Superstitions Concerning the Cross by William Wood Seymour 1898
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SADLY we turn to a darker page in the history of the Cross—-that clouded at times by superstition, or, what is worse, by fraud. Only a few instances of the more notable are given, without regard to chronology or place.
In the Irish annals of the Four Masters, we read that, in 1397, "Hugh Mathews by fasting and prayers in honor of the miraculous Cross of Raphoe and of the image of the blessed Virgin of Trim recovered his eyesight. In the year 1411, from the five wounds of the image flowed a stream of blood, whereby various kinds of infirmities were healed."'
But what was in this instance an occasional miracle was permanent in the crucifix in the Church of S. Thomas at Malabar. "At the time of Mass," says Ribadeneira, "the holy Cross begins little by little, to change its natural color (which is white), turning into yellow, and afterwards into black, and from black into azure; until that the sacrifice of Mass being ended, it returns to its own natural color. And that which augments both admiration and devotion is, that as the holy Cross changes its color, it distils certain little drops of blood, and, little by little, as they grow thicker they fall in so great abundance, that the cloths with which they wipe it are dyed with the same blood, and if any year this miracle fail, it is held as a certain sign of some great calamity that is to come upon them, as experience has showed them."* Perhaps this miracle may be akin to that of the liquefaction of the blood of S. Januarius.
Some crucifixes manifested their displeasure in a miraculous manner. "When Comyn, Archbishop of Dublin, in the early part of the thirteenth century, visited an offence committed against him by the Lord Justice with the extremest ecclesiastical vengeance, he caused the crucifixes and images in the Cathedral to be taken down and laid upon thorns, as if the Passion of the Redeemer were renewed in the person of the minister; and his sufferings were supposed to be repeated in one of the figures which was exhibited to the beholders with the face inflamed, the eyes shedding tears, the body bathed in sweat, and the side pouring forth blood and water."
In Ireland, childbed linen is drawn through the holes of the crosses to insure easy delivery.
Scotland was specially favored supernaturally. David I. was hunting in the forest of Drumsheuch, now part of the town of Edinburgh, when in the ardor of the chase having outstripped his followers, he was attacked and thrown down by a stag. At the very instant when the enraged stag was about to gore him to death, a cross was miraculously slipped into the monarch's hand, and the angry animal, at the sight of it, instantly took flight.
Accounts vary as to details. One chronicler says that the chase took place on the Festival of the Exaltation of the Cross, when the King, instead of following the advice of his confessor, and devoting the day to his devotions, preferred following his pastime with his profligate young nobles.
In commemoration of his miraculous escape, about A.D. 1128, David founded the Abbey of Holy Rood in honor of the Cross. The miraculous Cross which had saved the founder's life was placed in the reliquary, and possessed the remarkable quality that no one could tell of what it consisted, or even whether it was of animal, vegetable, or mineral material.
David I. reminds us of S. Hubert, a nobleman of Aquitaine, "who lived for some years in the Court of Pepin d'Heristal. . . . One day in Holy Week, when all good Christians were at their devotions, as he was hunting in the forest of Ardennes, he encountered a milk-white stag bearing the crucifix between his horns." Of course he was converted, and in after years exhibited an example of most edifying piety. "S. Hubert appears to have been one....who carried not only religious discipline, but social civilization into the depths of the forests; his effigies were anciently represented, sometimes with wild animals, sometimes with the stag bearing the crucifix, which among the antique symbols expressed either piety or the conversion of some reckless lover of the chase, who like the wild huntsman of the ballad, had pursued his sport in defiance of the sacred ordinances and the claims of humanity." Anciently, the allegory was understood by the people, but finally, like many an old saint story, it was assumed to be real. In art the saint carries a book bearing the miraculous stag, or the stag stands by his side.
Care must be taken not to confound, in works of art, Hubert with S. Eustace, who was a Roman soldier and captain of the guards of the Emperor Trajan. To him also appeared a stag bearing a crucifix of radiant light, from which the Saviour revealed himself and the huntsman was converted. In art, S. Eustace is represented in the armor of a knight, while S. Hubert is vested either as a huntsman or as a bishop. Among the peasantry of Northern Europe the belief in the virtue of the cross is still retained. In Norway the housewife carefully crosses her pies and cakes between Christmas and Twelfth Day, and puts a cross over her door that the Wild Huntsman may not enter. The Danes believe that the Trolls cannot pronounce the sacred word, but call it "here and there." They also believe that a bride must not enter her new home except under two drawn swords placed saltire-wise.
To return to Great Britain. Within the last century, every bride, in "Holy Isle"-—doubly consecrated by Scott's verse—-was obliged to stride across the "Petting stone," part of the foundation of a churchyard cross, else the marriage would prove unfortunate.
Stow also tells us, that when Cardinal Wolsey was at dinner on All Hallows day, his cross fell, and wounded Dr. Bonner's head. "Hath it drawn any bloude?" inquired the Cardinal. "Yea, forsooth, my Lord," they replied. With that he cast his hood aside and shaking his head said grace, and muttering, "Malum omen," arose from the table and went to his chamber. Within a few days Wolsey had fallen.
Innumerable instances of miraculous crucifixes might be told. We give, however, but a few.
In the Church of S. Domenico at Ravenna is preserved a crucifix said to have shed blood during the battle which occurred on Easter Sunday, 1512, between the French and the Spanish, in which battle Gaston de Foix was killed. In commemoration, two tapers have been burnt before it ever since.
In the plague of Malaga, in 1649, a certain statue of Christ at the column, carved for the Cathedral by Giuseppe Micael, an Italian, performed prodigies of healing, and bade fair to rival that holy crucifix sculptured at Jerusalem by Nicodemus, and possessed by the Capuchins of Burgos, which sweated on Fridays, and wrought miracles all the week. While the pestilence was yet raging, the sculptor stood, one evening, musing near the door of the sanctuary where his work was enshrined, but with so sorrowful a countenance that a friend hailing him from afar, according to the usages of plague-stricken society, inquired the cause of his sadness. "Think you," said the artist, "that I have anything more to look for on earth after seeing and hearing the prodigies and marvels of this sovereign image which my unworthy hands have made? It is an old tradition amongst the masters of our craft, that he shall soon die to whom it is given to make a miraculous image." And the good Giuseppe erred not in his presentiment; his chisel's work was done; he was to return no more, nor see his native country; and within eight days the dead-cart had carried him to the gorged cemetery of Malaga. His name, if not his life, was preserved by the statue, which was long revered for its Esculapian powers, under the title (profanely usurped) of the "Lord of Health."
In the Church of the Madonna del Carmine, in Naples, is a crucifix which in former times is said to have exhibited miraculous vitality, the hair of the head growing after being cut every year. It is held in great veneration, and is exhibited on the first and last days of the year. Perhaps, latterly, the faith of the Neapolitans is so strong as not to need a repetition of the miracle, for the festa is now only commemorated by a mass celebrated with extraordinary pomp, during which the image is lowered to be kissed on the feet by the priests and congregation. From the right side of the head a long lock of hair hangs down, which is now permitted to grow unshorn. This may be the same figure which is said to have bowed its head to avoid a cannon-ball which passed through the church in the siege of 1435.
Naples is especially favored, for in another church, that of S. Domenico Maggiore, is preserved the picture of the crucifix which is said to have congratulated S. Thomas Aquinas with the words, "Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma, quam ergo mercedem recipies?" To which the saint replied, "Non aliam nisi te."
When S. Francis of Assisi was praying in the Church of S. Damian, a voice issued from the crucifix, "Go, Francis, and repair my house." Supposing the command to refer to the ruinous condition of the church, he took some of his father's cloth and having sold it, brought the money to the priest, who refused to receive it, for fear of the saint's father. S. Francis threw it in a corner and retired. At length, being instructed as to the meaning of the revelation, he renounced his father and wealth, and assumed Orders. This crucifix is at present preserved in the Church of S. Chiara at Assisi.
In the Church of S. Paolo Fuori delle Mura at Rome, which Webb terms a "treasure-house of Christian antiquities," is preserved the crucifix which spoke to S. Bridget. This saint must not be confounded with the patroness of Ireland, but was a widow of high rank in Roman hagiology because of her "Revelations" of the Passion of our Lord.
S. Dunstan also was admonished by a crucifix to expel the married priests from his diocese, which command the gentle (?) saint was not slow to obey.
Mrs. Jameson has resuscitated for the benefit of modern times the most Christian legend of S. John Gualberto, who spared the murderer of his brother, because, when he met him unarmed upon Good Friday, the assassin threw himself upon his knees, and extending his arms in the form of a cross, implored mercy in the name of Him who suffered that day. S. John hastened to the Church of San Miniato, and prostrating himself before the crucifix begged that the measure he had meted to another should be measured to himself. The image bowed its head. This completed the conversion, and the sometime soldier became the founder of the Order of Vallombrosa.
This crucifix is one of the oldest extant, circa 1020, and is painted on cloth stretched on a wooden cross. It is now over the altar of S. Trinita, Florence, and is exposed on the evening of Good Friday.
It is related of S. Margaret of Cortona that "as she knelt one day before the image of the crucified Redeemer, He bent His head in compassion and forgiveness. She was regarded from that day with religious reverence by the people of Cortona, and became the local Magdalene."
In 1602, when the city of Cortona was visited by the plague, the image of S. Nicolas of Tolentino was borne in solemn procession to the Lazaretto. The procession was met by another carrying a large crucifix "Thereupon the saint stretched forth his arms, and the figure of Christ stooping from the Cross embraced S. Nicolas, and from that moment the pestilence was stayed."
While not meaning to be uncharitable, and making all due allowance for overwrought imagination, we think that some light may be thrown on these, and similar miracles, by the story of the "gaping rood" or "bearded crucifix" of Boxley in Kent, England. This was commonly called the "Rood of Grace," to which many pilgrimages had been made, because it was observed sometimes to bow, and to lift itself up, to shake and stir its head, hands, and feet, to roll the eyes, move the lips, and bend the brows, all of which were looked on by the abused multitude as the effects of a divine power. These were now publicly discovered to have been cheats; for the springs were showed by which all these motions were made. Upon which John Hilsey, then Bishop of Rochester, made a sermon, and broke the rood in pieces, at S. Paul's Cross, London.
When the Litany was sung in English in Christ Church, Dublin, at the arrival of the Earl of Sussex, the Lord Lieutenant under Queen Elizabeth, the Archbishop and the rest of the Privy Council
being present, drops of blood trickled from the thorns of the crown upon the face of the marble image upon the Cross, and the people were told by one privy to the contrivance, "that our Saviour could not choose but sweat blood when heresy was come into the Church."
By command of the Archbishop, the image was examined, and a sponge soaked in blood was discovered within the hollow of the head, which had been placed there by one Lee, formerly a monk of the Cathedral. He and his assistants were exposed for three Sundays upon a table before the pulpit, with their crime placarded upon their breasts. Parker, then elect-Primate of Canterbury, made use of this detected fraud to induce Queen Elizabeth to consent to the removal of images from the churches, but "all his learning and zeal could not persuade the Queen to part with the crucifix and tapers from her own closet; she thought, it is likely, that the arguing against the use, from the abuse, was short of exact reasoning."
The Rood of Beccles, which sweat, bled, and emitted a sweet perfume, was doubtless contrived in a similar manner.
In connection with this head of the subject, may be noted some of the instances of the stigmata, the most celebrated of which is afforded in the history of S. Francis of Assisi.
This saint was living on Monte Alverno in the Apennines, when upon the Festival of the Exaltation of the Cross, a seraph appeared bearing a crucifix. Two wings of the angel were above the head of the figure, two covered the body, and two were stretched forth to fly. "Pity passed through the [saint's] heart like a sword, and a supernatural sympathy visibly and indelibly imprinted the wounds of the crucified upon his person." In the holes remained, as it were, nails of hard flesh, the heads whereof were round and black. The points were long and went beyond the skin, and were turned back as if they had been clenched with a hammer. The wound of his right side was a red scar, out of which flowed so much blood that it colored the habit of the saint." "That the wounds actually existed during S. Francis's life there can be no question," writes Lord Lindsay, "although" (Roman) "Catholics and Protestants, and such as view the Christianity of the Middle Ages with Oriental eyes, will account for their infliction very differently."
According to the legend, after the death of S. Francis, when the populace of Assisi were permitted to view his body, one Jerome, being skeptical, touched and moved the nails, whereupon the hands, feet, and side shrank as with pain. This subject forms one of the series of frescoes illustrating the life of the saint by Giotto at Assisi.
It is a little curious that in 1222, a few years before the miracle exhibited by S. Francis, "two naughty fellows," as Holinshed calls them, were crucified by order of a council held in Oxford, because they were found to be false dissemblers, showing the signs of the wounds of our Saviour.
Concerning stigmata, Ennemoser says that medical history affords many instances of the power of thought to produce wounds on the surface of the body in parts to which it is intently directed. The explanation he finds in the plastic force of phantasy, the essence of which, as poetic shaping power, consists in the realizing of ideal representations, wherein the soul of man can do much even to his own body. In confirmation of this, De Boismont gives the following account, which cannot be doubted:
Marie de Moerl was born in 1812. In her infancy she was subject to severe nervous attacks, and when about twenty years old she became affected with ecstasy on the reception of the Eucharist, on one occasion remaining on her knees for thirty hours after partaking of the Communion. In the autumn of 1833, the palms of her hands sank in as if under pressure, became painful, and frequently cramped. On the Feast of the Purification in 1834 she was observed to wipe her hands and exhibit a childlike alarm at the appearance of blood. Soon marks appeared on her feet, and on her heart. On Thursday and Friday the wounds shed blood; on other evenings they were covered with a crust of dried blood. After some time she was visited by Dr. Goerres. She had then been four years almost continually in a state of ecstasy, and when aroused from it, as she was daily, appeared rational and collected, and gave directions about the household affairs. On arousing from trance her first movement always was to hide her marked hands beneath the bedclothes, as a child would conceal them when soiled from its mother. Her meditations usually were of the Passion of our Lord, and on Friday her sympathies were so intense that she appeared to agonize with Him to the last extremity. "If Marie de Moerl actually died," says Dr. Goerres, "her death could not appear more real."
Another instance noted by Ennemoser is that of the nun Enrich; from youth sickly and devout, before she entered the cloister she had a vision in which she was offered a crown of thorns, or a wreath of flowers. She chose the crown, pressed it upon her brow, and felt upon her head a violent pain accompanied with bleeding.
A later case is that of Louisa Lateau, of Belgium. The stigmata were manifested every Friday. When the sufferer was not in a state of ecstasy, she was afflicted with catalepsy. Her arms remained rigidly extended as upon a cross and she would fall even upon the stones without injury. From this peculiar condition she could only be awakened by one of the Order of the Passion.
Thirty-two other instances of similar stigmata, or in which wounds have appeared upon the body, are cited by the authors referred to, one of which is remarkable enough to be repeated.
Upon the entry of the French into Moscow the terror of a citizen who witnessed a conflict between a Frenchman and a Cossack was so great that, although actually untouched, bleeding gashes appeared upon his person.
Ennemoser insists that the stigmata are not scientifically produced deceptions, nor yet are they to be explained by the mere physical circumstances of the body. We will hardly ascribe them to spirits or to any immediate divine apparition. Far from being miraculous, they are due in every case to a purely psychical cause.
Cruciform birth-marks occasionally occur. S. Roch is said to have had the figure of a small red cross upon his breast. Frederick, eldest son of John the Constant, of the House of Saxony, had a similar one upon his back.