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Artist NameSpanish School (1747)
TitleSaint Benedict of Palermo
Date of Artwork1747
MediumOil on canvas
Size50 1/4 x 35 3/4 in. • 127.6 x 90.8 cm
SignedSigned and dated on the reverse: Feccid. Franc.o Benito Gonzs Missa / en vio Molinos de tuy A.o 1747
Framed Dimensions50 1/4 x 35 3/4 in. • 127.6 x 90.8 cm


Private Collection, France, for several generations

Further Information

The present work is a rare devotional painting depicting Saint Benedict of Palermo, the first Black saint canonized in modern times. The verso of the unlined canvas bears a signature and inscription with the date of 1747. It indicates that the painting was made by a certain Francisco Benito Gonzales Missa (or possibly Arissa) on the "vio molinos de Tuy" (the street of the windmills in the town of Tui) in the year 1747. Tui is located in Pontevedra (Galicia), on the Spanish side of the Miño River, facing the Portuguese town of Valença. No artist with this name has yet been identified, and the painting's compositional format, with its full-length central figure and narrative vignettes framed with baroque ornamentation on either side, is one found both in the Spanish provinces and New World colonies.

The Saint:
Saint Benedict of Palermo (ca. 1524-1589) is known by several names, reflecting the cultural prejudices of his times and the extent of the posthumous veneration dedicated to him. He was born Benedetto Manasseri in a village near Messina once called San Filadelfo and now San Fratello-hence his sobriquets, Benedetto da San Filadelfo and Benedetto da Sanfratello. His parents, Christoforo and Diana, were Christians of Ethiopian origin. Christoforo was enslaved by a certain Vincenzo Manasseri; Diana, manumitted according to some sources, had the surname of her "padrone" Larcan. It is uncertain whether Benedict was born free or was freed at the age of ten, but his skin color engendered the more familiar names by which he is known: Benedetto (or Benito in Spanish) Moro (Benedict the Moor), Benedict the African, or Benedict the Black. We know that he received no formal education and was working as a farm hand when, at the age of twenty-one, he met Girolamo Lanza, an itinerant noble ascetic, who had formed a group of devout hermits which Benedict soon joined. He remained with them until 1562, when Pius IV ordered the dissolution of their hermitage and their transfer to established monastic orders. Benedict then joined the Franciscans, becoming a lay brother at the Monastery of Santa Maria di Gesù near Palermo. His duties there were modest ones, preparing food in the kitchen and sweeping the monastery floors, but his humility, piety, and asceticism were recognized, and he was eventually appointed Guardian and Master of the Novices at the Monastery-extraordinary positions in light of his evident illiteracy. Early accounts attest to his devotion to a life of poverty and obedience, to austerity, self-mortification and charity-which led to tales not alone of good works, but miracles: occurrences of the materialization of food and wine (such as, the replication of loaves of bread and the appearance of ripe oranges in winter) and extraordinary demonstrations of prophecy, reanimation, and cures of blindness, dire illnesses, and myriad afflictions.

Benedict's path to sainthood began soon after his death in 1589 and continued over the next two centuries. While popular veneration of Benedict was considerable (though unsanctioned), the official process of canonization proceeded slowly. It began in 1595, following the mandatory five-year hiatus after his death when an "ordinary process" was initiated. Two apostolic inquiries followed in 1620, another two in 1625. In 1716 a process was held at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, focusing on the cult devoted to Benedict, which by then had proliferated across Iberia to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World-especially Peru, Mexico, and Brazil. Benedict was finally beatified in 1743 but canonized only in 1807. Today Benedict remains one of the most deeply venerated saints throughout the New World. In Venezuela a series of festivals and processions dedicated to Benedict take place every winter. These incorporate African, European, and indigenous traditions, featuring elaborate costumes, vibrant dances, and drum orchestras of African origin known as chimbanguéles.

Benedict's cause was supported and amplified by the Church and the Spanish Monarchy. Erin Kathleen Rowe has written: "Habsburg monarchs had begun an ambitious project of elevating holy people from all regions of its composite monarchy, including Rose of Lima, Isabel of Portugal, and John of God. Philip [that is, Philip III] had two levels of interest in Benedict's cult - first it highlighted the sanctity of Sicily, one of his dominions, and second, it offered help in the long effort of evangelizing to existing and new populations of enslaved Africans throughout the empire." Parallel with these efforts were the establishment of black confraternities, first in Spain and Portugal, but soon in Spanish America. Rowe writes: "The tradition of black confraternities had been firmly in place for over a century before the entrance of Benedict's cult to the Iberian Atlantic, yet black saints and black confraternities quickly became intertwined. In fact, black confraternities became the primary vehicle through which devotion to black saints spread. Black saints, then, emerged out of the brutality of early modern slavery and the attendant collision of Africans and Christianity."

Devotion to Benedict was shared by all races, but his appeal to Black people, whether enslaved or free, was special. He was the first Black figure to be beatified and canonized in modern times and from the broad devotion that emerged, he has become the Patron Saint of African Americans, African missions, enslaved people, as well as co-patron (with Saint Rosalia) of the city of Palermo.

The Painting:
The figure of Benedict is seen standing at center, posed atop an elaborate fictive baroque base. He holds a crucifix aloft in his proper right hand, while in his left he grasps a flaming heart, banded with thorns. The heart references the ecstatic event described by Benedict's hagiographers when after receiving Extreme Unction, his flaming heart ("encendido corazón") left his body to be united with Christ. A lambent aureole surrounds Benedict's head and a ray of light connects his head with the crucifix. At the saint's feet, lies a scourge (known as a discipline) next to a skull and a studded belt, tools of mortification of the flesh.

As in nearly all depictions of Benedict (almost all of which are sculptures or prints) he is here shown as a young man, handsome with unmodulated dark skin, afro-textured hair, and bearing a calm countenance (Fig. 1). The lack of highlights or shading may reference the sculptural origin of the image and the custom in Iberian images of the saint of employing a uniform deep matte black for the encarnaciones (flesh tones).

Directly above the saint appear a conjoined coat-of-arms (Fig. 2), with emblems of the Franciscan Order at the left and the Spanish Kingdom at the right, consisting of the symbols of Castile (a castle) and León (a lion) with three fleur-de-lis at center, representing the House of Bourbon. The entire escutcheon is surmounted by a crown and encircled by a Franciscan cord at left and the Chain of the Order of the Toisón de oro at right, from which hangs the Golden Fleece insignia. Such a heraldic device with paired Franciscan and Spanish arms follows a standard format employed by Spanish confraternities ("hermandades"), and it seems likely that the present painting was commissioned for one of the Black confraternities that proliferated in Iberia and the New World from the 17th century on.

The design for the figure of Benedict is directly derived from a 1743 engraving by Julián Rodríguez which appeared in Antonio Vicente de Madrid's Life of the saint titled El negro más prodigioso (Fig. 3). The inscription on the base of our painting is a slightly revised version of that which appear below the figure of Benedict in the engraving. As suggested in the inscription, the image of the saint likely recorded a sculpture at one time venerated in the Franciscan Monastery of San Gil in Madrid, which was destroyed during the French invasion of Spain in the Napoleonic era. The iconographic type was similar to that of a 17th-century polychrome sculpture of Benedict in the Church of Nossa Senhora de Esperança in Vila Viçosa, Portugal (Fig. 4).

Six vignettes portraying miracles of Saint Benedict appear in framed roundels, three on either side of the central figure. While it might be conjectured that these compositions depend on print sources, no earlier prototypes have been found. Three of these scenes feature the saint before a blue-and-pink mystical sky; the others in schematic interiors almost theatrical in nature.

The vignette at the upper left depicts an incident on Christmas Day when Don Diego de Ahedo, the Archbishop of Palermo, visited the Monastery of Santa Maria di Gesù (Fig. 5). He had brought food for the congregation that Benedict, well known for his culinary talents, might prepare. But when Mass was over and dinner was to begin, Benedict was nowhere to be found until discovered frozen deep in prayer, the food untouched. When questioned, he stated that the Lord would provide, whence two angels appeared who proceeded to cook and serve the food themselves. They are seen here happily preparing dinner in the kitchen, with four pots heating away over open flames. Benedict stands to the side, his hands before him, either in astonishment or to enjoy the stove's warmth on this winter day. The kitchen setting includes a chimney hood above and a brick floor gently curved to tally with the circular field of the composition.

The episode below shows Benedict kneeling before an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Fig. 6). He is praying for the life of Lorenzo Galletti, Conte di Gagliardi, who had fallen gravely ill and was close to death. Next to Benedict a sepulcher miraculously opens up to reveal the Virgin, who utters the words "Ecco Lorenzo Galletti morto, e risuscitato" [dead and revived] whereupon Galletti, miles distant in Palermo, was completely cured.

The third scene seems to be that described by Sister Francesca Locitraro, who witnessed Benedict levitating before the Altar of the Virgin Mary, an event she swore to in the examination for Benedict's canonization (Fig. 7). In the top right vignette the Viceroy had remonstrated Benedict for taking scraps of food that he swept up from the monastery's floor to give to the poor (Fig. 8). When criticized the scraps turn to roses and fall from his habit.

The fifth scene shows one of Benedict's miracles of materialization of food (Fig. 9). Two glazed ceramic bowls of water had been left out in the evening and in the morning they were teeming with live fish. The last miracle illustrates an occasion when a cat stole a piece of meat intended for the brethren and refused to relinquish it (Fig. 10). Benedict patiently spoke to the cat, whereupon it dropped the meat at the saint's feet. Here a second cat, a pescatarian, appears as well.