Thursday, December 08, 2022

Liturgical Notes on the Immaculate Conception

In the liturgical books of the Tridentine reform, the feast of the Immaculate Conception has no proper Office or Mass; the texts were those of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, with the word “Nativity” changed to “Conception” wherever it occurs. Apart from that, the only difference is the proper readings of the first and second nocturns of Matins, from the book of Ecclesiasticus (24, 5-31) and St. Ambrose’s treatise “On the Virgins.” The proper Office and Mass of the feast currently used in the Roman Rite were promulgated by Bl. Pius IX in 1863, nine years after he made the official dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception on the feast day in 1854.  

The Immaculate Conception, by José Antolínez, 1650
However, the Franciscans kept a proper Office for the feast well before the decree of 1863, even though in most respects they had from the very beginning followed the liturgical use of the Roman Curia, and hence also the Missal and Breviary of St. Pius V. The Order, and famously among them, the Blessed Duns Scotus, had been the great champions of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and kept the feast as that of the “Principal Patron and Protectress of the Order.”

The Office in question was originally composed by Leonardo Nogarolo, a notary in the court of Pope Sixtus IV, who formally approved it in the year 1480. Sixtus IV had been the Minister General of the Franciscans until two years before his election in 1471; and as Pope, he issued two important decrees on the subject of the Immaculate Conception. The first of these, Cum praeexcelsa of 1477, gave formal permission and encouragement to celebrate the feast, which was still not kept in many places. The second, Grave nimis, was issued in 1483, condemning the “preachers of certain orders” who had dared to assert that belief in the Immaculate Conception, and the celebration of the feast, was heresy, while likewise imposing silence on those who asserted the contrary, that denial of the dogma was heresy. “Preachers” refers quite obviously to the Dominicans, who were at the time largely opposed to the idea of the Immaculate Conception as taught by the Franciscans, and particularly Duns Scotus’ explanation of it. In their liturgical books of the later 15th century, the feast on December 8 is usually called the “Sanctification of the Virgin Mary”, reflecting a theory that the Virgin was sanctified in the womb like John the Baptist.

The calendar page for December of a Dominican Missal printed in 1484 (the last year of Sixtus IV’s reign), showing the feast as the “Sanctification of the Virgin Mary”.
Pope Sixtus is of course known especially as the man who commissioned the most famous chapel in the world, the Sistine Chapel, which is nicknamed for him. He also constructed a second chapel within the old basilica of St Peter next door, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and the Office mentioned above was written by Nogarolo specifically for use therein as the proper Office of the titular feast. (Following the normal custom, I will refer to this Office as “Sicut lilium”, the first words of its first antiphon.) For this reason, the first two antiphons at Lauds are borrowed from Lauds of the Dedication of a Church, and do not refer to the Virgin Mary.

The text of most of the other antiphons and responsories is taken from the Bible, and predominantly from the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus and the Song of Songs. At Second Vespers, however, a rather unique set of antiphons was composed for the Psalms, consisting of quotations from the Church Fathers; some of the texts cited are also read at in the lessons of Matins in Nogarolo’s original version of the Office. In the pre-Tridentine liturgical books, the name of each Father is printed before the antiphon.
Jerome Nihil est candoris, nihil est splendoris, nihil est numinis quod non resplendeat in Virgine gloriosa. – There is no part of brightness, no part of glory, no part of the godhead, such that it does not shine forth in the glorious Virgin. (In the post-Tridentine use, “godhead” was evidently felt to be a bit of an exaggeration, and changed to “virtutis – virtue.”)
Origen Quæ neque serpentis persuasione decepta, nec ejus venenosis afflatibus infecta est.  Who was not deceived by the coaxing of the serpent, nor infected by his poisonous breath.
Augustine (speaking in the person of Christ.) Hanc, quam tu despicis, Manichaee, mater mea est, et de manu mea fabricata.  This woman whom you despise, Manichean, is my mother, made by my own hand. (The text from which this is taken is not an authentic work of Augustine.)
Anselm Decuit Virginem ea puritate nitere, qua major sub Deo nequit intelligi.  It was becoming that the Virgin shine with that purity, than which no greater can be understood beneath God.
Ambrose Hæc est virga, in qua nec nodus originalis nec cortex actualis culpæ fuit.  This is the rod, on which there was no knot of original guilt, nor the bark of any actual guilt. (referring to the rod of Jesse in Isaiah 11, 1)
A similar custom is still observed by the Premonstratensians, who sing the following antiphon for the Nunc dimittis on the Immaculate Conception, with the annotation at the end, “the words of our father Saint Norbert.” (St Norbert and the Premonstratensian Order were, of course, champions of the dogma even before the Franciscans, and in the Middle Ages had an entirely different proper Office of their own for the feast.)
Ant. Ave Virgo, quæ Spiritu sancto præservante, de tanto primi parentis peccato triumphasti innoxia. – Hail, o Virgin, who by the preservation of the Holy Spirit, didst triumph unhurt over the sin so great of our first father.
If I remember correctly, I once read somewhere that “Sicut lilium” was also musically very beautiful, and back in the days when attendance at solemn Vespers was the norm on major feasts, people would flock to Franciscan churches to hear it. If any of our readers can confirm or deny this, I would be interested to hear from you in the combox.

The decree that promulgated the new Office and Mass in 1863 required all religious orders to accept them, and those who preserved their own proper Uses to adapt it to their own particular customs, subject to the approval of the Sacred Congregation for Rites. Since the Franciscans (unlike the Dominicans or Premonstratensians) had always used the Roman Breviary, “Sicut lilium” then ceased to be used; a few parts of it were taken into the new Office, most notably the prayer, which reflects Duns Scotus’ insight on how the Immaculate Conception is possible.
O God, Who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, prepared a worthy dwelling place for thy Son; we beseech thee, that, as by the foreseen death of Thy same Son, Thou preserved Her from every stain, so Thou may grant us also, through Her intercession, to come to thee with pure hearts.
One of the most notable features of the 1863 Office is the readings at Matins for the feast and its octave. In the third nocturn, the readings (with one exception, a passage from St Bernard on Dec. 10) are taken from Eastern Saints whose writings had never, to the best of my knowledge, appeared in any form of the Breviary hitherto. These are two patriarchs of Constantinople, Ss Germanus (715-30) and Tarasius (784-806); St Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-38) and great enemy of the Monothelite heresy, and St Epiphanius of Salamis (died 403), a great enemy of heresies generally. (This last is incorrectly attributed.) These passages are unusually long, and rhetorically effusive in the manner of their age, but were clearly chosen to witness the belief of the Universal Church in the Immaculate Conception. The reading of St. Germanus on the feast itself begins thus: “Hail Mary, full of grace, holier than the Saints, more exalted than the heavens, more glorious than the Cherubim, more honorable than the Seraphim, and venerable above every creature.” This is a clear reference to the hymn Axion esti, which is sung in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.
It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever most blessed, and wholly pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word, the true Theotokos, we magnify thee.
Likewise, the litanies of the Divine Liturgy refer repeatedly to the Virgin Mary as “immaculate” at the conclusion, “Having made memory of our all-holy, immaculate, (“ ἄχραντος ”) blessed above all and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever Virgin Mary, with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

The original version of “Sicut lilium” makes only one brief mention of the Virgin Mary’s mother St Anne, in whose womb the Immaculate Conception took place. In the Byzantine Rite, on the other hand, the feast is called “the Conception (in the active sense, ‘σύλληψις’) of Saint Anne, Mother of the Mother of God”. In the icon below, the upper left shows St Joachim in the desert, where he has gone to mourn his and Anne’s barrenness, for the sake of which his offering in the temple had been refused. An angel has come to tell him to return to Anne, and that God will grant them a child who will become the Mother of the Redeemer. In the upper right, the same message is delivered to Anne herself.

The legend on which this image is based goes on to say that Joachim and Anne then went to find each other, meeting at the gate of Jerusalem called “the Golden Gate.” The depiction of their embrace and kiss is often used not only to decently represent the act of Anne’s conceiving, but to distinguish the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin from that of the Virginal Conception of Christ. This legend is referred to in a prayer found in some pre-Tridentine missals and breviaries, such as that of Herford in England; it also commonly depicted in Western art, as seen below in Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
O God, who by an angelic prophecy foretold the Conception of the Virgin Mary to her parents; grant to this Thy family gathered here, to be protected by Her assistance, whose Conception we happily venerate in this great solemnity.
The Meeting at the Golden Gate by Giotto, 1304. The mysterious female figure in black standing in the middle of the gate may represent the devil, whom Christ begins to defeat in the Conception of His Holy Mother. This figure seems also to have been the inspiration for one of the most sinister representations of the devil in modern art, in the movie The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson.

Follow Matthew Hazell’s Work on Facebook

As I am sure our readers already know, our colleague Matthew Hazell has been doing yeoman’s work documenting the post-Conciliar alteration of the liturgical texts of the Roman Rite, meticulously demonstrating what exactly was kept, what was suppressed, what was changed, edited, censored, invented, moved, etc. He regularly posts threads on his Twitter covering specific topics, in addition to articles here and on Rorate Caeli. (See this one, for example, about the mutilation of the prayers of St Nicholas.) For those who prefer Facebook, he now has a new page titled “Ordinary vs. Extraordinary: Comparing the Modern and Ancient Roman Rite.” His research is edifying not only as a demonstration via negativa of how routinely and how thoroughly the work of the Consilium betrayed the wishes of the Concilium, but also, via positiva, how ancient and universal so many of the traditional prayers of the Roman Rite really are. Feliciter tibi, optime Matthaee!

Graphic by Matthew Hazell, from the first post linked above, demonstrating the real percentage of the prayers of the Roman Missal that survived the Consilium unchanged.

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

The Basilica of St Ambrose in Milan

St Ambrose of Milan died on April 4, 397, which was Holy Saturday of that year. Since the date of his death very frequently occurs in either Holy Week or the Octave of Easter, his principal feast day is kept in both the Roman and Ambrosian Rites on December 7th, the day of his episcopal ordination. However, the church of Milan also traditionally keeps a commemoration of his falling asleep in the Lord, which is fixed to the Thursday within the octave of Easter.

During his episcopacy, St Ambrose had discovered the relics of two Milanese martyrs, the brothers Ss Gervase and Protase, and constructed a basilica to house their remains. He himself was buried in this church; in the 9th century, his relics and those of the two martyrs were placed in a large porphyry sarcophagus in a crypt beneath the main altar. The sarcophagus itself was actually lost for a time, after sinking partly beneath the water-table, (porphyry is an incredibly heavy kind of Egyptian granite), and rediscovered only in the 1880s; another feast on the Ambrosian Calendar commemorates this rediscovery on May 14th.

To mark his feast day, here are some pictures of the basilica from our Ambrosian correspondent, Nicola de’ Grandi. The 9th century apsidal mosaic was badly damaged by a bomb during World War II, but expertly reconstructed. Christ is shown with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius to either side of His throne; below are portraits of St Ambrose’s siblings, St Marcellina and Satyrus, and St Candida.

To either side are shown the two parts of a famous legend of St Ambrose, namely, that he once fell into a deep sleep for several hours during services in church, and on waking, told his clergy that he had been present for the funeral of St Martin in the city of Tour. (St Martin actually died in the same year as St Ambrose, but 7 months later.)
The marble throne in the apse, believed to be at least old enough to be the very one used by St Ambrose himself when celebrating in this basilica.

The altar was made between 825 and 859 by a sculptor named Vuolvino; the saide facing the people is gold, that facing the apse is silver.

A Boy-Bishop for the Feast of St Nicholas

Chavagnes International College is an English-language Catholic boarding school for boys located in Chavagnes-en-Paillers in western France (near Nantes), well known for cultivating a strong liturgical life. Each year on the feast of St Nicholas, in accordance with the old English tradition, a boy-bishop is appointed from among the students to preside over the celebration of Vespers, and at high table for the meal following. (See below for a bit more about this tradition.) These photos are reproduced with the College’s permission, and our thanks.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

The Life of St Nicholas in a Renaissance Altarpiece

In the year 1425, the artist Gentile da Fabriano painted an altarpiece for the chapel of a noble Florentine family called Quaratesi, in the church of St Nicholas. Gentile, who was born in Fabriano in the Marches ca. 1370, and died in Rome in 1427, is one of the finest representatives of the International Gothic school of painting, a highly decorative style particularly prized by wealthy patrons. This altarpiece was subsequently dismembered, and the various panels are now displayed in several museums; these four panels, which show Ss Mary Magdalene, Nicholas, John the Baptist (one of the principal patrons of Florence), and George, are currently in the Uffizi. (Public domain images from Wikimedia Commons except where noted.)
The manner in which St Nicholas’ chasuble and dalmatic are painted is particularly impressive, as the images in the decorative panels on the central embroidered strip conform to the natural folds of the garment. The scenes depicted are those of the upcoming feasts of Our Lord: the Nativity, Epiphany, flight into Egypt, the massacre of the Innocents, the Circumcision and Baptism. Of course, today, we would not use black vestments to celebrate these events, but in Gentile’s time (and after) it was common to use the best and most richly decorated vestments on solemn feasts, regardless of their color.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0)
This panel of the Madonna and Child was originally in the center of the altarpiece, between Ss Nicholas and John the Baptist; it is now in the National Gallery in London.
The five predella panels depict episodes from the life of the church’s patron; the first four are now in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums, the fifth in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Each episode is also mentioned in the Saint’s proper Office, which was used almost everywhere except for Rome, and is therefore not included in the Breviary of St Pius V. In this scene of his birth, Nicholas is shown as if he were already mature enough to stand on his own; it is recounted in his life that even as an infant, he fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, refusing to suckle, for which reason the first antiphon of Lauds reads “The blessed Nicholas, while yet a child, with much fasting chastised his body.” 
The second panel shows the famous act of charity because of which he came to known as Santa Claus. Long before his election as bishop of Myra, when he was in his native town of Patara, a very poor fellow-citizen thought to prostitute his three daughters, whom he could not afford to properly dower, a thing which was in fact quite possible in the ancient world. Therefore, on three successive nights, Nicholas threw sacks (often stylized artistically as golden balls) with enough money to provide one dowry through the man’s window, but on the third night, the man waited up and caught him, the first and last person to successfully wait up at night to catch Santa. Nicholas then made him promise not to reveal the story until after his death. One of the responsories of his Office tells it as follows: R. The servant of God Nicholas by a weight of gold redeemed the chastity of three virgins; * and put to flight the unchaste poverty of their father by a gift of gold. V. Being therefore deeply rich in mercy, by the metal which he doubled, he drove infamy from them. And put to flight…
St Nicholas while still alive saves a ship caught in a severe storm when the sailors call upon him; another responsory reads “... tossed about by a raging storm, the sailors began to call upon St Nicholas, and immediately the storm ceased. V. As soon as they called out, a man appeared to them and said, ‘Behold, I am here. Why did you call me?’ ”

What is Culture?

And why do people fight to control it?

Even if they can’t say what it is precisely, people care about culture. They will fight to protect it if they feel it is good and is threatened, and  they battle to change it if they don’t like it. It matters because people perceive, very often instinctively, that a culture is a sign of what society values. When that culture speaks to them of the values they already hold, they see it as beautiful and feel at home in their world. When the converse is true and it is a sign of values that don’t match their own, they are ill at ease. 

A Definition of Culture

A culture is the emergent pattern of activity associated with a society of people that manifests and in turn sustains and nurtures the core beliefs, values and priorities of that society.

This is the definition which seems to me to best fit most people’s idea of culture. We all recognize cultures that characterize a society or nation, subgroups within a society or even ideas, ideologies and faiths. Some are good and some are bad. We talk of American or British culture, perhaps, or of a café culture, a drug culture, a youth culture, Christian culture, Western culture, secular culture, Marxist culture and so on. When we do so we are recognizing a pattern of activity that speaks of their common values, and which connects each member of that society to each other, and distinguishes it from other societies. 

Youth culture: I'm not a sociologist, but this seems to say to me, a 60-year old man, you are not part of our world and we are not part of yours

Culture both Reflects and Influences a Worldview

Culture not only reflects attitudes, it tends to influence people at a deep level too. Put simply, the more we see it, the more we tend to like it, and our personal pattern of activity and attitudes tend to conform with it. So when the culture reflects my values, I like it not only because it affirms my own beliefs by telling me that others believe it too, it also reassures me that it the culture will very likely influence the next generation to also hold the values that are dear to me. 

When, on the other hand, a culture speaks to me of values that are contrary to my own, I not only feel uneasy because I have to resist its influence which tends to undermine my own faith. I also become anxious because I worry that it will influence others to believe and act in a way that is contrary to my own beliefs and actions. 

This is why culture is necessarily a battleground and why also it is worth battling for. We should be engaging with it and fighting to transform it with the weapons of righteousness, love, and faith. 

The statue of St Junipero Serra decapitated in 2020. It is a sign of a Christian culture and so was a target for those who hate Christianity.

Culture Works with Politics to Change Society

One way to understand the importance of culture is to think of the current struggle for the abolition of abortion. We see protests and petitions, prayer vigils and novenas all done to try to influence, in some way, politicians and legislators so that the laws can be changed. Since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade the political battles will shift from the national theatre to the states, but the war is still being waged politically.

There is way of influencing behaviour without law. The culture can be powerful in influencing opinion as well. It is a slower process, but more powerful and longer lasting in its effect. This was known by those who wanted to legalize abortion in the first place and they made efforts to influence the culture long before Roe vs. Wade. I believe that if we really wish to reverse things we must be prepared to take that long-term view as well and replace the culture of death with the culture of beauty, freedom and love. This primes people to seek what is good and true and so fewer people will wish to have abortions. This effort should happen alongside the battles in the judiciary and legislative bodies.

A beautiful Christian culture can influence thinking in all aspects of life for the good, not just the single issue of abortion. And it creates a dynamic of positive feedback in service of the good. The more people see it, the more they conform to it and in turn contribute to it. 

Culture is a pattern of activity that emerges as we see more and more of the society it characterizes, and which might not be apparent in the parts.

We see a pattern that characterizes the culture most clearly by looking society as a whole rather than by a close analysis of its parts. Consider, for example, the culture of France. I can’t look at one Frenchman and tell what French culture is. I don’t know if the things that I notice about him are unique to him or are characteristic of all French people. When I observe the members of a French family, because I have more French people to observe, I can start to see what each has in common, and how they interact. There is a discernible pattern not only of individual action, but also of personal interaction. Even then, while this is a better indicator than the observation of one Frenchman, I can’t be sure what aspects of the pattern for the family are unique to them or are common to all families in general rather than characterizing the French nation.

In fact, I can never be certain of what characterizes all French people until I have studied the whole pattern of all French people through time. This is an almost impossible standard, but the more time I spend in France observing people and the more I study its history and the art and artefacts the more I am going to get a sense of what that whole might be and start to have some confidence that I understand French culture. My sense of what French culture is emerges as I become steadily more acquainted with all things French. As I build up that picture of what it is to be French, then I will form an opinion on the beauty of French culture, and hence on the goodness of the French as a nation. 

Beauty and Culture

When we see that pattern of the culture around us and we like what we see, we feel at ease in our surroundings and we call it beautiful. In fact, I would go further and say that a culture of beauty is a culture that speaks to us of love, just as a culture of ugliness is one that speaks of a lack of love and of death. The more that love is the governing principle of the personal relationships and actions of the members of society, the more beautiful that culture will be. If it speaks of love, then it also speaks to us of freedom and faith, for there is no love without freedom, and freedom is greatest for those with faith.

It is said that French is the language of love. I would say that all nations can, potentially, speak the language of love through their cultures, and the degree to which they do so is the degree to which they reflect the Christian faith. Each in its own characteristic way can have a culture that is beautiful and which speaks to us of loving action and the most beautiful culture is one that communicates God’s love for mankind. As a detached observer, I can appreciate the beauty of French Christian culture when it speaks of the love that Frenchmen have for each other, but as an Englishman I will appreciate it even more when it speaks of the love the Frenchmen have for me. 

The source of all love is God. We can only love each other because God loves us first and we accept His love. This is true even for the person who hates God. God loves him and to the degree that he loves his fellows he is at some level and in some part accepting God’s loving guidance in his life. As all human love is a participation in God’s love there are aspects of our loving action that are common to us all, they are universal and these are apparent in the culture too. Our attitude to God, therefore is the foundational principle that shapes all cultures and to the degree that we love God, it will be beautiful.

 John Paul II put it as follows in his encyclical Centesimus annus:

"Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted. For this reason the struggle to defend work was spontaneously linked to the struggle for culture and for national rights."

As Christianity is the deepest participation in the love of God, to the degree that a culture is authentically Christian it will be the fullest cultural expression of what is good, true, beautiful and loving. As such Christian cultures are higher and more noble than other cultures, which are good to the degree that they participate in these universal ideas. Furthermore, as these principles are universal in their appeal, so is Christian culture, which should be offered to all peoples, just as the Faith should be.

There is no generic Christian culture, for the principles that govern every culture such as the common good are expressed in ways that are specific to time and place. So each culture speaks of different eras and geographical locations as well as what is eternal. Therefore, not all Christian cultures will be identical, but to the extent that they are Christian, they will share common aspects and they will be good for all.

St Catherine's Monastery, Mt Sinai, Egypt, 6th century

Le Barroux, Benedictine Monastery, French, 20th century

Monday, December 05, 2022

Devotion to St. Nicholas among the Dominicans and in the Life of St. Thomas Aquinas

Fra Angelico: detail of St. Thomas among the saints
Last year in my article “St. Nicholas, Beloved Bishop and Wonderworker,” I offered a brief sketch of the life and influence of St. Nicholas of Myra. This year, in honor of his feast, I will collate and comment on the appearances of St. Nicholas in the writings of St. Thomas.

Early Dominican history displays a more than passing connection with the cultus of St. Nicholas. Two illustrations may be given. The Order’s second and permanent priory in Bologna was located at the church of San Nicolò delle Vigne, where the Basilica di San Domenico now stands, enshrining the relics of the Order’s founder. It was in this church that Diana d’Andalo, through whose good offices the property at the vineyards had been donated to the Friars, made her profession, at the high altar of St. Nicholas. [1]

When Dominic decided shortly thereafter to go ahead with the founding of a convent of nuns in Bologna, he entrusted the affair to four brethren, one of whom was Master Paul of Hungary. A lecturer in canon law who later established a missionary province of the Order in Hungary, Paul wrote a manual for confessors, the Summa de penitentia, which he expressly dedicated ad honorem Dei sanctique Nicholai. [2] The evidence suggests that Dominicans, like everyone else, held St. Nicholas in high regard.

One may reasonably assume that St. Thomas would have celebrated his feast and called upon his intercession with that habitual fervor of spirit to which all the early witnesses testify. It would not matter which liturgical books Thomas was accustomed to reading, as there was no missal or breviary that lacked prayers and propers for the feast of St. Nicholas. The Dominican Missal, definitively established by Bd. Humbert of Romans in 1255/56 and papally approved in 1267, mandates, as do Western rites in general, the celebration of the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. The Epistle and Gospel appointed for the day are the same in the Dominican Missal as in the Missale Romanum: Hebrews 13,7-17 and Matthew 25,14-23. [3]

The Charity of St Nicholas by G. Macchietti, 1570

Mentions of St. Nicholas in the works of Aquinas


1. Summa theologiae, II-II. A touching remark comes in a discussion of whether a benefactor is permitted to hide his benefaction, even though doing so will make it impossible for the recipient to show his gratitude, and hence leave him no choice, as it seems, but to be ungrateful. Thomas responds to the objection:
He that is unaware of a favor conferred on him is not ungrateful if he fails to repay it, as long as he is ready to repay it should he come to know it. Nevertheless, it is sometimes praiseworthy that the recipient of a favor should remain in ignorance of it, both in order to avoid vainglory, as when blessed Nicholas threw gold into a house secretly, wishing to avoid human applause; and because the favor is all the more ample when the benefactor takes into account the shame of him who receives the favor. [4]
2. Conferences on the Angelic Salutation. Thomas has in mind the same deed of almsgiving when he notes that the Mother of God
exercised the works of all the virtues, whereas the saints were conspicuous in the exercise of specific virtues: one was especially humble, another chaste, another merciful, and so in them is given a model of that specific virtue, as for instance blessed Nicholas as a model of mercy. [5]

3. Commentary on John. Meditating on the mystery of predestination in his comments on John 5:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him,” Thomas underlines that all blessings we receive originate simply in God’s will. To illustrate the point, he mentions three saints and their God-given roles:

The reason why in His Church he made some apostles, some confessors, and others martyrs, is for the beauty and completion of the Church. But why He made Peter an apostle, Stephen a martyr, and Nicholas a confessor, there is no reason other than His will. In this way is laid bare the weakness of our human powers and the assistance granted us by divine help.[6]

4. Commentary on the Sentences. The most astonishing instance of God’s help aiding our weakness is baptism, which transforms a child of wrath into an adopted child of the Father. At one point in the Scriptum super Sententiis, Thomas, using the Greek baptismal formula as an objection against the Latin, has to think up a sample name for his argument. “The Greeks have this form of baptizing: ‘The servant of Christ, Nicholas, is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’” [7]

The hypothetical name is not mentioned again in the context; one may wonder why it occurred to Thomas to choose it in the first place. He might, of course, have read the example in another text and just reproduced it without further thought. But if it was his own choice, the possibilities are more intriguing. Did he associate the name in a special way with the Greeks, the Eastern Church? Did he have a reason for associating this Christian name with the sacrament of baptism? Could it simply be that he had St. Nicholas in the back of his mind, or in his heart, and so the name emerged spontaneously when he reached for an example?

5. Commentary on First Timothy. On the passage where the Apostle is exhorting Timothy to cherish the grace of his calling (1 Tim. 4:14), Thomas comments that “in the primitive Church, where elections [of bishops] took place for God’s sake and without corruption, no one was drawn up to the episcopal rank except by a divine election, as Ambrose and Nicholas were elected.” [8]

The story of the miraculous elevation of Nicholas was widely known, though tellings differ in matters of detail. The elderly bishop of Myra had died, and no one could agree on who the new bishop should be. Several priests had the same dream: they were to select as bishop the first man who walked through the cathedral doors for morning prayer the next day. This man turned out to be Nicholas, already a priest, but still young and a stranger in Myra. He was more than a little surprised when informed of his impending consecration, and though he resisted at first, he recognized in the dreams a divine decision, and submitted.

6. Commentary on Hebrews. Thomas alludes to the same incident in support of his contention that God may be trusted to single out worthy candidates.

It is contrary to nature that something lead itself to a state higher than its own nature, just as air does not make itself fire, but this is done by something higher than it. Hence, he does not have the discipline of God who takes to himself any honor by way of favor, money, or power. “In our strength we have taken up our horns” (Amos 6:14); “They have reigned, but not from me” (Hos. 8:4). He ought rather to be called by God, as was Aaron: “Take unto thee Aaron” (Ex. 28:1). And therefore the Lord confirmed Aaron’s priesthood by the rod which blossomed, as is clear from Numbers 17:5. Such therefore ought to be taken up [into the priesthood or episcopate], who do not thrust themselves forward. Whence in former times such men were pointed out by a visible sign, as occurred with blessed Nicholas and many others.[9]

7. Sermon for the Feast of St. Nicholas. Far outstripping the foregoing examples in length and detail, we find, among those rare echoes transmitted to us of Master Thomas the university preacher, an entire sermon devoted to the praise of St. Nicholas (a translation of this sermon in its entirety may be found here or here).

An offhand reference to the crowded “Little Bridge” over the Seine places the sermon in Paris. Thomas is likely to have preached it there during his second period as Regent Master — that is, on the sixth of December in 1269, 1270, or 1271 [10]—before returning to Naples where he was to suffer a shattering ecstasy on the same date in 1273.

The fact that Nicholas, though beloved to all, was invoked also as a special patron of scholars suggests an added importance his feastday may have enjoyed in Paris. It bears noting, too, that many of Thomas’s students, the “cream of the crop” among clerics, were destined for high office in the Church, often episcopal honors. This would make the example of the holy Bishop of Myra all the more relevant to a Parisian audience — a point not lost on Thomas, who, using the second person singular, forcefully warns his listeners:

If you are doing good in order to get prebends, you are serving yourself, not God. A good bishop ought not to be like these sorts of people, but rather he ought to be upright [innocens] in his own person, devout before God, merciful to his neighbor, faithful in all things in respect to everyone.

St Nicholas consecrated bishop: medieval reredos in Burgos

The Sermon for St. Nicholas: Inueni Dauid

The sermon is structured around two verses applied to sainted bishops and therefore regularly preached upon: “I have discovered David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand will help him, and my arm will strengthen him” (Ps. 88, 21–22).

Many Parisian preachers took this text for their sermons in honor of Nicholas on December 6. With the aid of Johannes Baptist Schneyer’s Repertorium, [11] a fair number can be identified, with the probable year of delivery stated when known: Guidardus de Laon (Master and canon at Paris, cancellarius in 1236) between 1226 and 1229, [12] Jacobus de Vitry, [13] Nicholaus de Aquaevilla, [14] Odo de Châteauroux (Paris Master) in 1228, [15] Petrus Aureoli (Paris Master) between 1318 and 1320. [16]

The text is particularly well-suited for the feast of St. Nicholas, since his relics were known to exude a sweet-smelling oil possessed of healing power, a fact to which Thomas refers near the end of his sermon. After his introductory remarks (among which we find the statement: “we are not able to scrutinize these wonders that God accomplishes in his saints unless he who searches the mind and heart should instruct us”), the Angelic Doctor divides his sermon into four parts, the “four commendable things about this holy bishop: first, his wondrous election; second, his singular consecration; third, his effective execution of office; and fourth, his unshakable and steadfast stability.”

One cannot do justice to this admirable sermon without going through it line by line, but for our purposes it will be enough to consider a few lines that, while paying homage to the saint of the day, make transparent the hidden, interior life of the preacher who was soon to join him in heaven. The Lord, says Thomas, discovers in Nicholas “something very rare, namely, virtue in the prime of his youth”; “he was not subject to vanity” and had “preserved his holiness from childhood . . . Fish and fruit in season are very much desired; so, too, very desirable to God is the man who carries the Lord’s yoke from his youth.” The preacher asks: “What does the Lord seek?,” and answers:

Surely, he seeks a faithful soul, hence [we read] in John (4:24): God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. And why does God seek out the man with a faithful soul? I say: whoever takes delight in dwelling with another person seeks out that person. So it is with God, because it gives Him delight to dwell with a faithful soul. Hence he says: My delights are to be with the children of men (Prov. 8:31). And God discovered in blessed Nicholas a faithful soul, because he was frequently in church, faithfully at his prayers; so, what is said in Hosea (12:4) is suitably said of him: He wept and made supplication to him . . .

Shortly thereafter Thomas poses another question: “What makes a person stand out? I say that nothing makes a person so outstanding as piety and a ready will to do good for others.” As in the contemporaneous Secunda secundae, the example cited is that of Nicholas’s gift of gold to relieve the poverty of the virgins. “A servant is one who carries out his lord’s work; and the principal work of the Lord is mercy.” Then, concerning Nicholas’s faithfulness, Thomas makes a remark that could be taken as a theologian’s fundamental rule of life no less than a bishop’s: “A faithful man must be a servant, so that he refers all that is his to God” (or “offers everything of his own back to God”): fidelis debet esse seruus ut omnia sua in Deum referat.

We are told how oil in its varied uses can serve as metaphor of spiritual realities: oil heals wounds, as does healing grace; it fuels light, symbol of the desire for wisdom; it flavors food, as spiritual joy seasons good works; it softens, “and this signifies mercy and kindness of heart, both of which blessed Nicholas possessed, since he was utterly filled with mercy and devotion.” (At this point Thomas gives a twist to the familiar Neoplatonic axiom bonum est diffusivum sui: “Oil is diffusive of itself; mercy is the same way.”) A few lines later he asserts that the glorified bodies of the saints will bear the evidence of their due rewards, “and even in this life the signs of their affection appear”: thus the body of blessed Francis showed “the signs of the passion of Christ, so vehemently was he affected” by this Passion. It is at this point that Thomas mentions how the tomb of Nicholas sweats oil, “indicating that he was a man of great mercy.” As with question 21 of the Prima Pars, so here, too, one cannot help noticing the tremendous weight Thomas gives to the theme of misericordia; in this short sermon, the word or one of its variants is used fifteen times, and the notion is hinted at in a dozen other ways. [17]

At the sermon’s close, Friar Thomas lauds Nicholas as “filled with the power to perform miracles” wrought by the hand of the Lord:

Who is there that has ever sought the glory of the world and obtained it as did blessed Nicholas, who was but a poor bishop in Greece? The Lord adorned him with miracles because he showed the greatest mercy. Know that the Lord has made wonderful his holy one (Ps. 4:4). It was mercy that made blessed Nicholas an extraordinary man, and the Lord [Jesus Christ] strengthened him even unto everlasting life. May He lead us there, who lives [and reigns] with the Father and the Holy Spirit, [God, for ever and ever, Amen.]

All the virtues, all the good works of Nicholas that Thomas had praised briefly and singly in earlier writings, he here combines and amplifies in a discourse whose plain language, heartfelt appeals to listeners, and evident spirit of devotion give us a vivid glimpse of daily university life in medieval Paris, as well as a window into the personality of Friar Thomas.

St Nicholas, Jacques de Poindre, 1563
NOTES 

[1] See the account from the Chronicle of St. Agnes’ Monastery in S. Tugwell, op, trans., Early Dominicans. Mahwah, Paulist Press, 1982, 395.

[2] I have this detail from Mark Johnson, who is working on a critical edition of Paul’s Summa. On Paul of Hungary, see Tugwell, Early Dominicans, 396, 426.

[3] The Introit (Statuit ei Dominus testamentum pacis), Collect (Deus, qui beatum Nicolaum Pontificem), Secret (Sanctifica, quaesumus Domine Deus, haec munera), and Postcommunion (Sacrificia, quae sumpsimus, Domine) also concur, but the Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory antiphon, and Communion antiphon differ. The Roman Missal has for its Gradual, Inveni David; for the Alleluia, Justus ut palma; for the Offertory, Veritas mea; for the Communion, Semel juravi. The Dominican Missal, on the other hand, has for its Gradual, Ecce sacerdos magnus; for the Alleluia, Justus germinabit; for the Offertory, Justus ut palma; for the Communion, Beatus servus. All eight of these chants are very ancient and appear frequently in the common Masses for martyrs, bishops, confessors, and doctors.

[4] Summa theologiae [ST] II-II, q. 107, a. 3, ad 4. The editors of the one-volume Editiones Paulinae Summa theologiae (Milan, 1988) cite three sources here: Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea; Mombritius, Sanctuarium, Vita B. Nicolai Episcopi; the Dominican Breviary, fourth reading for the Matins of December 6.

[5] In salutationem angelicam expositio, art. 1, n. 1116.

[6] Super Evangelium S. Ioannis lectura, cap. 6, lec. 5, n. 938.

[7] Scriptum super libros Sententiarum [=Sent.] IV, d. 3, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 2, arg. 1.

[8] Super I ad Timotheum 4, lec. 3, n. 173.

[9] Super ad Hebraeos 5, lec. 1, n. 249.

[10] In 1271, the feast of St. Nicholas fell on a Sunday, and hence if Thomas preached the university sermon at Saint Jacques on that day he could reasonably have taken Nicholas as his theme. However, St. Thomas also makes reference to the stigmata of St. Francis, suggesting that it might have been a weekday sermon delivered to the Franciscans.

[11] J. B. Schneyer, Repertorium der lateinischen Sermones des Mittelalters für die Zeit von 1150–1350 [RLSM], Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters, vol. 43.1–11. Münster, Aschendorff, 1969–1990.

[12] RLSM 2:266–67, nn. 192, 195–197, 199.

[13] RLSM 3:205, n. 287.

[14] RLSM 4:195, n. 63.

[15] RLSM 4:436, n. 525.

[16] RLSM 4:588, n. 74. This same incipit was also used for the feast of Saint Martin of Tours by Bartholomaeus de Tours, op, Paris Master, 1258–59 (cf. RLSM 1:438, n. 26) and Bartholomaeus de Bonnia, om, Paris Master (cf. RLSM 1:388, n. 17).

[17] See J. Saward, “‘Love’s Second Name’: Saint Thomas on Mercy,” in The Canadian Catholic Review 8.3 (1990), 87–97.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

The Second Sunday of Advent 2020

Jerusalem, arise, and stand on high, and see the rejoicing that shall come to thee from thy God. (The Communio of the Second Sunday of Advent, Bar. 5, 5 and 4, 36.)

Jerúsalem, surge et sta in excelso, et vide jucunditátem, quae veniet tibi a Deo tuo.

We are also very happy to share these videos from our friend Jacob Stein’s YouTube channel Crux Stationalis; as he did earlier this year with the station churches of Lent, he is now covering those of Advent, and will move on next to the Christmas season. Please support his work by subscribing!
The First Sunday of Advent – Station at Saint Mary Major
The Second Sunday of Advent – Station at Holy Cross ‘in Jerusalem’

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Music from the Rorate Mass

Early this morning, I attended a Rorate Mass at which the following motet by the Spanish composer Cristobal Morales (1500-53) was sung during Communion after the Gregorian Communio; the texts overlap, but the motet version is longer: “Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen ejus: Admirabilis, Deus Fortis. Super solium David, et super regnum ejus sedebit in aeternum. – Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called: Wonderful, Mighty God. Over the throne of David, and over his kingdom, he will reign in eternity.”

The Gregorian version, which has just the word “Emmanuel” after “nomen ejus.”

The Introit of this Mass, the Saturday Votive of the Virgin Mary in Advent, is borrowed from the 4th Sunday of Advent, but with a different psalm verse: on the Sunday, the first verse of Psalm 18, at the Rorate Mass, of Psalm 84. Before the Tridentine reform, however, on both occasions, it was sung with the rest of the verse of Isaiah, 45, 8, that follows the text of the Introit, a custom which has been preserved by the Dominican Order.

Introitus Roráte, caeli, désuper, et nubes pluant justum: aperiátur terra, et gérminet Salvatórem. V. Et justitia oriátur simul; ego Dóminus creávi eum. Glória Patri... Sicut erat... Roráte, caeli ...
Introit Drop down dew, ye heavens from above, and let the clouds rain the Just one. V. And let justice arise together; I the Lord have created him. Glory be... As it was... Drop down dew...

Friday, December 02, 2022

The People’s Champion

St Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák (1831-78)

It is perhaps ironic that the second most popular patron saint in the world is considered historically dubious. Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343), whose feast we celebrate on December 6, has more patronages than any other holy figure besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, yet his biography was considered so unreliable that his feast was demoted from third class in the 1962 calendar to an optional memorial in 1969. “Though one of the most popular saints in both the Greek and Latin Churches,” concludes The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “scarcely anything is historically certain about him.” [1]

We can certainly understand the skepticism. Long before he was morphed into Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas was the object of misappropriation and colorful imagination. Legends about the saint were already growing in the first millennium when the legends of another saint were grafted onto his. In the tenth century, the aptly named Symeon “Metaphrastes” (the “compiler” or “paraphraser”) combined the stories of our Nicholas with a Saint Nicholas of Sion, a monk who died in 564, almost two centuries after the bishop of Myra. And in the second millennium, medieval Christians in the East and especially the West took Nicholas’ story in directions that would have Symeon rubbing his eyes in disbelief.
But certainty can be surprisingly mercurial. In the mid-twentieth century, proponents of Mass facing the people were certain that this was the practice of the early Church, only to find out decades later (thanks to scholars like Fr. Uwe Michael Lang [2]) that they were dead wrong. And although skepticism about St. Nicholas has long been the sophisticated position among the well-educated, more recent scholarship is changing the conversation about the holy bishop whom the Eastern Churches continue to revere as Nicholas the Wonderworker. In following this scholarship, we can unearth a fairly reliable profile of this great saint.
Defender of Family Values
Nicholas was born in Patara, a coastal town in the Lycia region of southwest Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). When he was eighteen, his wealthy parents died, and after the pious Nicholas asked God what to do with the fortune, he learned of a heartbreaking case. A nobleman who lived not far from him had, through the machinations of Satan, fallen into destitution. The devil’s goal was to induce the man into abandoning God and sinning, and it worked: the man decided that since he could not marry off his three daughters without a dowry, he would sell them into prostitution.
This shocking option was not uncommon in antiquity. The Emperor Constantine made public funds available in limited areas to assist impoverished families so that they would not contemplate selling children into slavery or prostitution, and the Church enacted canons punishing fathers with excommunication who abused their parental rights in this manner.
But the sad practice continued. In a sermon, a traumatized Saint Basil the Great describes witnessing a father in the marketplace selling his children to pay off his debt, and St. Ambrose describes the pain of a father who must choose between handing his children over to the slave trader or starving to death. [3]
Enter Saint Nicholas. The holy layman threw three bags (actually, it was wrapped-up cloth) of gold coins through the window of the man’s house to ensure a respectable marriage for his daughters. Some variations of the story condense Nicholas’ actions into three consecutive nights, but according to our earliest account Nicholas waited to see what the man would do with the first bag, for Nicholas was a wise and prudent donor who was concerned about the spiritual and temporal effects of his charity. Happily, the man immediately procured a marriage for his eldest daughter, and he did the same thing for his second daughter after Nicholas anonymously gave him another bag.
Scene from the Legend of St Nicholas, Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35
Nicolas’ generosity not only saved the family from the sin of impurity, it restored their faith in God as well. After his first two daughters were married, the father prayed to God to know the identity of the man who was so kind to them, and God answered his prayer: the man was able to catch Nicholas in the act on the third night and thank him personally. Falling to his knees, the man would have kissed Nicholas’ feet had the saint not prevented him. Nicholas helped him off the ground and made him swear never to tell a soul what had happened.
Finally, Nicholas’ generosity is an implicit affirmation of what today are called family values. Even though Nicholas himself would choose celibacy, his kindness underscores the goodness of marriage and family, both of which are worth fighting (or sacrificing) for. Understandably, Nicholas became the patron saint of the poor, prostitutes, brides, and newlyweds. And because he used money to save the family, he is a patron saint of bankers, merchants, and pawnbrokers. The latter liked Nicholas so much that they made three bags of coins or three circles the symbol of their business, a custom that still survives today.
The Bishop of Myra
Nicholas eventually became a cleric of some sort (probably a priest but we are not sure). When the bishop of Myra died, Nicholas journeyed the twenty miles from his hometown of Patara to pay his respects. Unbeknownst to him, neighboring bishops had gathered in the church at Myra to elect and consecrate a new bishop. Candidates for the position were not exactly plentiful: the Church was still being persecuted by the Roman Empire, and bishops could expect imprisonment, torture, or execution.
Somewhat exasperated, the bishops agreed to elect the first man who walked into the church that day. When Nicholas crossed the threshold, a bishop asked him, “Son, what is your name?” “Sir,” he replied, “I am the sinner Nicholas, a servant of Your Excellency.” Nicholas’ humility astonished all who heard him, and the bishop said, “Son, come with me.” They consecrated him a bishop then and there.
It was rare for someone to be made a bishop so young (Nicholas was between thirty and thirty-five), but having a sudden ordination was not unheard of. St. Ambrose went from being a catechumen to a bishop in a breathtaking nine days, and St. Augustine was forcibly made a priest when others noticed that he was in the congregation and implored the bishop to ordain him immediately.
Nicholas barely had time to settle into his new job before he was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. It was common at the time to blind the right eyes and the cut the sinews of the left ankles of steadfast Christians [4], but we do not know if Nicholas suffered such a plight. One biographer only relates that at the Council of Nicaea, many bishops had scars on their bodies from the time of persecution, especially Nicholas and one other bishop.
In 1953, a forensic investigation of what is believed to be the skull of Saint Nicholas in the cathedral of Bari, Italy, revealed that the nose was severely broken. The breakage may have happened post-mortem when sloppy merchants from Bari looted—er, transferred—the relics of St. Nicholas to their native city in 1087. But if it did not, the condition of the nose could be confirmation of Nicholas’ rough treatment in prison, or it could lend support to a story about a pugilistic Nicholas striking Arius (see below).
Deck the Heretic?
It is likely that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea as one of three hundred bishops in A.D. 325. [5] There is a medieval legend that when Arius the Alexandrian priest took the floor and went on and on about how Jesus Christ was not the consubstantial Son of God, Nicholas, unable to bear Arius’ heretical prattling any longer, walked up to him and slapped him. (As one meme puts it, “Deck the halls? How about deck the heretic?”). The story goes on to assert that Nicholas was imprisoned for striking a bishop, but that night Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary visited him in jail, congratulated him for defending the truth, and liberated him.
St Nicholas Slaps Arius; fresco in the Panagia Soumela monastery in Asia Minor.
Nicholas’ earliest biographer, however, paints a different picture, one that is more consistent with the saint’s famous kindness. According to Michael the Archimandrite, Nicholas exuded such an odor of sanctity that his mere appearance made others better. And he was so concerned about the welfare of others that he pressured heretics to be better too. Theognis was the bishop of Nicaea who was a major player at the Council; he was also the kind of man who “irritated everyone with his stubbornness.” [6] Theognis had reluctantly signed on to the orthodox position as formulated by the Council, but when the Emperor announced that Arius would be excommunicated and exiled, Theognis angrily protested against what in his opinion was an excessive punishment. No paragon of patience himself, the Emperor quickly procured Theognis’ excommunication. The standoff was resolved by Saint Nicholas, who gently urged him to do the right thing through a series of letters. It worked, and Theognis submitted himself to the judgment of the Council when it convened again in 327.
Regional Exorcist
Nicholas’ early biographers describe him as expelling many demons from the region by destroying pagan shrines and groves, including the town’s great temple dedicated to Artemis (Diana). The early Church took seriously Psalm 95:5 (96:5)—“All the gods of the gentiles are devils”—and treated the Greco-Roman deities as demons in disguise. A biography of St. Martin of Tours, who lived a generation after Nicholas on the western side of the Empire, relates that when demons who were possessing someone revealed their name, it was the name of a pagan god like Jove or Mercury. [7] In Nicholas’ time, Christianity was on its way from being a religion with two million adherents when he was born to a religion of thirty four million when he passed away, but the old religion was still alive and well and the old habits died hard. Christians were often the victims of mob violence, but sometimes they fought back, applying to their own situation Matthew 3:10—“the axe is laid to the root of the tree.” An early coin from Myra depicts the goddess Artemis crouched in the branches of a tree with two men standing below with raised axes. [8]
Saint Nicholas of Bari Felling a Tree Inhabited by Demons, by Paolo de Matteis, 1727

Nicholas’ protection of his flock from the demonic only grew after his death. According to a legend first recorded in the early eighth century, a demon bent on retribution for Nicholas’ victories disguised itself as a little old lady and persuaded pilgrims sailing to Myra to bring with them a small flask of oil for the lamps of the saint’s tomb. The flask, however, was a bomb with properties similar to the Byzantine secret weapon “Greek fire.” That night one of the pilgrims was warned in a dream to throw it into the sea, and when he did it exploded and caused a series of waves that threatened to capsize the ship. Suddenly, the spirit of Nicholas himself appeared and calmed the waters. To this day Saint Nicholas is a patron of travelers, pilgrims, and all those tied to the sea, including but not limited to sailors, fishermen, longshoremen, maritime pilots, and the Greek Navy. There was a time when churches dedicated to the saint would be built on shore so that they could be seen off the coast as landmarks.[9]
The Go-To
It is tempting to think of patron saints as “replacements” of the Roman gods, where specific saints replace specific gods for specific causes in a sort of watered-down monotheism for recovering polytheists. This theory has the right location but the wrong causation. It was not the Roman pantheon but the Roman patron-client relationship that served as the inspiration for saintly patronage. In this important relationship, the client owed the patron honor and gifts while the patron owed the client certain favors, such as helping him find a job. A “patron” was a boss or big shot who had your back; he was the go-to guy when you got in trouble. Think of it as a legal and moral version of The Godfather movies, with all the big fat Italian weddings and without all the sleeping with the fishes.
Patronages on earth were especially important in the third and fourth centuries, when the imperial regime became increasingly besotted by Big Government expenses and corrupt officials. In response, common folk turned more and more to bishops to protect them, for bishops had legal and moral leverage against local government officials and were far more trustworthy.
Even before his death, Nicholas was looked to as a patron. When the government imposed a burdensome new tax, Nicholas personally appealed to the Emperor Constantine in Constantinople to have it greatly reduced. And because Nicholas was nobody’s fool, he miraculously sent the signed decree back to Myra before the Emperor could regret his decision (which he soon did).
Saint Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilja Repin, 1888

Thursday, December 01, 2022

A Magnificent Pulpit Dedicated to St Andrew

Yesterday, as I was looking at artworks related to Saint Andrew for his feast day, I stumbled across this astonishing pulpit in a church dedicated to him in Antwerp, Belgium. The church itself was founded in the early 16th century, but the pulpit was installed in 1821, the work of two sculptors named Jan-Baptist Van Hool and Jan-Frans Van Geel. There was actually quite a vogue for large pulpits with highly naturalistic sculptures in the Low Countries from the 17th to the 19th centuries, as you can read in an article on Dutch Wikipedia, and see in the accompanying Wikimedia Commons pages. (Google translate works very well with Dutch. Photos from Wikimedia Commons by Ad Meskens, CC BY-SA 4.0)

At the base, we see the calling of Ss Peter and Andrew from their fishing boat, as read in the Gospel of St Andrew’s Mass, Matthew 4, 18-22. The artists have cleverly positioned the boat next to a cave by the sea, overhung by a small cliff, on which the preacher stands. The canopy above it is surmounted by St Andrew’s X-shaped cross.
Notice how the artists really put their craft to superb use with the intricate carving of things like the fishing-net, the leaves on the tree growing over the cave, and as seen below, the basket full of fish.

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