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Monday, April 24, 2017

Saints Fidelis of Sigmaringen and Joseph of Leonessa Trample Heresy by Giambattista Tiepolo - April 24


The following, by Father Michael Morris, O.P.,  is taken from the Magnificent magazine, April 2015, Vol. 17, No. 2

Tieipolo was the foremost artist of the Rococo period, and he painted these two eminent Capuchin friars to commemorate their joint canonization by Pope Benedict XIV in 1746. Both were preachers of the Counter-Reformation who won souls back to the Church by word and example.  One was martyred.  The other suffered terribly.  Both were sent on missions fraught with peril. 

Looking at the painting, one can see the two friars wearing the distinctive Capuchin habit.  Its long pointed hood and brown color have become so popular in the secular world as to lend the name "Capuchin" to a breed of monkeys, as well as to the frothy Italian coffee.  But these two friars are spiritual giants, not decorative slouches.  Their habits are filled with patches, especially in the area of their knees.  The tattered tunics have been made threadbare by constant prayer, genuflection, and kneeling. The knotted cords around their waists are symbolic of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  And each of the rosaries hanging from those cords sports a tiny skull made from bone, in order to remind them of death - a momento mori - calling them to be spiritually prepared at all times, as they were called to preach to hostile crowds.  The newly formed office for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization that the Capuchin Order greatly influenced, sent these friars out to diverse places where heresy and schism had destroyed the unity of the Church.  Fidelis was sent to Switzerland, where he preached to Calvinists, and Joseph went to Constantinople, where he sought to minister to four thousand Christian slaves.  

While he worked with the slaves, Joseph managed to reconvert a Greek bishop to union with Rome, but he was thrown into prison for a short time because the Muslim authorities suspected he was a spy.  After being freed through the auspices of the Venetian ambassador, Joseph proceeded undaunted to ask for an audience with the sultan to plead for human rights and freedom of conscience.  After many attempts with no response, Joseph decided to imitate Saint Francis and drop in on the sultan uninvited.  He reached the interior of the palace before being caught.  For this action he was condemned to a tortuous death, He was hoisted up on the gallows by a meat hook that pierced one hand and one foot while a smokey fire was lit beneath him.  He was suspended there for three days and left to die, when the most unusual thing occurred.  Just as Saints Peter and Paul were freed from prison by an angel, so too was Joseph liberated.  A mysterious woman appeared, took him down, and bound up his wounds.  She told him that his mission there was finished and that it was now time for him to go and preach in his native Italy.  Whether or not this was an angle in disguise, Joseph saw the hand of God in his liberation. 

A turbaned figure in the background of the painting evokes Joseph's sojourn in Constantinople, and the spindly pine tree rising above his head recalls the gallows on which he was hoisted.  The large, half-naked woman sprawled out in the foreground of the painting represents, Heresy.  She had been held in check by these two Capuchins, and falls to the earth with all her raiment.  There is a sickly color to her flesh.  Her head is full of snakes, like the Gorgon, Medusa, calling to mind the Greek myth that all who gazed upon her terrible visage would die.  In this light, Saint Fidelis acts like another Perseus, destroying her power to kill.  He raises his hand heavenward while he proclaims the truth, and he keeps Heresy's powerful torso subjected under his fragile right foot.  This sign of ritual trampling in Christian art had been used as a symbol of victory throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, but the palm branch held by the cherub resting on Fidelis' right leg is a device that goes back even further. Christ was hailed with palm branches as he entered Jerusalem for the last time.  Here the palm is used as a trophy signifying the victory of martyrdom.  

While he was preaching barefoot in Switzerland, armed only with crucifix, Bible, and breviary, Fidelis found the weather there cold, but his reception even frostier.  The Alpine mountains in the background of the painting denote the rugged terrain where he preached, catechized and administered the sacraments.  His spirit of penance and poverty wedded to truth inspired a significant number of converts.  Enraged by his success, a contingent of Calvinists plotted an ambush.  The friar had a vision of his end, and started to sign his letters "Fidelis who is soon to be food for worms."  On the day of his death, he preached on the necessity of Christian unity.  Suddenly, armed men who demanded that he apostatize surrounded his pulpit.  When he refused, they dragged him outside and pummeled his body with spiked clubs.  As he was being beaten, he asked pardon for his killers, invoking the names of Jesus and Mary.  Finally, he was run through with a sword. He was the Capuchins' first and youngest martyr.  A Zwinglian minister who witnessed his death became the first fruit of his sacrifice and embraced the Faith.   

While other religious and secular powers used the sword and the spilling of their opponents' blood to achieve their aims, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith followed Christ's mandate to baptize all nations using a kinder and more peaceful means of persuasion.  As such, it became a potent force for true civilization and proof of the Church's Catholicity.   Tiepolo's painting pays homage to this fact in memorializing the spiritual victory of two humble friars armed with nothing but the fire of the Holy Spirit.  (Father Michael Morris, O.P. from the Magnificat magazine, April 2015, Vol. 17, No. 2) 

For devotional items related to the Catholic Faith please visit Lynn's Timeless Treasures

Saints Fidelis of Sigmaringen and Joseph of Leonessa Trample Heresy, by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) National Gallery, Parma, Italy - taken from the Public Domain.    

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