Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Feast of St Petronilla

Long before either the Visitation or the Queenship of the Virgin Mary were celebrated on this day, and before those, St Angela Merici, the founder of the Ursulines, May 31st was the feast day of St Petronilla. Although she is missing from the oldest Roman liturgical books, she is seen in a painting of the mid-4th century in the catacomb of Domitilla, where she was buried, and her name appears on lists of the venerated tombs of martyrs in the sixth and seventh centuries. In the reign of Pope St Paul I (757-67), an ancient sarcophagus containing her remains was translated from the catacomb to the basilica of St Peter, the treasury of which still preserves a large metal reliquary with her skull inside it.

Fresco of the mid-4th century, with the martyr Petronilla on the right, leading a young woman named Veneranda into the garden of Paradise. (Image source.)
The true history of her life and martyrdom has long since been lost, but she was for many centuries believed to be the daughter of St Peter. This idea seems to have come partly from her name and the location of her relics, partly from a Gnostic “Acts of St Peter”, which speaks of a daughter of St Peter, without giving her a name. (In the Middle Ages, this apocryphal document would not have been understood as a work of heretical origin.)

The first edition of the Breviary of St Pius V carried over from its late medieval predecessors two brief Matins lessons of her life, which state that she was miraculously healed of paralysis by her father, relapsed, and while she was recovering again, a “count” named Flaccus conceived a wish to marry her sight unseen. Petronilla, “understanding that the human race’s most bitter enemy was readying an assault on her virginity, which she had dedicated to Jesus Christ”, prayed and fasted for three days, and then, after receiving the Eucharist, died. When St Robert Bellarmine and Cardinal Cesare Baronio revised the Saints’ lives for a new edition of the Breviary, published in 1602, these lessons were replaced with a generic one from the common of Virgins, a clear sign that the traditional story was considered wholly unreliable.

A reconstruction and partial cross-section view of old St Peter’s Basilica, with the mausoleum mentioned below on the far left. This structure was round on the outside, but octagonal on the inside. A narthex was later constructed between the left transept of the basilica and the rotunda, and doors opened up to form a passage from the church into the mausoleum. Another passage connected the mausoleum with its twin next door, also demolished by Vignola in the 1570s.
In the middle of the 5th century, a large mausoleum was built next to the left transept of the Constantinian basilica of St Peter. Six of its eight internal niches later became chapels, with that opposite the door being dedicated to St Petronilla; for a long time, this chapel was under the patronage of the kings of France. In 1498, Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, the French ambassador to the Papal court, commissioned his own funerary monument to be added to the chapel, from a 23-year-old Florentine sculptor named Michelangelo Buonarroti. This is, of course, one of the most loved and admired sculptures in the entire world, the Pietà.

Michelangelo did not know, of course, that only 7 years after the sculpture’s completion and the Cardinal’s death, both in 1499, Pope Julius II and the architect Donatello Bramante would begin (though just barely) the process of replacing the ancient basilica, then in a pitiable state. Much less did he know that, after decades of delays, he himself would take the project in hand in 1545, at the age of 70, and spend the last 19 years of his life working on the monumental church which we have today. Although he lived to an extraordinary age for that era, dying 2 weeks before his 89th birthday, he did know full well that he would not live to see the project finished. It fell to his successor as chief architect of St Peter’s, Giacomo Vignola, to demolish the mausoleum where the Pietà originally stood, in order to make way for the left transept of the vastly larger new basilica.

The Pietà now stands in its own chapel at the back of St Peter’s, and most of the thousands of people who come to see it every day never visit the chapel dedicated to St Petronilla on the opposite end of the building. (The new church is so much larger than the old one that this chapel in the northwest corner stands entirely outside the former footprint of the Constantinian structure.) Around the year 1623, the painter Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), known by the nickname “Guercino” (“squinty” in the dialect of his native region, the Emilia Romagna), was commissioned to do a painting of the Burial of St Petronilla for this chapel.

Guercino was especially admired for a remarkably vivid blue paint of his own invention, which he uses for two figures in this painting, as well as the sky in the background. In the upper part, it clothes Christ as He receives St Petronilla into heaven. Although the historical St Petronilla was certainly honored as a martyr, as the legendary daughter of St Peter, she is honored as a virgin, but not as a martyr, and here she is shown receiving the crown of virginity, but not the palm of martyrdom.

Below, notice the intense realism of the scene of her burial; we see the hands of a man standing in her grave, but only his hands, reaching up to help lower her body into it. The fellow dressed in blue on the left is the painter’s tribute to Michelangelo, whose most famous sculpture formerly graced the chapel of the same Saint for whom Guercino himself made this painting. The face of this man is taken from a bust of Michelangelo carved by the latter’s disciple Daniele da Volterra, and his massive forearm is very much that of a sculptor. (Even as a very elderly man, Michelangelo never ceased to work in his favorite medium, sculpture in white marble, a labor-intensive and muscle-building activity.) Surely by design and not coincidence, the chapel immediately next to that of St Petronilla in the modern basilica is dedicated to Michelangelo’s name-saint, the Archangel Michael.

Portrait of Michelangelo by Marco Venusti, one of his friends and colleagues, ca. 1535. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)

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