Thursday, 25 February 2016

The intercession of saints

When we pray to our favourite saints for help and guidance, we understand that we are asking them to intercede for us - to take our prayers directly to God in Heaven. Our Lady is of course the principal intercessor, but all the saints can perform this beautiful act for us.  

 How does it work in practice? Dante encapsulated the medieval idea of the intercession of saints movingly at the beginning of the Inferno, when Our Lady summoned St Lucy, who in turn summoned Dante's beloved Beatrice, who summoned Virgil and appointed him to be Dante's guide. Here we can see it as a sort of divine chain of command - a series of messages and requests passed either up from Earth to Heaven, or in this case, down from Heaven to Earth. 

Beatrice summons Virgil. Engraving by Gustave Doré.

Rubens, the great Belgian artist of the Counter-Reformation, encapsulated the idea beautifully in a vast altarpiece painted for a Franciscan church in Ghent, which is now in the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Its title - The Intercession of Our Lady and St Francis to Avert Divine Wrath - describes well what we see. 

Peter Paul Rubens – ‘The Intercession of the Virgin and St Francis Averting Divine Wrath’ 
Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, 1630s.

Our Lord is very much the central figure. He emerges from dark storm clouds, His head surrounded by a fierce light, His red robes billowing like flames of fire, His expression a potent mixture of anger and sorrow. Like a second Zeus, the Saviour holds three thunderbolts high above His head, ready to strike the Earth and its sinful inhabitants with His divine wrath. 

Our Lady is a picture of tenderness by contrast. She reaches over towards her Son, touching His arm gently with her right hand. Her eyes are filled with tears and her face is pale. She indicates her bared breast, reminding the King of the Universe that it was she who nursed Him as a vulnerable infant, and that now she wishes him to have mercy. 

Jesus looks down towards the Earth, encircled by sin, represented by the serpent. He sees St Francis leaning over the world, protecting it with his stigmatised hands. St Francis gazes at Our Lord with holy fear and heartfelt, silent entreaty. Seeing his beloved saint and hearing the prayers of His mother, Our Lord’s anger is stilled. The thunderbolts remain motionless, and His left hand hovers over the Earth in a gesture of blessing. In the top right is a rainbow, darkened and partly obscured by the clouds. It serves to reassure us of God’s forgiveness. For now, at least, the world is safe.

When Rubens painted this altarpiece in the 1630s, it would have seemed a very powerful and consoling image, for at that time Europe was in turmoil. Less than half a century earlier, Germany and the Low Countries had witnessed the violence and destruction of Calvinist iconoclasts, who vandalized churches, monasteries and cathedrals and drove Catholics out of their homes and cities. Rubens himself was born in a small town in Germany, to which his parents had fled following the riots that raged through their native city of Antwerp.

A print showing the destruction in the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp - this was one of the central events of the Bildersturm, or 'statue storm' of iconoclastic fury that swept Germany and the Low Countries in the 16th century.

And at the time this painting was completed, the whole of Europe was engulfed in one of the most prolonged and destructive conflicts in history – the Thirty Years’ War. From 1618-48, famine and disease raged through the nations of Europe, and entire regions were destroyed in the fighting. Lawlessness abounded. Mercenaries looted towns and villages, setting fire to everything they could not steal.

The message of the painting – that Our Lady and St Francis can avert God’s wrath – would have been compelling to the worshippers at the Franciscan church in Ghent. It encouraged them in their fears and troubles to turn to Our Lady and St Francis in prayer. They could see clearly from this large, powerful image, the influence St Francis had in Heaven.

The intercession of saints is just as compelling to Catholics today, as we watch what is happening in the world. When we place our worries, fears, difficulties, needs and struggles into the hands of our favourite saints, and of Our Lady, we are confident that our prayers will directly reach Heaven. And we know, because Our Lady of Fatima has told us, that if we offer up daily prayer, sacrifices and penance in reparation for the sins by which God is so much offended, we can and will change the world.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting post Caroline.