Tradition plays a dominant role in religious art, as it does in religious ritual, religious language, and religious customs. It could hardly be otherwise since religion is for much of humanity a trusted means for coping with forces beyond our control. Much of the time, it is simply a manifestation of our instinct of self-preservation. The unknown frightens us. We seek reliable knowledge about the factors that determine our existence, and our religions offer us dogmas that admit of no doubt. Religious people in every age have been ready to slaughter one another for offences against the letter of religious dogmas. It is an instinctive panic. If something “works,” leave it alone!
Religions belong to the cultures that shape them. They are the slowest element to change in any culture. As environments change with time, cultures either change with them or die. The same is true of religions and the ways they try to express beliefs, whether through word, action or image. A religion out of step with the lives new environments force its people to lead becomes a repressive force.
Rose of Lima was a product of the Spanish culture of sixteenth century Peru. As a woman from an aristocratic family, she had few choices in her life. Her family expected her to marry, to improve their economic standing. If she did not marry, she might have become a cloistered nun. Rose’s family refused to let her enter a convent, however, so she thwarted their marriage plans by cutting off her hair and rubbing pepper on her face to make it blister. Her father finally relented and allowed her to live as a Dominican tertiary.
As a consecrated virgin living outside a cloister, her culture expected certain things of her. Besides remaining chaste, she had to manifest extraordinary piety and inflict harsh physical penances on her body. These were stepping stones, so to speak, to attain mystical heights and become a spiritual resource for her community.
In the centuries since her death, sacred artists have consistently depicted Rose as a Counter Reformation penitent, and hagiographers have continued to extoll aspects of her life that seem increasingly grotesque. Penances like sleeping on broken roof tiles, ordering servants to slap or spit on her, or burning her hands on purpose, seem the source of the miracles people expect her to perform. She has become part of the Catholic religious arsenal for keeping what frightens us at bay.
If Rose is indeed a saint, however, it is because of her relationship with God and with the people in her life. To understand her holiness, and the holiness of so many saints from former times, we have to read between the lines of official hagiographies. Only then can we present them fresh for new generations who know a world different from theirs. Only then do they become again models of holiness worthy of emulation.
While Rose probably did save Lima from Dutch pirates by her prayers, the real miracle is that she survived childhood and learned to love. She was a confused little child, physically abused by her mother and grandmother for the first five years of her life. The grandmother lived with Rose’s family. Her name was Isabel, and Rose was named after her at birth. Several days afterwards, however, her mother had a vision in which a rose hovered above the child’s cradle and then descended to merge with the baby’s face. She took this as a sign from God that her child should be called Rose. For the next five years, until the archbishop finally settled their quarrel, whenever Rose answered the name Isabel, her mother slapped her. When she answered the name Rose, her grandmother slapped her. Without even a name that was safe, used as a pawn in the rivalry between two women who should have taught her the meaning of love, Rose grew up thinking there was something very wrong with herself.
Coming from such a bewildering childhood, she identified deeply with the suffering Christ. As a Dominican tertiary, she was a close friend of another Dominican saint with an unhappy childhood, Martin de Porres. To help support her family in their accustomed life-style, she did fine embroidery and raised flowers for sale. Her own dreams to become a nun were sacrificed for her parents’ pride.
If she identified with the suffering Christ, she also understood the suffering Africans and Incas in her city streets. Along with flowers, she raised medicinal herbs. She opened a clinic in a back corner of the family courtyard, where she tended sick poor people.
Her love for God was deep and passionate. She wrote mystical poetry, which she occasionally sang while playing a guitar. Like many a Spanish mystic, she had to defend herself before the dreaded Inquisition. Near the end of her life, a small bird came each day at sunset and sang a love song with her that she had composed. She died at the age of 31, after a painful illness.
Brother Robert’s icon of St. Rose was a study for the image he painted for St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tens of thousands of people pass through that church every year as tourists. Generations of children will grow up looking at the image of Rose in the reredos behind the main altar. It was important to break Rose free from the penitential imagery traditionally surrounding her, so that she might speak of her love for God and for us in ways we can understand today. She is but one of thousands of such saints we must reclaim for our times, rediscovering what our traditional religious art sometimes obscures.