Home » Antique Jewellery » Caressing the Cross: A Spanish Devotional Brooch

Caressing the Cross: A Spanish Devotional Brooch

My St Francis Xavier Devotional Brooch. Note the cross formation, note the understated decorative motifs, note the beautiful painted miniature!

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…

St Francis Xavier Preaching by Rubens 1617-18

Note the downward gaze and the caressed cross

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.

With his usual attributes

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 (!).

St Francis Devotional Brooch from the side. Note the faceted edges, the closed & high settings, the rose cut garnets/garnet pastes. LOVE!

Note the faceted edges of this English piece dated 1704, so similar to our St Francis brooch. These faceted edges do something to me I can not explain. I adore this detail.

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.

This is the St Francis Devotional Brooch as it appears on reverse. Silver gilt, pinned stones, hello gorgeous engraving akin to other miniature cases of the era, almost heraldic like in this particular example.

Hello my name is simply stunning and I’m a 1680-1700 Spanish pendant in the collection of the V & A Museum. Note the abundance of botanical decorative motifs, the use of emeralds, made for a woman of means and nobility.

Note the engraved surface.

4 thoughts on “Caressing the Cross: A Spanish Devotional Brooch

  1. Oh my god, I want that emerald pendant so bad I may have to sell my soul to the devil!!

    Wonderful post, and your devotional pendant is lovely, Marielle!

  2. Beautiful post! I learnt a few things today! Like the story of Francis Xavier, that will explain having a couple of classmates at school bearing that name, I always found it a strange combination. Seeing the brooches and pendants brought back memories of my grandmother, she had a couple she had probably got from her mother.

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