CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: saints in European art

Exhibition: 1 January - 28 January 2005

From the museum website

Saintliness resides in the realm that lies between ecstasy of the spirit and extreme physical pain. Ever since the early Christian era, saints were described, depicted, and above all admired because of two major characteristics they possessed: the passionate conviction of their religious beliefs, and the ability to endure intense physical and mental suffering in the name of those beliefs.

In this exhibition, saints occupy the central stage. The exhibition explores the subject of sainthood in its various visual aspects through paintings, drawings, and sculptures, all taken from the Israel Museum’s collection. Dating from the sixteenth to the late twentieth century and originating from the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and France, the works present scenes from the New Testament and themes of devotion and passion from the lives and miracles of the saints.

The word “saint” comes from the Latin sanctus, meaning “holy” (and, derivatively, referring to an exceptionally virtuous person). According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1988, p. 1227), the practice of venerating saints became widespread in the fourth century CE, and is grounded in the belief that saints are simultaneously close to God, in virtue of their holiness, and “accessible” to human beings, whose nature they share. Who, then, were these men and women who rose so strikingly above the rest of humanity? The seminal Latin hagiography The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, written around 1260 by the Dominican friar – preacher Beatus Jacobus de Voragine in the town of Varazze near Genoa, was the first attempt to put down in writing legends and tales about these holy people, creating a body of reference for the Christian world concerning God’s agents on earth. The book – the second most popular after the Bible in the late Middle Ages – recounts the story of their lives and deeds, focusing on the miracles they performed during their lifetime, and sometimes also after their death. For us, its importance lies in the fact that, as the first detailed textbook on the subject, it informs many of the artworks created from the fourteenth century onwards. Indeed, most of the works on view in this exhibition are better appreciated when considered in the context of the legends collected in Jacobus’ oeuvre.

How does one become officially recognized by the church as a saint? The procedure is detailed in Corpus Iuris Canonici, the canonical laws of the Catholic Church, written in 1734-38 by Cardinal Lambertini (later Pope Benedictus XIV):

In canonization procedures . . . the question to be discussed is whether the Servant of God possessed, to a heroic degree, the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love of God and neighbor, as well as the cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and related virtues, and whether this is certain enough to permit proceedings towards beatification. However, in the case of the canonization of a martyr, the question is whether his martyrdom is absolutely certain and whether it is known for sure that signs or miracles occurred, and whether all this is certain enough to permit proceedings towards beatification. (Canon 2104)

And also:

In addition to a heroic degree of virtue and martyrdom, another requirement for the beatification of a servant of God is that miracles have been performed through his intercession. (Canon 2116)

The saint, then, is the embodiment of the cardinal virtues and a performer of miracles. Because there are so many Christian saints (many of whom bear similar names), they are traditionally depicted with a specific attribute, which helps us identify them and tells us something about their life and death or about the deeds or miracles they performed. Not all saints are alike: Some were martyrs who sacrificed body and soul to sustain their faith and stood firm against pagan kings and rulers in the early days of Christianity. This self-sacrifice earned many of them their sainthood, like St. Bartholomew, the Apostle who was flayed alive for spreading the Gospel in faraway Armenia, and St. Sebastian, the young centurion who was tied to a tree and pierced by arrows for spurning the Roman emperor’s sexual advances. Other saints belong to the realm of the vita contemplativa and died a relatively peaceful death, like St. Jerome, who led an ascetic life in the desert and translated the Bible from Greek to Latin (Vulgate), and St. Anthony Abbot, the hermit and scholar. Some of the saints were Christ’s companions during his life and calvary, like St. Peter, often identified by his set of heavy keys (opening the kingdom of heaven), or St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, who holds his Gospel. They witnessed Christ’s miracles, heard his sermons, and were present when he was caught, tried, and crucified. Some saints, like the sinner-turned- penitent Mary Magdalene or Christ’s cousin, St. John the Baptist, knew Christ intimately during his lifetime; others, like St. Rosa of Lima, who lived in the sixteenth-seventeenth century and was the first South American to be canonized, experienced his presence only through mystical events and heavenly intervention.

There were also warrior saints, like St. George, who slew the legendary dragon in Lod, or St. Lambert of Maestricht, who was known as the Warrior Bishop. Despite the many differences between them, however, all the saints formed a physical link between God and mortal believer, conveying prayers and requests from the poor and the sick who sought divine intervention at the gates of heaven, sometimes using their own body and mind as a vehicle of belief.

The Holy Family are the central theme of many works on paper, with Christ appearing as a baby (in his mother’s lap, holding flowers, having a bath), and as a preacher and tormented adult. The Holy Family are depicted on their return from Egypt after King Herod’s death, and a Maesta scene shows the Madonna enthroned, surrounded by saints and cradling the infant Christ.

When saints were represented in European Christian art, the works in which they appeared contained not only obvious aesthetic value but, more importantly, a lesson in piety and courage aimed at the devout public. Some saints, like Mary Magdalene – sometimes depicted as a beautiful and enticing young woman and at other times as a tearful recluse – changed their characters and attributes as centuries went by; others, like the gentle giant St. Christopher, eventually lost their sainthood due to periodical proceedings of the Catholic church.

Some of the larger paintings were made for the use of parish churches or city basilicas, where they became part of the weekly sermon or were used as a visual device assisting in the education of the congregation through stories of individual heroism and devotion. The smaller panels were meant to be used in the practice of “devotio moderna,” which allowed believers to have the image of their favorite patron-saint in the privacy of their home and enabled the sick and elderly to pray to a beloved image when they could not reach the church. They would light candles, arrange flowers, and pray for help and guidance, health and prosperity.

In recent years the European Art department has been enriched with new acquisitions of paintings with Christian themes, some of which are presented here for the first time to the Israeli public. A rare scene by Raphael’s disciple Benvenuto Tisi (Il Garofalo) shows the Holy Family bathing the Christ Child; the head of the Apostle Matthew is powerfully portrayed by the controversial Roman Baroque painter Salvator Rosa ; and the latest addition to the collection, a masterpiece by the forefather of Spanish Baroque, Jusepe de Ribera, presents the martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, borrowing its central theme from Ovid’s classic tale of the flaying of the flute-playing satyr Marsyas by the jealous god Apollo. In addition to these paintings, an important medieval sculpture from the bequest of Jacques Lipchitz representing a smiling Madonna and a huge canvas by contemporary artist Annette Lemieux complete our overview of this truly fascinating subject.