Roman Catholic Missions — February 20, 2010 at 5:48 am

Xavier a paper written by :Maria Cristina Osswald, born in Oporto, Portugal, has just finished a PhD dissertation on Jesuit art in Goa from 1542 to 1655 at the European University Institute, Florence.


St. Francis Xavier died 450 years ago during the night of December 2. He had preached and baptized in India, Southeast Asia, and Japan but was not to fulfill his dream of bringing the Gospel to China. Stories of Xavier’s work and adventures—some from his own letters, others in reports by those who knew him or knew about him—had already made his name famous in Europe and helped spread the Jesuit missionary effort to other continents. Images of Xavier that drew upon fact and legend added to his fame.

FRANCIS XAVIER died on an offshore Chinese island in December 1552, and news of his death took over two years to reach Europe. Almost immediately, King John III of Portugal initiated the process leading to Xavier’s beatification, instructing his officials to track down credible witnesses to Xavier’s works, virtues, and miracles in India and to send sworn statements to him. Portuguese officers, merchants, and officials who had known him and remembered him fondly provided testimony. Another supporter of Xavier was Otomo Yoshishige of Bungo, Japan, who sought Xavier’s canonization so that people “could build churches and altars to him, set up images of him, celebrate his Mass, and pray daily for his intercession.”

With the stories of Xavier came a devotion to relics and objects associated with him, and images of him began to proliferate, underlining his sainthood. For instance, at the first church dedicated to Xavier, built at Cape Comorin, India, in 1603, 16 years before his beatification, an image of Xavier reputed to have miraculous powers made the church an important place of pilgrimage. Talented Jesuit brothers contributed to the output, as did some of the most famous contemporary artists such as Peter Paul Rubens in Italy and Flanders and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in Spain.

The first formal request for a portrait of Xavier came 30 years after his death. Most likely at Rome’s request, Alessandro Valignano, the Jesuit superior general’s delegate in the Far East, commissioned two authentic portraits in Goa in 1583. One remained in Goa; the second was sent to Rome. Both have been lost, but the one sent to Rome was copied and became the source of later images. Xavier was depicted in the type of clothes he wore in India, holding his robe to his chest with his hands, eyes directed heavenward. His physical features, gestures, and clothes follow contemporary descriptions of him. Contemporaries said that he was of medium to tall height, that he walked with a joyful, calm face, and that often his eyes were moist and gazed upward. Friends regarded the portrait as true to life.

In some images Xavier is pulling his cassock open with both hands, and the words in Latin reading “It is enough, O Lord, it is enough!” appear somewhere near him. This is an allusion to Xavier’s moments of ecstasy when he thought he was alone and no one could see or hear him, which seem to have occurred primarily at Goa in 1552 before he embarked on his final voyage to China. This image was repeated in the decorations and in souvenir pictures sold at the time of his canonization. In other images, Xavier wears a black cassock with a white surplice and stole.

Xavier had a reputation as a miracle-worker even in his lifetime, and the miracles figured in his imagery. In 1546 in the Moluccas, Xavier lost a crucifix during a storm at sea, and a crab brought it back to him. The crab appears in the Xavier tradition of iconography, an appearance unique in European imagery. This story was so important that it was depicted on the altar at the canonization ceremony and was one of four miracles represented on the banner that decorated St. Peter’s Church on that occasion.

Another important image was the sailing ship. In engravings produced in Rome after the 1590s, ships are associated with episodes of his life. Several times Xavier’s prayers calmed storms at sea, preserved ships from pirate attacks, and steered them safely into port. One story, reported by two eye witnesses, told how Xavier, while sailing on the Santa Cruz from Malacca to China in 1552, converted sea water into fresh water.

In “The Miracles of Francis Xavier” by Peter Paul Rubens, Xavier brings a number of dead persons back to life, including an Indian child who had drowned in a well—a miracle attested to by many as early as 1543. In the same painting appear a blind man in Japan given sight by Xavier, another whose ability to walk was restored, and a third whom Xavier cured of demonic possession.

The oldest portrayals include a lily, a symbol of purity, for which Xavier was well known. Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck shows Xavier with a halo and with angels crowning him with a garland of roses and bringing him a lily. Another tradition about Xavier was that he did not experience bodily discomforts. Early biographers relate how he walked barefoot through Japanese mountains during the winter of 1552. Since all his thoughts were directed to God, he felt no pain. This tradition also shows up in the imagery. According to some of his writings, Xavier engaged in an interior struggle with evil spirits; this struggle too entered into the imagery of the saint.

The departure of Xavier and his companions for missions marked the start of the Society of Jesus’ involvement in proclaiming the Gospel beyond Europe. In a sense, his departure came to symbolize the Jesuit’s readiness to be sent on a mission anywhere at the pope’s request. Iconographically this is best represented by an image of Xavier carrying an Indian on his back, a recurring dream he had in Italy in 1537.

The cross was one of the most important symbols of Xavier’s missionary activity. He is often depicted preaching or baptizing while holding a cross. In mission lands, the sacrament of baptism, whereby non-Christians were freed from sin and became members of the Church was, obviously, extremely important. A painting in the Gesù in Rome during the canonization illustrated the baptism of three kings and a host of “heathens.” Xavier’s reports home fostered his reputation as a missionary. In January 1544, for example, he wrote that the number of new converts was so large that his arms often failed him as he baptized.

In 1593 the Society of Jesus requested the canonization of Ignatius and Xavier. At the Gesù in 1599, Cardinal Caesare Baronio officially established the cult of Ignatius by placing his image on his tomb. Later that year he placed an image of Xavier on the altar directly opposite. Ignatius was beatified in 1609; Francis in 1619; and in 1622 the two altars were dedicated to Ignatius and Xavier, now declared saints. Henceforth Jesuit churches had altars dedicated to the first two saints of the Society. In life as in death, in cult as in iconography, the two would be forever linked.

The canonization of Ignatius and Xavier had repercussions in the iconography. Henceforth, many paintings and engravings, especially those from Antwerp and Flanders, emphasized their equal status as saints by vesting them both in chasubles. In the late sixteenth century, Aloysius Gonzaga and Stanislaus Kostka, two other Jesuit candidates for canonization, were added to many engravings of Ignatius and Xavier: Gonzaga, the scholastic, wore a surplice while the novice Kostka was vested in the simple soutane.

In the mid seventeenth century, reliefs of Xavier and Ignatius along with St. Jerome and with the coat of arms of Portugal decorated the fort in the Indian town of Daman. This decoration offered contemporary observers an important visual exemplar of the close relations between the political and religious authorities, especially between the Portuguese royal house and the Society of Jesus, which were decisive for the veneration of Xavier. The Portuguese king initiated proceedings for Xavier’s canonization immediately after his death and thus deserves some credit for Xavier’s rapid canonization. More important, Xavier fulfilled the post-Tridentine requirements during his lifetime: capacity for miracles, bodily incorruption, a combination of a contemplative life and virtue (chastity and dedication to the needy, for instance).

The Society of Jesus skillfully employed various artistic genres in its campaign for the canonization of Xavier. After Ignatius, Xavier is the Jesuit most frequently depicted in art. With Ignatius he has a fixed place of honor on several church façades and Jesuit altars. Various portraits highlight Xavier’s place in Jesuit history, and he figures prominently in “historical” scenes, even those in which he had actually played no part. For example, Xavier can be identified in paintings of Pope Paul III’s approval of the Society on September 27, 1540, even though he had left Rome the previous March. Official works of art portrayed him with the attributes of a blessed or a saint years before his beatification or canonization. Public cult outran official measures and, indeed, evoked them.

Today historians and scholars may be more interested in his efforts to learn foreign languages, to adopt indigenous dress, and to debate with learned Japanese than in his miracles and incorrupt body. And this shift will influence the iconography. But Xavier continues to fascinate. Now 450 years after his death, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians still venerate him as “Santo Padre.”

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