minima maxima sunt

The Small things are the Great things; as in a grain of mustard seed.

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Ale’s of Lore

Monk brewing beer.

Anyone that knows me should have seen this one coming; my tribute to those fine monks who for centuries have preserved the art of beer making. Didn’t know that monks made beer? Well neither did I until about eight years ago when I stumbled into a local brewery called St. Sabastiaans and ordered their private reserve. The waiter brought out a goblet, which was strange to have a beer come in. The goblet was filled a bright golden ale which had an amazing fruity aroma; unlike any beer I was familiar with. I lifted the ale to my lips and suddenly flavor, unlike anything I had ever experienced in a beer, filled my mouth… I placed the goblet back onto the table to ponder what had just happened and slowly my cheeks started to warm up and then a grin formed which I was unable to “un-grin” for about an hour.

St. Sabastiaans is an Abbey style ale, which means it’s not really made by monks or a monastery but draws from that tradition of beer-making, and they are not alone. Abbey style ales are growing more popular yearly and most micro or craft breweries are offering up their take on Belgian ales for the world to enjoy. For example, Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown, NY, is an american brewery devoted to making Belgian style ales.

The seven Trappist Ales

Probably the most noteworthy Belgian ales come from the Trappists. There are many Trappist monasteries today, but only 7 are beer makers, six of which are in Belgium. The Trappist Logo can only be found on these beers. One of the more popular Trappist ales that I’ve seen is Chimay, who also make cheese, another of the great monastic traditions. Chimay makes three beers, a trippel (gold), a grande reserve (blue) and a premier (red)

Other monasteries also produce Belgian ales but are not under the control of the Trappists. These are called Abbey ales, but because there is no monitoring organization behind this name, the term can apply to an actual monastery beer or to any beer made in the style of an Abbey ale.

Most of the breweries around today are a few hundred years old, but there are some that do date back further. The oldest brewery is Weihenstephan brewery. Founded in 740 the Benedictine abbey didn’t begin to produce beer until 1040 and thought the Abbey wsa dissolved in 1803 it is still in operation as a brewery today. Weihenstephan produces German style beers which differ from the Belgian but are also wonderful on the palate.

Illuminated letter with monk sipping beer.

Monks have been brewing beer since…. well that’s a good question. It could be guessed that they may have been doing so every since monasteries were first formed. Beer as well as wine were basically water substitutes because water was not the the best thing to drink back then. The process in brewing offered a drink that was not only free from pollutants found in water,  but also provided sustenance. Beer was good at breakfast, lunch or dinner, and was drunk by men, women and children. The fact that monasteries were often self supporting and provided hospitality to the traveller, it seems likely that beer was there early on.

What we do know is that in the 9th century there is evidence of beer being made better. It appears that under the control of monastic communities, the process was refined, recipes, methods of cooking and preserving developed and so the tradition of beer making begins. This could very well be where the scientific method began to develop as methods of brewing and ingredients were constantly being tested and developed to bring about a better product. One noteworthy ingredient is the use of Hops as a preservative, which are first mentioned in 822 by a Carolingian Abbot and later in the 12th century by Hildegard von Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess. Hildegard states:   “(Hops), when put in beer, stops putrification and lends longer durability.”

I’ve been a homebrewer for 3 years now and have personally made several of the Belgian style beers as well as those from the German and Brittain traditions. It’s a little more effort, which goes without saying, but well worth it when all is done. That and you can cut down the cost by about half which can really save some money if your into good beer. Belgian ales, especially Trappist can go for over ten bucks for a 4-pack. Still it’s always a treat to get the real deal and enjoy a delicious beer that has centuries of tradition behind it.

Chi Rho

Chi Rho in Lullingstone, Kent.

The Chi Rho, or Chi Rho Iota, is an ancient symbol for Christ and is found throughout church history in a variety of ways. The earliest use appears to be in the catacombs, along with several other symbols such as the ichthus (fish) and the anchor. The Chi Rho is formed by using the first two letters for Christ in the Greek language ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, which phonetically would sound like KRISTOS. Often an alpha and omega will appear, as in the picture above from Lullingstone villa (4th century).

The symbol is also called a Labarum by the Romans and is the symbol that legend says the Emporer Constantine saw in a dream in the year 312, which would lead him to victory. The Labarum is a military standard and can be found on roman shields and on poles that would hold banners or flags.

ChiRho page from the Book of Kells

Both of the above used the Chi Rho as a monogram, affixing the letters in the same space to form a single symbol, and while this style of the symbol is still in use today it isn’t the only way in which the XP (Chi Rho symbol) was depicted.  In the famous Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, the xp is found as well.

The Book of Kells dates to the 9th century Ireland. It is also known as the Book of Columba, who was a monk in the 6th century that taught the Gospel in Ireland and Scotland. The Lindisfarne Gospels dates to the 8th century England and are attributed to a monk named Eadfrith who was bishop of Lindisfarne. Both are famous illuminated manuscripts and  examples of how Sacred Scripture was preserved through the early middle ages.

The book of Kells as well as Lindisfarne are an Evangeliary, or Gospel Book. This is the book where the gospel is read from at mass. It’s cover has the four evangelical symbols for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and is usually made of gold, though both books lost their covers during Viking raids, taking the gold and leaving the real treasure. Both were written in Latin, which was the language of the people, and there is a translation of the Lindisfarne that has Old English which comes from the 10th century.

As can be seen on the ChiRho pages in both examples, the Book of Kells above and the Lindisfarne Gospels below, there is an entire page dedicated to the ChiRho, XP as well as the I (Iota), and are not found to be in the monogram style. They both are placed right at the beginning of Matthew 1:18 where in the genealogy listed, Christ enters and (the word is made flesh). In the Book of Kells the ChiRho page reads: XPI autem generatio.. which would translate as “Now the generation of Christ was in this wise…” and continues, “When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”

ChiRho page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

If you get a chance, find a detailed pic of both of these and look at the amazing detail, the figures of people, animals, and the beautiful celtic style knots.


St. Polycarp of Smyrna AD 69-155

St.Polycarp of Smyrna

Most people have probably heard the story of the gospel; about Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. And I would bet that many of those who know about Jesus also know about those he sent; the Apostles and their successors like Paul of Tarsis. But this is where the Sacred Scriptures end in the telling of history. How many know of that next generation that came after the Apostles?

One of those people is in fact St Polycarp of Smyrna. Tradition tells us that he was a disciple of the Apostle John, that he wrote epistles (one of which still survives), that he was Bishop in Smyrna and that he was martyred on Feb 23 in the year 155… give or take a few years. Polycarp is also known as one of the Chief Apostolic Fathers, and shares this title with St. Clement and St. Ignatius.

One of the most interesting things about ancient people is their name, and when I hear of strange old names I like to go and look up their meanings. Polycarp is a name that comes from two greek words poly (many/much) and carp (fruit). So basically his name means fruitful, or one who bears much fruit. A fitting name for a man who helped to carry the torch from the hands of the very Apostles. And it seems that his name probably found fulfilment in his life. He was known for his stance on orthodoxy and is said to have converted many from the early gnostic sects that were forming.

St. Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians leaves us with a plethora of quotes from what would become the New Testament. His usage of these provided evidence that he was familiar with and accepted as Sacred Scripture most of the books of the New Testament. He also quotes the Hebrew Scriptures and Deutero-Canonicals (apocrypha) which were part of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Jewish Sacred Scriptures used by the early church.

This may be the most important aspect of his transitional position,  connecting the Apostles with the church of the second century and later. When the time arose to compile and canonize the New Testament, in the 4th century, the tradition the church relied on for their decision starts right after the apostles with the testimonies of people like Polycarp. This is after all what tradition means as the church uses the term, the handing down of information from primary sources through the generations that followed. The closing of the New Testament canon, as well as the accepting the books contained in the Septuagint, wasn’t a blind decision made on a whim, but was an appeal to what they understood as coming from those who lived before; what books or epistles,  were handed down from the start, even from the men who sat at the apostle’s feet. Seeing that Polycarp quoted many of these books supports their early acceptance among the church as well as demonstrates they were written early enough to be of apostolic origin as opposed to a later forgery.

Dies Cinerum – The Day of Ashes

Ash Wednesday by J. Gilmartin

The Dies Cinerum, or Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, and strangely it’s one of the more popular days for attending church even though it is not a Holy Day of Obligation. As a child I always liked going to the service, which is very much like most Masses except that the people are called forward and ashes which have been blessed will be rubbed onto their foreheads, in the shape of a cross (Signum Crucis). The ashes are made from palm fronds of the prior years Palm Sunday and while the ashes are placed on the forehead the Priest or person ministering will say “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” or “Turn from sin and follow the Gospel”.

I often run into people that ask “Where is Ash Wednesday in the Bible?”, and for my part there was a time when I asked the same question. Well the simple answer is that it is not in the bible. It is a tradition that formed after the bible was written and is found in western christianity starting around the eighth century. The placing of ashes on the head however is in the bible and can be found in several places as an act accompanying fasting, repentance, and sorrow for ones sins. For instance Israel is exhorted to put on sackcloth and ashes by the prophet Jeremiah and Job makes this statement: ” With the hearing of the ear, I have heard you, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes..” Job 42 5-6. Ash Wednesday is a fast day that begins a season of fasting in preparation for Easter, which explains why the tradition of ashes found it’s way into practice. In other words, the symbolism and participation in an ancient expression of repentance, make Ash Wednesday a beautiful way to begin Lent.

O Virga Mediatrix

The Tree of Life

Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess, an artist, a composer, a mystic, and a polymath; which basically means a person with a lot of knowledge on a variety of subjects. I have enjoyed modern reproductions and interpretations of her music for several years now.

Her art, like the Tree of Life to the left, is also amazing. Clearly a geocentric world view is expressed, which was standard for her time based on observation. Combining the spiritual with the physical, her work often expresses the sacramental outlook of the church.

The short poem below O Virga Mediatrix, packs a huge amount of vision, theology and mysticism. Thought I would share this for today but expect to hear more about Hildegard in the future.

Alleluia! Light

burst from your untouched womb

like a flower on the farther side of death.

The world-tree is blossoming.

Two realms become one.


The Battle of Carnival and Lent - Pieter Brueghel the Elder

From the very early days of Christianity, Christians prepared for Easter by fasting and sacrifice, prayer and penance. Over time this became known as Lent and developed into a 40 day fast which would begin on Ash Wednesday and end on Holy Thursday or on Easter Sunday depending on the tradition or rite being observed. Christians would fast from meat, rich foods, and dairy. Because of this other customs began to form, one of which was called carnival.

Carnival comes from the Latin carne lavere and means “removal of meat”, or from carne vale, which would be “goodbye to meat“. These Pre-Lenten celebrations to use up meat and foods that would over time become known by other names such as Mardi Gras (America), Fastelavn (Denmark/Norway) and Vastenavond (Netherlands).

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, by Pieter Bruegner is a wonderful piece of Renaissance art. Made in 1559 it’s setting is in the Carnival/Lent of the Netherlands. It’s very much like a “Where’s Waldo” from 500 years ago. In the picture you can see the contrast between the two seasons from the left to the right. The left part of the picture shows the Carnival and the right Lent, and shows such things as the parade, fatness, wine, and gambling of carnival, opposed to almsgiving, confession, and abstinence and piety of Lent.

Carnival and Lent personified

The confrontation between these extremes takes place in the bottom center. Here we see lances of meat and fish, a wine barrel for a horse and a chariot drawn by a monk and nun. The knight for Carnival is fat and the knight for Lent is gaunt.

While the subject deals with these two conflicting seasons, it seems like there are many other things it could relate to such as the conflict between the world and religion, paganism and christianity, the rich and the poor. Given a dozen people, they may all come away with a different take.

The mystery in all this is the couple in the center of the picture. The area surrounding them is illumined, drawing our attention there and forcing the viewer to take notice. They are walking it seems to the church, and we cannot see their faces. Are they moving from Carnival to Lent or simply walking a fine line between these opposing forces? Their path seems to be blocked by a jester who is walking the opposite direction, maybe trying leave or avoid Lent. I like to think they represent the viewer in some way. Allowing us to take form in the midst of the scene to ask ourselves what it is we are doing and where we are going in the midst of all this.

Another thing that comes to my mind would be this: What if Brueghel were alive today and was doing a re-make? Would Lent be over-run by Carnival in the Me Generation?


I have to admit that I love Animé. Often referred to as Jap-Animé to specify the animated movies, series, and graphic novels that come from Japan, the genre has gained popularity far beyond the shores of Japan. While reading about Christianity in Japan, I thought it would be interesting to look into some Japanese iconography. So Jap-anima sounded like a worthy pun for a blog about Japanese religious art.

Anima is a Latin word that would be understood as the soul or spirit, that unseen part of man that makes us alive. It is also the root for the word animation and thus Animé.

Japanese Madonna in Summer

One of the more popular icons found in Christianity is the Madonna and Child. Latin, Greek, Russian, Polish… there are a great many variations. It wasn’t a surprise that one of the first I came across from Japan was a Madonna and Child. This one is in a setting of the season of summer, and is part of a collection in different seasons.

It’s always interesting to see how culture can interpret history. Even historically we see this in such things as Nativity scenes with snow, Gothic architecture in biblical places or characters dressed in non period attire. I think this is good because it shows one of the great things about the gospel; that it is truly a catholic gospel. It is universal, not for the Jew or Greek, but for the Japanese as well as the 20th century American. It sees no difference between race, nationality or gender.

One of the more popular religious artists from the 20th century Japan was Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996). He used a traditional Japanese style of folk art called mingei and depicted biblical characters in Japanese settings and attire. With a very large collection of art, he may be the most recognized gospel artist from Japan.
Japanese Saints also find their way into the religious art and iconography. Japan had it’s share of martyrs and from this history several Saints are recognized; St. Paul Miki, St Fr. Jacobo Kyushei Gorobioye Tomonaga , St. Marina of Omura. Below is a picture of St. Magdalene of Nagasaki who served as an Augustinian lay sister in the 17th century and was martyred at the age of 23. It’s a modern picture and I wish that I knew who the artist was, not only so I could post it here, but so I could see what else they may have drawn.

600 miles

Commemoration of 26 martyrs of Japan

In the sixteenth century Francis Xavier brought the teaching of christianity to the far east. Starting his mission in India he would make it as far as Japan in 1549. St. Francis Xavier died in 1552.

Ten years later, in 1562, a child was born who was named Paulo (Paul) Miki. Born into a wealthy family and the son of a military leader, Paul Miki grew up in the catholic faith and entered the Society of Jesus in 1580 attending the Jesuit college which had been established in Anziquiama. On his way to becoming the first Japanese born priest, persecution against Christianity began and Paul Miki along with 25 other Christians were sent on a 600 mile journey to be executed. Meant as a form of mockery, the company stood their ground in faith, singing hymns along the way and preaching the gospel. Their destination was Nagasaki, where crosses had been erected for them to be crucified on. When hung the Japanese soldiers thrust spears into the bodies of the martyrs to end their lives.

But this was not the end. Persecution continued and many more martyrs would follow until Catholicism was outlawed in Japan around 1632. Two centuries later, in 1858 Christians were permitted to come into Japan again. It was soon discovered by the missionaries that the Church in Japan had survived in secret. News spread back to Rome and in 1862 the martyrs in Japan were canonized by Pope Pius IX. February 6th is the feast day for Paul Miki and his Companions. Also knows as the Nagasaki Martyrs.

The idea of a pilgrimage has been a part of Christian practice from very early times. Often the point is to walk to a holy place, a shrine, or follow in the footsteps of Christ’s passion either in Jerusalem on the Via Dolorosa or at the local church participating in the Stations of the Cross. St. Paul Miki and his companions fulfilled the truest sense of a pilgrimage, a 600 mile way of sorrows, and as he hung strapped to a cross it is reported that St. Paul Miki forgave those who persecuted him.

St. Blasius of “Die Vierzehn Nothelfer”

St. Blaise, Bishop and Martyr

There are events in life which everyone encounters that break from the normal everyday happenings and routine which years later can bring up that sense of nostalgia or just a simple fondness for that experience. The church year has it’s highlights too. Of course all the big holidays go without saying, but some of the less known also come to mind. One of which is the Blessing of Throats on the Feast Day of St. Blaise (St. Blasius) which is on Feb 3rd. Two candles are blessed and held crossing each other and placed by the minister onto the neck and a prayer said: “Per intercessionem S. Blasii liberet te Deus a malo gutteris et a quovis alio malo “, which translates as :”May God at the intercession of St. Blasius preserve you from throat troubles and every other evil“.

St. Blaise is also one of “Die Vierzehn Nothelfer” or The Fourteen Holy Helpers, the first to find his feast in the calendar year and second in the liturgical year. These are fourteen Saints whose intercession was believed to help with disease and illness. The traditions that surround St. Blaise tell of him healing a child who had a fishbone caught in his throat. (Beating Henry Heimlich by almost 1600 years!)

Other stories tell of Blasius helping and curing animals and that he was also a physician. It is believed he was martyred in the year 316 in the month of February by beheading.

As mentioned candles play an important part in the Blessing, which may be related to Candlemas which is held the day before on Feb 2nd, and they are probably what most people think of when they recall St. Blaise.


Les Tres Riches Heures Du Duc de Berry - February

The second month of the year we know as February. Along with January it is the other month that was not a part of the original Roman calendar which consisted of only 10 months. February is also the shortest month of the year and was so even when it was added to the calendar, however at that time seven other months in the Roman Calender held less than 30 days; Jan, Apr, Jun, Aug (Sextilis) Sep, Nov and Dec, all contained 29 days. There were also times when the day count for February was reduced even more, in some cases leaving only 23 days. This was to allow a filler month called Intercalaris to re-align the seasons. This was eventually abandoned and the use of a leap year helped to keep the calendar on track.

February is notably a month of festivity. The Latin februum held an idea of purity or sanctification, being related to the Roman ritual of purification called Februa which was held around the Ides of February (13th) . During the middle ages, as the church prepared for Lent, celebrations were held to have a little fun before the season of fasting. This became known as Carnival and inspired several traditions one of which is Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins.

The picture above is another scene from the Tres Riches: Book of Hours. Like the picture from January, it presents a scene for the month in the middle ages. It is the only month in this book of hours that shows snow. There are some very interesting contrasts in this picture which may have something to do with contradicting traditions of the month; which are celebration and fasting. The sheep are all under the covering of shelter while the wild birds outside are eating. People outside are working and/or playing. Grey skies in the distance, and bare winter trees certainly give the feel of a midwinter month. The Lady in the house on the left has her dress pulled up to her knees while the men are partially exposed, probably trying to dry their leggings and warm up from the winter cold.

Feasts during January from the General Roman Calendar are:

2. Presentation of the Lord, Feast
3. Blaise; Ansgar, Opt. Mem.
5. Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday
6. Paul Miki and Companions, Memorial
8. Jerome Emiliani; Josephine Bakhita, Opt. Mem.
10. Scholastica, Memorial
11. Our Lady of Lourdes, Opt. Mem.
12. Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday
14. Cyril and Methodius, Memorial
17. Seven Founders of the Orders of Servites, Opt. Mem.
19. Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday
21. Peter Damian; Fat Tuesday, Opt. Mem.
22. Ash Wednesday
23. Polycarp of Smyrna, Memorial
26. First Sunday of Lent, Sunday

Post Navigation