SCRIPTURES AND ART: A painting by Tommaso Dolabella depicts a maritime scene from the life of the great saint
As the Christmas season draws to a close, the first week of the calendar year presents us with a variety of saints.
On the one hand, the week is very busy with North Americans: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) on January 4; Saint John Neumann (1811-1860) on January 5; and Saint-André Bessette (1845-1937) on January 6.
We would have marked the feast of Saint Basil on January 2, except that this year the transferred solemnity of Epiphany preceded it (and if the feast had not been transferred, Sunday would have preempted it). Saint Basil was a great Doctor of the Church of the 4th century, heavily involved in the Christological controversies of that time.
But I’ll choose a saint who probably doesn’t get much “press” in American circles – Saint Raymond of Peñafort (or Penyafort), whose optional memorial falls on January 7.
As you can guess from the tilde in his name, Raymond was a medieval Spaniard. He was born around 1175 and died nearly a century later on January 6, 1275. (Because January 6 is normally the Solemnity of Epiphany, his feast day is celebrated a day later.)
Raymond grew up in Catalonia, near Barcelona, and earned doctorates in civil and canon law in Spain. He then moved to Bologna in Italy, one of the oldest universities in the world, to teach canon law. While in Bologna he joined came into contact with the Dominicans and joined the order upon his return to Spain. He was in his late forties, a “late calling” for his time.
Raymond was the authority in canon law. He annotated that of Gratien Decree and, in the 1230s, compiled the Decrees of Pope Gregory IX. These two works became the norms of Catholic canon law until they were systematized in a code, the Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1917 and then revised in 1983.
The saint worked at the intersection of canon law and moral theology. He was the author of Sum of casibus poenitentiae, a guide for priests to use in the confessional. He also served as a papal chaplain to deal with difficult cases of conscience referred to the Holy See.
He became master general of the Dominicans and founded schools to teach Arabic and Hebrew. One source says that it was Raymond who urged Saint Thomas Aquinas to write his sum against kind, the work of the angelic doctor to deal with non-Christians, especially Muslims.
To a limited extent we see Raymond in art, it is probably a variant of Tommaso Dolabella’s painting. Dolabella, who lived from 1570 to 1650, was a Venetian Baroque painter who spent most of his life in Krakow, Poland. He was supported by two Polish kings, Sigismund III Vasa and Sigismund IV Vasa.
Dolabella’s painting depicts a maritime scene from Raymond’s life. James I was king of Aragon and later of the island of Majorca for almost the first three quarters of the 13th century. James had come to Majorca as part of the Catholic effort to reclaim Spain from Islam, a process which Ferdinand and Isabella eventually completed in 1492. Raymond was the king’s confessor.
James was prone to lust, and Raymond asked the king to dismiss his concubine. When he was unsuccessful, Raymond announced that he would leave Majorca, which James forbade, forbidding any sea captain from taking the priest. Raymond then announced, “Soon you will see how the king of heaven will confound the evil deeds of this earthly king and provide me with a ship.” He raised a stick pole, to which he tied his cappa (the black cape that the Dominicans wear over their white habit, which is why they are called the “Black Brothers”). Raymond sailed on the garment, escaping the king and returning to his beloved Catalonia. The miracle converts the king.
Dolabella’s depiction of the event places Raymond in the foreground, somewhat out of proportion to his surroundings, a receding shore behind him on which stands another Dominican. Raymond holds a key in his hand, revealing his role as confessor (“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” – Matthew 16:19). Raymond looks up to the sky, for the miracle does not consist in “showing the king” but in defending what is right, in the hope of moving his penitent heart.
While Dolabella is a baroque artist (and thus the importance of movement, for example, in the habit of Raymond or the sea), there is some effort to maintain the medieval elements here, the most interesting being the sea monsters who stalk and are amazed by Raymond’s escape. Monsters, like the earth, are brown; the sky and the sea are blue, symbols of hope, of Mary (so important in the Dominican order) and of the sky (where the blue contrasts with the “earthly” earth, where the sinful king remains attached to the things of the flesh ). Note that Dolabella, like most performers who have attempted this scene, has Raymond kneeling on his cappa, a proper recognition of godliness in that it is God, not man, who works miracles. A few artists have had it standing.
When we hear of the “conflict between religion and science” or the charge that the Church is against enlightenment and progress, look to Raymond. Universities were not the creation of the state. They were born into the Church, and Raymond was one of the best scholars. He dedicated the intellectual talents God gave him to advance the faith, engage people where they were in his time, and stay true to Christ and his teaching. He was not left out intellectual and, on the scale of his time, quite global and cosmopolitan. But Raymond also always remained rooted in Christ and his Church.