St. Vincent of Saragossa
by Augustin Theodule Ribot (1822-1891)
The Magnificat is a monthly publication with daily Mass readings and other prayers. It also features masterpieces of Christian art. In the 2013 January issue, there's a work by Augustin Theodule of St. Vincent of Saragossa. The painting is mysteriously wonderful, but what is more telling is the saint's life story and witness to the faith. What this saint did with his life speaks so well of what needs to be done in our post-modern time, both here in Canada and in most of the West. St. Vincent's witness is particularly relevant given the fact that the universal Church is celebrating the Year of the Faith. Here's the biography as found in the Magnificat. It's authored by Fr. Michael Morris, O.P., Professor, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, CA. You may also want to visit the website and see the work in greater detail. St. Vincent of Saragossa, pray for us.
A jet-black raven sits on the sunken abdomen of a dead man. Is this the mangled body of a soldier slain in combat? Ravens are scavengers. They are noted for feasting on the remains of the dead in battlefields, and as such they have become the symbol of death itself. But this raven is not devouring the body of the pale and wasted victim. He is protecting him. For this is no ordinary corpse. It is the body of a Saint, Vincent of Saragossa, the protomartyr of Spain. In the year A. D. 304 during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, Saint Vincent of Saragossa, the deacon Vincent was arrested along with his bishop, Valerius of Saragossa. They were ordered by Dacian, the roman governor of Iberia, to renounce the faith and show their loyalty to Rome by worshiping at the imperial altar. Valerius was the first to speak, but he either had a speech impediment or spoke too softly in order to defend himself. Vincent interrupted him and scolded his bishop for speaking timidly. With defiance he proclaimed that one must cry out against all tyranny leveled against God’s ministers. It was a turning point in their trial, for it indicated that Vincent’s heroic boldness was divinely inspired by the same uncompromising courage that Christ exhibited when he began his last journey to Jerusalem and certain death. Valerius was dismissed with a sentence of banishment. But for the contumacious and presumptuous deacon, Dacian devised an array of painful tortures practically unequaled in the history of martyrdom. The poet Prudentius recorded an account of Vincent’s passion, and Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose refer to it in their sermons. Vincent was first stretched on a rack, and while he hung by his hands and feet his flesh was torn with iron hooks. Vincent responded with smiles and called his executioners weaklings. This enraged Dacian all the more, and he had his executioners beaten, for he felt they were holding back. He then ordered Vincent crucified, but this semblance of his savior’s death so pleased the saint that he was taken down and instead subjected to iron prods, whips, and torches. Like his cousin Lawrence, another great deacon saint and martyr, Vincent was placed on a gridiron (by now a legal form of death for roman executions), but the flames only increased his strength and his joy. It became apparent that some supernatural force was supporting the victim’s body, and the executioners saw this when Dacian threw him into a prison cell strewn with broken potsherds to tear his skin. With legs stretched apart in wooden stocks he was given no food or water. But light shone around him, and he was seen conversing with angels and praising God. In witnessing all this his jailers converted to Christianity. That made Dacian apoplectic. He wept with rage but did allow the disciples of Vincent to visit him in his cell. The faithful dressed his wounds and collected his blood for veneration. Dacian then sought a different method to break the defiant deacon. He ordered him placed on a soft bed in order that he could contemplate and compare the luxury of it against the cruel tortures he had been enduring. It is at this very point in the passion of Saint Vincent that the heroic saint expires. His body had been the locus of a furious battle between good and evil. He had survived all the tortures and challenged his executioners in the process. Dacian could not break Vincent’s spirit, so he sought to destroy what was left of his body. He had it thrown into a bog where wild animals would tear it to pieces. But a raven held sentry over the body and would let no other creature near it. It flapped its wings and cawed against all molesters. This is the point in the story that Ribot chose to portray. Unlike medieval iconographers who were prone to illustrate every detailed torture of the saint, Ribot distills his depiction to one of sublimesimplicity. The raven strikes a pose as if it were a rampant eagle. The body of the dead saint is sprawled on an ashen ground while an ethereal light coming from above caresses his corpse with a divine chiaroscuro. The painting’s style looks back to the Baroque artist Ribera for its dramatic inspiration, and yet it also bears the imprint of something very modern. Reflecting on the life of the valiant martyr, Saint Augustine lauded Vincent’s power to inspire others, noting that “we are confronted with a wondrous play—an iniquitous judge, a bloodthirsty torturer, a martyr unconquered, a contest between cruelty and piety.” When the bishops of Iberia met at the Council of Elvira in 324 to rebuild the church in the wake of the persecutions, there was at least one individual who harbored a deep respect for the uncompromising way in which martyrs like Vincent offered up their very bodies in witness to the faith. Bishop Valerius who had spoken weakly to Dacian and was released before Vincent was tortured, advocated the strong anti-idolatry canons passed by the council. For now he knew, perhaps better than the others, that a will fortified by grace can overcome all things.