There is something to say about being brought up in the Catholic tradition, well, actually there are many things to say, but one aspect in particular I am very grateful for: a world of unadulterated visual pleasure. Being schooled in Catholicism is also being schooled in art history. There is an extraordinarily rich layered history of imaginative and creative visual narrative. Writhing men and women in various forms of undress; seductive vermillion and luscious cerulean; breathtakingly gorgeous human mien of peculiarly androgynous form; blood, lots and lots of blood; death.
It informs ones imagination. It feeds ones delight for curiosity. It inspires one. However, it never terrified me, which I suspect was the intention behind many painted tales. But then again, I love watching True Blood, so…
Strange images to some make sense to me. Show me a handsome young man pierced with arrows and I’ll show you St Sebastian. Show me a wading burly bearded man with a baby on his shoulder I’ll introduce you to St Christopher. Headless corpse, St John the Baptist. Voluptuous & often naked long-haired beauty, St Mary Magdalene. Woman in ecstasy, St Theresa (la petite mort perhaps?) . A man caressing a cross like a long-lost love, well that could be a number of Saints but in this case I believe it is St Francis Xavier – Jesuit, Missionary, and Catholic hero of the Counter Reformation.
Who was Francis? And why would you, an unknown person of circa 1700, wear him on your person in a rather lovely brooch? Born 1506, died 1552, beatified 1619, canonized 1637; Francis Jassu y Xavier was born of noble birth in his family’s castle of Xavier in Basque country, the Kingdom of Navarre, now known as a part of Northern Spain. An intelligent child, a gifted scholar, he studied philosophy in Paris and apparently was a rather good dancer to boot. But here is where it gets interesting, within the power struggles of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation Francis shines as an important player, a personification of all that the Counter Reformation stood for and a powerful political poster boy for pro-Papal Catholics everywhere. He was St Ignatius’ right hand man, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus – those that stood for chastity, poverty, obedience to God, AND loyalty to the Pope.
Yes, a Jesuit. A smart cookie, fueled by passionate sacred love that scorned the physical but ironically kind of had to be obsessed by it to scorn it quite that much. Francis is famous for his actions in revoking his nobility and all material pleasures, living and healing the repulsively sick, and remarkable missionary accomplishments, particularly in India. The Jesuits recognised the power of story-telling through the lives of the saints, art, education, language, to spread the word of Jesus. St Francis is still buried in India now, minus one arm (the one that did the baptising) which was taken back to Rome because it was just that special (!).
So it is not only a devout Christian that wears a miniature of St Francis Xavier, particularly this style of brooch – a cross, austere and sombre use of botanical motifs, dark garnets instead of popular emeralds, a traditionally sombre palette utilised for portraiture (oh those serious Spaniards!), the cross & missionary staff attributes. It is a person who believes in the power of Saints, in the Virgin Mary as central to faith, in faith plus action, has allegiance to the power of the Pope, recognises his central authority, aligns political power with the Church. One who recognises the power of visual narrative – a noble family member, a religious figure, a political leader – in that day and age if you were one, you were probably all three!
I can see this piece, perhaps it was once a slide or pendant, maybe it was always a brooch, but I see it on heavy black fabric. The stark simplicity contrasting against the dramatic backdrop. The robes, the beard, the cross, the staff, the tender caress of absolute devotion – an unapologetic statement.
There is one little tale in the life of Francis that tickles my fancy. There is a story – when Francis was on a ship in dangerous waters travelling betwixt cannibal islands of the south east, kind of hoping he would be killed and eaten in the name of Jesus, a great storm rose. Francis took out his crucifix which he carried with him always, he dipped it into the raging waters and it immediately abated. Alas, the crucifix though was lost to him. Grief stricken, he reached the shores of Baranura and to his utmost joy he witnessed a lobster appearing from the rabid waters gallantly crawling ashore, and yes, carrying in its modest little orange claws the crucifix lost and now returned to our adventurous hero St Francis Xavier. Now THAT would make a good painting.