Archive for saints

San José

Barcelona San Jose

An image of fatherhood for St. Joseph’s day. I picked up this card on a visit to Barcelona. The prayer on the back, which strongly echos the Lord’s Prayer, goes something like this:

“Our Father, I pray thee for my children, your children, that you have given me. Make me sanctify them with my life, my work, my counsel. Let your peace, your love, and your blessing rule in their hearts. May your will be done for them, and not mine, if my will is not as yours.

Help me earn bread for their bodies, teach me to give your nourishment to their souls.

May they love and forgive each other so that you will forgive their weaknesses. Deliver them from all evil, especially from that which they neither see nor fear.

Our Father: let me be a good father.”

Barcelona San Jose reverse

Paintings in place – St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel

Today I thought I’d share a video from The National Gallery, London. We see so many images in books and on screens–and in galleries. It’s good to be reminded that some paintings have been made for particular spaces and particular points of view.

Caravaggio’s paintings have captured my imagination since my days as a student. He was a complicated person and some of his work is unsettling, but it rewards attention. I hope you enjoy this brief tour of the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

Hammer and Tongs: St. Dunstan and the Devil

Illustration copyright Wallace Tripp from A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me

Illustration copyright Wallace Tripp
from A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me


St. Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pulled the devil by the nose
With red hot tongs, which made him roar,
That could be heard ten miles or more.


Today is the feast day of St. Dunstan. If you’re not familiar with the life and legends of St. Dunstan, they’re well-worth a bit of your time. Dunstan (909-988) was educated at Glastonbury Abbey as a child. He became a skilled musician, scribe, sculptor, and metalworker. At least one of his works survives. A devout and intellectual man, he served as abbot and bishop, and eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Some of the most popular stories of Dunstan involve his encounters with the devil. The one illustrated above is said to have taken place in Glastonbury during the time the saint was living as a hermit.

While he was in his cell, Dunstan was visited by a shape-changing devil who appeared first as an old man asking him to make a chalice, then a young boy, and then a seductive woman.

As Eleanor Parker relates in her most excellent blog, A Clerk of Oxford:

Dunstan realised that his guest was a devil; but, pretending not to notice, he went on with his task. He took up the tongs from among his tools and laid them in the fire, waiting until they were red-hot. Then, pulling them out of the fire, he turned round and seized the devil by the nose with the tongs. The devil struggled and screamed, but Dunstan held on until at last he felt he had triumphed. Then he threw the devil out of his cell and it fled, running down the street and crying “Woe is me! What has that bald devil done to me? Look at me, a poor wretch, look how he has tortured me!” 


Dunstan was one of the vigorous saints–going after the devil hammer and tongs. There’s even a story that he shod the devil’s cloven hoof; that tale is said to be the origin of the lucky horseshoe you see nailed over doorways. Because he was known for his metalwork at Glastonbury, Dunstan is the patron saint of goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, armorers, and jewelers.


Dunstan shoeing the Devil's hoof illustrated by George Cruikshank Image: WIkimedia Commons

Dunstan shoes the Devil’s hoof
illus. by George Cruikshank
Image: Wikimedia Commons



Saints, known and unknown

Today is the Solemnity of All Saints. While searching for a bit of the history of this day, I read that the celebration was instituted “to honor all the saints, known and unknown.”

Saints, known and unknown. A humbling reminder that sainthood is not conferred by the Church, but only recognized. Like the lamed vavniks of Jewish legend and the angels we entertain, there are saints we encounter unawares, but through whom the kingdom of God comes near.

May we someday know one another, even as we are known, and in that blest communion join to sing.




St. Jude, patron of lost causes

St. Jude Thaddeus Georges de La Tour 1650

St. Jude Thaddeus, Georges de La Tour, 1650


Today is the feast day of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, the Chicago police department and many hospitals. I first learned of St. Jude watching The Untouchables, a movie about Eliot Ness’ pursuit of Al Capone during Prohibition. In that movie, the team is enjoying supper after a successful raid when Ness sees Malone, a long-time beat cop, holding a saint’s medal on a chain.

“What is that?” he asks.

Malone responds with surprise, “What is that?”

“Yes, what is it?”

“God, I’m with the heathen.” Showing Ness the medal, Malone explains, “That is my call box key, and that is St. Jude.”

Stone, a young Italian on the team says, “Santo Jude. He’s the patron saint of the lost causes.”

“And policemen,” says Malone.

If you grew up in the Protestant tradition as I did (and are thus among Malone’s heathen), the origin stories of heavenly advocates can be startling. They certainly represent some of humanity’s most creative attempts to explain God’s work in the world, and to honor the holy people among us.

So why did St. Jude get saddled with the lost causes, and how did those causes come to be their own category among all the professions and diseases that are identified with other saints?

Wikipedia gives us an amusing explanation that I’ve found repeated on several other web sites. I have no idea how this tale came to be, or indeed if it is a traditional or modern fabrication. Still, it’s a great story, and with that caveat, I’ll share it:

St. Jude is known as the patron saint of lost causes amongst Roman Catholics. This is due to the tradition that, because his name was similar to the traitor Judas Iscariot, few, if any faithful Christians prayed for his intervention, out of the mistaken belief that they would be praying to Judas Iscariot. As a result, St. Jude was little used, and so became eager to assist any who asked him, to the point of intervening in the most dire of circumstances. The Church also wanted to encourage veneration of this “forgotten” disciple. Therefore, the Church maintained that St. Jude would intervene in any lost cause to prove his saintliness and zeal for Christ, and thus St. Jude became the patron of lost causes.

I laugh to think of St. Jude with nothing to do in heaven–no prayers coming in–eagerly taking on dire problems that no other saints would touch. Surely this is one of those instances of imagination run wild. Nevertheless, I do think that recognizing the place of lost causes in the life of the Church and asking for a bit of help is good and appropriate. We’ll always have the poor. And human nature. There’s a lot in this world that could bring a body to despair.

So, as I think about St. Jude, I’m reminded of another movie where a character named Jefferson Smith says lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for; his advocate, Clarissa Saunders, says they’re taken up by fools with faith in something bigger. On this feast day, that sounds about right to me.

 …the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1)


The Saint on a Swing: Proculus of Verona

St. Proculus escapes Verona
9th c. fresco
Church of San Procolo, Naturno


Lately I’ve been feeding my head by following a number of medievalists on Twitter. They post wonderful images from manuscripts and paintings that I’ve never seen before and would likely never find without their help. Here’s an intriguing fresco from the Church of San Procolo courtesy of Erik Kwakkel, a Medieval book historian at Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Proculus of Verona was a 4th century bishop who survived the Great Persecution of Christians by Diocletian. This painting shows him being lowered from a window on a swing. If you’d like to see more of the interior of this tiny church, watch the video tour embedded below. I can’t translate the Italian, but it will give you sense of the space.

36 Righteous Saints

I don’t remember All Saints Day being part of my growing up. I don’t think I even knew it existed until I was an adult. My Protestant heritage has a complicated relationship with the whole idea of sainthood after that unpleasantry in the 16th century. For many folks, as soon as you put “St.” in front of someone’s name, you’re bringing up issues of sanctification, and access to God, and idolatry. Really, it’s best to just keep the “s” lower case.

So, on this Feast of All Saints I think I’ll keep things complicated and look to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b; Sukkah 45b).

There’s a Jewish legend that at all times and in each generation there are 36 righteous people, the Lamed Vav Tzadikim (from lamed, Hebrew for 30, and vav which is 6), without whom the world would cease to exist. These holy people are Hidden Ones, who do not themselves know that they are among the 36. They exemplify humility. Some say they justify humanity’s continued existence to God, like the righteous in Sodom for whom Abraham pleaded.

Since no one, not even the lamedvavniks know who belongs to the 36, then everyone should treat others and live their own life as if they might be one. A lamedvavnik is holy and humble, full of compassion, always praying for others, and always ready to greet the Divine. They live lives that glorify God and not themselves–which is one of the reasons you just never know.


St. Luke and the dancing ox

St. Luke the Evangelist
North doors, Baptistry, Firenze, 15th c.
Lorenzo Ghiberti



Earlier this year I was fortunate to be in Florence where I saw this relief of St. Luke the Evangelist by Lorenzo Ghiberti.  In some ways, Ghiberti’s work is a traditional evangelist’s portrait showing one of the four evangelists writing and accompanied by the creature that is his symbol.  Matthew’s symbol is an angel, Mark’s is a lion, John’s is an eagle, and Luke’s is an ox.

While I was thinking about Ghiberti and this relief, I realized what a challenge such a portrait of St. Luke could be. Lions, eagles, and angels are the stuff of visions, but a cow?  Creating a dignified and powerful image of a man and a ox could be tricky–especially if you wanted to avoid anything reminiscent of Moloch or Mithras.

A quick survey of paintings and sculpture turned up a lot of interesting ways of depicting Luke’s symbol. Sometimes the ox or bull is clearly a spiritual being, as it is in the Russian icon below. At other times, as in the Netherlandish painting, the ox seems very much an animal, though one whose eyes suggest an otherworldly sentience.


St. Luke the Evangelist
Russian icon, 18th century
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

St. Luke the Evangelist
Jan van Bijlert, 17th century
Photo: Christie’s
















St. Luke in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy, 1477
Photo: Wikipedia


In yet another example taken from a book of hours, the heavenly creature seems almost disguised as a earthly cow, calmly resting in the doorway while Luke paints a portrait of the Virgin Mary. It’s clear to me that, within this genre, the ox has presented artists with both a challenge and an opportunity for experimentation.

In the Baptistry door relief, Ghiberti appears to be trying something very different from other artists. There’s a connection between man and creature expressed through the composition. St. Luke’s right arm and leg line up with the the ox’s leg; their poses mimic one another.

In this way, Ghiberti’s ox is not just an identifying symbol or an animal sitting behind the writing desk. This ox interacts with the saint. The angles of Luke’s left hand and the scroll make a visual rhyme with the ox horns as it turns its head to look at the evangelist. The drapery and the chair legs repeat graceful shapes.

With so much gentle rhythm in its making, the composition is dancelike. There is movement within the confines of the quatrefoil, and there is unity of strength and grace, body and spirit. The ox is not massive and powerful, but surprisingly agile and elegant. Ghiberti’s animal is more than an attribute, he is a holy muse; a conduit for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; a partner with the saint in the dance between God and man.



Francis: Brother of the Universe

Marvel Comics, 1980.
Script by Mary Jo Duffy, breakdowns by John Buscema
finished art by Marie Severin. Click for more info.


Today, on the feast of St. Francis, most people will remember Francis as the patron saint of animals and the environment. We’ll bless our pets and listen to “The Canticle of the Sun.” But Francis did more than preach to the birds and tame the wolf of Gubbio.  If you look at the “Little Flowers“–a florilegium of stories about the saint’s life–you’ll find that Francis was interesting and quirky, and what we might call “extreme.”

Francis did not live a life of peaceful contemplation. He went to Egypt to try to convert the Sultan and end the Crusades. He was the first person recorded as having received the stigmata, and he suffered from them until his death. He once preached a mighty sermon while naked, and another time raised a man into the air with his breath. He was very serious about imitating the life of Christ and living in poverty. He could be harsh and excessive.

Certainly Francis was a figure worthy of his own comic book–a bit dark and unpredictable, driven, compassionate. A man whose great love and obsession changed the world.


St. Francis of Assisi by Bonaventura Berlingheri, 1235

St. Francis receiving the stigmata
by Giotto di Bondone, c.1295-1300

Hands and feet: St. Jerome and the Lion


On a day towards even Jerome sat with his brethren for to hear the holy lesson, and a lion came halting suddenly in to the monastery, and when the brethren saw him, anon they fled, and Jerome came against him as he should come against his guest, and then the lion showed to him his foot being hurt. Then he called his brethren, and commanded them to wash his feet and diligently to seek and search for the wound. And that done, the plant of the foot of the lion was sore hurt and pricked with a thorn. Then this holy man put thereto diligent cure, and healed him, and he abode ever after as a tame beast with them.

From “The Golden Legend ,” by Jacobus de Voragine, a medieval compilation of stories about the saints


On a recent trip to Madrid I was captivated by this painting of St. Jerome and the Lion in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Usually the lion appears as an attribute of Jerome based on a story found in the medieval bestseller, The Golden Legend. Here the lion is more than an identifier, and the saint’s relationship with the creature is the focus of the composition.

I love the artist’s gentle juxtaposition of hands and paw, expressing kindness, affection, and blessing. And I love the lion’s face, looking out into the distance as if in contemplation, with just the hint of a smile. It’s as if we are witnessing a moment of understanding between a man and his animal companion.


The story of the Jerome and the lion is interesting and multifaceted. It begins like the tale of Androcles and the lion as an example of charity overcoming fear and of kindness repaid. In this version, however, the lion is referred to as a “guest” (and thus a recipient of hospitality) who then becomes a sort of brother in the monastic community. The lion is given responsibilities reflecting his new nature and according to his abilities–he is to tend and guard the monastery donkey. When the animal is stolen while his guardian sleeps, the lion is falsely accused of having eaten it, which is to say, of not having a true conversion and yielding to the sin of gluttony. The lion is punished and shamed by being forced to take on the work of the ass, and the author notes, “he suffered it peaceably.”

Thankfully the story has a happy ending. Eventually the lion finds the stolen ass, brings it back, and is forgiven.

And then the lion began to run joyously throughout all the monastery, as he was wont to do, and kneeled down to every brother and fawned them with his tail, like as he had demanded pardon of the trespass that he had done.

How curious and fitting that the lion’s nature makes him both run joyously and demand pardon!  And because of the lion’s righteous ferocity, the thieves also come before Jerome to ask pardon. The saint does not take all their valuable oil, though they offer it as penance, but tells them to “take their own good, and not to take away other men’s,” and so debts are paid, sin is forgiven, and community is restored.

Which bring us back to the painting–so different from the many other pictures of St. Jerome–a painting about more than the holiness of a saint. A painting about a saint and a lion. Surely it is no accident that hands and paw should tell this tale and bring to mind those virtues of hospitality, humility, and forgiveness present in other stories we know so well: the washing of feet, the suffering of shame, the blessings of community.