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.

The Volcano Lover

Have you read it?

The Volcano Lover written by Susan Sontag (yes, she!) is an historical fictional romance starring the characters  of Sir William Hamilton, his young second wife Lady Emma Hamilton and later introducing her lover Lord Nelson. It is peppered with prominent artists and writers of the period, coloured with passion and lust. But what is most seductive about this piece of writing is its sheer poetic beauty. It is a magnificent opera of drama and wry humour. There is a contagious obsession with  beauty – within  landscape, objects and people, but with deft artistry the writer sinks us into the depths of utmost human depravity.

I particularly responded to the wax lyrical of Hamilton’s collecting zeal.

Sir William Hamilton by Joshua Reynolds, 1776.

“So the collector is a dissember, someone whose joys are never unalloyed with anxiety. Because there is always more. Or an ideal completing of your collection. But this ideal completion for which every collector hungers is a delusive goal.

A great private collection is a material concentrate that continually stimulates, that overexcites. Not only because it can always be added to, but because it is already too much. The collector’s need is precisely for excess, for surfeit, for profusion.

It’s too much-and it’s just enough for me. Someone who hesitates, who asks, Do I need this? Is this really necessary: is not a collector. A collection is always more than is necessary.” P 72

Unfortunately, the above spoke to me quite disarmingly directly. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I felt the guilt of truth within, guilt to admit that truth for myself (if I was not restrained by practical financial considerations). But also guilt that perhaps that is only one type of collector, and perhaps the bad sort? Oh dear, am I in the category of ‘bad, lustful, greedy’ collector? Then why does it feel so good? (Then empty, then good again, ad infinitum).

Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante by Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun,c 1790. The artist made an appearance in Sontag’s book. Note the erupting volcano Mt Vesuvius in the background. Lovely Emma performed dances in sheer costumes for their many lucky visitors.

Sontag also struck a chord when she described others responses to a personal collection – and this could be anything – art, jewellery, gemstones, smurfs, aprons…The collector keenly shows their well considered mini-museum of objects, but the response from the audience doesn’t really quite reach the levels of the collector’s anticipation. Isn’t that a familiar feeling?

“This passion was about what always surprised, alarmed; what exceeded all expectations; and what never evoked the response that the Cavaliere wanted. But then, to the obsessed collector, the appreciations of other people always seem off-key, withholding, never appreciative enough.

Collections unite. Collections isolate. They unite those who love the same thing. (But no one loves the same as I do; enough.) They isolate from those who don’t share the passion. (Alas, almost everyone.) Then I’ll try not to talk about what interests me most. I’ll talk about what interests you. But this will remind me, often, of what I can’t share with you. Oh, listen, Don’t you see. Don’t you see how beautiful it is.” p.p. 28-29.

Ms Sontag knew The Collector psyche very well. But the novel doesn’t wallow in gratuitousness. There is a moral or two to the tale so to speak, and more then merely ‘owning’ things the author celebrates that which surrounds the practice – culture, ideas, intellect and relationships. The depth of the novel is much more than collecting.

Anyway, read it if you haven’t already. It’s quite a treat.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover, Vintage, London, 1993 (is the copy I read, hence the page references).