National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 2, 2004

-- Photos courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

"St. Ildefonso" by El Greco brings us closer to the world John of the Cross inhabited
St. John of the Cross

Gijon's statue at the National Gallery invites reflection on the 16th-century poet and saint


If you are planning to be in Washington in the next few weeks, be sure to visit the National Gallery of Art. There, in Gallery 11 of the West Building, you can see “St. John of the Cross,” the polychromed wooden sculpture of the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite priest, poet and mystical doctor of the church.

Purchased last September by the National Gallery, the statue is thought to be work of Francisco Antonio Gijon, a Spaniard who lived from 1653 to 1721 and was a well-known artist in his day. In 1675 the Carmelites of Seville commissioned Gijon to produce a statue of John, presumably to honor the revered Castilian on the occasion of his beatification by Pope Clement X on Jan. 22 of that year.

Gijon carved a life-sized image of the holy friar that stands 5 feet 5 inches tall. John was certainly no taller than this, and perhaps even as much as six inches shorter, his short height probably the result of malnutrition in his impoverished childhood. He is barefoot in sandals, clothed in his brown Carmelite habit and white ceremonial mantle. He holds an open book in his left hand. His right hand is poised for writing, although the pen is missing. His shaven face and tonsured head are turned upward, his eyes looking expectantly toward heaven, as if awaiting divine inspiration for his writing. Gijon emphasized John’s sanctity in typically Spanish style by embellishing his flowing robes with golden florid designs.

The saint’s hands are fascinating. The left hand, apparently once broken off, has been skillfully restored with the help of a visible metal brace. Neither this flaw nor the missing pen, however, detracts from Gijon’s obvious desire to reveal John’s creative soul through his hands.

John’s hands are the hands of an artist who, before 1577, sketched a miniature of Jesus Christ crucified that last century inspired Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” which now hangs in the Glasgow Museum of Art. They are also the hands of an artisan who, five years later in Granada, designed and helped construct an 80-yard, arched-stone aqueduct to carry water from the Alhambra to his nearby monastery. Water still flows in that aqueduct.

On the circular wall behind John are paintings by the Spanish masters El Greco and Zurbaran, the only other art in the small gallery. El Greco’s exquisite “St. Ildefonso,” an oil on canvas painted sometime in 1603-04, depicts the seventh-century bishop of Toledo at his writing desk in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. This portrait is an excellent choice to accompany the statue, for Ildefonso’s Toledo was not only El Greco’s city but also the place of the spiritual and literary transformation of John of the Cross.

A native of Crete, El Greco arrived in the imperial Spanish city early in 1577 at the age of 36 following an apprenticeship under Titian in Venice. He remained there for the next 37 years until his death in 1614, becoming, through his distinctive paintings, one of the world’s greatest religious artists. A year younger than El Greco, John of the Cross also arrived in Toledo in 1577, during the first week of December. Charging him with disobedience for his refusal to abandon Teresa of Avila’s reform of the Carmelite order, John’s Carmelite superiors had assigned him to a prison cell in their Toledo monastery.

In contrast to El Greco, John remained in Toledo only 10 months. He departed for Andalusia in October 1578, following a harrowing escape from his monastic prison. Nevertheless, that excruciatingly painful confinement changed his life forever. It transformed him completely into Jesus Christ, his Beloved; it also brought the discovery of his poetic gift. “Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me moaning?” he wrote in his Toledo cell, the first line of his “Spiritual Canticle” that he would complete six years later. Shortly after his escape, he wrote “Noche Oscura” or “The Dark Night,” perhaps the finest lyric poem in the history of Christian mysticism. Recalling the transforming grace of his confining darkness, John blesses his imprisonment:

Oh noche que guiaste!
Oh noche amable mas que
el alborada!
Oh noche que juntaste
Amado con amada,
amada en el Amado

O guiding night !
O night more lovely than
the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his
transforming the beloved
in her Lover.

Like El Greco, John discovered in Toledo his creative spirit. That spirit would make him one of the great religious poets in world literature.

A further coincidence marks Toledo in 1577. On June 2 of that year, while living there in the convent of her cloistered Carmelite nuns, Teresa of Avila began her spiritual masterpiece, The Interior Castle. Sensing a common élan in these three persons, Père Bruno de Jesus-Marie, John’s 20th-century French biographer, contends in his now out-of-print Three Mystics: El Greco, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila (Sheed and Ward, 1952) that El Greco portrays on canvas the same mystical spirit the two Carmelites express in writing. The three converge, Père Bruno believes, in expressing the powerful beauty of God’s transforming presence in human beings.

Martyrdom of the heart

The second painting on the wall in Gallery 11 is “St. Lucy” by the other Spanish master, Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664). A devout and ascetic man, Zurbaran attained his artistic maturity in the generation after El Greco. During these same years, the reputation of John of the Cross was growing. In his lifetime, John was almost completely unknown outside the Carmelite family and the men and women to whom he ministered as a priest. In 1613, the Carmelites began the process leading to his beatification. In 1618, the first Spanish edition of John’s writings was published, and by 1640 his words were being translated into French, Italian and Latin. In 1628, the first biography of John appeared in Spanish.

Zurbaran’s “ St. Lucy” portrays the fourth-century Sicilian virgin and martyr whose name is included in the Roman Canon of the Mass. A popular subject for religious artists, she is the patron saint of the eyes. Zurbaran’s portrays her with a rose crown around her head, the martyr’s palm in one hand, and in the other a plate holding two eyes. While the glory of martyrdom was a frequent Counter Reformation theme for writers and artists, John of the Cross emphasized martyrdom of the heart, a putting to death of disordered loves and desires that prevent growth in the love and service of God. Believing that “death through martyrdom in itself is of no value without this love,” he counseled the cloistered Carmelite nuns in Beas in Andalusia to be “executioners” of anything in their lives that “impedes the inner resurrection of the Spirit who dwells within your souls.”

The door on the right as you face John’s statue opens into Gallery 10 where you will find the 15th-century Florentine glazed terra cottas of the della Robbia family. These include Luca’s “Madonna and Child,” Andrea’s “The Adoration of the Child,” and Giovanni’s “Pieta.” These charming pieces express a Marian piety that was also deep in John of the Cross. His devotion to the Virgin Mary probably explains why in 1563, as a youth of 21, he entered the Carmelites in his hometown of Medina del Campo. Rather than embrace the diocesan clergy after the example of Don Alonso Alvarez, the hospital chaplain who mentored him during his adolescence, or join the Jesuits whose college in Medina he had attended for four years, John chose the Carmelites because of their celebrated devotion to Mary.

The room to the left of the statue, Gallery 22, houses 16th-century paintings from North Italy, including “Elijah Fed by Ravens,” an oil by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo. In addition to their traditional devotion to Mary, the Carmelites considered themselves sons and daughters of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. As a loyal son, John refers in his writings to the ninth-century B.C.E. prophet as “our Father Elijah,” presenting him as an example of the faith required to receive contemplative knowledge.

A feature of the statue that puzzles most viewers is a small brown mound sitting on the open pages of the book in John’s left hand. Several inches tall, wide at bottom, and slanting toward a peak, it is a little mountain. A small cross that has been lost once sat atop the mound, easily identifying it as a mountain, although you can still see the caves and footpaths on its side. The figure represents Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, where the Carmelites originated in the early 13th century; more important, this little mountain reveals the book in John’s hand as The Ascent of Mount Carmel, his lengthy but unfinished commentary on the poem “Noche Oscura.” Written between 1581 and 1585 for some of the men and women in the Carmelite order, the prose commentary explains the deeper, spiritual meaning of the poem.

Desiring nothing

For the spiritual seeker, The Ascent of Mount Carmel is John’s most important work, but also the hardest to read and, for that reason, the most neglected. The difficulty is not the book’s 16th-century Spanish terminology nor its scholastic theology and psychology; rather, it is hard because of its unrelenting insistence on the total self-emptying required for the soul’s union with God. These pages contain John’s famous dictum: “To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.” This startling teaching directly confronts our American ambition for power, money, pleasure, glamour, security, an escalating standard of living, even a scintillating spiritual life. John contends, however, that unrestrained desire for these goods fragments the soul, leaving it too divided and cluttered to discover the indescribable peace and joy that comes with loving and serving God above all else.

The guiding image for John’s teaching is Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. At that moment, totally emptied in sense and spirit, Jesus realized his greatest human achievement: “the reconciliation and union of the human race with God through grace.” John thus insists that, for the Christian, the spiritual journey does not consist in enthralling religious experiences or mystical phenomena, but in the “living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior” -- the paschal mystery. He knows that even those who consider themselves close to God resist this teaching, so he insists on it repeatedly throughout the Ascent’s 240 pages.

A statue honoring John of the Cross in our National Gallery with an estimated value in the $1 million range is a noteworthy acquisition. Although Pius XI proclaimed him a doctor of the universal church in 1926, John of the Cross was practically unknown to Americans, even Catholic Christians, before 1950. Then, late in 1951, when his 1948 bestselling The Seven Storey Mountain had gone into its 254th printing, Thomas Merton published The Ascent to Truth, a study of St. John’s spiritual teaching that introduced John to a multitude of Merton readers. In 1964, Doubleday published The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, a translation into standard American English by the Carmelite friars Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, a book that continues to remain in print in a new revised edition through the Institute of Carmelite Studies and sells an average of 10 copies a day.

Following Vatican II, many American lay Catholics awoke to the call of contemplative prayer, which, prior to the council, was considered suitable only for those in convents and monasteries. Now countless American Christians in contemplative prayer movements like centering prayer, Christian meditation and Christian insight meditation turn to John of the Cross for reliable guidance in their contemplative practice. Many other American Christians who over the past generation sought spiritual nourishment in Eastern religions have found in John of the Cross, the Christian master of self-emptying par excellence, a welcome bridge back into the prayer life of their own religious tradition. From relative obscurity in the early 1950s, John’s reputation in the United States has grown to the extent that his image in rare Spanish baroque now stands in a distinguished gallery in one of our nation’s finest art museums, inviting still others to discover in his writings the challenges and rewards of contemplative living.

Carmelite Fr. Kevin Culligan is a member of the Institute of Carmelite Studies and the Carmelite Forum and lives in Hinton, W.Va.

“St. John of the Cross” remains on display in the National Gallery of Art until April 30 when it will be removed to be cleaned, restored and eventually returned for public viewing in a still to be determined location.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2004

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