The Conversion of St. Paul

Posted January 27, 2009 by rciagrad1
Categories: Christian art, Saints

Paul by Bellini, 1471-74

Paul's vision on the road to Damascus by Bellini, 1471-74

This last Sunday we commemorated the conversion of Paul. Needless to say, this has been a subject of many artistic representations. This first painting is by Giovanni Bellini (15th century). Paul appears to have fallen from his horse.  If you have heard Father Troncale’s story, you will know why I felt it  necessary to include this one first. Others have rendered the scene differently, as in the painting below.

You will note that the artist, Giorgio Vasari, included no horse. However, Jesus is holding a book  upon which are the symbols for alpha and omega.  paul-conversion-21This is for our benefit, presumably, since Paul is now blind.

Fra Angelico also felt the horse was needed in his painting below:


Archbishop Rodi gave a fine homily during his visit at the Saturday mass.  Among other things, he said that his favorite New Testament character is Ananais of Damascus who only appears once– he is the one who is sent to Paul to pray with him and relieve his blindness.  Ananais is a wonderful example of someone obeying God but not doing anything spectacular in and of itself. Yet the result was amazing.  Below is a modern rendering of the scene which is a study for a window at St Paul’s Church) by Benjamin West.


I really like this depiction.  In Acts 9:11-17 we are told plainly that Paul is in the house of one Judas, on Straight Street. However, the scene here appears to be out of doors. The dark clouds are parting (I think this must be an allusion to Paul’s blindness) and the dove just above Ananais’s hand makes plain that a miracle is taking place.

I think it is interesting that the men Paul brought with him to help arrest the Christians and drag them back to Jerusalem are also present in this scene. They are depicted as soldiers and I have to wonder, since we are not told, what they made of this 3-day blindness and recovery. I wonder, too, at the courage of Ananais! He knew Paul’s reputation and that his coming to Damascus meant trouble for the believers there. But Ananais said yes to God and the rest is, as they say, history.


St. Stephen, The First Martyr

Posted December 26, 2008 by rciagrad1
Categories: Christian art, Liturgical Feasts, Saints

Tags: , ,

Rembrandt's painting (1624) of the stoning of St. Stephen.

Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  We know about him only from the account of his selection as a deacon and his death in Acts. Stephen was one of the first group of deacons appointed by the apostles (Acts 6:1-5).  We are told that he was performing signs and wonders and finding a receptive audience among the people of Jerusalem. This led to enmity on the part of certain gentile converts to Judaism who denounced him as a blasphemer.  In his defense before the elders, Stephen reviews salvation history from Abraham to Jesus and arouses the murderous anger of the assembly by concluding his defense thus:

 “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. (NASB, Acts 7:51-60)

Here Stephen is receiving the martyr's crown.

Ruben's painting depicts Stephen receiving the martyr's crown. This is a portion of the whole painting which is part of a tryptych.

Stephen’s execution is also the first time we meet Saul who, we are told, heartily agreed with putting Stephen to death. This event marks the beginning of the first great persecution of the Church (Acts 8:1) which scatters the believers throughout Judea and Samaria. As a result, the Gospel was spread further, which was hardly the end Saul and the other persecutors desired.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belevedere, California has a very nice summary of what we know about Stephen and how the Church subsequently viewed and honored him. From that site I learned that the medieval church made Stephen the patron saint of stonemasons and of headaches (!). I was reminded that, of course, the carol Good King Wenceslaus celebrates him. I also learned, finally, why our British brethren refer to Dec. 26 as Boxing Day.

St. Stephen was a popular subject for painters. There are a wealth of images, particularly Renaissance and Barock paintings, on the Internet. Usually Saul/Paul will be found depicted in them– he may be young, or bald and bearded (the way he was typically portrayed in art). He is often standing apart, as the account in Acts describes. This can be seen very clearly in the painting below:

Juan de Juanes painted this between 1560 and 1565. Saul is in the background looking on.

Juan de Juanes painted this between 1560 and 1565. Saul is in the background looking on.

If you would like to see more paintings of this or other biblical subjects, there are a great many sites you can visit. One such is Biblical art on WWW and it is an amazing resource. You can search for art by keyword (for example, bread), by subject (e.g. Ruth), by artist and by text. If you decide to search by biblical text, you will be presented with a list of the books of the Bible. When you find the one you want, click on it and then choose the passage that you are interested in. It is hard to imagine that there can be any painting anywhere that cannot be located through this site. Please take a look and, if you find anything really wonderful, let us know!

St. Nicholas

Posted December 22, 2008 by rciagrad1
Categories: Advent, Saints


I collect vintage post cards and have quite a few of Santa Claus and many more of St. Nicholas. It is fascinating to see how he was depicted 100 or more years ago. The European cards are my favorites. As on the Dutch card here, he is often depicted in his role as a bishop. In many cards he is not;  he is dressed much more humbly; often in brown robes. Amusingly, instead of coal he is usually depicted carrying switches for bad children, as well as presents for good ones– but not when he is portrayed as a bishop.

In almost all the cards I have, St. Nicholas is also pictured as carrying a tree with him and he is usually on foot.  When he does have help, it is a simple sled drawn by one or two donkeys or reindeer.  In the next example we have a brown robed St. Nick carrying toys and switches:


St.Nicholas in brown.The card is postmarked 1907.

 To my surprise, I have discovered a serious website devoted to all things St. Nicholas: the St. Nicholas Center. This site is simply amazing. It tells the story of the real bishop and  has an extensive history of his celebration the world over from Aruba to Palestine to Turkey. There are pictures, e-cards and even a screen saver to be found at the site along with activities for children and a list of events centered on St. Nicholas around the world.

 I must say that I was amazed to find how rich a history is associated with him and how widely this saint is celebrated. The St. Nicholas Center is a treasure and well worth exploring.

Purple robed St. Nicholas with one reindeer. The card is postmarked 1910.

Below is a card on which we see St. Nicholas carrying a tree as well as a large bag of gifts with him.



Brown robed St. Nicholas on a card postmarked 1908.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Posted December 12, 2008 by rciagrad1
Categories: Liturgical Feasts

Tags: , ,
Juan Diego and the Blessed Mother

Juan Diego, the roses he had gathered, and the image that appeared on his cloak

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe which has a very interesting history. To sum it up very briefly, the Blessed Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, a local indian on a hill near what today is Mexico City. This was in December of 1531 as he was walking to Mass a mere 10 years after the fall of the Aztec Empire. The Virgin asked Juan to ask the local Bishop to build her a church on the spot of her appearing. The Bishop asked Juan to obtain a sign from the Virgin to prove that Juan was not imagining things. When Juan passed on the Bishop’s request, the Virgin sent Juan to the top of the hill to gather roses which, of course, were not in season nor were they the local variety. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) describes what happened next:

She told him to go up to the rocks and gather roses. He knew it was neither the time nor the place for roses, but he went and found them. Gathering many into the lap of his tilma a long cloak or wrapper used by Mexican Indians he came back. The Holy Mother, rearranging the roses, bade him keep them untouched and unseen till he reached the bishop. Having got to the presence of Zumárraga, Juan offered the sign. As he unfolded his cloak the roses fell out, and he was startled to see the bishop and his attendants kneeling before him: the life size figure of the Virgin Mother, just as he had described her, was glowing on the poor tilma. A great mural decoration in the renovated basilica commemorates the scene. The picture was venerated, guarded in the bishop’s chapel, and soon after carried processionally to the preliminary shrine. 

The whole story is told  in Nican Mopohua, a document written in 1545 in the native Nahuatl language. You can find it (in translation, of course) at the University of Dayton’s  Marian Library and Research Institute , a wonderful resource, to which I have linked in the past.

  Pope John Paul the Great visited her sanctuary a number of times. In 1999 he declared Dec. 12 a Liturgical holiday for the continent.     

The Queen of Mexico

The Queen of Mexico

He also placed the lives of children, particularly those whose lives are endangered by abortion in her care. 

Protector of children

Protector of children

Immaculate Conception

Posted December 8, 2008 by rciagrad1
Categories: Advent, Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,


Saint Anne conceiving the Virgin Mary

Jean Bellegambe: Saint Anne conceiving the Virgin Mary

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The understanding that Mary had been conceived without the taint of original sin is very ancient. However, the feast cannot be traced back past the 7th century where it was celebrated in the eastern churches.  It spread to the west and there is evidence that it was being celebrated in some parts of  it by the 8th century.  The adoption of the feast had a long and very complex history in the west for a couple of reasons. One important one was the inability of  theologians to agree on how Mary could be preserved from original sin. 

Although Pope Sixtus IV adopted the feast for the entire Latin Church in 1476, the Immaculate Conception did not become settled doctrine until this day in 1854.  Pope Pius IX explained the dogma (only one of two times that any doctrine has been pronounced “infallible.”)  in Ineffabilis Deus.

The Immaculate Conception is a solemnity. It is also a Holy Day of obligation which means that all Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on this day. It is fitting, indeed that it occurs in Advent, given Mary’s rather considerable role in the coming of the Lord.

The terms, Solemnity and Holy Day of obligation are quite foreign to most of us (former) Protestants and to those from different backgrounds.

Solemnity is defined at Knowledgerush in this way:


A Solemnity of the Roman Catholic Church observes an event in the life of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, beginning on the evening prior to actual date. Solemnity is made up of Latin words solet and annus, meaning a yearly (annual) celebration. They are observed throughout the entire Church.

A helpful list of the solemnities follows the definition. 


KnowledgeRush defines a Holy Day of obligation as: 


a day, besides a Sunday, on which its members are required by canon law to attend Mass. 

You can find a list of Holy days of obligation at the end of the entry. 

 If you would like to read up on the rather complex history of this feast, there is a long and very scholarly discussion in the Catholic Encyclopedia online. It is not for the faint of heart! The online Encyclopedia is the superceded 1913 edition. (The current edition was published in 2002). This means that caution is needed, particularly when looking at scientific topics, and some doctrinal ones. However, the historical information is quite sound. 


Advent: A Time of Preparation … and Joy

Posted December 1, 2008 by rciagrad1
Categories: Advent

Tags: ,

christmas_decoration_21Yesterday was the start of Advent. It was made even more special because we welcomed catechumens and candidates into the Catechumenate. It is hard for me to believe that a whole year has gone by since I also went through this process but, indeed, it has.

So, what is Advent? It marks the beginning of the ecclesiastical year in the western churches. During this time we prepare ourselves to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming. Remembering his coming should always remind us that he is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead– as the Creed we recite every week tells us.

christmas21We don’t know, exactly, when the celebration of Advent began. The feast of the Nativity of the Lord did not begin until the 4th century, so we know it didn’t start before then. In the following centuries the period of preparation for that feast began at various times in November and was not settled until the sixth century (other accounts place it later).

There are many traditions associated with Advent. The Advent calendar is one. While the commercial ones we see are often aimed at children, this was not always the case. The calendar has its origins in the 19th century and was developed by German Lutherans. Not every such calendar is made of cardboard. The city of Gengenbach, Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest, turns its city hall into a giant calendar by decorating the 24 windows on its facade to resemble the windows on a calendar. Needless to say, it draws thousands of visitors every year.

Gegenbach City Hall decked out for Advent

Gegenbach City Hall decked out for Advent

 Of course, there are also Advent calendars to be found online. EWTN, for example, offers one, as does the St. Margaret Mary parish (Naperville, Illinois). Theirs is fun because there is a window to be opened each day and you can’t skip ahead! Another really nice one is offered by the University of Dayton’s Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute. This is one I was very glad to have discovered because the information about Mary is simply wonderful. As a former Protestant I struggled to understand the Catholic view of Mary and to free myself of the misunderstanding that Protestants often have about her role in Catholic doctrine. 

Beliefnet  offers a very nice calendar. Each day is an adventure of sorts. The day opens with a theme and then there are links to more information on that theme. Today’s theme is angels. If you look at Dec. 1, you will  have an opportunity to  hear Thomas Merton’s poem Advent. Don’t know who Thomas Merton is? This is someone you probably will want to learn about. Like many others online, this calendar does not allow you to peek ahead.

Artcyclopedia has a calendar that is dated 2004 but it is a perpetual calendar. Its theme is the Nativity in Renaissance Art. Each day is a thumbnail of the art work that will be revealed when you click on it.

We lit the first candle of the Advent wreath yesterday. Here again, the origin of this tradition is not well known. It may have had pagan Germanic roots. Whatever the case may be, Christians had adopted it by the Middle Ages. If you would like to know more, there is a very nice article about the meaning of the wreath and the candles to be found at the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Here is a lovely example:











Here is another example from a church in England:











In the slightly reworked opening of a well-known song:

 This is the season that the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it!

Mary: Through the Eyes of Others

Posted November 29, 2008 by rciagrad1
Categories: Christian art

Tags: ,

My last post on representations of Jesus in other cultures got me to thinking that the mother of Christ has been portrayed in many wonderful ways. So, I poked around the web and found a few to share here.

Chinese Madonna of unknown origin

Chinese Madonna of unknown origin

 The lovely Chinese Madonna below is centuries old and was recently found on a scroll in the Field Museum (Chicago). A story in the Honolulu Advertiser describes its discovery. Because the birth and death dates of the artist are known, the painting can be dated to approximately 1500.

Chinese Madonna, ca. 1500

Chinese Madonna, ca. 1500














I found the Ethiopian representation on a site that needs to be seen to be believed:  There you can click on any continent you are interested in and find pictures and commentary that are simply wonderful. The mural below was painted sometime after the 17th century but the church itself is one of the many ancient churches in Ethiopia that are rock hewn. This one, Abreha wa Atsbeha dates to the 4th century.

Ethiopian Mary

Ethiopian Mary

A picture of the church can be found at Discover the Real Ethiopia

Finally, here is a Japanese representation with an interesting  history.


I found this at a site called Laputan Logic (scroll down to the entry called “Japanese Whispers”.

This is a very interesting post on Christianity in Japan. The author describes the various persecutions of Christians in Japan (Christianity was totally proscribed in the early 17th century and Japanese Christians faced horrific persecution) and says that this particular representation disguises the Virgin as Kuan Yin, a compassionate deity in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.  The whole post is very interesting and well worth reading.