|Raphael - Christ Carrying the Cross|
Saint Joseph died during these years, breathing out his soul most peacefully on the The Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin bosom of Jesus, with Mary at his side; and this unity of the Holy Family once riven, we feel that it is a signal for the breaking up of the household itself. The ears of Jesus and of Mary were quick to hear the cry of the Baptist. It was the call to the public life of Jesus Himself, and was obeyed as implicitly as Saint Joseph had obeyed the voice and gesture of the angel charging him to flee into Egypt.
That Mary followed we can have no doubt; and thus the home at Nazareth was a deserted one. We can see her blue mantle flitting among the crowds that flocked to Saint John on the banks of the Jordan. She saw that Dove, symbolizing the same Holy Spirit which had flooded, her soul with an awful joy at the moment of the Incarnation, descend upon the head of Jesus; she heard the voice, and she knew that the beginning of the end had come. The vocations of the several Apostles were so many revelations to her; and when they appeared with their Master at the marriage in Cana of Galilee, the miracle which she evoked from her Son disclosed Him in all His beauty to the admiring guests. It was the opening of a celestial flower under the smile of Mary's virginal maternity.
Thenceforth the story of the " three years' ministry" absorbs the Evangelists. She appears once with His brethren while He is preaching and working wonders, and the word is sent to Him that His Mother and His brethren are without, desiring to speak with Him. But while she hears that voice declare, " Whosoever shall do the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother, My sister, and mother," she knows that her presence has been a consolation to Him.
But the plots of Pharisees and Sadducees are deepening: closer and closer around Him are their nets woven ; and closer and closer around Mary draws that circle of holy women who are to^be her companions to the last: Mary, the wife of Cleophas, the brother of Saint ;,Joseph, the mother of James and Jude, and a near relative of the Blessed Virgin; and Saint Mary Magdalene, the sister of Lazarus of Bethany.
During these last days she is always represented with these devoted women; above all, with Saint Mary Magdalene. They are with her when the tidings come to her, by the mouth of the Beloved Disciple, of all that passed in the Garden of Olives, the judgment hall of Pilate ; but now she sees with her own eyes that the murderous sentence is to be carried out. She sees the procession of centurion and guards and soldiers taking its way from Pilate's house; in the midst she sees Jesus bearing His cross without one helping hand ; sees Him sinking to the ground under its weight. With a cry of anguish, she darts forward, makes her way through the ranks of armed soldiers, kneels beside her Divine Son, stretches toward Him the hands that wrapped Him in His swaddling clothes, but which are not allowed to touch Him now in His humiliation. All the dolors of her thirty-three years—since she presented Him in the Temple, fled with Him to Egypt, sought Him through the streets of Jerusalem; all the grief at seeing Him rejected by His nation, persecuted, calumniated, at last condemned, and actually led to a most shameful and bitter death,—seize her heart like a death spasm. The eyes of the Son meet the eyes of the Mother; the same spasm that wrenches the heart of the Mother wrenches that of her Son ; and her broken, tearless sobs are the only sounds that mark their meeting.
In that " Way of the Cross" in which the late beloved Father Sorin, of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, has given us his meditations while making the actual Via Crucis in Jerusalem, we read : " The pilgrim is told where Jesus and Mary met on the road to Calvary; the sacred spot which even now, from tradition, is called c The Spasm,' and which has been kept ever since in the greatest veneration. Here, in overwhelming affliction, met the two tenderest hearts that ever lived. O Mother of Sorrows, to whom shall I liken thee ? For thy pain is boundless as the sea."
Cimabue, at Assisi, gives the mounted soldiery, awful in helmets and armor and lifted spears, pressing through the gate of the Holy City ; and just outside we see the procession on foot, led by two mounted men-at-arms. In their rear are the two thieves who are to be crucified, urged on by blows \ followed by Our Lord carrying His cross with a meekness that might disarm the malice of His executioners, if not of those who had sought His condemnation. Behind Our Lord are two other armed men, who are addressing a group of sorrowful women that have braved soldiers and horsemen to follow the Crucified; and here we recognize the Blessed Virgin, Saint Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, the Beloved Disciple Saint John; while scowling horsemen, as we have said, press upon them at the gate.
But most threatening of all is one of the horsemen leading the procession, who looks angrily back and points his naked sword at the sorrowing women, as if ordering them from the ranks. The Magdalene meets his eye and the glint of his sword, and seems to remonstrate; but the Mother, like her Son, bows meekly to the command, as do her companions ; Saint John holding his cheek in his hand, in his anguish.
In the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, Florence, Taddeo Gaddi gives this scene with a beauty of conception worthy of the artist who adorned the Spanish chapel in Santa Maria Novella. The towers of the Holy City are seen above the walls, from which pour crowds following in the wake of the cross, which rests on the shoulders of Our Lord, surrounded by armed men in their helmets and banners, with spears raised high. Close in the rear we see a group of women, and a soldier is raising his mace at them threateningly. But one darts forward, throws out both her hands to the full-length of her arms toward the holy Sufferer, with an expression on her face of such anguish, such agony, as only a gesture like this could express; while the meek Lord turns upon her that look of divine compassion which only a mother could claim, and that a virgin-mother. The dolor is here in all its fullness, in all its supernatural intensity. No one who ever looked upon that picture could fail to compassionate Mary, even when the meek Son of God is seen bending under His cross as a malefactor; for this it is which pierces the soul of Mary, rending her heartstrings.
Once more our Fra Angelico takes up the story of Mary's Dolors. Can we not picture to ourselves the Dominican Brother who had never dreamed of taking Holy Orders; who took his place in the stalls instead of before the altar; who thought not of edifying his brethren, only of saving his own soul, and by the pious practice of his art to help them to save theirs; whose modesty shrank from preferment, and who loved, next to his prayer-stall in the choir, the solitude of his cell and the silence of his special calling,—can we not imagine this humble lay-brother shedding silent tears, as meditating, with his brethren, on the Passion of his beloved Master, the thought of Our Lady and of her part in that Passion comes over him like a wave of compassion, until he realizes that the sorrows of Jesus were Mary's sorrows as well, and the anguish that pierced the Heart of Jesus pierced hers also ?
To pass from the choir to his own cell, or to the cell of the Brother whose book of meditation he was painting on its walls, was only to pass from one place of prayer, from one place of meditation, to another; and when he addressed himself to delineating the scenes in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, he had only to bow his head with an invocation to the Holy Spirit, to bring everything before his mind with the vividness of the actual event. No wonder that these conceptions, so simple in their outlines, often so barren as to details, lift the imagination, rouse the sympathies, and open, we know not how, vistas of thought which attract us, lead us out of the beaten paths of worldly conceptions, worldly criticisms, to yield ourselves to the gentle spell of genius lighting its flame at the lamp of the sanctuary.
Again we see the lofty towers that strengthen the walls of Jerusalem; a few cypresses lift their heads beside them; a few olive-trees are scattered over the hillside. The gate is open, and horsemen in helmets and armor come forward on their war steeds, but without haste or animosity. To the right we see a road winding among rocks, and an armed procession following its sharp curves; while between these is a group which tells us the bitter story. Under the very heads of the horsemen issuing from the gate is a group of women, gentle, with clasped hands, as if adoring while they walk. The first full figure that comes to view is that of the Magdalene. A fillet binds modestly the hair which once wiped the anointed feet of her Master. Her hands are clasped in pain; her eyes look steadfastly before her, as if they could not turn from the object of her adoration; and directly before her, a tall, gentle figure, the hands clasped even tighter than those of the Magdalene, the star shining on her mantled shoulder, is Mary. She bends forward with a longing gesture, as if she must touch the object of her soul's worshipful love; and the eyes meet His whose glance has been the sunshine of her life.
But as she leans forward a soldier puts out his hand toward her as if to say : "You must not advance one step!" That " must not" was all that need be said to break Mary's heart. The anguish on that tender, thin face—the unresisting anguish— is like His only who goes before her, His unshod feet cut by the stones in the way, the slender hands balancing the heavy cross on His own shoulder; but the head, with its cruciform nimbus, turning toward His Mother with an agony of compassion. No other compassion we have described has been like this compassion; no other has probed like this the depth of Mary's dolor.
We pass from the quiet cloister of Saint Mark's, from the silent presence of its lay-brother, called "the blessed one" even by his brethren of the monastery, to a studio in Rome—the studio of one beloved as few in this world have been beloved; and yet bereaved of father, mother—every relative but an uncle, by whose loving, appreciative care his genius has been sheltered from the age of eleven years. The world, its nobles, its princes, its emperors, its pontiffs, have lavished upon him their highest honors, their unbounded admiration. The wonder is that no flattery has altered his gentle modesty, no worldly grandeur taken from him the vision of heavenly things. Some mysterious virtue surrounds him, men say; but angels know that he has kept his youthful piety.
In the midst of all the commissions of imperial and pontifical favor comes one from the monks of Monte Oliveto, Palermo, Sicily; the scene to be that in which Our Lord is met on His way to Calvary by His most sorrowful Mother. In a moment of tender exaltation, of pious emotion, the artist of the Vatican, the almost worshipped Raphael of Urbino, of entire Italy, and of civilized Europe, conceives the picture which is still called to-day Lo Spasimo, or "The Spasm." In this there is all the charm of a receding landscape, of a vernal sky, of trees putting forth their tender leafage; and the winding road, over which are scattered many and differing groups, leads to a hill on which stand two crosses, the ominous space between them to be filled by Him who had come to redeem the world from the consequences of its sin by His own most bitter death.
The broad standard of Rome, with its S. P. Q. R., carried by an officer superbly mounted, helmeted and in full armor, floats between us and that hill of skulls. The centurion, a model of manly beauty, with uncovered head, but otherwise in complete armor, mounted on his charger, surrounded by his staff with their long lances, issues from a strong gateway; but standard-bearer and centurion are alike occupied with the scene that fills the foreground. The victim of His nation's hatred, of Pilate's timorous selfishness, has fallen under the heavy cross laid on His shoulders ; and the centurion, with a look of deep anxiety on his face, motions to an attendant to relieve the condemned One of its cruel weight, which taxes even the trained muscles of the executioner to raise. There is no rudeness, no urging; all are simply performing the conditions of the sentence—an ordinary sentence, and yet it would seem upon some extraordinary man.
Under the shadow, the shelter for the moment, of His own cross, on which He still keeps one hand, the other grasping a stone of the road as He falls on His knees, is the King of Glory, His cruciform nimbus mingling with His crown of thorns ; His divine beauty unobscured by the blood that mats the hair falling on His shoulders, crimsoning his robe ; and, looking upward, half prostrate as He is, to meet the eyes—of whom ?
Directly in front of the centurion and his war charger, on her knees, is Mary, as if when her Son fell she had fallen also; the yearning, agonized face looking into His ; and the arms—how can we put into words what those long arms and hands, extended to their utmost, tell of that Mother's agony! Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, and still another, with Saint John, are sustaining her; but she heeds them not. For herself, even, she has no thought. One only fills her soul, seizes her heart like a spasm—which is, to see the Incarnate One trodden upon as " a worm and no man " by the creatures He has created, whom He sustains in life while hastening to His own death. Seas may be convulsed, rocks may be rent ; but, to Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, none of this compares with the spasm that clutches at His Mother's heart as He turns on her His divinely compassionate eyes.
Yet devotion, genius, the skill which the world admires, craves, have set this dolor before the eyes of one century after another, for one purpose only, whether by the hand of Cimabue, Taddeo Gaddi, Fra Angelico or Raphael—to win us to its contemplation.
From The Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary By By Eliza Allen Starr