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The universal projection of St. Francis Xavier through his patronages and his images


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

Jesuit Father Georg Schurhammer, the indefatigable biographer of Saint Francis Xavier, compiled a long list of institutions, cities, kingdoms and countries whose patron saint was Saint Francis Xavier of Navarre. The list is as follows: Nations: Australia, Canada, Portuguese India, Kingdoms of Navarre and Naples, canton of Lucerne and province of Nueva Vizcaya in Mexico; dioceses: Amalfi, Eichstätt and Seville; cities and towns: Ajaccio (1672), Alexandria (1676), Amalfi (1630), Ancona (1648), Aquila (1657), Ascoli Piceno (1677), Avellino (1630), Bahia (1686), Bari (1622), Baçaim (1631), Bastia (1665), Campochiaro (1656), Capaccio (1630), Cavriana (1634), Casacalenda (1728), Castellammare di Stabbia (1661), Chieti, Città di Castello, Civitavecchia, Cremona (1670), Eichstätt (1704), Fermo (1689), Foligno, Forli (1634), Gaillac (1697), Genoa (1684), Glatz (1680), Goa (1640), Graz, Graupen, Guatemala (1648), Hito (1722), Kottâr, Lungro, Luzern (1654), Macau (1622), Macerata (1656), Manar (1624), Manila (1653), Malacca, Massaguano, Messina (1630), Mexico (1660), Milano, Mindelheim (1659), Modena, Mondoví (1658), Montepeloso -Irsina- (1729), Napoli (1656), Nizza (1631), Nola (1656), Novara, Oberburg -Gorne Grad-, Ofen (1767), Pamplona (1624), Parma (1657), Piacenza (1669), Perugia (1630), Ponta Delgada (1658), Potamo (1652), Ragusa (1667), Recanati (1675), Reggio Calabria (1631), Sao Miguel -Açores- (1633), Sanremo (1649), Sant'Agata dei Goti (1630), Sarno (1629), Savona (1687), Scurcola Marsicana, Setubal, Sorrento, Sulmona (1699), Taverna (1672), Torino (1667), Trani (1656) and Trieste (1667). 

This list is impressive and speaks per se of the projection of his figure and model of sanctity in the midst of the Counter-Reformation. To this list can be added other places, such as Puebla de los Ángeles in Mexico (1665), Cádiz (1706) and Puerto de Santa María (1680).

Jesuit missions and the cult of the Navarrese saint

Many Jesuits proposed Saint Francis Xavier as their patron and protector when they began their missions in towns and cities, with the usual sermons and exercises of piety and penance. This explains, in part, the large number of his images and their popularity. 

In this regard, we can recall what Father Tirso González, the future Superior General of the Society, practised in his missions from 1665 onwards. His methods were not very different from those used by other famous Jesuit missionaries, such as Fathers López, Dutari and Calatayud, the latter two from Pamplona and Tafalla, respectively. All those in charge of the missions gave an account of the results of their apostolic activity, counting everything they had achieved: enemies reconciled, congregations or confraternities founded, sacraments administered, etc. Very often, we find, among the fruits of the mission statement, the commission entrusted to the clergy, to a specific devotee, to a parish, to a family with potential, or to the town council of a locality to make an altar dedicated to St. Ignatius and/or St. Francis Xavier. Many of the sculptures and canvases that are preserved in many other towns, as well as various confraternities erected in honour of Xavier, have their origin in the popular missions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Images everywhere

The programs of study on the iconography of the Navarrese saint underwent a major development on the occasion of the 5th centenary of his birth in 2006, with those of Torres Olleta, Rodríguez Gutiérrez de Ceballos, Cuadriello, García Gutiérrez and Cristina Oswald standing out. 

His images went hand in hand with the Counter-Reformation, at a time when new models of holiness were also demanded, in tune with a missionary Church and defender of good works as valid for obtaining eternal salvation. The "construction" and diffusion of his image was related to his facets as a miracle worker, missionary, protagonist of ecstasies and visions. Among the causes of his abundant iconography were his miracles, on plenary session of the Executive Council development of the triumphant Baroque, that of ecstasies, apotheosis, glories and great penitents, the century of Bernini and Rubens. These were times when the presence of the supernatural was particularly evident, times when holiness seemed to be measured by the celestial experiences lived, in the context of a society captivated by marvellousness.

In the struggle for apostolic tradition and holiness, which the Protestants denied the Catholics, the miracle was an issue core topic, because it showed that the God of all times gave his support to the Catholics by means of miracles. The consequence was clear: the saint had to be a thaumaturge, it was not enough for Rome to present to God blessed people of great merit and lived sanctity, but God had to offer them to Rome. The sign of divine approval was the miracle, a sign that left no doubt.  

All the iconographic testimonies, as well as the literary ones, end up placing us before a baroque saint, in tune with the unbridled, sensual and theatrical. Teófanes Egido recalls how the life of the saints did not end with their death, since, after leaving the earthly world, another decisive stage began in their historiography: that of the production and reception of their transfigured figure. 

In the same way that in the theatre of the time, when representing their prodigies, stage sets were used to make possible the communion between heaven and earth, the artists show us in their works this fusion of the natural and the supernatural, even presenting us with the caelum in terris, so sought after and loved by the great masters of the Baroque.

Great painters and sculptors of the 17th and 18th centuries depicted Xavier as a pilgrim, a missionary, or in scenes from his life and working miracles. Rubens, Murillo, Zurbarán, Gregorio Fernández, Matteis, Poussin, Maratta, Juan de Mesa, Luis Salvador Carmona, Juan Correa, Gaulli, Lucas Jordán, Reni, Pozzo and a long etcetera left exceptional examples.

One of the reasons for the richness of the iconography is also, as C. Oswald pointed out, the fact that St Francis Xavier, in the Europe of Humanism, played the role of intermediary between the "Old World" and the "New World" in terms of science, culture and religion, a role which is decisive in understanding the veneration of which he continues to be the object, under the name of "Holy Father", by Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

Invoked for numerous needs, public and private, in the East and the West

The maritime journey of St Francis Xavier and his special protection in sailing in the lands of the East led those who set sail to invoke him when the waters of the oceans presented adverse circumstances. In 1748, Benedict XIV proclaimed him patron saint of the Orient.

Suffice it to recall some of his miracles in this regard, both those referring to the conversion of salt water from the sea into fresh water so that the occupants of the boats did not die, and those recalling his voyages or salvation in the midst of great storms and persecutions by pirates and enemies. A good example of his board of trustees on navigators is the preamble to the constitutions of the pilots of Canet de Mar, founded in 1796.

As an advocate of the good death, recreating his last moments of life, he appears in some prints and paintings, such as a canvas from 1759 in the Museum of Tepotzotlán in Mexico, in which he is represented in that passage, next to the death of Saint Joseph, the lawyer par excellence, in such a trance and patron, moreover, of the children of Saint Ignatius. 

Some towns, such as Sangüesa or La Guàrdia dels Prats in Catalonia, paid special homage to him, for the protection that the saint granted them in times when the dreaded locust plague devastated their fields. 

Xavier was also invoked when taking state. Among the most interesting engravings in this regard is one by Jacob Andreas Friedrich, which illustrates the work of the Jesuit André Eschenbrender (1676-1739), dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier and entitled Instructio pro eligendo vitae, in its Cologne edition of 1733. 

Great thaumaturge and plague advocate

As a worker of a thousand wonders, numerous paintings and engravings attest to this. Among the outstanding works of universal art is the canvas of the miracles of St Francis Xavier by Rubens, from the church of the Society of Jesus in Antwerp, which is now on display in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. The famous painter was busy between 1617 and 1621 decorating the new church dedicated to Saint Ignatius that the Jesuits had just built in Antwerp. This composition would serve as the basis for others depicting the saint's miracles in the city of Mechelen. The prodigies in Mechelen were narrated by Father Gerard Grumsel (1613-1678) in a work published in 1666.

Father Francisco García, in his widely published biography of the saint (Madrid, 1672), in dealing with his portentous miracles, writes: "What shall I say of the plagues that he has extinguished in various cities in one and the other world, purifying the air of the deaths that threatened their citizens, who chose him for patron saint, so that being under his protection, the contagion would respect them, and God would not punish them seeing them sponsored by Saint Francis Xavier"?

Among the most fortunate compositions of this protection against the plague on so many other cities is a painting by Ciro Ferri that was engraved and distributed in Flanders, Italy, Spain and New Spain. Its copies include the Flemish canvas by Godefrido de Maes for a series on the saint (1692), intended for the holy chapel of the castle of Xavier, as well as the painting by Miguel Cabrera (1764) in the Museum of Tepotzotlán (Mexico).

Among the cities that received him as patron or co-patron, through his intercession to free them from the plague, are Naples (1657), Bruges (1666), Aquila (1656), Malacca, Macerata (1658), Manar, Parma (1656), Bologna (1630) and Durango in New Spain (1668), among others.