Postcard from Rome, Italy: Hailing two more graceful Marias

In addition to being dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other bond this pair of featured Roman basilicas has is their façades were undergoing restoration and hidden from view.

In 38 B.C., some claim mineral oil spewed out of the ground, a miraculous sign of the coming of Christ, on the site in Trastevere Pope Callixtus I (?-222) chose for a sanctuary dedicated to Mary. Aside from the foundation, little remains of that early church.

As Pope Honorius II (1060-1130) lay dying, a group of cardinals gathered as a committee and named his successor, Pope Innocent II (?-1143). Chaos within the church, not uncommon when determining papal succession, erupted when a majority of cardinals objected to the process and elected Anacletus II (?-1138) as their leader. Pope Innocent II was forced to flee Rome for a number of years, while the competing “Antipope,” depending on which side is relating the story, ruled.

A tomb for Anacletus II had been completed inside Santa Maria in Trastevere, but the presence of his former rival’s tomb was salt in the wound for Pope Innocent II. He had the church, and the offending memorial razed. During the reconstruction of the church, Pope Innocent II commissioned his own resting place to be built upon the spot once occupied by that of the “Antipope.”

The capitals of the columns, if not the entire granite columns, lining the nave were retrieved from the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, which dated from around the year 200. Centuries later, when Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) was informed the faces adorning the capitals were of ancient Roman gods, he had them chiseled off the columns.

The mosaic over the apse, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” with the row of sheep underneath was completed the year of Pope Innocent II’s death. Saints are clustered on the right of Jesus, with pope-approved popes on the left, including, of course, Innocent II himself. Below the herd of sheep are a series of mosaics portraying the life of the Virgin, including “The Annunciation” featured above. The mosaics of Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330) represent an artistic evolution from Byzantine stiffness to more natural figurative work. Numerous glamorous features were added to the basilica by cardinals and popes in subsequent centuries.

A giant walnut tree grew atop the spot at the foot of Pincian Hill in Rome where the ashes of Emperor Nero (37-68) were relocated by a landslide from above. Foreboding ravens, and perhaps more wicked winged demons, haunted the tree, frightening the superstitious populace entering or leaving through the nearby gate to the city. Fortunately, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) in a dream with the solution. Upon her instructions, he performed an exorcism on the tree and then took an axe to it, a blow releasing the screaming evil spirits residing within. Nero’s remains underneath were thrown in the Tiber, and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was erected in their place.

Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) ushered Rome into the Early Renaissance with the construction of an immense church on the site, Santa Maria del Popolo, and, among other enduring landmarks, the Sistine Chapel. He restored more than 30 churches and had a half-dozen more erected in Rome during his tenure at the helm of the church.

The photographs above capture only a fraction of the art stuffing Santa Maria del Popolo, its walls lined with chapels commissioned by families enriched through papal relationships. Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) fill niches and flutter above arches; two enormous paintings by Caravaggio (1571-1610) hang in a chapel flanking the apse.

Yet, my favorite memorials are a pair of slabs in the floor marking the graves of two nuns.

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 Lisboa, Portugal: Sardines and the Saint

Somehow the sardine has been elevated to a level almost of the saint himself, Saint Anthony that is.

Outside of Portugal, he might be known as Saint Anthony of Padua. But, here in Lisboa, he is their hometown boy. He was born right here. A saint of heroic proportions, so much so that his Feast Day, June 13, is glorified by a full month of celebrations.

People have been prepping for the party ever since our arrival in Lisboa. Festoons are flung across streets. Banners hang and bleachers are set up along the broad, tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade, ready for a parade on June 12. Neighborhood groups gather and parade across town to his church on various evenings. And, in Alfama, booths come alive nightly, plying passersby with jiggers of the strong cherry ginjinha, jugs of sangria, beer, fried things and, of course, grilled sardines.

Sardines seem synonymous with the celebration, with artist-designed sardines featured on the banners of the umbrella group, Festas de Lisboa. This might stem from one of the numerous miracles attributed to Saint Anthony. Perhaps tiring of preaching to skeptics, he turned to the water and starting praising the glory of the fish who all rose enraptured to the surface, listening until he completed his sermon.

Surely, the attentive ones must have been sardines because it makes everything so convenient. Because this is their prime season. Along the coast, colorful fishing trawlers head out at night with nets to encircle the schools of sardines to bring back fresh to the docks by morning. By noon, they sizzle on grills everywhere throughout the country, the smoke and smell scenting the air heavily on some streets.

These freshly caught ones seem unrelated to the strong-tasting, oily canned sardines I remember from childhood. The fine bones of small ones thrown on the grill can be easily chomped upon, but the plump larger ones that you must filet are prized for their moist, sweet meat.

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Being here on June 13th is sort of a pilgrimage, because, although named in his honor, San Antonio, Texas, pretty much ignores his day. Even his mission, the Alamo, no longer is known by his name. Frank Jennings tried to get a meaningful Founders’ Day going, and Rolando Briseno attempted to create artistic pageantry in honor of San Antonio’s patron saint.

But nothing stuck.

Yet….