once in a lifetime experience. Congratulations to them and my sincere thanks, too.

I will be featuring some of the remaining single paintings within this exhibition at appropriate times during 2018-19. Some of the remaining Fra Angelico images from this exhibit are the marriage of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother, the Deposition (taking down) of Jesus from the Cross, another painting of the Dormition of Mary, and events in the life of of Saints Cosmas and Damian.

June 12, 2018

© Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018 – text and photos. Photos were taken through the courtesy and generosity of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. I took the photos with an iPhone 6, no flash.

 

Fra Angelico – “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition – Part 2 – Ascension, Pentecost, the Last Judgement

I hope you had a blessed Feast of Pentecost!

Please read Part 1 of “Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth” (posted here on May 16, 2018) in order to receive a proper introduction to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s extraordinary exhibition that, unfortunately, closed this weekend..

As you moved into the gallery that exhibited this once in a lifetime collection of Fra Angelico paintings you first saw the beautiful painting entitled The Ascension of Christ, The Last Judgement, and Pentecost (the Corsini Triptych). It is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on a wood panel. Fra Angelico painted it during the years 1447-1448, seven years before his death in 1455. It was loaned to the Gardner Museum from the Galleria Nazionali d’Arte Antica di Roma – Galerie Barberini Corsini, Palazzo Corsini.

My photographic images of that painting are found below:

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The following quotation is taken from the Exhibition’s commentary found on the right side of the painting. Mesmerizing in its detail, Fra Angelico’s painting pictures three biblical events. At left, Christ ascends into heaven over the heads of the Virgin Mary and the  Apostles. At right, a masterfully foreshortened dove – the Holy Spirit – descends to earth. The story culminates in the center. Christ passes judgment over the living and the dead, saving the worthy (left) and condemning the wicked (right). While the damned cower from fearsome devils who attack the poor souls with claws, angels embrace the blessed.

“This small devotional triptych – a painting with three parts – served a cultivated individual, probably a cleric (deacon, priest, or bishop) in Rome.” Please compare its three episodes to others in my upcoming posts. In the above painting Fra Angelico adopts a vertical presentation. This energizes the connection and communication between heaven and earth. The Gardner Museum’s curator remarked that this technique “enlarges the central scene, and emphasizes” the Catholic Church’s spiritual power.

Fra Angelico, as a Dominican priest, desired to present that Jesus’ act of Redemption (passion, death, and resurrection), and His Ascension back to the Father, made possible the moment of Pentecost. Christ’s actions enabled the eventual opportunity for our free will to choose to accept His Truth and be fed by the Spirit’s power. It is the Father and the Son’s will to have the Holy Spirit nourish us through His grace. This grace is available to us through the proper administration and worthy reception of the Holy Sacraments. Thus, we come to the central panel –  the Last Judgement. Did we freely accept His Sacramental grace or did we ignore, and thereby, reject it? At that moment will we be on the right or the left of Christ?

Allow me to make some personal points on the three close-up photos below. In the first panel of this painting, notice the gold work around the body of Christ. I was allowed to closely examine it. I have never seen a painting’s gold work done with such precision and delicacy. It is not just gold leaf that is applied in a flat manner to the panel. It appears to be actual raised strands, or threads of gold, all applied with great precision. As you slowly move left or right around that part of the painting you notice the light catching the gold and literally radiating and shimmering around the image of Christ. IMG_1745

The Ascension, with Pentecost below.

Second, the image of Pentecost, with the Blessed Mother in the center of the Apostles as the dove hovers and the fire of the Holy Spirit descends upon them and gives them the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:23; 1st Corinthians 12: 4 ff; Galatians 5: 22 ff).

Notice St. Peter, filled with conviction, speaking to the assembly of men below (“Peter’s Discourse” found in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2, verses 14 ff.). Also, notice the clothing on one of the men who gather outside of the upper room listening to Peter: the detail of the lace work on the bottom of one of his garments, and the shadows on the man’s red leotard/shoe. If you stand away from the painting at approximately eight to ten feet to take it all in (as you see in the panoramic top photo) you don’t notice all the detail; but the blessed Fra with his extraordinary perception, noticed the need for it, and he painted it in. A master of detail, and as a true maestro, he knew how to successfully accomplish it. Wonderful!     The last two close-up pictures are below.

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My photos (through the kindness of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), and            my text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018. Photos taken with an iPhone 6, no flash.

 

Fra Angelico – The “Heaven on Earth” Exhibition – Part 1

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts is the only venue in America for the extraordinary “Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth” exhibition. This amazing collection of reliquaries which express the life of the Virgin Mary, and other paintings of the greatest painter of the Early Renaissance, will be on display until this Sunday May 20th, 2018. Earlier incorrect media reports had the last day as May 28th.

I will be posting my photos of the Gardner Museum’s exhibit starting with this post and continuing on through the upcoming weeks and months. The exhibit consists of more than just the exquisite four reliquaries and it will be my pleasure to bring to you my photos of all of it. I am grateful to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for allowing me to take photographs of the exhibit.

I will proceed with the first photo showing the image that you see as you climb the stairs of the Museum to the second floor where the exhibit is located. That image is of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels as she ascends in a vortex-like movement, toward God the Father. The reliquary containing the complete image was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899. This is the first time in history that all four reliquaries are reunited since they were split up and acquired by collectors and museums around the world.

My wife and I were privileged to visit the Museum and exhibition last week. Words cannot describe the restored reliquaries and paintings in this display.  I am not embarrassed to say that at one point I was choked up with emotion as to the beauty, technical skill, narrative brilliance in explaining Sacred Scripture, and the theological depth that Fra Angelico expressed in these sacred images.

Beato Fra Angelico (birth name Guido di Pietro) was a Dominican friar and known by his religious name as Brother John of Fiesole. The first historical record of Fra Angelico as a painter is the 1418 record of payment for a painting commissioned by the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence. Fra Angelico is believed to have been born in the late 1390’s and died in 1455. He is buried in Rome at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. He was beatified (beato) by Pope Saint John Paul 2 on October 3, 1982, and in 1984 the Pope declared that Fra Angelico was the patron of Catholic artists (that is why I named this blog after him). Beato Fra Angelico’s feast day is celebrated every year on February 18th.

As you come up the stairs  leading to the second floor of the Museum and turn the corner you first see an enlarged version of Fra Angelico’s Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin located below. This image is showcased because it is found within the reliquary acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1899.

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This enlarged version of the Virgin Mary is found within the reliquary, and is its centerpiece, seen below.Dormition and Assumption

The above outer frame and base, which contains Fra Angelico’s painting, is known as a   reliquary. A reliquary is a container which holds the relics (bones, hair, etc) of deceased holy people or declared saints of the Roman Catholic Church. The reliquary allows the faithful to venerate, not worship, the life, deeds, and mortal remains of the person whose relics it contains. Fra Angelico painted the four reliquaries’ images specifically for the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence between the years 1424 through 1434 The painting is rendered in egg tempera, oil glazes, and gold. It is simply stunning.

There is another separate painting in the exhibit which concentrates just on the dormition of the Virgin Mary. I will show that to you in the next post.

The “Heaven on Earth” exhibition is made possible with the support, in part, by the Robert Lehman Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council (the Council receives its funding from the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts). The media sponsor is WBUR in Boston. The Museum’s Executive Director, chief conservator, curators, conservators, and support staff brilliantly provided the technical expertise and planning for this exhibit. The companion book, edited by Dr. Nathaniel Silver (with contributions by more than ten experts) is also very well done and a worthy addition to your library.

Photos and text © Deacon Paul O. Iacono 2011-2018. Thanks again to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for this beautiful exhibit and enabling the public to enjoy, be edified, and to take photos of it.

Albert Lapierre – Sacred Artist and Iconographer

This past July I had the pleasure of restoring an icon that was written by the fine artist, Albert Lapierre, from Attleboro, Massachusetts. It is a beautifully done and was commissioned by Joan O’Gara on the occasion of the birthday of her sister, Rosalind, in October, 1998.

Rosalind told me that her sister knew of her appreciation and devotion to the Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth; however, Joan was not able to locate a print of this particular icon. In 1997 Joan decided to contact Albert Lapierre who was resposible for the creation of many religious objects, statues, and sacred images. Prior to his passing he had a store and studio in Attleboro, Massachusetts. There are many examples of his work at the LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro.

At the time of Joan’s request, Albert was busily engaged at the Shrine with many projects, and was reluctant to take on another commission. Joan persuaded him, however, to take on this project – telling him that “Our Lady really wanted him to paint this image.” I am told that he didn’t have a comeback for that request!

Mr. Lapierre was able to fit its creation into his busy schedule and it was varnished and ready to be delivered by October, 1998. Needless to say, Rosalind was thrilled by Joan’s gift and it remains to this day an important focal point in Rosalind’s prayer life.

Time does take its toll and the icon sustained some accidental damage over the years. Rosalind located me through a Google search and phoned for a consult. She was especially concerned about areas that had chipped and lost pigment. We met and discussed the damage and she requested that I try to repair it as best as possible.

The repair turned out to be an interesting challenge. First, I believe that it is absolutely essential that a restorer not impact or change the design, colors, or compositional elements of the piece being restored. Respect for the original artist, and what they created, is paramount. Ultimately, the viewer must be able look at the restored piece and be unaware of the fact that it has been restored. There should be no distractions from the original intent of the artist.

My biggest challenge in this restoration was matching the original colors. For this particular icon Mr. Lapierre used acrylics. Since the painting was only seventeen years old, and had not been kept in direct sunlight, the paint had not deteriorated or dulled to any great degree. Thus, my task was to repair the chips that could be restored and then blend in the pigment restoration. The restoration was a success and it was blessed, and delivered to a grateful Rosalind, at a Mass here in South Kingstown at St. Francis of Assisi Church in August 2014.

Albert Lapierre died a number of years ago. Sadly, I never met the man that created such a sensitive and dynamic icon. It was a distinct honor to work on it. I thank Joan and Rosalind O’Gara for the privilege of doing so.

Below are a few images of the piece with a close-up of Mary’s face, and the beautiful catechetical scene of Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, praying in the Temple.

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

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Mary, The Holy Mother of God – The Sign of Our Unity

We celebrate on this the first day of the New Year the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Mary, by this very title, is the Holy Mother of the human nature of Jesus Christ. We receive insights on how the Church came to this title within the Holy Scriptures; for through a prayerful reading of them we come to an understanding of who this remarkable young woman was and what she means for us today. Three evangelists, Matthew, Luke, and John help us with this in their presentation of Mary as a woman who was clear minded, humble, intelligent, devout, loving, immensely strong, and quietly, yet fiercely, devoted to her Son.

Our beautiful Scriptural readings for this Solemnity (Numbers 6: 22-27, Galatians 4: 4-7, and Luke 2: 16-21) help us  approach today’s celebration through the perception of Mary herself. Today’s Scriptures remind us that Mary and  Joseph were devout Jews who understood the importance of faith, family devotion, tradition, and the fulfillment of the Jewish Law itself. It was with Holy Scripture – Hebrew and Christian – in mind, and the sacred tradition provided by the Apostolic fathers, that the debate over Mary’s title rested upon.

The designation of Mary, as the Holy Mother of God was debated and decided upon at the third Ecumenical Council of the Church. It was held in the year 431 at the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. This Church Council was known as the First Council of Ephesus and was attended by over 250 bishops from the four (soon to be five) patriarchates of the Catholic Church: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and eventually, in 451, Jerusalem (Jerusalem, at the time of the First Council of Ephesus was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch, Syria). Now that the formal persecutions by the Roman Empire had ended, the fifth century saw much activity within the Church to formally secure theological positions on both Christ and the role of His mother in salvation history. The catechesis of the people was paramount. Using their gifts of reason and the Holy Spirit, combined with the Holy Scriptures, and the sacred Tradition of the early Church the assembled bishops determined to safeguard the Truth of the Church while simultaneously further establishing the foundations for the  catechesis of its clergy and laity.

But at the heart of the matter, for all Christians, Jesus is the human incarnation of God Almighty. He presents to us in His Person, the true, physical Presence, of God; and with His Divine Nature intact, He in turn with a true human nature, could then call us His brothers and sisters. We are, through Him, and Mary’s maternity, adopted sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven. Mary is the Mother of Jesus’ human nature, and, she is the Mother of the Church.

How do we know this?

We know it because Jesus said it was so: “Whatever you did for the least of My brothers and sisters, you did for Me” Matthew 25:40; and let us not forget John 19: 26-27: Jesus saw His own mother, and the disciple [John] standing near whom He loved; He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour, he took his mother into his family.” 

Such is the love of God for His creation.

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While doing some other research a few weeks ago, I was struck  by some quotes from the three main leaders of the 16th century Protestant revolt. While certainly these men steered their new churches along a different path from the Tradition of the Western and Eastern Rites, the quotes provided below show them to have an understanding and love for Mary as the Holy Mother of God and the significance of her perpetual virginity.

Martin Luther: “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin… Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact.” (Works of Luther, Vol. 11, pages 319-320; Vol. 6, page 510.)

John Calvin: “There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest from this passage [Matthew 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is! For the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph’s obedience and to show that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary. He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company… And beside this Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or no there was any question of the second.” (Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25. Published in 1562.)

Ulrich Zwingli: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel, as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” (Zwingli Opera, Vol. 1, page 424.)

Perhaps, in God’s Divine Plan, the beautiful and holy virgin Mary – the Holy Mother of God – will be the cause for the reunification of all the Christian Churches: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

As a fellow Christian, please consider making the following prayer that I wrote a few hours ago part of your own prayer arsenal for the New Year: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, keep us within your most precious and immaculate heart. Through your maternal love, intercede with your Son to remove the painful scars of division and hurt that lie within our own hardened hearts. We implore you to ask your Son to strengthen us with His Truth, Goodness, and Beauty so that we may always fulfill His Divine Will. Amen.”

Copyright © 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Notes: Source of the sacred icon of the Holy Theotokos with the Christ: http://en.lpj.org/2011/12/30/solennite-de-marie-mere-de-dieu/ 

Protestant leader quotations taken from http://blackieschurchmilitant-apocalypsis.blogspot.com/2008/01/perpetual-viginity-of-blessed-virgin.html

 

The Magnificat of Mary – A Beautiful Analysis By The Venerable Bede

In this morning’s selection from the Office of Readings in the Roman Breviary, the Venerable Bede, an English monk  presents a beautiful analysis of Mary’s joy-filled song – The Magnificat.

Bede was born in the year 673 and died in 735. He lived in Northumbria, primarily in the two monasteries of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. These monasteries had accumulated a wonderful collection of Greek, Latin, and early Church manuscripts. Bede spent his life studying, writing, and dictating the results of his research and prayer. He is known primarily for his most famous tome which is The Ecclesiastsical History of the English People. This work resulted in later generations giving him the title “The Father of English History.”

In 1899, Pope Leo 13th made Bede a Doctor of the Church. Bede was a skilled translator, linguist, and writer. His ability to compose insightful spiritual essays, and skill in making the writings of the Early Church Fathers accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons, significantly contributed to the growth of Roman Catholicism in England.

Let us take a moment today to dwell upon one of his perceptive and rich essays on the Blessed Mother. In the selection below, Bede provides us with a beautiful essay on Mary’s response to the knowledge that she will be the mother of the Savior. Her poetic song is known as The Magnificat, and it is said in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth (and possibly Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah) when they rejoice in the knowledge that they are both pregnant (The Visitation).

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Mary’s song of joy, faith, and trust is here separated by Bede and some of its key phrases are analyzed by him for our prayerful consideration. Mary’s words appear in bold italics, Scriptural references are in plain italics, Bede’s are in regular print. The entire Magnificat can be found in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, verses 46 – 55.

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Mary said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Bede’s comments, he has Mary thinking these thoughts: “The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer then all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving. As I contemplate his greatness, which knows no limits, I joyfully surrender my whole life, my senses, my judgment, for my spirit rejoices in the eternal Godhead of that Jesus, that Savior, whom I have conceived in this world of time.”

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

“Mary looks back to the beginning of her song, where she said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. Only that soul for whom the Lord in His love does great things can proclaim his greatness with fitting praise and encourage those who share her desire and purpose, saying: Join with me in proclaiming the greatness of the Lord; let us extol His name together.”

“Those who know the Lord, yet refuse to proclaim His greatness and sanctify His name to the limit of their power, will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven. His name is called holy because in the sublimity of his unique power He surpasses every creature and is far removed from all that He has made.”

He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He has remembered His promise of mercy.

“In a beautiful phrase Mary calls Israel the servant of the Lord. The Lord came to his aid to save him. Israel is an obedient and humble servant, in the words of Hosea: Israel was a servant, and I loved him.”

“Those who refuse to be humble cannot be saved. They cannot say with the prophet: See, God comes to my aid; the Lord is the helper of my soul. But anyone who makes himself humble like a little child is greater in the kingdom of Heaven.”

The promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.

“This does not refer to the physical descendants of Abraham, but to his spiritual children. These are his descendants, sprung not from the flesh only, but who, whether circumcised or not, have followed him in faith. Circumcised as he was, Abraham believed, and this was credited to him as an act of righteousness.

The coming of the Savior was promised to Abraham and to his descendants forever. These are the children of promise, to whom it is said: If you belong to Christ, then you are descendants of Abraham, heirs in accordance with the promise.”

The Responsory Prayer (Luke 1: 48 – 50) follows this reading:

“From this day all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me, holy is His name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.”

Beautiful words and images to bring us into the eve of Christmas. May you all have a holy and joy filled Christmas day and good fortune in the New Year! You are in my prayers.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the paintings: The first sacred image is a contemporary sacred image written/painted in the iconographic style; I do not know its author. The second sacred image of Mary lost in ecstasy as she sang The Magnificat, was completed by James J. Tissot, a French painter (1836 – 1902). This painting currently hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. The medium is opaque watercolor over graphite on gray woven paper. It is approximately five by ten inches in size. Bede’s commentary is taken from The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume 1. Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1975, page 362.

 

Gaudete Sunday In Light of the Tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut

Today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means, “Rejoice!” – and we visualize this by the rose-colored vestments and candle in the Advent wreath.

Yet, it is so difficult to rejoice in light of the unspeakable horror and evil that befell the 27 innocent children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut, or the 22 children and an adult who were slashed by a man wielding a knife in a city in China, or the teenager arrested in Oklahoma for plotting to kill his fellow students and bomb his high school; and this all occurred on the morning of December 14th.

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, at the Vigil service at St. Rose of Lima Church on Friday night, spoke of the fact that true evil had touched the community of Newtown and that this evil would continue to have repercussions for many years.

Its consequences would be long lasting because it would continue to test the faith of the children and all those families and residents affected by this tragedy. He went on to say that it would be “a test not only of our faith in God, but faith in our fellow man – our community.”

He was right in saying that, given that the forces of darkness have always preyed upon mankind in an attempt to subvert and infect the beauty of the most significant element of God’s creation – our fellow human beings.

Through distortion of the good, and the promotion of rage and evil, the forces of darkness attempt to drag mankind down into the despair, and loss of God, that they themselves feel.

But, the knowledge of that ancient cosmic distortion of God’s creation, perpetrated by Satan himself, on a spiritual and historical level, is the exact reason for our celebration of the solemnity of Christmas. It is the reason for our rejoicing – for the moment of the birth of the innocent Savior marks the beginning of the end of the period of time that evil will reign on this earth.

We cannot help but remember another madman, King Herod, who upon learning from the Magi of the birth of this innocent child, gave the order to kill over a hundred children, and their parents, if they attempted to get in the way of his psychotic depravity. And we remember another grieving mother, Our Blessed Mother, who witnessed the horror of the killing of her child – and the tears that must have flowed from her.

Rage against motherhood, rage against childhood, rage against innocence: in two thousand years of Christian history this has become the sad spectacle of man’s inhumanity to man; it appears nothing has changed.

But, if we are a people of faith, we have opened our minds and hearts to understand that the birth and death of Jesus Christ – has, in reality, changed everything.

Today, Gaudete Sunday, we are called to rejoice, as St. Paul tells us “Rejoice in the Lord always” – not just in good times but in bad, as well.

How do we do that?

How do the parents, and husbands, and wives, the teachers and children, the communities of Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, and many other cities and towns in America, and the world, surrounded by the darkness of evil and senseless violence – do that?

To a secular person the answer would come simply from psychological and grief counseling that would occur over many years. Yet important as that is, it is not the only answer.

A close reading of the letters of St. Paul show us that it was St. Paul’s faith – the knowledge in his mind and heart that he shared a deep personal relationship with the Savior of the world – that enabled him to withstand all sorts of evil.

It was that mental memory of who Jesus was – what He preached – how He suffered and died – and the truth that Jesus – the Word of God and the Light of the World – had resurrected from the dead and had appeared to him – face to face – mind to mind – to express His love for all of us and to say that evil would never endure – it would never in the end – win.

It is this focus, this trust, this faith that enabled St. Paul to deal with his problems and maintain joy in the knowledge that all the evil that he faced, and that ultimately would kill him, was overcome by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul tells us today “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

My brothers and sisters, the Apostle Paul does not speak empty words. They are there for us to hang on to with dear life in times of great trial and grief as we turn our heavy hearts over to Jesus and Our Blessed Mother.

It will be many, many years before the grieving parents, and the innocent children and adults heal from the trauma of Friday morning; yet, St. Paul tells us that healing is possible.  The Blessed Mother’s life – and Jesus Himself – tells us that healing is possible: through daily prayer, faith, trust, and the love of God Himself. When we pray we must not forget these families or the families throughout the world who suffer, and walk the path to Calvary, carrying their own crosses thrust upon them by a violent world.

It is at times like these that we truly understand our own fragility and brokenness – and realize that we are not able to survive without the grace of God and the support of the people in our own families and community.

So on this Gaudete Sunday, our hearts and prayers go out to all the grieving people of Newtown, and we remember that we are called to rejoice in the truth that, even though evil swirls all around us, Jesus our Savior loves us – was born and was killed for us – and He will never abandon us; with that knowledge, and His grace and strength, we can endure any tribulation.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.  Sermon delivered by Deacon Iacono on Sunday December 16, 2012 at St. Francis of Assisi Church and St. Romuald Chapel  Wakefield, Rhode Island USA