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Legends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art online

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works of art.

St. Benedict, patriarch and founder. In the re-
ligious edifices of the Benedictines, properly so called,
which acknowledge the convent of Monte Cassino as
the parent institution, — as for instance in St. Giustina
at Padua, San Severo at Naples, Saint Maur and Mar-


mouticr in France, San Michele-in-Bosco at Bologna,
and all the Benedictine foundations in England, — St.
Benedict is to be represented in the black habit ; but
wheu he figures as the Patriarch of the Reformed Or-
ders who adopted the white habit, as the Camaldolesi,
the Cistercians, the Carthusians, he is represented in the
white habit, as in many pictures of the Tuscan school.
This is a point to be kept in remembrance, or we shall
be likely to confuse both names and characters.

The black habit is given to

St. Scholastica, the sister of St. Benedict, and to his
immediate disciples, St. Maurus, St. Placidus, and St.
Flavia ;

To St. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany ;
St. Bennet, Bishop of Durham ;
St. Benedict of Anian ;
St. Dunstan of Canterbury ;
St. Walpurgis of Eichstadt ;
St. Giles of Languetloe ;
St. Ildefonso of Toledo ;
St. Bavon of Ghent ;
and in general to all the early Benedictines who lived
previous to the institution of the Camaldolesi in 1020.

St. Komualdo and the monks of Camaldoli wear the
white habit.

St. John Gualberto and the monks of Vallombrosa
wear the pale gray, or ash-colored habit. These occur
in the foundations of their respective orders, and chiefly
in Florentine art.

St. Peter of Clugny and the Cluniacs ought to wear
the black habit.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians wear
the white habit, with variations of form which will be
pointed out hereafter.

St. Bruno and the Carthusians also wear the white
habit. It must be remembered that St. Bruno is not
met with in any works of art before the sixteenth cen-
tury, rarely before the seventeenth ; while saint Ber-
nard, who figures early as a canonized saint and as one



of the great lights of the Catholic Church, occurs per-
petually iu Italian pictures, -with his ample white robes,
his pen, and his book ; and not merely in the groups
of his own Order, but in combination with St. Francis,
St. Dominick, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other person-
ages of remarkable authority and sanctity. There are
a few instances in early German art of St. Bernard at-
tired in the black Benedictine habit, which I shall no-
tice in their proper place.

The Olivetani, a branch of the Benedictine Order
founded by St. Bernardo Ptolomeij also wear the white

Having thus introduced the Benedictine saints gen-
erally, we proceed to call them up individually, and bid
them stand before us, each " in his habit as he lived,"
or as poetry has interpreted and art translated into form
the memories and traditions of men. And first appears
old father Benedict — well named ! — for surely he was


St. Benedict.

Ital. San Benedetto. Fr. Saint Benolt. Spa. San Benito.
Founder, patriarch, and first abbot of the Order. March 21,

Habit and Attributes. — In the original rule of St. Benedict,
the color of the habit was not specified. He and his disciples wore
black, as all the monks had done up to that time ; but in the pic-
tures painted for the reformed Benedictines, St. Benedict wears
the white habit.

The proper and most usual attributes are, 1. The Rod for sprink-
ling holy water •. 2. The Mitre and pastoral staff as abbot : 3. The
Raven •, sometimes with a loaf of bread in its beak : 4. A pitcher
or a broken glass, or cup containing wine : 5. A thorn-bush : 6.
A broken sieve.

St. Benedict was born of a noble family in the
little town of Norcia, in the Duchy of Spoleto, about


the year 480. He was sent to Rome to study literature
and science, and made so much progress as to give
great hopes that he was destined to rise to distinction as
a pleader ; but, while yet a boy, he appears to have
been deeply disgusted by the profligate manners of the
youths who were his fellow-students, and the evil ex-
ample around him, instead of acting as an allurement,
threw him into the opposite extreme. At this period
the opinions of St. Jerome and St. Augustine, with re-
gard to the efficacy of solitude and penance, were still
prevalent throughout the West : young Benedict's hor-
ror of the vicious lives of those around him, together
with the influence of that religious enthusiasm which
was the spirit of the age, drove him into a hermitage
at the boyish age of fifteen.

On leaving Rome, he was followed by his nurse, who
had brought him up from infancy, and loved him with
extreme tenderness. This good Avoman, doubtful, per-
haps, whether her young charge was out of his wits or
inspired, waited on his steps, tended him with a moth-
er's care, begged for him, and prepared the small por-
tion of food which she could prevail upon him to take.
But while thus sustained and comforted, Benedict did
not believe his penance entire or effective ; he secretly
fled from his nurse, and concealed himself among the
rocks of Subiaco, a wilderness about forty miles from
Rome. He met there a hermit, whose name was Ro-
mano, to whom he confided his pious aspirations ; and
then took refuge in a cavern (// sagro Speco), where he
lived for three years unknown to his family and to the
world, and supplied with food by the hermit ; this food
consisted merely of bread and water, which Romano
abstracted from his own scanty fare.

In this solitary life, Benedict underwent many temp-
tations ; and he relates, that on one occasion, the recol-
lection of a beautiful woman whom he had seen at
Rome, took such possession of his imagination as al-
most to overpower his virtue, so that he was on the
point of rushing from his solitude to seek that face and


form which haunted his morbid fancy and disturbed
his dreams. He felt, however, or he believed, for such
was the persuasion of the time, that this assault upon
his constancy could only come from the enemy of man-
kind. In a crisis of these distracted desires, he rushed
from his cave, and flung himself into a thicket of briers
and nettles, in which he rolled himself until the blood
flowed. Thereupon the fiends left him, and he was
never again assailed by the same temptation. They
show in the garden of the monastery at Subiaco the
rose-bushes which have been propagated from the very
briers consecrated by this poetical legend.

The fame of the young saint now extended through
all the country around ; the shepherds and the poor
villagers brought their sick to his cavern to be healed ;
others begged his prayers ; they contended with each
other who should supply the humble portion of food
which he required ; and a neighboring society of her-
mits sent to request that he would place himself at their
head. He, knowing something of the morals and
manners of this community, refused at first ; and only
yielded upon great persuasion, and in the hope that he
might be able to reform the abuses which had been
introduced into this monastery. But when there, the
strictness of his life filled these perverted men with envy
and alarm ; and one of them attempted to poison him
in a cup of wine. Benedict, on the cup being presented
to him, blessed it as usual, making the sign of the
cross ; the cup instantly fell from the hands of the
traitor, was broken and its contents spilt on the ground.
(This is a scene often represented in the Benedictine
convents.) He, thereupon, rose up; and telling the
monks that they must provide themselves with another
superior, left them, and returned to his solitary cave at
Subiaco, where, to use the strong expression of St.
Gregory, he dwelt with himself; meaning thereby that he
did not allow his spirit to go beyond the bounds that he
had assigned to it, keeping it always in presence of his
conscience and his God.


But now Subiaco could no longer be styled a desert,
for it was crowded with the huts and the cells of those
whom the fame of his sanctity, his virtues, and his
miracles had gathered around him. At length, in or-
der to introduce some kind of discipline and order into
this community, he directed them to construct twelve
monasteries, in each of which he placed twelve disciples
with a superior over them. Mauy had come from
Rome and from other cities ; and, amongst others, came
two Roman senators, Anicius and Tertullus, men of
high rank, bringing to him their sons, Maurus and Pla-
cidus, with an earnest request that he would educate
them in the way of salvation. Maurus was at this
time a boy of about eleven or twelve years old, and
Placidus a child not more than five. Benedict took
them under his peculiar care, and his community con-
tinued for several years to increase in number and
celebrity, in brotherly charity, and in holiness of life.
But of course the enemy of mankind could not long
endure a state of things so inimical to his power : he
instigated a certain priest, whose name was Florentius,
and who was enraged by seeing his disciples and follow-
ers attracted by the superior virtue and humility of St.
Benedict, to endeavor to blacken his reputation and
even to attempt his life by means of a poisoned loaf;
and this not availing, Florentius introduced into one of
the monasteries seven young women, in order to cor-
rupt the chastity of his monks. Benedict, whom we
have always seen much more inclined to fly from evil
than to resist it, departed from Subiaco ; but scarcely
had he left the place, when his disciple Maurus sent a
messenger to tell him that his enemy Florentius had
been crushed by the fall of a gallery of his house.
Benedict, far from rejoicing, wept for the fate of his
adversary, and imposed a severe penance on Maurus
for an expression of triumph at the judgment that had
overtaken their enemy.

Paganism was not yet so completely banished from
Italy, but that there existed iu some of the solitary



places, temples and priests and worshippers of the false
gods. It happened (and the ease is not without paral-
lel in our own times) that while the bishops of Rome
were occupied in extending the power of the Church,
and preaching Christianity in far distant nations, a nest
of idolaters existed within a few miles of the capital of
Christendom. In a consecrated grove, near the sum-
mit of Monte Cassino, stood a temple of Apollo, where
the god, or, as he was then regarded, the demon, was
still worshipped with unholy rites.

Benedict had heard of this abomination : he repaired,
therefore, to the neighborhood of Monte Cassino; he
preached the kingdom of Christ to these deluded people ;
converted them by his eloquence and his miracles, and
at length persuaded them to break the statue, throw
down the altar, and burn up their consecrated grove.
And on the spot he built two chapels, in honor of two
saints whom he regarded as models, — the one of the
contemplative, the other of the active religious life :
St. John the Baptist and St. Martin of Tours.

Then, higher up the summit of the mountain, he laid
the foundation of that celebrated monastery, which has
since been regarded as the Parent Institution of his Or-
der. Hence was promulgated the famous Rule which
became, from that time forth, the general law of the
monks of Western Europe, and which gave to mona-
chism its definite form. The rule given to the ceno-
bites of the East — and which, according to an old
tradition, had been revealed to St. Pachomius by an
angel — comprised the three vows of poverty, of chas-
tity, and of obedience. To these Benedict added two
other obligations ; the first was manual labor, — those
who entered his community were obliged to labor with
their hands seven hours in the day ; secondly, the vows
were perpetual ; but he ordained that these perpetual
vows should be preceded by a novitiate of a year, dur-
ing which the entire code was read repeatedly from
beginning to end, and at the conclusion the reader said,
in an emphatic voice, " This is the law under which



thou art to live and to strive for salvation : if thou
canst observe it, enter ; if thou canst not, go in peace,
— thou art free." But the vows once taken were
irrevocable, and the punishment for breaking them
was most severe. On the whole, however, and setting
apart that which belonged to the superstition of the
time, the Rule given by St. Benedict to his Order was
humane, moderate, wise, and eminently Christian in

Towards the close of his long life Benedict was con-
soled for many troubles by the arrival of his sister Scho-
lastica, who had already devoted herself to a religious
life, and now took up her residence in a retired cell about
a league and a half from his convent. Very little is
known of Scholastica, except that she emulated her
brother's piety and self-denial ; and although it is not
said that she took any vows, she is generally considered
as the first Benedictine nun. When she followed her
brother to Monte Cassino, she drew around her there a
small community of pious women ; but nothing more
is recorded of her, except that he used to visit her once
a year. On one occasion, when they had been con-
versing together on spiritual matters till rather late in
the evening, Benedict rose to depart ; his sister entreated
him to remain a little longer, but he refused : Scho-
lastica then, bending her head over her clasped hands,
prayed that Heaven would interfere and render it im-
possible for her brother to leave her. Immediately
there came on such a furious tempest of rain, thunder,
and lightning, that Benedict was obliged to delay his
departure for some hours. As soon as the storm had
subsided, he took leave of his sister, and returned to the
monastery : it was a last meeting ; St. Scholastica died
two days afterwards, and St. Benedict, as he was pray-
ing in his cell, beheld the soul of his sister ascending to
heaven in the form of a dove. This incident is often
found in the pictures painted for the Benedictine nuns.

It would take volumes to relate all the actions and
miracles of St. Benedict, during the fourteen years that



• he presided over the Convent of Monte Cassino. In
the year 540 lie was visited by Totila, king of the Goths,
who cast himself prostrate at his feet, and entreated his
blessing. Benedict reproved him for the ravages and
the cruelties that he had committed in Italy, and it was
remarked that thenceforward the ferocious Goth showed
more humanity than heretofore.

Shortly after the visit of Totila, Benedict died of a
fever with which he had been seized in attending the
poor of the neighborhood. On the sixth day of his
illness, he ordered his grave to be dug, stood for a while
upon the edge of it supported by his disciples, contem-
plating in silence the narrow bed in which he was to be
laid ; then, desiring them to carry him to the foot of the
altar in the church, he received the last sacraments, and
expired, on the 21st of March, 543. Considering the
great reputation and sanctity of life of this extraordinary
man, we cannot be surprised that he should have been
the subject of a thousand inventions. The accomplished
ecclesiastics of his own Order who compiled the me-
moirs of his life reproach the legendary writers for ad-
mitting these improbable stories ; and remark with equal
candor and good sense,* " loin d'applaudir aux faux
zele de ces ecrivains, on doit les condamner comme des
personnes qui corrompent la verite de l'histoire ; et qui,
au lieu de faire honneur au Saint, le deshonorent, en
abusant de son nom pour debiter des fables, et se jouer
de la credulite' des simples."

Even before his death, that is, before the year 543,
institutions of the Order of St. Benedict were to be
found in every part of Christian Europe. Of his two
most famous disciples, the elder, St. Maurus, introduced
the Rule into France and founded the monastery of
Glanfeuil, since called St. Maure-sur-Loire ; and so
completely did this Rule supersede all others, that in
the ninth century when Charlemagne inquired whether
in the different parts of his empire there existed other
monks besides those of the Order of St. Benedict, none

* Mabillon.

5 2


could be found. St. Maurus died in his convent of
Glanfeuil.* (a. d. 584, Jan. 15.) St.»Placidus was
sent by his Superior into Sicily, where, according to
the tradition, he was joined by his young sister Flavia,
and two of his brothers. But within a few years after-
wards, and while Placidus himself was still in the bloom
of youth, the convent near Messina, in which he dwelt,
was attacked by certain pirates and barbarians. Pla-
cidus and his sister Flavia were dragged forth and
massacred, with thirty of their companions, in front of
the convent, on the 5th of October, about the year 540.
It is fair to add, that the martyrdom of St. Placidus
and St. Flavia is considered by the later Benedictine
writers as apocryphal.

Pictures of St. Benedict often perplex the observer,
because, as I have already shown, he was frequently
represented in early art wearing the white habit, whereas
the original habit of his Order was black. Where he
has the white habit, it is easy to confound him with St.
Bernard, St. Bruno, or St. Romualdo ; where he has
the black habit, he may be mistaken for St. Antony.
It is therefore necessary to attend particularly to some
characteristic attributes which serve to distinguish him.

In all pictures painted for those Benedictine churches
and edifices which depend on Monte Cassino and Su-
biaco, and in the single devotional effigies, St. Benedict
wears the black habit with a hood ; where he figures as

* St. Maur was introduced into England, and held in great
veneration by our Norman ancestors ; I believe it is generally
known that from this French saint is derived one of our greatest
English surnames, — Seymaur or Seymour, from Saint-Maur ; but
I should regret a return to the French appellation. Saint-Maur
is foreign, and interesting only as the name of a French monk ;
Seymour is English, and surrounded by all those historical associa-
tions which give the name its English claims to consideration, and
its charm to English ears.



patriarch of the reformed Benedictines of Clairvaux,
Citeaux, Camaldoli, or Vallombrosa, he wears the white
habit. He is sometimes beardless, or with little beard ;
but more frequently he has a long white beard. As
abbot of Monte Cassino, he has sometimes the pastoral
staff and mitre. He frequently carries an open book
on which is written the first words of his famous rule,
"Ausculte, Fili, Verba Magistri."

Like other saints who have resisted the attacks of
the demon, he carries the asperge, or rod used to
sprinkle holy water, here emblematical of the purity or
holiness by which he conquered. The thornbush is an
attribute which commemorates the means through which
he conquered. A pitcher of wine in his hand, or a
pitcher, or a broken cup standing on his book, expresses
the attempt to poison him in wine. The raven and a
loaf of bread, with a serpent creeping from it, expresses
the attempt to poison him in bread.

When he is grouped with his two disciples St. Mau-
rus and St. Placidus, they all wear the black habit ; or
St. Benedict appears as abbot, and the two disciples as
deacons, wearing the rich dalmatica over the black
tunic. St. Maurus has a book or a censer ; St. Placidus
bears his palm as martyr.

When a nun in a black habit is introduced into pic-
tures of St. Benedict, or stands alone with a lily in her
hand, and a dove at her feet or pressed to her bosom,
it represents St. Scholastica. It is common to find in
the Benedictine chui'ches, especially in Italy, devotional
figures of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica standing on
each side of the altar.

When, in the Benedictine groups, a fourth saint is
introduced, a female saint, young and beautiful, and
with the martyr palm and crown ; it is probably, if not
otherwise distinguished, St. Flavia, the martyred sister
of St. Placidus.

Every one who has visited the Vatican will recollect
the three beautiful little heads bv Perug-ino, stvled in
the catalogue li tre Santi. In the centre is St. Bene-


diet, with his black cowl over his head and long parted
beard, the book in one hand and the asperge in the
other. On one side, St. Placidus, young, and with a
mild, candid expression, black habit and shaven crown,
bears his palm. On the other side is St. Flavia,
crowned as martyr, holding her palm, and gazing up-
ward with a divine expression. These exquisite little
pictures were painted by Perugino, for the sacristy of
the church of the Benedictines at Perugia. There I
afterwards saw the other pictures which completed the
series, and which are not less beautiful ; St. Scholastica
and St. Maurus ; St. Ercolano and St. Costanzo, the
patrons of Perugia ; and Peter the Venerable, abbot of

In a composition by Benedetto Montagna, engraved
by himself, and exceedingly rare, he has represented his
patron saint standing in the centre with his crosier and
book. On the right hand, St. Scholastica holding a
book, and next to her, St. Giustina, the patroness of
Padua, with a sword in her bosom and holding a palm.
The engraving was executed at Padua, and the name
inscribed, otherwise I should have supposed this figure
to represent St. Flavia. On the other side of St. Bene-
dict are St. Maurus and St. Placidus.

By Paul Veronese: (PI. Pitti Pal.) St. Benedict
standing in the black habit between St. Maurus and St.
Placidus : lower down are five Benedictine nuns, St.
Scholastica being distinguished by her dove ; above, in
a glory, is the marriage of St. Catherine. This ar-
rangement leaves no doubt that the picture was painted
for a convent of Benedictine nuns, " Spose di C/tristo."

* Peter the Venerable, abbot of Clugni, was not canonized, but
he was a Beato ; and I have met with him in one picture standing
as companion to St. Benedict, but unfortunately have no note of
the place or the painter. He is very interesting for his gentle spirit
as well as for his learning ; and worthy of commemoration for
the asylum he afforded to Abelard when persecuted by St. Bernard,
and for the beautiful letter which he wrote to Heloise on the death
of her husband.


There are one or two examples in which St. Bene-
dict appears with St. Maurus and St. Placidus repre-
sented as children, wearing the albe and kneeling at
his feet, or with censers in their hands.

. These remarks apply chiefly to Italian art. In the
early German school we find that the groups of Bene-
dictine worthies vary according to the locality. In the
place of St. Maurus, St. Placidus, St. Scholastica, we
have, perhaps, St. Boniface, St. Cunibert, St. Willibald,
St. Gertrude, or St. Ottilia. In the early memorials
of English ecclesiastical art, the companions of St. Ben-
edict are St. Gregory and St. Austin of Canterbury, or
St. Dunstan and St. Cuthbert. In the lives of these
saints I shall have occasion to point out the motive and
propriety of these variations ; but here I will not antici-

Among the pictures of St. Benedict as Patriarch,
should be mentioned those which represent him as
seated on a throne ; and around him a great number
of figures, male and female, wearing the habits of the
different Orders, religious and military, which were
founded on his Rule. There is a grand picture of this
subject in the Convent of San Martino near Palermo,
by Novelli, the best of the late Sicilian painters.

Separate subjects from the life of St. Benedict, in
general representing some of his most famous actions
or miracles, are of course frequently found in the con-
vents of his Order.

1. He stands on the step leading to the door of his
convent at Monte Cassino ; a man, kneeling at his feet,
places a sick child before him, which is healed by the
prayer of the saint ; as in a picture by Subleyras
(Louvre), (where St. Benedict wears the white habit) ;
another by Silvestre ; a third by Rubens ; and in a
very fine Velasquez. (Darmstadt Gal.)

2. St. Benedict, in the monastery of Monte Cassino,
gives the Rule to his Order. (Simone Avanzi. Bo-
logna Gal., a. d. 1370.)


3. St. Benedict, when at Subiaco, is haunted by the
recollection of a beautiful woman he had seen at Rome.

Online LibraryMrs. (Anna) JamesonLegends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art → online text (page 5 of 41)