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How One Man’s Conversion Renewed The Faith Of An Entire City

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By JAMES MONTI

The beauty of the house of God, often enough, has a story behind it, the story of a people’s love for God, a story of real men and women who have sought as best they could to give tangible expression to what thrives in the depths of their hearts, devoting to this endeavor sometimes a widow’s mite, sometimes untold riches.
There is a special intensity to the beauty of the house of God to be seen in many an “Old World” church of Spain, churches where the iconoclastic frenzy of modernism has not yet succeeded in destroying centuries of devotional religious art and architecture. What is particularly gratifying in reading about these artistic manifestations of “Golden Age” Spain is that in many cases a very personal story of religious fervor lies behind them and has been preserved for posterity. And it is sometimes a soul’s very private encounter with the judgment of God that has set in motion great projects of faith, hope, and love.
It was Corpus Christi Day of 1600. As the people of Seville gathered for the city’s spectacular Eucharistic procession, genuine piety mingled with mundane frivolity, the latter, however, tempered by the travails of a plague that had been besetting Andalucía.
A 27-year-old cleric named Mateo Vazquez de Leca, an archdeacon of the cathedral, had arrayed himself in extravagant splendor for the festivities, not with fittingly magnificent sacred vestments for the greater glory of God, but rather with ostentatious finery for his own glory as the privileged heir of a family fortune fit for a king. Whatever had motivated him to enter the clerical state, it certainly did not appear that the pursuit of holiness and the salvation of souls ranked high on his list of priorities.
Having watched the procession from the “reviewing stand” of the cathedral’s front steps, Mateo was still at the church as dusk was descending upon the city when a woman approached him and motioned that she wanted to see him. The woman had so totally veiled her face that Mateo could see only one of her eyes.
Curious as to what the woman might want, he went with her as she led him into the Capilla Real, the Royal Chapel, what was then the newest part of the cathedral complex, completed less than 20 years earlier as a new home for one of Seville’s greatest treasures, the “Virgin of the Kings,” a fabric-clothed statue of the Madonna dating from the thirteenth century and said by some to have been a gift to Spain from the French king St. Louis IX.
Growing uneasy as to who this stranger could be, Mateo asked her to unveil her face. When she did so, Mateo found himself face to face with a skeleton, the woman a specter of death.
At once, Mateo rushed out of the chapel in terror, exclaiming repeatedly, “Eternity! Eternity!” After hurrying back to his home nearby and exchanging his rich attire for the simple garb of his servant, he headed out again to see a priest, Fr. Hernando de Mata. The counsel Mateo received was direct and blunt: This rich young man had to renounce his life of self-indulgence and devote his wealth to the service of God and neighbor.
Mateo lost no time in acting upon the priest’s words. Quickly he arranged an auction of his prized possessions, a fitting first step in the preparations for his Ordination to the priesthood, which came in 1602. He was to say his first Mass in the cathedral’s Royal Chapel, the very chapel where two years earlier death in a mysterious guise had looked him in the eye.
Fr. Vasquez was determined no longer to avert his eyes from the penetrating gaze of the Savior who had summoned him to change his life. He commissioned one of Spain’s finest sculptors, Juan Martinez Montanes (+1649), to make for him a six-foot polychrome wood figure of Christ dying on the cross.
Fr. Vasquez also contracted the painter Francisco Pacheco (+1644) to color the sculpture. Fr. Vasquez gave Martinez Montanes very specific instructions about how the crucifix was to be designed — the eyes were to be open, and turned downward in such a way that as Fr. Vasquez knelt at the foot of the cross the eyes would look directly down upon him:
“The Lord Christ crucified is to be alive, before having expired, with the head inclined over the right side gazing upon whatever person is praying at His feet, as if Christ Himself were speaking to him, and as if complaining that what He is suffering is for the one who is praying. And so the eyes and face ought to have some severity, with the eyes totally open” (agreement of Mateo Vasquez de Leca with Juan Martinez Montanes for the making of a crucifix of sculpture, Seville, April 5, 1603, translated from Joaquin Hazanas y la Rua, Vazquez de Leca: 1573-1649, Seville, Sobrinos de Izquierdo, 1918, p. 237).
What Martinez Montanes and Pacheco achieved in fulfilling Fr. Vasquez’s commission has long been recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of polychrome wood ever made, a work of compelling realism and power. For eight years the crucifix nourished Fr. Vasquez’s soul in the privacy of his personal oratory until he decided to donate this treasure to Seville’s Carthusian monastery of Santa Maria de las Cuevas. Two centuries later, in 1835, as Spain was suffering under an anticlerical regime that dissolved the nation’s religious houses, including Santa Maria de las Cuevas, Martinez Montanes’ masterpiece, known as the Christ of Clemency, was given a new and lasting home where multitudes could see it, within the walls of the great church that had been the spiritual center of Fr. Vasquez’s life, the cathedral of Seville.
Fr. Vasquez’s prayer life was by no means confined to his oratory. In 1611 he obtained permission to build a private tunnel from his home to the neighboring church of the Santa Marta Hospital. His donation of the crucifix to the Carthusians in 1614 coincided with the beginning of a new phase in his reformed life. While he had renounced the folly of arraying himself in luxury, he was filled with zeal to render the house of God as glorious as possible.
In 1613 Fr. Vasquez committed himself to underwriting in perpetuity Seville’s annual Corpus Christi rites and festivities. This included the provision of magnificent adornments for the high altar so as to surround the Blessed Sacrament with a blaze of glory, enshrined in a jewel-studded gold monstrance, with everything from rich tapestries to four hundred candles across a carpeted sanctuary strewn with roses.
It was also in 1613 that the city of Seville was jolted by a provocative sermon from a Dominican preacher who in propounding his order’s opposition to the not-yet undefined doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (not defined until 1854) brashly declared that the Mother of God was just as much tainted by original sin as Martin Luther.
With Seville a fervent stronghold of belief in the Immaculate Conception, the friar’s comment was not going to go unanswered. Among those most intensely stirred into action was Fr. Vazquez. For to his passionate love for God was joined an ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin and a burning zeal to champion her glory and her prerogatives, most especially her Immaculate Conception.
Collaborating with a fellow priest, Fr. Bernardo de Toro, who was a talented musician, and the layman Miguel Cid, a tailor with a knack for songwriting, Fr. Vasquez printed at his own expense four thousand copies of a song composed in praise of the Immaculate Conception by Cid and Fr. de Toro. The song was distributed far and wide, and in 1615 Seville was the setting for one of the largest Marian rallies in history, in which two hundred thousand people filled the streets to sing together this song of Mary’s sinlessness.
Determined to do all he could to champion the Blessed Virgin’s glory, Fr. Vasquez, after procuring the support of the Spanish king Philip III, set out for Rome in 1616 with Fr. de Toro to plead for a papal declaration in favor of the Immaculate Conception. In 1617 they succeeded in obtaining from Pope Paul V a decree forbidding public denials of the Immaculate Conception. Fr. Vasquez remained in Rome for eight years in the hope of furthering even more the cause of this doctrine before returning to Seville in 1624.

Procession To End The Plague

Again in his native city, Fr. Vasquez turned his attention once more to spending his inheritance upon the beautification of sacred worship, this time with a particular focus upon visually robing the Mother of God with the glory he had sought for her in Rome.
Spain had a longstanding and widespread custom of producing religious statues that were clothed in real fabrics, the figures of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints adorned with richly brocaded garments — the practice can best be understood as stemming from the Catholic tradition of veiling what is sacred. In continuity with this Spanish legacy, Fr. Vasquez commissioned in 1637 the making of a new brocaded and gold-embroidered gown and robe for the adornment of “the Virgin of the Kings,” the thirteenth-century statue of our Lady cradling the Christ Child on her lap that to this day is enthroned over the altar of Seville Cathedral’s Royal Chapel, the scene of Fr. Vasquez’s dramatic conversion.
According to Fr. Vasquez’s instructions in making the donation, these new adornments were to be reserved for occasions when the statue was carried in procession out of the cathedral and through the city streets, including occasions when the Holy Virgin’s intercession was sought for special needs, such as the plague.
Over the years that followed, Fr. Vasquez made further donations for the veneration of the Virgin of the Kings, including a lavish new altarpiece to give the statue of our Lady an even more prominent setting. In 1649, the plague that a half-century earlier had beset Seville at the time of Fr. Vasquez’s conversion returned with a vengeance. Among those it claimed was the great sculptor of Fr. Vasquez’s beloved Christ of Clemency, Juan Martinez Montanes, and on June 11, Fr. Vasquez himself.
Two weeks after his death, there was a procession through the cathedral with the “Virgin of the Kings” to plead for an end to the plague, the very sort of procession for which Fr. Vasquez had adorned her. Not long afterward, Seville’s plague came to an end.
[Postscript: This account is based largely upon the findings of Amanda Wunder in her inspiring study of Fr. Mateo Vasquez de Leca presented in her 2017 monograph, Baroque Spain: Sacred Art in a Century of Crisis, Penn University State Press, pp. 21-44.]

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