“Christ embracing St Bernard,” Francisco Ribalta, 1625-27, Prado, Madrid. From about 1625 Francisco Ribalta and his son, Juan Ribalta, were in Valencia, where they painted this work for the Carthusian Monastery of Portaceli. Both would die within few years of the completion of what is considered to be among their finest works. The subject is St Bernard of Clairvaux, who was a major leader within a reform movement of Benedictine Monasticism. He founded the Cistercian Order at Clairvaux in 1115. The saint, with his strong emphasis on asecticism, would have appealed to the Carthusian monks of Portaceli. The subject is one of the mystical visions of St Bernard in which, while praying before a crucifix, the figure of Christ comes alive and embraces him. St Bernard kneels before Christ with his arms extended, but clearly they are being supported by the strong arms of Christ. The saint is in ecstasy with eyes closed and a smile just visible on his lips. Christ is portrayed as strong and with powerful shoulders, which is interesting, because in another of the saint’s visions, Christ told him that his greatest pain, while carrying the cross was in the shoulder that bore the crosses weight. St Bernard is in the choir dress of a Cistercian monk, the elaborate folds of which contrast with the bare flesh of the crucified Christ. But these beautiful folds draw the eye downward so that Bernard looks as if he is hanging, not from the cross but from the embracing arms of Christ. A blood vessel stands out on the side of Bernard’s head and his skin is covered with the sheen of sweat, both of which suggest the intense energy of this man of prayer, penance and preaching. The saint in this picture is no longer young. This man who for so many years followed Christ by the way of self-denial and led others in this same way is in his latter days now received by Christ in a gentle, open embrace. I am reminded of the English mystic Julian of Norwich and her “Revelations of Divine Love.” For much of the text, she seeks union with Christ by way of his suffering but towards the end there is a shift. Christ asks her, “Are you well satisfied with my suffering for you?” to which she replies, “Yes, good Lord, by your mercy.” Christ then says, “If you are satisfied, I too am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss and endless delight to me that I ever suffered for you, and if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” Christ goes on, “For my pleasure is your holiness and your endless joy and bliss with me.” Ribalta could not have known these writings, but perhaps by the end of his days he understand what both Julian and St Bernard understood. St Bernard’s feast day is this coming Tuesday. Please remember our own Cistercian Community at Nunraw in your prayers.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.