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 – 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.

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

 

Our Lady of Sorrows – Seven Sorrows – Seven Graces

Today is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The Roman Breviary tells us that in a sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux he explains that “The martyrdom of the Virgin is set forth both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the actual story of our Lord’s passion. The holy old man said of the infant Jesus: He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted. He went on to say to Mary: And your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”

Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. That feast asks us to remember that it was through the Cross, through the violent execution of our Lord, that our redemption took place. The triumph of the Father’s love for His creation, and the Son’s sacrifice, was able to reorder a sin filled world.

As St. Andrew of Crete reminds us “the legal bond of our sin was cancelled and through His death we obtained our freedom and death was trodden underfoot.” Today, the Church in its wisdom again reminds us of the scene of Christ’s victory – and the people that witnessed it.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux eloquently reminds us that along with the death of Christ you have Golgotha being the scene of the martyrdom of Mary. He stresses the phrase, the martyrdom of Mary, because Jesus, as Mary’s child, held a unique and special place in her heart. This is true of the relationship of every mother to their child or children.

All mothers will tell you that every one of their children is special to them; all the more so with Mary, who knew and understood the role that her child was to play in our lives. So when the lance tore through His chest and entered His heart, the prophecy of Simeon, uttered so many years earlier flooded into her mind: “He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted, and your own heart will be pierced by a sword.”

Mary witnessed the execution, she saw the spear tear through her Son’s lifeless body and the violence of that act ripped through her as well. Her body and soul filled with pain and, at that moment, she suffered the martyrdom of every mother who witnesses the death of an innocent child.

At Golgotha, watching the agonizing death of her Son, our blessed Mother, in obedience to the Father’s will for her life, stood by the Cross not only to witness the death of her obedient Son, but to hear her Son say that she was to now be the mother, not only of John, but all of us who believe in Him as Lord and Savior.

Through the sufferings of Mary, the mother of God, we have been made sharers in Christ’s passion. Through Mary’s original obedience to the Father’s will and invitation, we have be given the supreme gift of being able to participate in His Sacramental life, which enables us to share in His rising to everlasting life.

The Church has identified “Seven Sorrows” of Mary: 1) The prophecy of Simeon, 2) The flight into Egypt, 3) The loss of the child Jesus in the Temple, 4) The meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross, 5) The Crucifixion, 6) The taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross, 7) The burial of Jesus.

According to the 14th century visions of St. Bridget of Sweden, mystic and patroness of Europe, Our Blessed Mother Mary grants Seven Graces to all souls who honor her on a daily basis by saying seven Hail Mary’s and thinking about the above Seven Sorrows. The Seven Graces are: 1) Mary will grant peace to their families; 2) They will be enlightened about the divine mysteries; 3) They will be comforted in their sickness and assisted in their work; 4) They will be given additional graces as long as what the soul asks for does not violate the will of Jesus or the eventual sanctification of their own soul;  5) Mary will defend the soul in their own particular spiritual battle with the demons, and, will provide her protection to them; 6) The soul will be helped at the time of their death and will experience seeing the face of the Blessed Mother; 7) Mary told St. Bridget that she obtained these graces from Jesus so those souls who are in the state of grace and spread this devotion among their families and friends will be attain Heaven.

St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy (2: 10-12) directs us to the Scriptural truth of these ideas when he says, “I bear with all this for the sake of those whom God has chosen, in order that they may obtain the salvation to be found in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. You can depend on this: If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we hold out to the end we shall also reign with him.” These words, while not said by Our Blessed Mother, were in reality, lived by her.

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Let us pray that through Our Lady of Sorrows, her love and grace shall bring the hearts of all of us to her Son, so that His Heart may reign in the hearts of all mankind.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the paintings: The first painting is an archetypal Gothic Lady of Sorrows from a triptych by the Master of the Stauffenberg Altarpiece, Alsace, c. 1455. The  second image is of a 15th century sculpture for a cathedral door showing the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady (by Adriaen Isenbrandt, circa 1490 – 1511). The third image, The Madonna in Sorrow, is by the 17th century Italian artist Giovanni Salvi (also known as Sassoferrato). The fourth painting is by William- Adolphe Bougereau, a French realist painter (1825 – 1905).

 

Saint Monica – Patron of Mothers

Today is the memorial of St. Monica, the extraordinarily faith-filled mother of St. Augustine.

In the year 321, Monica was born in Algeria into a family that was devoutly Christian. As a child she was baptized a Christian and was raised to be a dutiful wife. She was given in marriage to a bad tempered, adulterous pagan official, by the name of Patricius.

In examining the life of Saint Monica one is struck by the extent of the abuse she and other women endured throughout their marriage. Under the laws of the time Monica’s husband could physically and emotionally abuse his wife. Compounding the problem was the fact that Patricius’ mother also lived with them and she, like her son, ridiculed his young wife. Monica had three children with this man and, of course the most famous was her oldest, the man that history now knows as Saint Augustine.

But it is important to reflect for a moment on how she dealt with all the stresses of her life: family relations that mistreated her, children that ignored her model of conduct and faith, a culture that looked the other way when her husband abused her. The circumstances of St. Monica’s life could easily have made her a miserable woman, a sour daughter-in-law, and a depressed parent, yet she didn’t become any of these; instead, she became a saint. A saint that is known for two major personal qualities: her love of Jesus Christ and her prayerful persistence in bringing her physical family into the family of God. This beautiful painting, by artist John Nava, (http://johnnava.com) eloquently captures her spirituality and desire for prayer and union with Christ.

Monica was upset to learn that Augustine had accepted the Manichean heresy and was also living an immoral life. Manichaeism stated, among other things, that there is no all knowing good power, so there is neither lord nor savior. She was so angered by his beliefs that she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house and became enraged when he explained to her that his belief trumped her faith in Jesus Christ. She threw him out of the house, but later pursued him and attempted to reason with him.

Monica took comfort in the fact that she had a dream that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that moment she vowed to continually pray and fast for her son and to remain close to him so that she would have the opportunity to discuss her faith with him. The histories tell us that she in fact stayed much closer than Augustine wanted.

One night Augustine told Monica that he was going to the docks to say goodbye to a friend. Instead, he himself set sail for Rome. Monica was stunned when she learned of Augustine’s trick, but she booked passage on the next boat. When she arrived in Rome, she learned that he had left to travel to the city of Milan in northern Italy where he hoped to obtain a teaching post. Monica pursued him to Milan, and it is in Milan that both mother and son came under the influence of the great saint Ambrose who was bishop of Milan.

Bishop Ambrose became Monica’s spiritual director, and ultimately, she accepted Ambrose’s advice. He advised her that what she was doing was correct – that prayer and fasting would have its affect on the situation. He commended her persistence and directed her to keep the faith, and in humility, accept her circumstances. Monica did exactly that, and in Milan, became a leader of devout women, some of whom were also being abused by their husbands.

Ultimately, Saint Monica won the day; her abusive husband, mother in law, and her youngest son and daughter were all baptized into the faith. Augustine, too, eventually saw the logic of his mother’s faith, became a catechumen, and took religious instruction from Ambrose. In the year 387, Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine into the Catholic faith in Milan’s cathedral.

Saint Monica was an exemplary mother; a woman who perseveringly pursued her wayward family not with threats but with prayerful cries to heaven. Let us pray that she intercedes for all mothers in our day so that they may learn to guide their children to God. Let us also pray that she teaches mothers, through her example of prayer and fasting, to remain close to their children, even prodigal sons and daughters, who have sadly gone astray.

St. Monica, pray for us.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Painting of St. Monica is copyrighted by John Nava. All Rights Reserved.