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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

Heritage and identity (29). Saint Benedict in the heritage of Navarre

Fri, 20 Mar 2020 18:00:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

St. Benedict (480-547), patriarch of monasticism and author of the most important monastic rule in the West, is the founder of the Benedictine order, so closely linked to Christian Europe since the Middle Ages average. His person and work are known basically through the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, which present him as model of continuous asceticism towards perfection, overcoming the passions and temptations of vainglory, lust and anger. His motto of ora et labora is complemented by charity and humility, so present in his rule. The latter would be taken up again in the 9th century by Benedict of Anianus, codifying it and making its great expansion possible. Later, in the middle of the Age average, it acquired an enormous importance, thanks to Cluny and the centralization of the monasteries, having been fundamental in the diffusion of the Gregorian reform. His feast day has traditionally been celebrated on March 21, with the arrival of spring, although after the liturgical reform, it was moved to July 11. Paul VI affirmed that his sons had carried "with the cross, the book and the plow, the Christian civilization", when he declared him patron of Europe in 1964.

Places of worship

The main places of worship in Navarra were the Benedictine monasteries of Leire, Irache, Lumbier, Estella and Corella and the priory of Azuelo, dependent on Nájera. In lesser Degree, but with singular importance, also the Cistercian monasteries of Fitero, La Oliva, Iranzu, Marcilla and Tulebras had altarpieces and images of the saint, whose rule they professed. From those houses his cult spread to other towns. There was only one parish church dedicated to him, that of Miranda de Arga, as well as the hermitages of Bacaicoa and Larraona and the Ventas de Zumbelz in Lezáun. Representations of the saint are also found in Sorlada, Villatuerta, Cintruénigo, Lerín, Tudela, Enériz and Iturmendi, among other localities.

As for altarpieces of his invocation preserved, we will mention the one of the Benedictines of Estella, transferred to Leire and work of Juan III Imberto (1649), the collateral one of Fitero, sponsored by the one that was prior of the monastery fray Bernardo Pelegrín, between 1613 and 1614, and the one of his chapel in the cathedral of Pamplona, made between 1633 and 1634. The main altarpiece of Miranda de Arga, the work of José de San Juan (1696), is also dedicated to him, since the saint was the patron saint of the parish until 1893.

accredited specialization His chapel in the cathedral of Pamplona, erected by the former bishop of the capital of Navarre and Benedictine monk Fray Prudencio de Sandoval, between 1632 and 1634, in accordance with the canons of the Lower Renaissance, deserves special mention. The design, according to the testamentary disposition of the prelate in 1618, was carried out by Francisco Fratín, engineer and overseer of works of the bishopric, and Master Martín de Urquía. In 1632 the mason Francisco Oxaraste was working on the aforementioned work. The grille, now removed, was made by Juan de Lazcano. The chapel is of small dimensions and of very irregular outline due to the status that occupies in the head of the temple. Its walls are decorated by two large arcosolios on both sides of the altar and geometric motifs in plaster of Mannerist tradition on the walls. Its altarpiece was made between 1633 and 1634 by the sculptor Pedro de Zabala and the painter Lucas Pinedo. Years later, in 1651, the canvas of St. Benedict that presides over it was brought from Madrid and has been attributed to the famous painter Friar Juan Ricci, a Benedictine monk, although we do not share this opinion evaluation.

Outstanding examples from the 16th century

The iconographic prototype of the figure of Saint Benedict is very simple. He wears the large black cowl of a Benedictine monk, usually carries the crosier - abbey emblem par excellence - and other insignia of his dignity: mitre and pectoral. He usually appears with beard and also beardless with a wiry face and cheerful look, from agreement with a generalized custom in the Congregation of San Benito de Valladolid. As attributes, he usually carries the book of the rule and, more exceptionally, the cup that recalls the drink with which they wanted to poison him and the crow with the poisoned bread in its beak.

Contrary to what we might expect, medieval representations of the saint are conspicuous by their absence. In the main altarpiece of Orísoain, on which Miguel de Gárriz worked before 1565, one of its panels represents the Benedictine saint. The main altarpieces of La Oliva (1587) and Fitero (1590), works of Rolan Mois, gave room in their iconographic programs to the figure of the saint in delicate panels, in the first case kneeling and in the second erect, in both cases with a crosier and in Fitero with the book of the monastic rule open, in which the words of the beginning of the Rule are read: "Ausculta, o fili, praecepta magistri" (Listen, O son, to the precepts of the master).

An exquisite Romanesque carving from the end of the 16th century belongs to the main altarpiece of Azuelo. Of the same aesthetic is the one from the main altarpiece of Irache, preserved in the cathedral of Pamplona, work of Juan III Imberto (1613-1621).

The titular of its altarpiece in Fitero is an image of 1591 that the abbot Fray Marcos de Villalva acquired together with that of Saint Bernard from the monks of Montesión for the respectable sum of 500 ducats.

The most delicate sculpture of the saint preserved in Navarre is, without a doubt, the one that presides over the altarpiece of the Benedictine Sisters of Estella, currently in Leire, which was attributed to the author of that piece, Juan Imberto III, but which we were able to document as a piece made in Zaragoza in 1820, at the expense of Doña Josefa Galbán y Alonso, a native of Peralta. Its execution ran to position of the best sculptor of the time in the Aragonese capital, Tomas Llovet, charging for his work 136 hard. This master (Alcañiz, 1770 - Zaragoza, 1848) became director of sculpture of the Real Academia de Nobles Artes de San Luis de Zaragoza. The carving is still indebted to the academic style imposed by the Ramírez family in the second half of the 18th century.

The monastery of Leire conserves in its sacristy a peculiar painting from the middle of the XVII century and discreet execution that represents the saint with the devil chained and held by him. In the monastery of Fitero there is a delicate seventeenth-century canvas and it also appears in two frescoes on the pendentives of the domes of the chapel of the Virgen de la Barda and the hostelry, now the town hall, works of 1736 and 1780, the latter by Diego Díaz del Valle and very lost. To this last painter belongs a simple canvas of Tulebras of the end of the XVIII century.

A pair of outstanding paintings by José Ximénez Donoso

To the monasteries of Corella and Lumbier belong two canvases by the famous painter José Ximénez Donoso (1632-1690), who had perfected his art in Rome, where he practiced architectural and perspective painting, collaborating in the second half of the 17th century in Madrid with Carreño and Claudio Coello.

For the Benedictine Sisters of Corella he painted the canvases of the collaterals, in 1668, which are housed in eighteenth-century altarpieces. They are dedicated to the Virgen del Socorro and to Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica. The latter presents the two brothers in a theatrical attitude, kneeling, before a rich sky, against a background of classical architecture and under a colorful crimson drapery. In the lower part we find all the symbols of the withdrawal of the world: mitre, tiara, book, crowns and cardinal's capelet. Undoubtedly the scene wants to recreate the meeting between the two three days before the death of St. Scholastica, on a day "when the sky was so clear that no cloud could be seen", before a great storm broke out that forced the saint not to return to his monastery, yielding to the will of his sister who died three days later, something that St. Benedict knew when he contemplated the soul of St. Scholastica, separated from her body in the form of a dove, ascending to heaven.

The canvas of Lumbier dedicated to Saint Benedict is signed on the lower part: DONOSO FA 87. It shows the saint half kneeling with his arms open contemplating "the world gathered in a single sunbeam" with the Holy Trinity inside the globe, while on the right three angels hold the crosier, the mitre and the book of the Rule where we read "HEC EST / VIA / VIA / QVE DV / CIT AD / VITAM". There is also a globe at his feet, as a symbol of the withdrawal of the world. There is also room in the composition for the well-known raven with the bread roll that alludes to the poisoning attempt.

A unique cycle in Fitero with scenes based on Roman engravings

His altarpiece in the monastery of Fitero (1614-1615) has a small series of four mediocre paintings, but interesting for being the only Benedictine cycle preserved in the Comunidad Foral. The graphic sources of all of them are found in the illustrated life of the saint that saw the light in Rome, in 1579, under the degree scroll of Vita et miracula Sanctissimi Patris Benedicti, with engravings of Aliprando Capriolo Trentino, with models of the Roman painter Bernardino Passeri. The business publishing house was carried out thanks to the general procurator in Rome of the Congregation of St. Benedict of Valladolid, Fray Juan de Guzman, and was reprinted in 1584, 1594 and 1597.

Those prints were used to make the backs of the choir chairs in various Benedictine monasteries. In fact, at least three of those that inspired the Fitero panels can be found in the choir stalls of the monasteries of Veruela, San Martín Pinario, Celanova and San Benito in Valladolid.

The first scene narrates the presentation of Mauro and Placido by their parents Evicius and Tertullus to St. Benedict so that they could be educated under his jurisdiction, given the fame of virtue that grew from day to day. The second and the third refer to the relationship of St. Benedict with the barbarian king Totila. In the second, the aforementioned monarch wanted to put to test the divinatory gifts of the saint and after announcing his arrival, he ordered his servant Rigo to dress with the royal attributes. When Saint Benedict saw him, he ordered him to take off those distinctions, and the mocker was mocked. The third one is a continuation of the previous one and narrates the meeting between the abbot and the king, who prostrated himself asking forgiveness for his bad arts, warning the saint about his future, before which he asked for forgiveness and retired.

The fourth and last tells of the meeting between St. Benedict and St. Sabinus, as St. Gregory narrates in his Dialogues, in this text: "The bishop of the Church of Canosa used to visit the servant of the Lord, and the man of God felt a special affection for him because of his virtuous life. During a conversation about the entrance of King Totila in Rome and the devastation of the city, the bishop said: "This king is going to destroy the city in such a way, that henceforth it can no longer be inhabited". To which the man of God replied: "Rome will not be exterminated by the barbarians, but will be consumed in itself, devastated by storms, hurricanes, cyclones and earthquakes". In the painting stands out the rough view of Rome, realized as a painting within the painting.

In the sumptuary arts

An exceptional piece with an image of the saint is the hood of the pluvial cape of the terno of the Benedictine nuns of Estella, made by the Zaragozan embroiderer José Gualba, between 1761 and 1762. The same Aragonese origin is found in the beautiful silver plated sacra of the same monastery, presided over by Saint Benedict. It is a work made by the prestigious silversmith Antonio Lastrada from Zaragoza in 1744.

The cult of St. Benedict spread through medals, scapulars and small intaglio engravings such as the one printed with a plate commissioned by the Benedictine Sisters of Corella to José Gabriel Lafuente (1772-1834) that appears as an illustration in the edition of the Rule of St. Benedict, published in Pamplona in 1797. Of simple composition, sample the saint with a Crucifix, a raven as an attribute and a shield with the cross of St. Benedict of medieval origin and bearing the following inscriptions on each of the four sides of the cross: C. S. P. B. Crux Sancti Patris Benedicti. Cross of the Holy Father Benedict. On the vertical pole of the cross: C. S. S. S. M. L. Crux Sácra Sit Mihi Lux. May the Holy Cross be my light. On the horizontal pole of the cross: N. D. S. M. D. Non Dráco Sit Mihi Dux. May the devil not be my boss. Starting at the top, clockwise: V. R. S. Vade Retro Satana. Get thee hence Satan - N. S. M. V. Non Suade Mihi Vána. Do not advise me vain things - S. M. Q. L. Sunt Mala Quae Libas. It is bad what you offer me - I. V. B. Ipse Venena Bibas. Drink thyself thy poison. It is very likely that behind the commissioning of these matrices by the nuns of Corella was a famous Benedictine born in Corella, Fray Benito Iriarte y Estañán (1725-1796) who entered Sahagún in 1743 and became definitor (1767-1769), Abbot of Sahagún (1773-1777), General Definitor (1777-1781) and General of the Congregation of Valladolid (1785-1789) and had three sisters in the Benedictine Sisters of Corella, Ana María, María Teresa and María Josefa.