Saints and sinners in Tricentennial exhibition at San Antonio Museum of Art

Given my history of promoting the elevation of the June 13 feast day of San Antonio’s patron saint to a major celebration (for example, here), I feel it a betrayal of Saint Anthony of Padua, originally of Lisbon, that I am not featuring his image at the top of this post. After all, there is a splendid statue of him cradling baby Jesus prominently displayed in the entrance hall of the San Antonio Museum of Art as part of its tricentennial exhibition, “San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico.” 

But I gravitated instead to a detail of “The Mystical City of God,” painted by Cristobal de Villalpando in 1706 and on loan from the Museo de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Depicted in front of the “The Mystical City of God,” envisioned in her 1668 multi-tome work chronicling the life of the Virgin Mary, is Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda (1602-1665), one of my favorite saints capable of bilocation.

Yes, I realize Saint Anthony had mastered that art centuries earlier. He was known for his capability of preaching a sermon at the altar at the same time he was up in the loft singing with the choir. And then there was the rather remarkable occasion he was in Italy while simultaneously appearing in Lisbon to testify on behalf of his father, who was falsely accused of murder.

It is believed this painting was commissioned by Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus (1657-1726), the Franciscan priest who walked barefoot from Zacatecas to San Antonio to found Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo in 1720. The art of bilocation certainly would have come in handy for the Franciscan, as he made that more than a thousand mile roundtrip hike across mountains and the desert twice.

But Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda is particularly significant to the Americas because she bilocated across the ocean to the New World. A favorite advisor to King Philip IV (1605-1665) of Spain, Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda is said to have been transported by angels to parts of what is now West Texas and New Mexico to teach Native Americans about Christianity as many as 500 times between 1620 and 1631. All the while remaining ensconced in the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Spain.

A Franciscan friar arriving in  New Mexico in 1629 found members of the Jumano tribes waiting, eager to be baptized. The Native Americans told him and other friars repeatedly they had been visited by a lady in blue who advised them too seek out the friars to complete their conversion to Christianity. The tales of the mysterious visitations of the lady in blue to the Jumanos were reciprocated by the descriptions of the outward appearance of the Native Americans to whom she had visions of teaching provided by the lady in blue whilst in Spain.

Aside from the statue of Saint Anthony, the other images above are plucked somewhat arbitrarily from the more than 100 works in SAMA’s exhibition.

Monumental in size, “The Martyrdom of Franciscans at Mission San Saba” was painted in 1765 by Jose de Paez, recording an event that occurred only seven years earlier. Founded near present-day Menard in 1757, Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba was attacked by 2,000 warriors – an alliance of Comanche, Apache and other tribes who obviously had not benefited from any of the visitations of the Lady in Blue – on March 16, 1758. Eight people were massacred, and the mission was burned to the ground.

Love the white rabbit peeking out the sleeve in the 1789 portrait of “Friar Joseph Arriaga” by Manuel Montes. Saint Francis often is depicted surrounded by fluttering brown sparrows, and, in that tradition, this Franciscan has a sparrow or two peeking out from under his robe as well.

In sharp contrast to that gentle side of the church’s teachings, I offer a horrifying detail of “Allegory of the Confession of the Soul.” Makes one awfully happy for the opportunity the church extends to say three “Hail Marys” and two “Our Fathers” to have all your confessed sins forgiven. And then there are the cherubs in great need of watching their step balancing atop monstrous creatures from hell in a detail of “The Hernandezes Honoring Their Devotion to Saint Michael the Archangel,” 1818.

The lives of everyday people are featured in some of the assembled paintings as well. The body language of the Gutierrez family in their 1814 portrait conveys much about their roles. The daughter is learning the art of lacemaking from her mother, while the captain instructs his son in geometry. The father is posed in a way to block the access of the womenfolk to the mathematical problems. The future roles of the daughter and son are dictated by the lessons they are offered.

“San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico” remains on exhibit until May 13.

Postcard from Portugal: Pilgrimage to the birthland of San Antonio’s patron saint

Part of the excuse for extending our stay in Portugal until mid-June was to ensure we were there for the Feast Day of Saint Anthony of Padua, June 13, the anniversary of his death at age 36 in the year 1231. Actually, the celebration is more than a day. In Lisbon, the party in honor of Saint Anthony lasts throughout June.

While we call him “of Padua,” he wasn’t from there. He only ended up in Italy because his ship was blown off course during a storm. He was born in Lisbon and studied in Coimbra, and the Portuguese have not forgotten him. His images, and a few personal relics, are everywhere.

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They love him. And why not? Few saints are more versatile than Saint Anthony in the types of prayers answered.

So, following my pilgrimage to the homeland of the my city’s patron saint, I wanted to share, in layman’s terms, a few of the things every San Antonian should know about him:

  • Saint Anthony must have been fearless. His prime inspiration for becoming a Franciscan was the story of the five Franciscans beheaded by Moors for preaching in Morocco. He yearned to follow in their footsteps.
  • Forget being impressed by horse-whisperers. Sparrows would flock to hear Saint Anthony preach. A stubborn mule would bow to take sacrament from his hands. Early on, when heretics ignored him, he turned to preach to the fishes in the river, who all popped their heads up, mouths agape, and listened attentively as long as he cared to speak.
  • Saint Anthony was such a silver-tongued orator, rock stars would envy the crowds he attracted. His final sermons had to be given far out in the countryside in the open air to accommodate the thousands who swarmed to bear witness. He needed bodyguards to keep from being stripped naked by those who wanted to snip off scraps of his robes to remember him.
  • His popularity was so great and miracles so obvious, Pope Gregory IX had to put him on the ultra-fast track to sainthood. He was canonized within a year of his death, and there was none of the fudging about waiving confirmation of a second miracle like Pope Francis had to grant for Pope John XXIII.
  • Saint Anthony protects sailors, stemming from the miracle that his ship was merely blown off-course and not destroyed in a storm. Maybe Rio San Antonio Cruises should consider breaking the all-female naming tradition and christen one barge in his honor with a little statue of him on the bow.
  • Saint Anthony helps you find lost and stolen things. This stems from a story of a naughty novice who nicked Anthony’s psalter. Saint Anthony sent such a fearful devil of an ax-wielding creature after him, the repentant man scurried back and returned the book. Some of us would find Saint Anthony’s blessing handy every time we head to the car.
  • Saint Anthony’s been known to appear to guide lost travelers. Those tourists driving the wrong way down a one-way street downtown yesterday sure needed him on their dashboard.
  • Saint Anthony helps fishermen, which means bountiful fresh sardines in Portugal during his Feast Month. You might not think that is a good thing, but grilled fresh sardines are moist and sweet. Celebrating St. Anthony’s Month would provide San Antonio with a good excuse to promote their importation.
  • And what’s better than sardines? Wine. Faced with a drained keg on his arrival in Provence, Saint Anthony refilled it to the amazement of all.
  • In Portugal, people give each other gifts of sweet basil on Saint Anthony’s Day. Wow, how perfect for here. By mid-June everyone in San Antonio could use a fresh pot of basil to replace their summer-stressed straggly ones.
  • Even the poor get bread on St. Anthony’s Feast Day. Unsure whether this tradition stems from the French baker who promised to give bread to the poor if only the shop door would open; the mother who pledged to distribute her child’s weight in wheat if Saint Anthony would bring him back to life (which of course he did); or parents donating bread when placing their children under the saint’s protection. He was such an ardent protector of children, it is claimed that the infant Jesus was seen visiting him in his cell.
  • Saint Anthony not only can heal the sick and bring the recently deceased back to life, he can reattach limbs. A man confessed to Saint Anthony that he had kicked his mother. Taking his penance a little too literally, the man went home and chopped off his own foot. Upon hearing this, Saint Anthony kindly went to the sinner’s home and reattached his severed foot.
  • Saint Anthony helps single women find husbands. Needless to say, grateful brides are honored to be chosen to be part of the multiple-wedding ceremony held on his day.
  • And this is truly cool. Superman has to disappear from one place to fly off to do superhuman feats elsewhere, but Saint Anthony could bilocate. This meant he could be preaching a sermon, suddenly remember he was supposed to be up in the loft singing in the choir and do both at once. But it also meant that when his father was falsely accused of murder in Lisbon, Anthony – then based in Padua – was able to appear in court in Lisbon in support of his father. This feat was made even more impressive when Saint Anthony brought the murder victim back to life to offer his testimony as well, leaving no doubt as to the innocence of the saint’s father.

These tales may seem hard to believe, but everyone wants to believe in miracles. Faith is powerful. But enough about miracles for now.

A pair of Spaniards, Father Damian Massanet and Domingo Teran de los Rios, both claim to have named this place in June of 1691.

We just need to be grateful the explorers entered the land the Native Americans called Yanaguana on Saint Anthony’s Day.

And San Antonio certainly needs another excuse for a citywide party.