Blessed Margaret of Castello is the patron saint of unwanted and disabled children. Born in 14th century Italy, she was disfigured and neglected from birth by her wealthy parents. She was taken in by Dominican nuns when she was sixteen and became a third order Dominican. Her story is both harrowing and inspiring: harrowing because of the suffering and cruelty she experienced; and inspiring because of her joy in life, which arose from her faith and transcended that suffering. Here is an account of her life from the website of the Dominican sisters at Nashville. As I read this story it occured to me that if this had been today and her parents had had access sonogram prior to her birth she would surely have become another abortion statistic.
A friend of mine, Gina Switzer, told me that she had been commissioned to paint her and we were discussing how artists might represent human disfigurement in saints so that they retain the dignity of the human person. So this week, I thought I’d write about this – for those who are looking for the continuation of the series, we’ll come back to the series of architecture videos next week.
The first point is that it is not immediately clear that human imperfections should be portrayed in holy images. One might assume that these are absent in heaven and so to the degree that we show the redeemed person, argue that they should not be there at all. I was reminded that Denis McNamara told me recently that when they were designing the stained glass windows for the new John Paul II chapel at Mundelein, they thought about this and deliberately left out St Maximilian Kolbe’s spectacles for just this reason.
The counter to this is that in order to make an image worthy of veneration, according to the theology of holy images established by St Theodore the Studite in the 9th century, two things need to be present: first the name should be written on the image; and second it should portray the essential visual characteristics of the saint. This last criterion refers to those aspects of the saint that together give the person his unique identity. This can include a physical likeness, although a rigid application of physical likeness is not appropriate – a holy image is not a portrait. We are thinking here of those things that characterize (Read More)