Sunday 24th September 2023

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Artifacts Of An Imperishable Faith

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Part 1

Recently I was exploring for the first time with two friends the “American Wing” of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In gallery after gallery there were masterful landscape paintings that conveyed a powerful sense of transcendence and the beauty of God’s creation. There were likewise lovely depictions of the beauty of family life, the greatest source of natural happiness that God has bestowed upon man in this valley of tears. Yet in these “American” galleries there was almost nothing of an expressly religious nature — nothing, that is, until I happened to turn into the entrance to Gallery 757.
Suddenly before my eyes was a glittering gold crown studded with over four hundred emeralds, ensconced in the middle of a room teeming with otherworldly wonders. In the same field of vision when entering this gallery, mounted on the wall directly behind the crown of gold, a large painting depicts Our Lady with the Christ Child, both clothed in gold and both wearing crowns that seem to mirror the design of the crown in the foreground. Our Lady is seated before a large tree, the branches of which are populated with colorful tropical birds. Kneeling to her right is a man in penitential garb, and to the left there is a domed church, with mountains in the background.
What I had stumbled into was a new gallery of Latin American art that the Met Museum has added to its American galleries. The publicly stated rationale for this addition is that the museum’s definition of “American art” ought to be broadened from exclusively Anglo-Saxon American art to embrace the art of Latin America as well. The bottom line is that this redefinition has opened the door to a whole world of Catholic art from the countries to which the Spaniards and the Portuguese brought the Catholic faith.
In fact, virtually every item in Gallery 757 is a work of Catholic religious art or a Catholic liturgical object. The life-sized gold crown that serves as the centerpiece of this room was made to adorn the head of a statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception enshrined for centuries in a church of the Columbian city of Popayan. In a video about this object popularly known as the “Crown of the Andes” (ca. 1660-1770), a representative of the museum explains that to understand the stunning splendor and wonder of this crown wrought from over five pounds of gold, it must be borne in mind that it was conceived as a crown “made for the Queen of Heaven.”
What this museum curate has stated so extremely well is for us as believing Catholics an overwhelming thought when contemplating this crown in person. The sheer physical reality of this object brings home to the soul the truth that Our Lady is very, very real — our sculptures and paintings of her are in and of themselves inanimate objects, but they communicate through our senses the invisible reality of Mary and her immeasurable and very personal love for us. The crown was fashioned as a palpable expression of love and reverence for her by the people of Columbia. Visually juxtaposed with the painting of Our Lady wearing a virtually identical crown that hangs behind it, the crown conveys a powerful sense of the Blessed Virgin’s majesty as Queen of Heaven.
Exhibited on a mount of its own to the left of the “Crown of the Andes” stands what is an even more wondrous encounter with heavenly majesty — a silver monstrance dating from the 1640s. For many visitors, it may well seem to be simply an artistically crafted piece of silverwork. But for the believing Catholic, the large open aperture at the center of this monstrance brings to mind the lunette that was placed within it countless times, centuries ago, containing a treasure greater than the entire universe — the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Almighty God Incarnate. To draw near to this object is to feel oneself close to what was once the throne of God. Centuries ago, priest after priest, on one feast day after another, held this monstrance aloft as plumes of incense rose before the Sacred Host that would have been enshrined within it.
An inscription on the hidden underside of the monstrance reveals that in addition to being a gift of love to God this sacred vessel was also made as a gift of love from a grateful holy man to the people of his place of birth. The inscription relates that Fray Pedro Urraca Garcia of the Trinitarian Order (1583-1657), a missionary who labored for souls in Peru and Ecuador, donated the monstrance to the church in which he was baptized in his native town of Jadraque, Spain. Fray Urraca is in fact a candidate for canonization, having been declared Venerable by Pope St. John Paul II in 1981.
On yet another freestanding mount to the right of the “Crown of the Andes” is displayed a 1709 edition of the Missale Romanum bound in chased silver, the text of the missal having been published in Antwerp by the printing house of Christophe Plantin, with its magnificent silver-on-wood binding handcrafted in Peru. The missal rests in its closed position, but the missal’s title page, depicting a gathering of angels adoring with enraptured awe the Blessed Sacrament enshrined in a monstrance, can be viewed in a photo provided on the Met Museum’s website. This particular title page design for Plantin’s editions of the missal dates back to the 1640s. Also evident from the website photos is that this missal was bound together with a 1707 edition of the Franciscan Proper of Saints, a printed collection of Mass prayers for feast days celebrated within the Franciscan Order. Clearly the missal was intended for use at a Franciscan church or friary.
Here as with the monstrance on the opposite end of the room, the silver is silently preaching a visual gospel about what it was fashioned to enclose, in this case the priceless words by which the sacrifice of Our Lord on the Cross would be re-presented and the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist wrought anew at the altar, day after day, some three centuries ago. Many a saint, many a martyr and many a faithful soul have been ready and willing to suffer and die in defense of what is contained within this silver binding. When about the year 1581 the English Catholic laywoman Cecily Stonor, a niece of the Carthusian martyr St. Sebastian Newdigate (+1535), was put on trial for her adherence to the Catholic faith, she told her judges:
“I was born in such a time when Holy Mass was in great reverence, and brought up in the same Faith. In King Edward’s time this reverence was neglected and reproved by such as governed. In Queen Mary’s, it was restored with much applause; and now in this time it pleaseth the state to question them, as now they do me, who continue in this Catholic profession. The state would have these several changes, which I have seen with mine eyes, good and laudable. Whether it can be so, I refer it to your Lordships’ consideration. I hold me still to that wherein I was born and bred; and find nothing taught in it but great virtue and sanctity; and so by the grace of God I will live and die in it” (quoted in Henry Clifford, The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, Quarterly Series, vol. 62, London, Burns and Oates, 1887, pp. 38-39). The paintings that line the walls of Gallery 757 take the viewer still deeper into the faith-filled spiritual landscape of seventeenth and eighteenth century Catholic Latin America. Five of the paintings offer vibrantly colorful praise to the Mother of God. The most introspective and intimate of these artworks, an eighteenth century Peruvian canvas entitled “The Soul of the Virgin Mary,” provides a visual reflection upon the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the soul of Mary as the Temple of the Holy Spirit par excellence. As the Christ Child rests peacefully in her arms, Our Lady gazes heavenward, lost in contemplation, with the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove hovering within her. Beneath, two angels hold a cartouche that places upon the lips of the Blessed Virgin the opening words in Latin of Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; / and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Psalm 103: 1). But the unknown artist has also put words on the lips of the believer who looks upon this image, words that form an outer halo round about the head of Mary: “Through Mary, with Mary and in Mary,” a perfect expression of the spirituality of Marian consecration.
During her life on earth, Our Lady embraced a largely hidden existence during the public ministry of her Divine Son and even during her later years, as the Apostles set out to preach the Gospel following Pentecost Sunday. But over the two millennia since her Assumption, she has by no means remained hidden. From her place in Heaven, Our Lady has become a virtual missionary to the entire face of the earth, going wherever her children are, continually intervening in their daily lives through her very potent intercession. The four other Marian artworks in Gallery 757 testify to this Post-Assumption role of Mary in salvation history. Among these, a painting entitled “The Pilgrim of Quito” (ca. 1730-1740) seems to embody quite literally the concept of the Blessed Virgin roaming about for the salvation and sanctification of souls. Mounted upon a mule and clothed in a white dress and blue mantle brocaded with flowers, holding the Christ Child in her right arm, she and Our Lord are depicted as most definitely on the move, wearing plumed pilgrims’ hats as a monk of the Mercedarian Order leads the mule by its harness. The painting imaginatively commemorates the pilgrimage tour of a miraculous statue of Mary with the Christ Child that the Mercedarian friars brought with them on their journeys to preach missions in town after town across colonial Peru and beyond.
As for the painting of Our Lady clothed in gold, mentioned earlier, which first greets the visitor when turning into Gallery 757, the story behind this image is so amazing and inspiring that we will defer to our next “Restoring the Sacred” essay the narration of its history and meaning, along with the stories of the other artworks of Gallery 757.

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