Mrs. (Anna) Jameson.

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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thee, bound in leathern thongs, to a new master ; but,
O my brother ! I beseech thee remember not my sin
against thee, and grant me this prayer ! Bind me now
hand and foot ; beat me with stripes ; shave my head,
and east me into prison : make me suffer all I inflicted
on thee, and then perchance the Lord will have mercy
and forget my great sin that I have committed against
him and against thee ! " And the bondman, hearing
these words, was astonished, and he refused to lay
hands on the Man of God, his former master ; but St.
Bavon insisted the more, and at last, after much en-
treaty and many arguments, he yielded ; and he took
the Man of God and bound him, and shaved his head,
and cast him into the public prison, where he remained
for a certain time, deploring day and night the crime


he had committed against his human and Christian

In this legend, as M. Guizot well observes, the ex-
aggeration of the details is of no importance ; even the
truth of the recital, as a mere matter of fact, is of little
consequence. The importance of the moral lies in this ;
that the story was penned in the seventh century ; that
it was related to the men of the seventh century, to
those who had incessantly before their eyes the evils,
the iniquities, the sufferings of slavery ; it was a protest
in the name of the religion of Christ against such a
state of things, and probably assisted in the great work
of the abolition of slavery, begun by Pope Gregory the
Great, in 604.

St. Giles.

Lat. Sanctus JEgidius. Ital. Sant' Egidio. Fr. Saint Giiles.
Sp. San Gil. Patron saint of the woodland. Patron saint of
Edinburgh ; of Juliers in Flanders. Sept. 1, 725. Attribute ;
— a wounded hind.

" Ane Hynde set up beside Sanct Geill."

Sir David Lindsay.

This renowned saint is one of those whose celebrity
bears no proportion whatever to his real importance.
I shall give his legend in a few words. He was an
Athenian of royal blood, and appears to have been a
saint by nature ; for one day on going into the church,
he found a poor sick man extended upon the pave-
ment ; St. Giles thereupon took off his mantle and
spread it over him, when the man was immediately
healed. This and other miracles having attracted the
veneration of the people, St. Giles fled from his country
and turned hermit ; he wandered from one solitude to
another until he came to a retired wilderness, near the
mouth of the Rhone, about twelve miles to the south
of Nismes. Here he dwelt in a cave, by the side of a


clear spring, living upon the herbs and fruits of the
forest, and upon the milk of a hind, which had taken
up its abode with him. Now it came to pass that the
king of France (or, according to another legend, Wara-
ba, king of the Goths) was hunting in the neighborhood,
and the hind, pursued by the dogs, fled to the cavern
of the saint, and took refuge in his arms ; the hunters
let fly an arrow, and, following on the track, were sur-
prised to find a venerable old man, seated there with
the hind in his arms, which the arrow had pierced
through his hand. Thereupon the king and his follow-
ers, perceiving that it was a holy man, prostrated them-
selves before him, and entreated forgiveness.

The saint, resisting all the attempts of the king to
withdraw him from his solitude, died in his cave. But
the place becoming sanctified by the extreme veneration
which the people bore to his memory, there arose on the
spot a magnificent monastery, and around it a populous
city bearing his name and giving the same title to the
Counts of Lower Languedoc, who were styled Comtes
de Saint-Gilles.

The abbey of St. Giles was one of the greatest of
the Benedictine communities, and the abbots were
powerful temporal as well as spiritual lords. Of the
two splendid churches which existed here, one has
been utterly destroyed, the other remains one of the
most remarkable monuments of the middle ages now
existing in France. It was built in the eleventh cen-
tury ; the portico is considered as the most perfect type
of the Byzantine style on this side of the Alps, and the
whole of the exterior of the church is described as one
mass of bas-reliefs. In the interior, among other curi-
osities of antique art, must be mentioned an extraordi-
nary winding staircase of stone, the construction of
which is considered a miracle of skill.*

St. Giles has been especially venerated in England

* This staircase, called in the country " La vis de Saint Gilles,"
was formerly " le but des pelerinages de tous les compagnons tail-
leurs de pierre. "— Voyages au Midi de la France.


and Scotland. In 1117, Matilda, wife of Henry I.,
founded an hospital for lepers outside the city of Lon-
don, which she dedicated to St. Giles, and which has
since given its name to an extensive parish. The parish
church of Edinburgh existed under the invocation of St.
Giles as early as 1359. And still, in spite of the Refor-
mation, this popular saint is retained in our calendar.

He is represented as an aged man with a long white
beard, and a hind pierced by an arrow is either in his
arms or at his feet. Sometimes the arrow is in his own
bosom, and the hind is fawning on him. In pictures his
habit is usually white, because such pictures date sub-
sequently to the period when the abbey of St. Giles be-
came the property of the reformed Benedictines, who
had adopted the white habit.

Representations of St. Giles are seldom met with in
Italy, but frequently in early French and German art.*

A very influential character of his time was St. Bex-
edict or Asian, better known by his French name,
Saint Benoit d'Aniane.

He 'was a Goth by race, a native of Maguelonne in
Lansruedoc ; and his name before he assumed that of
Benedict is not known. His father sent him in his
childhood to the court of king Pepin-le-Bref, where he
was first page and then cupbearer, and distinguished
himself as a military commander under Charlemagne.
In the year 774 we find him a monk in the abbey of
St. Seine, having been converted to a religious life by
a narrow escape from drowning. Having vainly en-
deavored to reform the monks of his monastery, we next

* " St. Giles standing in a transport of religious ecstasy before
Pope Gregory IX.," painted by Murillo for the Franciscan convent
at Seville, is cited by Mr. Sterling (Artists of Spain, p. 836) as
" St. Giles, the patron of the Greenwood," but it represents a very
different person ; a St. Giles, more poperly il Beato Egidio, who
was one of the early followers of St. Francis of Assisi, and conse-
quently wears the habit and cord of St. Francis. The picture is
now in England.


find him. a solitary hermit on the banks of the Anian,
which flowed through the district in which he was born.
A number of companions congregated around him, and
he was enabled to construct an extensive monastery,
into which he introduced the Benedictine rule in all its
pristine severity.

From Languedoc he was called by Louis-le-Dehon-
naire to Aix-la-Chapelle, where he assisted in the foun-
dation of a large monastery near that city, the capital of
Charlemagne and his successors ; and we find him after-
wards presiding in a council held especially for the re-
form of the monastic orders. At this time was pro-
mulgated a commentary upon the original Kule, which
M. Guizot characterizes as substituting narrow and ser-
vile forms for the large and enlightened spirit of the
first founder.

As this Saint Benoit d'Aniane had a great reputation
for sanctity, effigies of him probably existed, and if not
destroyed, may still exist, in the churches of Languedoc.
I have met with but one Italian picture in which he is
represented. It commemorates the great incident of
his life, — the conversion of St. William of .Aquitaine.
This William was Duke of Aquitaine in the time of
Charlemagne, and a famous warrior and statesman of
that day. Among other exploits, he obtained a signal
victory over the Saracens, who about that period were
ravaging the South of France. Converted by the
preaching and admonition of St. Benedict d'Aniane, he
withdrew from the world, and became a professed monk
in a monastery which he had himself erected : he re-
ceived the habit from the hands of St. Benoit, and died
a few years afterwards in the odor of sanctity.

St. William of Aquitaine receiving the monastic habit
from St. Benedict, is the subject of a picture by Guer-
cino, now in the Academy at Bologna. The abbot is
seated on a throne, and St. William, who kneels before
him, is in the act of laying aside his helmet and cui-

Separate pictures of this St. William of Aquitaine,


whose conversion is regarded as a great honor to the
Benedictines, are often found in the edifices of the Or-
der. In general he is represented in armor, or in a
monk's habit, with his armor and ducal crown lying
beside him. There is a fine half-length of St. William,
attributed to Giorgione, at Hampton Court.

A curious old print in the British Museum represents
St. William kneeling, wearing a magnificent helmet ;
his breviary on the ground, while his clasped hands em-
brace a standard : behind him is a shield, on which are
three fleur-de-lys and three crescents ; the latter, I sup-
pose, in allusion to his victories over the Saracens.

There is a print after Lanfranco, representing the
death of St. William : the blessed Virgin herself brings
the holy water, a female saint dips her fingers into it,
and an angel sustains him ; in the background the de-
mons flee in consternation. He died in 812 or 813 ;
and St. Benedict d'Aniane in 821.

St. Nilus of Grotta Ferrata.
Ital. San Nilo. Fr. Saint Nil le jeune. Sept. 26, 1002.

The name of this obscure Greek monk is connected
in a very interesting manner with the history of art, and
his story is mixed up with -some of the most striking
episodes in the history of mediaeval Rome ; but among
the thousauds of travellers, artists, students, and critics
who have thronged his beautiful chapel at Grotta Fer-
rata during the last two hundred years, how few have
connected its pictured glories there with the deep hu-
man interests of which they are the record and the
monument !

St. Nilus was a Greek of Calabria, born near Taren-
tum. He was a man of a gentle and melancholy
temperament, who, after many years of an active exist-
ence, and the loss of a wife whom he had tenderly
loved, embraced in his old age a religious life : he became


a monk of the Greek Order of St. Basil, and, through
Ins virtues and his intellectual superiority, in a few
years he was placed at the head of his community. An
invasion of the Saracens drove him from the East to
the West of Italy. He fled to Capua, and there took
refuge in the Benedictine convent of Monte Cassino,
where he was received with all reverence and honor.
There he composed Greek hymns in honor of St. Bene-
•dict, and the abbot assigned to him and his fugitive
brotherhood a small convent dependent on Monte Cas-

Pandolfo, prince of Capua, left a widow, Aloare,
who at this time governed in right of her two sons.
She had instigated these youths to murder their cousin,
a powerful and virtuous noble ; and now, tortured by
remorse, and fearful for the consequences to them, she
sent for St. Nilus, confessed her crime, and entreated
absolution : he refused to give it, but upon condition
that she should yield up one of her sons to the family
of the murdered man, to be dealt with as they should
think fit, as the only real expiation she could make.
The guilty mother wept, and could not resolve on the
sacrifice. Nilus then, with all the severity and dignity
of a prophet, denounced her sin as unforgiven, and told
her that the expiation she had refused of her own free
■will would erelong be exacted from her. The princess,
terrified, entreated him to intercede for her, and en-
deavored to force upon him a sum of money. Nilus
flung the gold upon the earth, and, turning from her,
shut himself up in his cell. Shortly afterwards the
younger of the two princes assassinated his brother in a
church, and for this sacrilegious fratricide he was him-
self put to death by order of Hugh Capet, king of

Nilus then quitted the territory of Capua (a. d. 996),
and took up his residence at Borne, in the convent of
St. Alexis on the Avcntine, whither those who were
diseased in body and mind repaired to the good saint
for help and solace ; and many were the miracles and


cures wrought by his intercession : among others, the
cure of a poor epileptic boy.

Rome was at this time distracted by factions : the
authority of the emperors of the East had been long set
aside ; that of tbe emperors of the West was not yet es-
tablished. The famous Crescentius had been declared
consul, and for a time, under his wise and firm admin-
istration, liberty, order, and peace reigned in the city.
John XVI., a Greek, by birth, and an intimate friend of
St. Nilus, was then pope. On a sudden, the young
emperor, Otho III., appeared in Italy at the head of
his barbarous legions ; declared a relation of his own
pope, under the name of Gregory V. ; put out the eyes
of the anti-pope John, and besieged Crescentius in the
castle of St. Angelo. After a short resistance, Crescen-
tius yielded on honorable terms ; but had no sooner
given up the fortress, than the faithless emperor ordered
him to be seized, flung headlong from the walls, and
his wife Stephanie was abandoned to the outrages of the

In the midst of these horrors, Otho and the new pope
endeavored to conciliate Nilus, whose virtues and whose
reputation for sanctity had given him great power over
the people : but the old man rebuked them both as en-
emies of God. He wrote to the emperor a letter of re-
proach, concluding with these words : " Because ye have
broken faith, and because ye have had no mercy for the
vanquished, nor compassion for those who had no longer
the power to injure or resist, know that God will avenge
the cause of the oppressed, and ye shall both seek mercy
and shall not find it." Having despatched this letter,
lie shook the dust from his feet, and departed the same
ni<rht from Rome. He took refuge first in a cell near
Gaeta, and afterwards in a solitary cavern near Fras-
cati, called the Crypto,, or Grotta Ferrata.

Within two years Pope Gregory died in some mis-
erable manner, and Otho, terrified by remorse and the
denunciations of St. Nilus, undertook a pilgrimage
to Monte Galgano. On his return he paid a visit to


Nilus in his hermitage at Frascati, and, falling on his
knees, besought the prayers and intercession of the saint.
He offered to erect, instead of his poor oratory, a mag-
nificent convent with an endowment of lands. Nilus
refused his gifts. The emperor, rising from his knees,
entreated the holy man to ask some boon before they
parted, promising that, whatever it might be, he would
grant it. Nilus, stretching forth his hand, laid it on the
jewelled cuirass of the emperor, and said, with deep
solemnity, " I ask of thee but this, that thou wouldst
make reparation for thy crimes before God, and save
thine own soul ! " Otho returned to Eome, where,
within a few weeks afterwards, the people rose against
him, obliged him to fly ignominiously, and he died, at
the early age of twenty-six, poisoned by the widow of
Crescentius. In the same year (Jan. 1002) St. Nilus
died, full of years and honors, after having required of
the brotherhood that they would bury him immediately,
and keep the place of his interment secret from the
people. This he did in the fear that undue honors
would be paid to his remains, the passion for sanctified
relics being then at its height.

The gifts which St. Nilus had refused were accepted
by his friend and disciple Bartolomeo ; and over the
cavern near Frascati arose the magnificent castellated
convent and church of San Basilio of Grotta Ferrata.
In memory of St. Nilus, who is considered as their
founder, the rule followed by the monks is that of St.
Basil, and mass is even now celebrated every day in the
Greek language ; but they consider their convent as a
dependency of Monte Cassino, and wear the Benedic-
tine habit.

This community was long celebrated for the learning
of the monks, and for the possession of the finest Greek
library in all Italy ; now, I believe, incorporated with
that of the Vatican. The Cardinal-Abbot Giuliano da
Rovere, afterwards the warlike Julius II., the patron of
Michael Angelo, converted the convent into a fortress ;
and in one of the rooms died Cardinal Cousalvi.


But we must leave the historical associations con-
nected with this fine monastery, for our business is with
those of art.

About the year 1610, when Cardinal Odoardo Far-
nese was abbot of Grotta Ferrata, he undertook to re-
build a defaced and ruined chapel, which had in very
ancient times been dedicated to those interesting. Greek
saints, St. Adrian, and his wife St. Natalia, whose story
has been already narrated. ( Legend* Art.) The chapel
was accordingly restored with great magnificence, re-
dedicated to St. Nilus and his companion St. Bartolo-
meo, who are regarded as the two first abbots ; and Do-
menichino, then in his twenty-eighth year, was employed
to represent on the wall some of the most striking inci-
dents connected with the foundation of the monastery.

The walls, in accordance with the architecture, are
divided into compartments varying in form and size.

In the first large compartment he has represented
the visit of Otho III. to St. Nilus ; a most dramatic
composition, consisting of a vast number of figures.
The emperor has just alighted from his charger, and
advances in an humble attitude to crave the benediction
of the saint. The accessories in this grand picture are
wonderful for splendor and variety, and painted with
consummate skill. The whole strikes us like a well
got-up scene. The action of a spirited horse, and the
two trumpeters behind, are among the most admired
parts of the picture. It has always been asserted that
these two trumpeters express, in the muscles of the face
and throat, the quality of the sounds they give forth.
This, when I read the description, appeared to me a
piece of fanciful exaggeration ; but it is literally true.
If painting cannot imitate the power of sound, it has
here suggested both its power and kind, so that we seem
to hear. Among the figures is that of a young page,
who holds the emperor's horse, and wears over his light,
flowing hair a blue cap with a plume of white feathers :
according to the tradition, this is the portrait of a beau-


tiful girl, with whom Domcnichino fell violently in love,
while he was employed on the frescos. Bellori tells us
that not only was the young painter rejected by the par-
ents of the damsel, but that when the picture was un-
covered and exhibited, and the face recognized as that
of the young girl he had loved, he was obliged to fly
from the vengeance of her relatives.

The* great composition on the opposite wall repre-
sents the building of the monastery after the death of
St. Nilus by his disciple and coadjutor St. Bartolomco.
The master builder or architect presents the plan,
which St. Bartolomeo examines through his spectacles.
A number of masons and workmen are busied in vari-
ous operations, and an antique sarcophagus, which was
discovered in digging the foundation, and is now built
into the wall of the church, is seen in one corner ; in
the background is represented one of the legends of the
locality. It is related that when the masons were rais-
ing a column, the ropes gave way, and the column
would have fallen on the heads of the assistants, had
not one of the monks, full of faith, sustained the col-
umn with his single strength.

One of the lesser compartments represents another
legend. The Madonna appears in a glorious vision to
St. Nilus and St. Bartolomeo in this very Grotta Fer-
rata, and presents to them a golden apple, in testimony
of her desire that a chapel should rise on this spot. The
golden apple was reverently buried in the foundation
of the belfry, as we now bury coins and medals when
laying the foundation of a public edifice.

Opposite is the fresco, which ranks as one of the fin-
est and most expressive of all Domenichino's compo-
sitions. A poor epileptic boy is brought to St. Nilus to
be healed ; the saint, after beseeching the divine favor,
dips his finger into the oil of a lamp burning before the
altar, and with it anoints the mouth of the boy, who
is instantlv relieved from his maladv. The incident is
simply and admirably told, and the action of the boy,
so painfully true, yet without distortion or exaggeration,



has been, and I think with reason, preferred to the epi-
leptic boy in Raphael's Transfiguration.

In a high narrow compartment Domenichino has
represented St. Nilus before a crucifix : the figure of
our Saviour extends the arm in benediction over the
kneeling saint, who seems to feel, rather than perceive,
the miracle. This also is beautiful.

St. Nilus having been a Greek monk, and the con-
vent connected with the Greek order, we have the Greek
Fathers in their proper habits, — venerable figures por-
trayed in niches round the cornice. The Greek saints,
St. Adrian and St. Natalia ; and the Roman saints, St.
Agnes, St. Cecilia, and St. Francesca, are painted in

A glance back at the history of St. Nilus and the
origin of the chapel will show how significant, how ap-
propriate, and how harmonious is this scheme of deco-
ration in all its parts. I know not if the credit of the
selection belongs to Domenichino ; but, in point of vi-
vacity of conception and brilliaut execution, he never
exceeded these frescos in any of his subsequent works,
and every visitor to Rome makes this famous chapel a
part of his pilgrimage. For this reason I have ventured
to enlarge on the details of an obscure story, which
the beauty of these productions has rendered important
and interesting.


HE introduction of the Order of St. Benedict
into England, which took place about fifty
years after the death of the founder, was an
important era in our history, — of far more
importance than the advent of a king or the change
of a dynasty. Many of the English Benedictines were,
as individual characters, so interesting and remarkable,
that I wish heartily they had remained to our time
conspicuous as subjects of art. We should have found
them so, had not the rapacity of Henry VIII. and
his minions, followed afterwards by the blind fanati-
cism of the Puritans, swept from the face of our
land almost every memorial, every effigy of these old
ecclesiastical worthies, which was either convertible
into money or within reach of the sacrilegious hand.
Of Henry and his motives we think only with disgust
and horror. The Puritans were at least religiously in
earnest ; and if we cannot sympathize with them, we
can understand their stern hatred of a faith, or rather a
form of faith, which had filled the world with the scan-
dal of its pernicious abuses, while the knowledge or the
comprehension of all the benefits it had bestowed on
our ancestors lay beyond the mental vision of any
Praise-God-Barebones, or any heavenly-minded tinker
or stern covenanter of Cromwell's army. When I re-
call the history of the ecclesiastical potentates of Italy


in the sixteenth century, I could almost turn Puritan
mvself : but when I think of all the wondrous and beau-
tiful productions of human skill, all the memorials of
the great and gifted men of old, the humanizers and
civilizers of our country, which once existed, and of
which our great cathedrals — noble and glorious as they
are even now — are but the remains, it is with a very
cordial hatred of the profane savage ignorance which
destroyed and desecrated ^hem. Now if I dwell for a
while "on the legends of our old ecclesiastical worthies,
and give a few pictures, rapidly sketched in words, of
scenes and personages sanctified by our national tradi-
tions, it is not so much to show how they have been il-
lustrated, but rather with a hope of conveying some
idea as to the spirit and form in which they may be,

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 7 of 41)