By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXXI. SOUTHERN SAINTLINESS
Southern saints, like their worshippers, put on new faces and vestments in the course of ages. Old ones die away; new ones take their place. Several hundred of the older class of saint have clean faded from the popular memory, and are now so forgotten that the wisest priest can tell you nothing about them save, perhaps, that “he’s in the church"–meaning, that some fragment of his holy anatomy survives as a relic amid a collection of similar antiques. But you can find their histories in early literature, and their names linger on old maps where they are given to promontories and other natural features which are gradually being re-christened.
Such saints were chiefly non-Italian: Byzantines or Africans who, by miraculous intervention, protected the village or district of which they were patrons from the manifold scourges of medi-aevalism; they took the place of the classic tutelar deities. They were men; they could fight; and in those troublous times that is exactly what saints were made for.
With the softening of manners a new element appears. Male saints lost their chief raison d’etre, and these virile creatures were superseded by pacific women. So, to give only one instance, Saint Rosalia in Palermo displaced the former protector Saint Mark. Her sacred bones were miraculously discovered in a cave; and have since been identified as those of a goat. But it was not till the twelfth century that the cult of female saints began to assume imposing dimensions.
Of the Madonna no mention occurs in the songs of Bishop Paulinus (fourth century); no monument exists in the Neapolitan catacombs. Thereafter her cult begins to dominate.
She supplied the natives with what orthodox Christianity did not give them, but what they had possessed from early times–a female element in religion. Those Greek settlers had their nymphs, their Venus, and so forth; the Mother of God absorbed and continued their functions. There is indeed only one of these female pagan divinities whose role she has not endeavoured to usurp–Athene. Herein she reflects the minds of her creators, the priests and common people, whose ideal woman contents herself with the duties of motherhood. I doubt whether an Athene-Madonna, an intellectual goddess, could ever have been evolved; their attitude towards gods in general is too childlike and positive.
South Italians, famous for abstractions in philosophy, cannot endure them in religion. Unlike ourselves, they do not desire to learn anything from their deities or to argue about them. They only wish to love and be loved in return, reserving to themselves the right to punish them, when they deserve it. Countless cases are on record where (pictures or statues of) Madonnas and saints have been thrown into a ditch for not doing what they were told, or for not keeping their share of a bargain. During the Vesuvius eruption of 1906 a good number were subjected to this “punishment,” because they neglected to protect their worshippers from the calamity according to contract (so many candles and festivals = so much protection).
For the same reason the adult Jesus–the teacher, the God–is practically unknown. He is too remote from themselves and the ordinary activities of their daily lives; he is not married, like his mother; he has no trade, like his father (Mark calls him a carpenter); moreover, the maxims of the Sermon on the Mount are so repugnant to the South Italian as to be almost incomprehensible. In effigy, this period of Christ’s life is portrayed most frequently in the primitive monuments of the catacombs, erected when tradition was purer.
Three tangibly-human aspects of Christ’s life figure here: the bambino-cult, which not only appeals to the people’s love of babyhood but also carries on the old traditions of the Lar Familiaris and of Horus; next, the youthful Jesus, beloved of local female mystics; and lastly the Crucified–that grim and gloomy image of suffering which was imported, or at least furiously fostered, by the Spaniards.
The engulfing of the saints by the Mother of God is due also to political reasons. The Vatican, once centralized in its policy, began to be disquieted by the persistent survival of Byzantinism (Greek cults and language lingered up to the twelfth century); with the Tacitean odium fratrum she exercised more severity towards the sister-faith than towards actual paganism. [Footnote: Greek and Egyptian anchorites were established in south Italy by the fourth century. But paganism was still flourishing, locally, in the sixth. There is some evidence that Christians used to take part in pagan festivals.]
The Madonna was a fit instrument for sweeping away the particularist tendencies of the past; she attacked relic-worship and other outworn superstitions; like a benignant whirlwind she careered over the land, and these now enigmatical shapes and customs fell faster than leaves of Vallombrosa. No sanctuary or cave so remote that she did not endeavour to expel its male saint–its old presiding genius, whether Byzantine or Roman. But saints have tough lives, and do not yield without a struggle; they fought for their time-honoured privileges like the “daemons” they were, and sometimes came off victorious. Those sanctuaries that proved too strong to be taken by storm were sapped by an artful and determined siege. The combat goes on to this day. This is what is happening to the thrice-deposed and still triumphant Saint Januarius, who is hard pressed by sheer force of numbers. Like those phagocytes which congregate from all sides to assail some weakened cell in the body physical, even so Madonna-cults–in frenzied competition with each other–cluster thickest round some imperilled venerable of ancient lineage, bent on his destruction. The Madonna dell’ Arco, del Soccorso, and at least fifty others (not forgetting the newly-invented Madonna di Pompei)–they have all established themselves in the particular domain of St. Januarius; they are all undermining his reputation, and claiming to possess his special gifts. [Footnote: He is known to have quelled an outbreak of Vesuvius in the fifth century, though his earliest church, I believe, only dates from the ninth. His blood, famous for liquefaction, is not mentioned till 1337.]
Early monastic movements of the Roman Church also played their part in obliterating old religious landmarks. Settling down in some remote place with the Madonna as their leader or as their “second Mother,” these companies of holy men soon acquired such temporal and spiritual influence as enabled them successfully to oppose their divinity to the local saint, whose once bright glories began to pale before her effulgence. Their labours in favour of the Mother of God were part of that work of consolidating Papal power which was afterwards carried on by the Jesuits.
Perhaps what chiefly accounts for the spread of Madonna-worship is the human craving for novelty. You can invent most easily where no fixed legends are established. Now the saints have fixed legendary attributes and histories, and as culture advances it becomes increasingly difficult to manufacture new saints with fresh and original characters and yet passable pedigrees (the experiment is tried, now and again); while the old saints have been exploited and are now inefficient–worn out, like old toys. Madonna, on the other hand, can subdivide with the ease of an amoeba, and yet never lose her identity or credibility; moreover, thanks to her divine character, anything can be accredited to her–anything good, however wonderful; lastly, the traditions concerning her are so conveniently vague that they actually foster the mythopoetic faculty. Hence her success. Again: the man-saints were separatists; they fought for their own towns against African intruders, and in those frequent and bloody inter-communal battles which are a feature of Italian medievalism. Nowadays it is hardly proper that neighbouring townsmen, aided and abetted by their respective saints, should sally forth to cut each others’ throats. The Madonna, as cosmopolitan Nike, is a fitter patroness for settled society.
She also found a ready welcome in consequence of the pastoral institutions of the country in which the mother plays such a conspicuous role. So deeply are they ingrained here that if the Mother of God had not existed, the group would have been deemed incomplete; a family without a mother is to them like a tree without roots–a thing which cannot be. This accounts for the fact that their Trinity is not ours; it consists of the Mother, the Father (Saint Joseph), and the Child–with Saint Anne looming in the background (the grandmother is an important personage in the patriarchal family). The Creator of all things and the Holy Ghost have evaporated; they are too intangible and non-human.
But She never became a true cosmopolitan Nike, save in literature. The decentralizing spirit of South Italy was too strong for her. She had to conform to the old custom of geographical specialization. In all save in name she doffed her essential character of Mother of God, and became a local demi-god; an accessible wonder-worker attached to some particular district. An inhabitant of village A would stand a poor chance of his prayers being heard by the Madonna of village B; if you have a headache, it is no use applying to the Madonna of the Hens, who deals with diseases of women; you will find yourself in a pretty fix if you expect financial assistance from the Madonna of village C: she is a weather-specialist. In short, these hundreds of Madonnas have taken up the qualities of the saints they supplanted.
They can often outdo them; and this is yet another reason for their success. It is a well-ascertained fact, for example, that many holy men have been nourished by the Milk of the Mother of God, “not,” as a Catholic writer says, “in a mystic or spiritual sense, but with their actual lips"; Saint Bernard “among a hundred, a thousand, others.” Nor is this all, for in the year 1690, a painted image of the Madonna, not far from the city of Carinola, was observed to “diffuse abundant milk" for the edification of a great concourse of spectators–a miracle which was recognized as such by the bishop of that diocese, Monsignor Paolo Ayrola, who wrote a report on the subject. Some more of this authentic milk is kept in a bottle in the convent of Mater Domini on Vesuvius, and the chronicle of that establishment, printed in 1834, says:
“Since Mary is the Mother and Co-redeemer of the Church, may she not have left some drops of her precious milk as a gift to this Church, even as we still possess some of the blood of Christ? In various churches there exists some of this milk, by means of which many graces and benefits are obtained. We find such relics, for example, in the church of Saint Luigi in Naples, namely, two bottles full of the milk of the Blessed Virgin; and this milk becomes fluid on feast-days of the Madonna, as everybody can see. Also in this convent of Mater Domini the milk sometimes liquefies.” During eruptions of Vesuvius this bottle is carried abroad in procession, and always dispels the danger. Saint Januarius must indeed look to his laurels! Meanwhile it is interesting to observe that the Mother of God has condescended to employ the method of holy relics which she once combated so strenuously, her milk competing with the blood of Saint John, the fat of Saint Laurence, and those other physiological curios which are still preserved for the edification of believers.
All of which would pass if a subtle poison had not been creeping in to taint religious institutions. Taken by themselves, these infantile observances do not necessarily harm family life, the support of the state; for a man can believe a considerable deal of nonsense, and yet go about his daily work in a natural and cheerful manner. But when the body is despised and tormented the mind loses its equilibrium, and when that happens nonsense may assume a sinister shape. We have seen it in England, where, during the ascetic movement of Puritanism, more witches were burnt than in the whole period before and after.
The virus of asceticism entered South Italy from three principal sources. From early ages the country had stood in commercial relations with the valley of the Nile; and even as its black magic is largely tinged with Egyptian practices, so its magic of the white kind–its saintly legends–bear the impress of the self-macerations and perverted life-theories of those desert-lunatics who called themselves Christians. [Footnote: These ascetics were here before Christianity (see Philo Judaeus); in fact, there is not a single element in the new faith which had not been independently developed by the pagans, many of whom, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, were ripe for the most abject self-abasement.] But this Orientalism fell at first upon unfruitful soil; the Vatican was yet wavering, and Hellenic notions of conduct still survived. It received a further rebuff at the hands of men like Benedict, who set up sounder ideals of holiness, introducing a gleam of sanity even in that insanest of institutions–the herding together of idle men to the glory of God.
But things became more centralized as the Papacy gainedground. The strong Christian, the independent ruler or warrior or builder saint, was tolerated only if he conformed to its precepts; and the inauspicious rise of subservient ascetic orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans, who quickly invaded the fair regions of the south, gave an evil tone to their Christianity.
There has always been a contrary tendency at work: the Ionic spirit, heritage of the past. Monkish ideals of chastity and poverty have never appealed to the hearts of people, priests or prelates of the south; they will endure much fondness in their religion, but not those phenomena of cruelty and pruriency which are inseparably connected with asceticism; their notions have ever been akin to those of the sage Xenocrates, who held that “happiness consists not only in the possession of human virtues, but in the accomplishment of natural acts.” Among the latter they include the acquisition of wealth and the satisfaction of carnal needs. At this time, too, the old Hellenic curiosity was not wholly dimmed; they took an intelligent interest in imported creeds like that of Luther, which, if not convincing, at least satisfied their desire for novelty. Theirs was exactly the attitude of the Athenians towards Paul’s “New God"; and Protestantism might have spread far in the south, had it not been ferociously repressed.
But after the brilliant humanistic period of the Aragons there followed the third and fiercest reaction–that of the Spanish viceroys, whose misrule struck at every one of the roots of national prosperity. It is that “seicentismo” which a modern writer (A. Niceforo, “L’Italia barbara,” 1898) has recognized as the blight, the evil genius, of south Italy. The Ionic spirit did not help the people much at this time. The greatest of these viceroys, Don Pietro di Toledo, hanged 18,000 of them in eight years, and then confessed, with a sigh, that “he did not know what more he could do.” What more could he do? As a pious Spaniard he was incapable of understanding that quarterings and breakings on the rack were of less avail than the education of the populace in certain secular notions of good conduct–notions which it was the business of his Church not to teach. Reading through the legislation of the viceregal period, one is astonished to find how little was done for the common people, who lived like the veriest beasts of earth.
Their civil rulers–scholars and gentlemen, most of them–really believed that the example of half a million illiterate and vicious monks was all the education they needed. And yet one notes with surprise that the Government was perpetually at loggerheads with the ecclesiastical authorities. True; but it is wonderful with what intuitive alacrity they joined forces when it was a question of repelling their common antagonist, enlightenment.
From this rank soil there sprang up an exotic efflorescence of holiness. If south Italy swarmed with sinners, as the experiences of Don Pietro seemed to show, it also swarmed with saints. And hardly one of them escaped the influence of the period, the love of futile ornamentation. Their piety is overloaded with embellishing touches and needless excrescences of virtue. It was the baroque period of saintliness, as of architecture.
I have already given some account of one of them, the Flying Monk (Chapter X), and have perused the biographies of at least fifty others. One cannot help observing a great uniformity in their lives–a kind of family resemblance. This parallelism is due to the simple reason that there is only one right for a thousand wrongs. One may well look in vain, here, for those many-tinted perversions and aberrations which disfigure the histories of average mankind. These saints are all alike–monotonously alike, if one cares to say so–in their chastity and other official virtues. But a little acquaintance with the subject will soon show you that, so far as the range of their particular Christianity allowed of it, there is a praiseworthy and even astonishing diversity among them. Nearly all of them could fly, more or less; nearly all of them could cure diseases and cause the clouds to rain; nearly all of them were illiterate; and every one of them died in the odour of sanctity–with roseate complexion, sweetly smelling corpse, and flexible limbs. Yet each one has his particular gifts, his strong point. Joseph of Copertino specialized in flying; others were conspicuous for their heroism in sitting in hot baths, devouring ordure, tormenting themselves with pins, and so forth.
Here, for instance, is a good representative biography–the Life of Saint Giangiuseppe della Croce (born 1654), reprinted for the occasion of his solemn sanctification. [Footnote: “Vita di S. Giangiuseppe della Croce . . . Scritta dal P. Fr. Diodato dell’ Assunta per la Beatificazione ed ora ristampata dal postulatore della causa P. Fr. Giuseppe Rostoll in occasione della solenne Santificazione.” Roma, 1839.]
He resembled other saints in many points. He never allowed the “vermin which generated in his bed” to be disturbed; he wore the same clothes for sixty-four years on end; with women his behaviour was that of an “animated statue,” and during his long life he never looked any one in the face (even his brother-monks were known to him only by their voices); he could raise the dead, relieve a duchess of a devil in the shape of a black dog, change chestnuts into apricots, and bad wine into good; his flesh was encrusted with sores, the result of his fierce scarifications; he was always half starved, and when delicate viands were brought to him, he used to say to his body: “Have you seen them? Have you smelt them? Then let that suffice for you.”
He, too, could fly a little. So once, when he was nowhere to be found, the monks of the convent at last discovered him in the church, “raised so high above the ground that his head touched the ceiling.” This is not a bad performance for a mere lad, as he then was. And how useful this gift became in old age was seen when, being almost incapable of moving his legs, and with body half paralysed, he was nevertheless enabled to accompany a procession for the length of two miles on foot, walking, to the stupefaction of thousands of spectators, at about a cubit’s height above the street, on air; after the fashion of those Hindu gods whose feet–so the pagans fable–are too pure to touch mortal earth.
His love of poverty, moreover, was so intense that even after his death a picture of him, which his relatives had tried to attach to the wall in loving remembrance, repeatedly fell down again, although nailed very securely; nor did it remain fixed until they realized that its costly gilt frame was objectionable to the saint in heaven, and accordingly removed it. No wonder the infant Jesus was pleased to descend from the breast of Mary and take rest for several hours in the arms of Saint Giangiuseppe, who, on being disturbed by some priestly visitor, exclaimed, “O how I have enjoyed holding the Holy Babe in my arms!” This is an old and favourite motif; it occurs, for example, in the Fioretti of Saint Francis; there are precedents, in fact, for all these divine favours.
But his distinguishing feature, his “dominating gift,” was that of prophecy, especially in foretelling the deaths of children, “which he almost always accompanied with jocular words (scherzi) on his lips." He would enter a house and genially remark: “O, what an odour of Paradise “; sooner or later one or more of the children of the family would perish. To a boy of twelve he said, “Be good, Natale, for the angels are coming to take you.” These playful words seem to have weighed considerably on the boy’s mind and, sure enough, after a few years he died. But even more charming–piu grazioso, the biographer calls it–was the incident when he once asked a father whether he would give his son to Saint Pasquale. The fond parent agreed, thinking that the words referred to the boy’s future career in the Church. But the saint meant something quite different–he meant a career in heaven! And in less than a month the child died. To a little girl who was crying in the street he said: “I don’t want to hear you any more. Go and sing in Paradise.” And meeting her a short time after, he said, “What, are you still here?” In a few days she was dead.
The biography gives many instances of this pretty gift which would hardly have contributed to the saint’s popularity in England or any other country save this, where–although the surviving youngsters are described as “struck with terror at the mere name of the Servant of God"–the parents were naturally glad to have one or two angels in the family, to act as avvocati (pleaders) for those that remained on earth.
And the mention of the legal profession brings me to one really instructive miracle. It is usually to be observed, after a saint has been canonized, that heaven, by some further sign or signs, signifies approval of this solemn act of the Vicar of God; indeed, to judge by these biographies, such a course is not only customary but, to use a worldly expression, de rigueur. And so it happened after the decree relative to Saint Giangiuseppe had been pronounced in the Vatican basilica by His Holiness Pius VI, in the presence of the assembled cardinals. Innumerable celestial portents (their enumeration fills eleven pages of the “Life”) confirmed and ratified the great event, and among them this: the notary, who had drawn up both the ordinary and the apostolic processi, was cured of a grievous apoplexy, survived for four years, and finally died on the very anniversary of the death of the saint. Involuntarily one contrasts this heavenly largesse with the sordid guineas which would have contented an English lawyer. . . .
Or glance into the biography of the Venerable Sister Orsola Benincasa. She, too, could fly a little and raise men from the dead. She cured diseases, foretold her own death and that of others, lived for a month on the sole nourishment of a consecrated wafer; she could speak Latin and Polish, although she had been taught nothing at all; wrought miracles after death, and possessed to a heroic degree the virtues of patience, humility, temperance, justice, etc. etc. So inflamed was she with divine love, that almost every day thick steam issued out of her mouth, which was observed to be destructive to articles of clothing; her heated body, when ice was applied, used to hiss like a red-hot iron under similar conditions.
As a child, she already cried for other people’s sins; she was always hunting for her own and would gladly, at the end of her long and blameless career, have exchanged her sins for those of the youthful Duchess of Aquaro. An interesting phenomenon, by the way, the theory of sinfulness which crops up at this particular period of history. For our conception of sin is alien to the Latin mind. There is no “sin” in Italy (and this is not the least of her many attractions); it is an article manufactured exclusively for export. [Footnote: “Vita della Venerabile Serva di Dio Suor Orsola Benincasa, Scritta da un cherico regolare," Rome, 1796. There are, of course, much earlier biographies of all these saints; concerning Sister Orsola we possess, for instance, the remarkable pamphlet by Cesare d’Eboli ("Caesaris Aevoli Neapolitan! Apologia pro Ursula Neapolitana quas ad urbem accessit MDLXXXIII," Venice, 1589), which achieves the distinction of never mentioning Orsola by name: she is only once referred to as “mulier de qua agitur.” But I prefer to quote from the more recent ones because they are authoritative, in so far as they have been written on the basis of miracles attested by eye-witnesses and accepted as veracious by the Vatican tribunal. Sister Orsola, though born in 154.7, was only declared Venerable by Pontifical decree of 1793. Biographies prior to that date are therefore ex-parte statements and might conceivably contain errors of fact. This is out of the question here, as is clearly shown by the author on p. 178.]
Orsola’s speciality, however, were those frequent trance-like conditions by reason of which, during her lifetime, she was created “Protectress of the City of Naples.” I cannot tell whether she was the first woman-saint to obtain this honour. Certainly the “Seven Holy Protectors” concerning whom Paolo Regio writes were all musty old males. . . .
And here is quite another biography, that of Alfonso di Liguori (born 1696), the founder of the Redemptorist order and a canonized saint. He, too, could fly a little and raise the dead to life; he suffered devil-temptations, caused the clouds to rain, calmed an eruption of Vesuvius, multiplied food, and so forth. Such was his bashfulness, that even as an aged bishop he refused to be unrobed by his attendants; such his instinct for moral cleanliness that once, when a messenger had alighted at his convent accompanied by a soldier, he instantly detected, under the military disguise, the lineaments of a young woman-friend. Despite these divine gifts, he always needed a confessor. An enormous batch of miracles accompanied his sanctification.
But he only employed these divine graces by the way; he was by profession not a taumaturgo, but a clerical instructor, organizer, and writer. The Vatican has conferred on him the rare title of “Doctor Ecclesia,” which he shares with Saint Augustine and some others.
The biography from which I have drawn these details was printed in Rome in 1839. It is valuable because it is modern and so far authentic; and for two other reasons. In the first place, curiously enough, it barely mentions the saint’s life-work–his writings. Secondly, it is a good example of what I call the pious palimpsest. It is over-scored with contradictory matter. The author, for example, while accidentally informing us that Alfonso kept a carriage, imputes to him a degrading, Oriental love of dirt and tattered garments, in order (I presume) to make his character conform to the grosser ideals of the mendicant friars. I do not believe in these traits–in his hatred of soap and clean apparel. From his works I deduce a different original. He was refined and urbane; of a casuistical and prying disposition; like many sensitive men, unduly preoccupied with the sexual life of youth; like a true feudal aristocrat, ever ready to apply force where verbal admonition proved unavailing. . . .
In wonder-working capacities these saints were all put in the shade by the Calabrian Francesco di Paola, who raised fifteen persons from the dead in his boyhood. He used to perform a hundred miracles a day, and “it was a miracle, when a day passed without a miracle.” The index alone of any one of his numerous biographies is enough to make one’s head swim.
The vast majority of saints of this period do not belong to that third sex after which, according to some, the human race has ever striven–the constructive and purposeful third sex. They are wholly sexless, unsocial and futile beings, the negation of every masculine or feminine virtue. Their independence fettered by the iron rules of the Vatican and of their particular order, these creatures had nothing to do; and like the rest of us under such conditions, became vacuously introspective. Those honourable saintly combats of the past with external enemies and plagues and stormy seasons were transplanted from without into the microcosm within, taking the shape of hallucinations and demon-temptations. They were no longer actors, but sufferers; automata, who attained a degree of inanity which would have made their old Byzantine prototypes burst with envy.
Yet they vary in their gifts; each one, as I have said, has his or her strong point. Why? The reason of this diversity lies in the furious competition between the various monastic orders of the time–in those unedifying squabbles which led to never-ending litigation and complaints to head-quarters in Rome. Every one of these saints, from the first dawning of his divine talents, was surrounded by an atmosphere of jealous hatred on the part of his co-religionists. If one order came out with a flying wonder, another, in frantic emulation, would introduce some new speciality to eclipse his fame–something in the fasting line, it may be; or a female mystic whose palpitating letters to Jesus Christ would melt all readers to pity. The Franciscans, for instance, dissected the body of a certain holy Margaret and discovered in her heart the symbols of the Trinity and of the Passion. This bold and original idea would have gained them much credit, but for the rival Dominicans, who promptly discovered, and dissected, another saintly Margaret, whose heart contained three stones on which were engraven portraits of the Virgin Mary. [Footnote: These and other details will be found in the four volumes “Das Heidentum in der romischen Kirche” (Gotha, 1889-91), by Theodor Trede, a late Protestant parson in Naples, strongly tinged with anti-Catholicism, but whose facts may be relied upon. Indeed, he gives chapter and verse for them.] So they ceaselessly unearthed fresh saints with a view to disparaging each other–all of them waiting for a favourable moment when the Vatican could be successfully approached to consider their particular claims. For it stands to reason that a Carmelite Pope would prefer a Carmelite saint to one of the Jesuits, and so forth.
And over all throned the Inquisition in Rome, alert, ever-suspicious; testing the “irregularities” of the various orders and harassing their respective saints with Olympic impartiality.
I know that mystics such as Orsola Benincasa are supposed to have another side to their character, an eminently practical side. It is perfectly true–and we need not go out of England to learn it–that piety is not necessarily inconsistent with nimbleness in worldly affairs. But the mundane achievements, the monasteries and churches, of nine-tenths of these southern ecstatics are the work of the confessor and not of the saint. Trainers of performing animals are aware how these differ in plasticity of disposition and amenability to discipline; the spiritual adviser, who knows his business, must be quick to detect these various qualities in the minds of his penitents and to utilize them to the best advantage. It is inconceivable, for instance, that the convent-foundress Orsola was other than a neuropathic nonentity–a blind instrument in the hands of what we should call her backers, chiefest of whom (in Naples) were two Spanish priests, Borii and Navarro, whose local efforts were supported, at head-quarters, by the saintly Filippo Neri and the learned Cardinal Baronius.
This is noticeable. The earlier of these godly biographies are written in Latin, and these are more restrained in their language; they were composed, one imagines, for the priests and educated classes who could dispense to a certain degree with prodigies. But the later ones, from the viceregal period onwards, are in the vernacular and display a marked deterioration; one must suppose that they were printed for such of the common people as could still read (up to a few years ago, sixty-five per cent of the populace were analphabetic). They are pervaded by the characteristic of all contemporary literature and art: that deliberate intention to astound which originated with the poet Marino, who declared such to have been his object and ideal. The miracles certainly do astound; they are as strepitosi (clamour-arousing) as the writers claim them to be; how they ever came to occur must be left to the consciences of those who swore on oath to the truth of them.
During this period the Mother of God as a local saint increased in popularity. There was a ceaseless flow of monographs dealing with particular Madonnas, as well as a small library on what the Germans would doubtless call the “Madonna as a Whole.” Here is Serafino Montorio’s “Zodiaco di Maria,” printed in 1715 on the lines of that monster of a book by Gumppenberg. It treats of over two hundred subspecies of Madonna worshipped in different parts of south Italy which is divided, for these celestial purposes, into twelve regions, according to the signs of the Zodiac. The book is dedicated by the author to his “Sovereign Lady the Gran Madre di Dio” and might, in truth, have been written to the glory of that protean old Magna Mater by one of Juvenal’s “tonsured herd” possessed of much industry but little discrimination. [Footnote: The Mater Dei was officially installed in the place of Magna Mater at the Synod of Ephesus in 431.] Such as it is, it reflects the crude mental status of the Dominican order to which the author belonged. I warmly recommend this book to all Englishmen desirous of understanding the south. It is pure, undiluted paganism–paganism of a bad school; one would think it marked the lowest possible ebb of Christian spirituality. But this is by no means the case, as I shall presently show.
How different, from such straightforward unreason, are the etherealized, saccharine effusions of the “Glories of Mary,” by Alfonso di Liguori! They represent the other pole of Mariolatry–the gentlemanly pole. And under the influence of Mary-worship a new kind of saintly physiognomy was elaborated, as we can see from contemporary prints and pictures. The bearded men-saints were extinct; in the place of them this mawkish, sub-sexual love for the Virgin developed a corresponding type of adorer–clean-shaven, emasculate youths, posing in ecstatic attitudes with a nauseous feminine smirk. Rather an unpleasant sort of saint.
The unwholesome chastity-ideal, without which no holy man of the period was “complete,” naturally left its mark upon literature, notably on that of certain Spanish theologians. But good specimens of what I mean may also be found in the Theologia Moralis of Liguori; the kind of stuff, that is, which would be classed as “curious” in catalogues and kept in a locked cupboard by the most broad-minded paterfamilias. Reading these elucubrations of Alfonso’s, one feels that the saint has pondered long and lovingly upon themes like an et quando peccata sint oscula or de tactu et adspectu corporis; he writes with all the authority of an expert whose richly-varied experiences in the confessional have been amplified and irradiated by divine inspiration. I hesitate what to call this literature, seeing that it was obviously written to the glory of God and His Virgin Mother. The congregation of the Index, which was severe in the matter of indecent publications and prohibited Boccaccio’s Decameron on these grounds, hailed with approval the appearance of such treatises composed, as they were, for the guidance of young priests.
Cruelty (in the shape of the Inquisition) and lasciviousness (as exemplified by such pious filth)–these are the prime fruits of that cult of asceticism which for centuries the Government strove to impose upon south Italy. If the people were saved, it was due to that substratum of sanity, of Greek sophrosyne, which resisted the one and derided the other. Whoever has saturated himself with the records will marvel not so much that the inhabitants preserved some shreds of common sense and decent feeling, as that they survived at all–he will marvel that the once fair kingdom was not converted into a wilderness, saintly but uninhabited, like Spain itself.
For the movement continued in a vertiginous crescendo. Spaniardism culminated in Bourbonism, and this, again, reached its climax in the closing years of the eighteenth century, when the conditions of south Italy baffled description. I have already (p. 212) given the formidable number of its ecclesiastics; the number of saints was commensurate, but–as often happens when the quantity is excessive–the quality declined. This lazzaroni-period was the debacle of holiness. So true it is that our gods reflect the hearts that make them.
The Venerable Fra Egidio, a native of Taranto, is a good example of contemporary godliness. My biography of him was printed in Naples in 1876, [Footnote: “Vita del Venerabile servo di Dio Fra Egidio da S. Giuseppe laico professo alcantarino,” Napoli, 1876.] and contains a dedicatory epistle addressed to the Blessed Virgin by her “servant, subject, and most loving son Rosario Frungillo"–a canon of the church and the author of the book.
This “taumaturgo” could perform all the ordinary feats; I will not linger over them. What has made him popular to this day are those wonders which appealed to the taste of the poorer people, such as, for example, that miracle of the eels. A fisherman had brought fourteen hundredweight of these for sale in the market. Judge of his disappointment when he discovered that they had all died during the journey (southerners will not pay for dead eels). Fortunately, he saw the saint arriving in a little boat, who informed him that the eels were “not dead, but only asleep,” and who woke them up again by means of a relic of Saint Pasquale which he always carried about with him, after a quarter of an hour’s devout praying, during which the perspiration oozed from his forehead. The eels, says the writer, had been dead and slimy, but now turned their bellies downwards once more and twisted about in their usual spirals; there began a general weeping among the onlookers, and the fame of the miracle immediately spread abroad. He could do the same with lobsters, cows, and human beings.
Thus a cow belonging to Fra Egidio’s monastery was once stolen by an impious butcher, and cut up into the usual joints with a view to a clandestine sale of the meat. The saint discovered the beast’s remains, ordered that they should be laid together on the floor in the shape of a living cow, with the entrails, head and so forth in their natural positions; then, having made the sign of the cross with his cord upon the slaughtered beast, and rousing up all his faith, he said: “In the name of God and of Saint Pasquale, arise, Catherine!” (Catherine was the cow’s name.) “At these words the animal lowed, shook itself, and stood up on its feet alive, whole and strong, even as it had been before it was killed.”
In the case of one of the dead men whom he brought to life, the undertakers were already about their sad task; but Fra Egidio, viewing the corpse, remarked in his usual manner that the man was “not dead, but only asleep,” and after a few saintly manipulations, roused him from his slumber. The most portentous of his wonders, however, are those which he wrought after his own death by means of his relics and otherwise; they have been sworn to by many persons. Nor did his hand lose its old cunning, in these posthumous manifestations, with the finny tribe. A certain woman, Maria Scuotto, was enabled to resuscitate a number of dead eels by means of an image of the deceased saint which she cast among them.
Every one of the statements in this biography is drawn from the processi to which I will presently refer; there were 202 witnesses who deposed “under the rigour and sanctity of oath” to the truth of these miracles; and among those who were personally convinced of the Venerable’s rare gifts was the Royal Family of Naples, the archbishop of that town, as well as innumerable dukes and princes. An embittered rationalist would note that the reading of Voltaire, at this period, was punished with three years’ galley-slavery and that several thousand citizens were hanged for expressing liberal opinions; he will suggest that belief in the supernatural, rejected by the thinking classes, finds an abiding shelter among royalty and the proletariat.
It occurs to me, a propos of Fra Egidio, to make the obvious statement that an account of an occurrence is not necessarily true, because it happened long ago. Credibility does not improve, like violins and port wine, with lapse of years. This being the case, it will not be considered objectionable to say that there are certain deeds attributed to holy men of olden days which, to speak frankly, are open to doubt; or at least not susceptible of proof. Who were these men, if they ever existed? and who vouches for their prodigies? This makes me think that Pope Gelasius showed no small penetration in excluding, as early as the fifth century, some few acta sanctorum from the use of the churches; another step in the same direction was taken in the twelfth century when the power of canonizing saints, which had hitherto been claimed by all bishops, became vested in the Pope alone; and yet another, when Urban VIII forbade the nomination of local patron saints by popular vote. Pious legends are supposed to have their uses as an educative agency. So be it. But such relations of imperfectly ascertained and therefore questionable wonders suffer from one grave drawback: they tend to shake our faith in the evidence of well-authenticated ones. Thus Saint Patrick is also reported to have raised a cow from the dead–five cows, to be quite accurate; but who will come forward and vouch for the fact? No one. That is because Saint Patrick belongs to the legendary stage; he died, it is presumed, about 490.
Here, with Saint Egidio, we are on other ground; on the ground of bald actuality. He expired in 1812, and the contemporaries who have attested his miraculous deeds are not misty phantoms of the Thebais; they were creatures of flesh and blood, human, historical personages, who were dressed and nourished and educated after the fashion of our own grandfathers. Yet it was meet and proper that the documentary evidence as to his divine graces should be conscientiously examined. And only in 1888 was the crowning work accomplished. In that year His Holiness Leo XIII and the Sacred Congregation of Cardinals solemnly approved the evidence and inscribed the name of Egidio in the book of the Blessed.
To touch upon a few minor matters–I observe that Fra Egidio, like the Flying Monk, was “illiterate,” and similarly preserved up to a decrepit age “the odorous lily of purity, which made him appear in words and deeds as a most innocent child.” He was accustomed to worship before a favourite picture of the Mother of God which he kept adorned with candles; and whenever the supply of these ran out, he was wont to address Her with infantile simplicity of heart and in the local dialect: “Now there’s no wax for You; so think about it Yourself; if not, You’ll have to go without.” The playful-saintly note. . . .
But there is this difference between him and earlier saints that whereas they, all too often, suffered in solitude, misunderstood and rejected of men, he enjoyed the highest popularity during his whole long life. Wherever he went, his footsteps were pursued by crowds of admirers, eager to touch his wonder-working body or to cut off shreds of his clothing as amulets; hardly a day passed that he did not return home with garments so lacerated that only half of them was left; every evening they had to be patched up anew, although they were purposely stitched full of wires and small chains of iron as a protection. The same passionate sympathy continued after death, for while his body was lying in state a certain Luigi Ascione, a surgeon, pushed through the crowd and endeavoured to cut off one of his toe-nails with the flesh attached to it; he admitted being driven to this act of pious depredation by the pleading request of the Spanish Ambassador and a Neapolitan princess, who held Fra Egidio in great veneration.
This is not an isolated instance. Southerners love their saints, and do not content themselves with chill verbal expressions of esteem. So the biographer of Saint Giangiuseppe records that “one of the deceased saint’s toes was bitten off with most regret-able devotion by the teeth of a man in the crowd, who wished to preserve it as a relic. And the blood from the wound flowed so copiously and so freely that many pieces of cloth were saturated with it; nor did it cease to flow till the precious corpse was interred.” It is hard to picture such proofs of fervid popularity falling to the lot of English deans and bishops.
He was modern, too, in this sense, that he did not torment himself with penitences (decay of Spanish austerity); on the contrary, he even kept chocolate, honey and suchlike delicacies in his cell. In short, he was an up-to-date saint, who despised mediaeval practices and lived in a manner befitting the age which gave him birth. In this respect he resembles our English men of holiness, who exercise a laudable self-denial in resisting the seductions of the ascetic life.
Meanwhile, the cult of the Mother of God continued to wax in favour, and those who are interested in its development should read the really remarkable book by Antonio Cuomo, “Saggio apologetico della belezza celeste e divina di Maria S.S. Madre di Dio” (Castellamare, 1863). It is a diatribe against modernism by a champion of lost causes, an exacerbated lover of the “Singular Virgin and fecund Mother of the Verb.” His argument, as I understand it, is the consensus gentium theory applied to the Virgin Mary. In defence of this thesis, the book has been made to bristle with quotations; they stand out like quills upon the porcupine, ready to impale the adventurous sceptic. Pliny and Virgil and the Druids and Balaam’s Ass are invoked as foretelling Her birth; the Old Testament–that venerable sufferer, as Huxley called it–is twisted into dire convulsions for the same purpose; much evidence is also drawn from Hebrew observances and from the Church Fathers. But the New Testamentary record is seldom invoked; the Saviour, on the rare occasions when He is mentioned, being dismissed as “G. C.” The volume ends with a pyrotechnical display of invective against non-Catholic heretics; a medley of threats and abuse worthy of those breezy days of Erasmus, when theologians really said what they thought of each other. The frank polytheism of Montorio is more to my taste. This outpouring of papistical rhetoric gives me unwarrantable sensations–it makes me feel positively Protestant.
Another sign of increasing popularity is that the sacred bacchanals connected with the “crowning” of various Madonnas were twice as numerous, in Naples, in the nineteenth as in the eighteenth century. Why an image of the Mother of God should be decked with this worldly symbol, as a reward for services rendered, will be obscure only to those who fail to appreciate the earthly-tangible complexion of southern religion. Puerility is its key-note. The Italian is either puerile or adult; the Englishman remains everlastingly adolescent. . . .
Now of course it is open to any one to say that the pious records from which I have quoted are a desolation of the spirit; that they possess all the improbability of the “Arabian Nights,” and none of their charm; that all the distempered dreamings to which our poor humanity is subject have given themselves a rendezvous in their pages. I am not for disputing the point, and I can understand how one man may be saddened by their perusal, while another extracts therefrom some gleams of mirth. For my part, I merely verify this fact: the native has been fed with this stuff for centuries, and if we desire to enter into his feelings, we must feed ourselves likewise–up to a point. The past is the key to the present. That is why I have dwelt at such length on the subject–in the hope of clearing up the enigma in the national character: the unpassable gulf, I mean, between the believing and the unbelieving sections of the community.
An Anglo-Saxon arriving at Bagnara and witnessing a procession in honour of that Sacred Hat of the Mother of God which has led me into this disquisition, would be shocked at the degree of bigotry implied. “The Hat of the Virgin Mary,” he would say–"what next?” Then, accosting some ordinary citizen not in the procession–any butcher or baker–he would receive a shock of another kind; he would be appalled at the man’s language of contemptuous derision towards everything which he, the Anglo-Saxon, holds sacred in biblical tradition. There is no attempt, here, at “reconciliation.” The classes calling themselves enlightened are making a clean sweep of the old gods in a fashion that bewilders us who have accustomed ourselves to see a providential design in everything that exists (possibly because our acquaintance with a providentially- designed Holy Office is limited to an obsolete statute, the genial de haeretico comburendo). The others, the fetishists, have remained on the spiritual level of their own saints. And there we stand today. That section so numerous in England, the pseudo-pagans, crypto-Christians, or whatever obscurantists like Messrs. A. J. Balfour and Mallock like to call themselves (the men who, with disastrous effects, transport into realms of pure intelligence the spirit of compromise which should be restricted to practical concerns)–that section has no representatives hereabouts.
Fully to appreciate their attitude as opposed to ours, we must also remember that the south Italian does not trouble himself about the objective truth of any miracle whatever; his senses may be perverted, but his intelligence remains outside the sphere of infection. This is his saving grace. To the people here, the affair of Moses and the Burning Bush, the raising of Lazarus, and Egidio’s cow-revival, are on the identical plane of authenticity; the Bible is one of a thousand saints’ books; its stories may be as true as theirs, or just as untrue; in any case, what has that to do with his own worldly conduct? But the Englishman with ingenuous ardour thinks to believe in the Burning Bush wonder, and in so far his intelligence is infected; with equal ardour he excludes the cow-performance from the range of possibility; and to him it matters considerably which of the miracles are true and which are false, seeing that his conduct is supposed to take colour from such supernatural events. Ultra-credulous as to one set of narratives, he has no credulity left for other sets; he concentrates his believing energies upon a small space, whereas the Italian’s are diffused, thinly, over a wide area. It is the old story: Gothic intensity and Latin spaciousness. So the Gothic believer takes his big dose of irrationalism on one fixed day; the Latin, by attending Mass every morning, spreads it over the whole week. And the sombre strenuousness of our northern character expects a remuneration for this outlay of faith, while the other contents himself with such sensuous enjoyment as he can momentarily extract from his ceremonials. That is why our English religion has a democratic tinge distasteful to the Latin who, at bottom, is always a philosopher; democratic because it relies for its success, like democratic politicians, upon promises–promises that may or may not be kept–promises that form no part (they are only an official appendage) of the childlike paganism of the south. . . .
Fifteen francs will buy you a reliable witness for a south Italian lawsuit; you must pay a good deal more in England. Thence one might argue that the cult of credulity implied by these saintly biographies is responsible for this laxness, for the general disregard of veracity. I doubt it. I am not inclined to blame the monkish saint-makers for this particular trait; I suspect that for fifteen francs you could have bought a first-class witness under Pericles. Southerners are not yet pressed for time; and when people are not pressed for time, they do not learn the time-saving value of honesty. Our respect for truth and fair dealing, such as it is, derives from modern commerce; in the Middle Ages nobody was concerned about honesty save a few trading companies like the Hanseatic League, and the poor mediaeval devil (the only gentleman of his age) who was generally pressed for time and could be relied upon to keep his word. Even God, of whom they talked so much, was systematically swindled. Where time counts for nothing, expeditious practices between man and man are a drug in the market. Besides, it must be noted that this churchly misteaching was only a fraction of that general shattering which has disintegrated all the finer fibres of public life. It stands to reason that the fragile tissues of culture are dislocated, and its delicate edges defaced, by such persistive governmental brutalization as the inhabitants have undergone. None but the grossest elements in a people can withstand enduring misrule; none but a mendacious and servile nature will survive its wear and tear. So it comes about that up to a few years ago the nobler qualities which we associate with those old Hellenic colonists–their intellectual curiosity, their candid outlook upon life, their passionate sense of beauty, their love of nature–all these things had been abraded, leaving, as residue, nothing save what the Greeks shared with ruder races. There are indications that this state of affairs is now ending.
The position is this. The records show that the common people never took their saints to heart in the northern fashion–as moral exemplars; from beginning to end, they have only utilized them as a pretext for fun and festivals, a means of brightening the cata-combic, the essentially sunless, character of Christianity. So much for the popular saints, the patrons and heroes. The others, the ecclesiastical ones, are an artificial product of monkish institutions. These monkeries were established in the land by virtue of civil authority. Their continued existence, however, was contingent upon the goodwill of the Vatican. One of the surest and cheapest methods of obtaining this goodwill was to produce a satisfactory crop of saints whose beatification swelled the Vatican treasury with the millions collected from a deluded populace for that end. The monks paid nothing; they only furnished the saint and, in due course, the people’s money. Can we wonder that they discovered saints galore? Can we wonder that the Popes were gratified by their pious zeal?
So things went on till yesterday. But now a large proportion of the ten thousand (?) churches and monasteries of Naples are closed or actually in ruins; wayside sanctuaries crumble to dust in picturesque fashion; the price of holy books has fallen to zero, and the godly brethren have emigrated to establish their saint-manufactories elsewhere. Not without hope of success; for they will find purchasers of their wares wherever mankind can be interested in that queer disrespect of the body which is taught by the metaphysical ascetics of the East.
It was Lewes, I believe, who compared metaphysics to ghosts by saying that there was no killing either of them; one could only dissipate them by throwing light into the dark places they love to inhabit–to show that nothing is there. Spectres, likewise, are these saintly caricatures of humanity, perambulating metaphysics, the application in corpore vili of Oriental fakirism. Nightmare-literature is the crazy recital of their deeds and sufferings. Pathological phantoms! The state of mind which engenders and cherishes such illusions is a disease, and it has been well said that “you cannot refute a disease.” You cannot nail ghosts to the counter.
But a ray of light . . .