Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Answer to the Dominican Quiz

Thank you to those who have commented on the picture of St Peter Martyr (or a friar) with his finger across his lips. I think you have all given excellent and perfectly credible answers and it is indeed likely that admonishing the friars to be silent was Fra Angelico's intention in painting his fresco at San Marco of 'St Peter Martyr enjoining silence' (right).

Surely, whenever I see this portrait, I am reminded to keep silence for silence is truly the 'father of preachers'. I was also keen on the idea that the Dominican protomartyr silences heresy. But I myself can keep silence no longer and must reveal the answer to the question posed...

Only MonialesOP (predictably) came up with the answer I was looking for. I asked what the particular pose or gesture adopted by St Peter Martyr signified in the Dominican tradition. Indeed, it could have been any other early Dominican friar adopting this gesture and when I first read about this gesture, it struck me as somewhat counter-intuitive and hence I was struck by it.

To quote two sources: Fr W. A. Hinnebusch, OP in his masterful The History of the Dominican Order (Vol 1) writes,
"When friars asked to speak they approached the superior and placed a finger across the lips... In the Congregation of Holland, an observant group that constantly stressed silence, a fifteenth-century friar could get general liberty to speak from prime to compline by turning toward the prior in choir and placing his finger across his lips."

And from M. Michele Mulchahey's "First the Bow is Bent in Study..." Dominican Education before 1350, he explains that in the 13th century book, the Libellus de instructione novitiorum by Jean of Montlhery, a friar of St-Jacques, Paris, this instruction is given:
"Jean explains the rules of silence and the proper way to petition permission to speak: the placingof one finger across the lips as the friar bows slightly, with hood lowered in respect, before his superior."
Mulchahey goes on to say that:
"The famous fresco by fra Angelico in the main cloister of San Marco in Florence depicting St Peter Martyr with his finger before his lips, usually identified as "Saint Peter Martyr Enjoining Silence" thus represents, rather, the saint in the posture of requesting permission to speak... It is probably safe to say, however, that the one gesture, with which we today are more familiar, does derive from the other."

So, Congratulations to the sisters at MonialesOP! I think the debate as to whether or not St Peter Martyr per se was enjoining silence or asking for permission to speak is open to further discussion and interpretation. What strikes me is that in the early Dominican tradition, one had to make a certain gesture when requesting permission to speak and St Peter Martyr seems to be performing just that and the textual evidence indicates that this interrogatory sign predated its use as an admonition. As such, I would venture the opinion that a novice trained by Jean of Montlhery, when seeing such a pose in a painting would naturally assume the friar being depicted was asking for permission to speak, rather than telling others to be silent!

It ought to be noted that in the original painting posted with the Question, there is no indication that it is a depiction of St Peter Martyr. If I had not indicated it was him (and honestly, this was just an assumption on my part) would the guesses have been different?

Anyway, this was an interesting bit of Dominican trivia and I hope you enjoyed it too! The next time a Dominican tries to shush you up by placing his or her finger across the lips, go ahead and give them permission to speak!!


Blogger Moniales said...

Very well done, Brother. We obviously had an "in" with Dominican History books at our disposal. While I'd read about the gesture indicating permission to speak, and, asi I mentioned earlier, we do something similiar, I certainly have never connected it to this painting of St. Peter.

Thanks for the Dominican trivia fun....we'll have to think about a OP NUN one for everyone to sweat over! :-)

Does this mean that we get permission to hop on the midtown direct to NY and take in the Fra Angelico exhibit?

1:02 pm  

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