St. Dominic, Pray For Us!

SAINTS & ART: After its foundation in the 13th century, St. Dominic’s Order of Preachers spread like wildfire — by the fire of the Holy Spirit

El Greco, “St. Dominic Praying,” 1588
El Greco, “St. Dominic Praying,” 1588 (photo: Public Domain)

Founder of the Order of Preachers, popularly called the Dominicans, Dominic de Guzmán was born in Castile, what is now north-central Spain, in 1170. The religiosity of his family was indisputable: all three sons became priests, the eldest a diocesan clergyman, while Dominic and his brother Manes would be Dominicans. Dominic’s mother, Joanna of Aza, herself was beatified. Tradition says that, on a pilgrimage before Dominic’s birth, she had a dream of a dog leaping from her womb with a torch in its mouth. The “Dominicans” were long taken as a play on the Latin Domini canes, the “dogs of the Lord.” Dogs are “man’s best friend,” faithful (“doggedly” faithful) companions. That’s the best tradition of the Domini canes.

The Dominicans represented a new form of religious life. Medieval religious life itself was desperately in need of reform, as it had grown very worldly. There were various reforms, e.g., the reforms of Cluny, but they were reforms of monastic life. Nearly seven centuries after St. Benedict, his model of religious life centered on a monastery whose members engaged in ora et labora — prayer and work — was still the paradigm. 

St. Dominic (and his contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi), reading the signs of the medieval times, discerned that another kind of religious life was needed in their day. The two characteristics they deemed essential were poverty and public availability. The Dominicans and Franciscans are mendicant orders, meaning their members embraced radical poverty, begging for their sustenance to bear witness to detachment from worldly goods. They also sought to be publicly available, i.e., while they lived in community and celebrated Mass and communal prayer together (“in choir”), they also undertook pastoral care of people. Sometimes that took the form of their own parishes, but it often assumed the form of preaching, conducting missions or serving as guest preachers and, as a corollary, education. Dominicans have also always been skillful and dedicated confessors, applying their preaching and theological skills to individuals and their spiritual needs in the Sacrament of Penance. 

Dominic himself was highly educated: his reputation as a serious student of the arts and theology at the University of Palencia (north-central Spain) kept him in the Church’s attention. It’s unclear when he was ordained, but the Bishop of Osma picked him to reform his cathedral’s chapter, and was not disappointed with the results.

His holiness and practical skills resulted in his assignment to increasingly responsible tasks, including effectuating a royal betrothal. That mission brought Dominic to Toulouse, in France, where he witnessed firsthand the ravages of the Albigensian heresy. (The Albigensians, or Cathari, were a dualistic sect that regarded the creation as a battleground between good, which was spirit, and evil, which was matter. Physical matter, including bodies, was evil. They were widespread and firmly entrenched in the south of France in the late 12th century.) The Cistercians attempted to uproot them, but their own worldliness was an impediment to their effectiveness against the anti-worldly severity of the Albigensians. It was probably then that Dominic’s idea of a religious order started taking definitive shape. A house was set up in Prouille in 1206.

But the Church wasn’t ready for Dominic. The Pope turned down the idea. The Fourth Lateran Council, meeting in Rome in 1215 (which Dominic attended), called for reforms and enhanced preaching — ideas that matched Dominic’s — but also opposed the creation of new religious orders. Refused once more, Dominic then adopted the Rule of St. Augustine and took his case to the Pope. Honorius III, who became Pope in July 1216, approved the Dominican order in December.

The Dominican order spread like wildfire … by the fire of the Spirit. Dominic became papal theologian. Communities were soon founded in what is today France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Dominic insisted on the highest quality education for his friars, establishing communities in his day early in Paris and Bologna, the leading universities. Between 1220-21, Dominic wrote his own rule for the order.

Albigensianism was eventually defeated in southern France, in part by the vigorous preaching and theological refutations of Dominic but also in part by a cruel local Crusade launched against the region by some other Catholic princes. During that period, Dominic was known as a voice of mercy to reconcile the heretics to the Church.

Another tradition holds that, at Prouille, Dominic received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which gave us the Rosary as we know it. Some historians argue that forms of Rosary-like prayers of Marian devotion were coalescing at the time, but the Rosary as we know it appears to come from Dominic.

Dominic died in 1221 and was canonized three years later, in 1234. 

Our saint is illustrated by El Greco (1541-1614), the Greek painter so identified with Dominic’s homeland of Spain. “St. Dominic Praying” dates from 1588. There is a similar painting in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The style is quintessential El Greco: the brushwork, the elongated head, hands and body. It is also set in a traditional El Greco setting: the rough and rocky mountainous landscape of Spain. Dominic, in the white habit and black cappa of his order, has his attention fixed — like St. Paul — on Christ Crucified. Both the cross and Dominic are set at the same angle, and although Dominic dominates the scene physically, his gaze and humble posture direct attention away from him to Jesus. Dominican Father Dominic Verner notes that Jordan of Saxony, one of the earliest chroniclers of the Dominican order, wrote of the “tears of St. Dominic,” poured out in prayer on behalf of the salvation of individual souls. May that spirit always inform the Sons of Dominic.

(A particular shout-out to two Dominican churches that have been key in my life: St. Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan and St. Dominic, “the Rosary Shrine,” in London.)

For more information on St. Dominic, see here and here. A Belgian nun, Sr. Luc Gabrielle /Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers/ (1933-1985) who became known as the “Smiling Sister” (La sœur sourire) released “Dominique,” a song about St. Dominic, that stormed the popular charts. Her story was reprised by Debbie Reynolds in the 1966 film, “The Singing Nun.” Listen here and here.