St. Raymond of Peñafort – Christ Was His Anchor, the Holy Spirit Filled His Sails

SCRIPTURES & ART: A painting by Tommaso Dolabella depicts a maritime scene from the life of the great saint

Tommaso Dolabella, “St. Raymond of Penyafort,” 1627
Tommaso Dolabella, “St. Raymond of Penyafort,” 1627 (photo: Public Domain)

As the Christmas season begins to wind down, the first week of the calendar year presents us with a variety of saints.

For one thing, the week is top heavy with North Americans: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) on Jan. 4; St. John Neumann (1811-1860) on Jan. 5; and St. André Bessette (1845-1937) on Jan. 6.

We would have marked St. Basil’s feast on Jan. 2, except that this year the transferred Solemnity of the Epiphany preempted it (and if the feast had not been transferred, Sunday would have preempted it). St. Basil was a great fourth-century doctor of the Church, heavily involved in the Christological controversies of that time.

But I will choose a saint that probably doesn’t get that much “press” in American circles – St. Raymond of Peñafort (or Penyafort), whose optional memorial falls on Jan. 7.

As you might guess from the tilde in his name, Raymond was a medieval Spaniard. He was born sometime around 1175 and died almost a century later, on Jan. 6, 1275. (Because Jan. 6 is normally the Solemnity of the Epiphany, his feast is celebrated a day later.)

Raymond grew up in Catalonia, near Barcelona, and earned doctorates in civil and canon law in Spain. He later moved to Bologna in Italy, one of the oldest universities in the world, to teach canon law. While in Bologna, he joined came in contact with the Dominicans and joined the order upon his return to Spain. He was in his late 40s, a “late vocation” for his day.

Raymond was the authority in canon law. He annotated Gratian’s Decretum and, in the 1230s, compiled the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX. Both these works became the standards of Catholic canon law until they were systemized into a code, the Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1917 and then revised in 1983.  

The saint worked at the intersection of canon law and moral theology. He was author of the Summa de casibus poenitentiae, a guide for priests for use in the confessional. He also served as a chaplain to the pope to address difficult cases of conscience referred to the Holy See.  

He became master general of the Dominicans and founded schools to teach Arabic and Hebrew. One source says it was Raymond who urged St. Thomas Aquinas to write his Summa contra gentiles, the Angelic Doctor’s work for dealing with non-Christians, particularly Muslims.

To the limited degree we see Raymond in art, it’s likely to be some variant of the painting by Tommaso Dolabella. Dolabella, who lived from 1570-1650, was a Venetian Baroque painter who spent most of his life in Kraków, Poland. He was supported by two Polish kings, Sigismund III Vasa and Sigismund IV Vasa.  

Dolabella’s painting depicts a maritime scene from Raymond’s life. James I was king of Aragon and, later, the island of Majorca, for almost the first three-quarters of the 13th century. James had come to Majorca as part of the Catholic effort to reconquer Spain from Islam, a process Ferdinand and Isabella finally completed in 1492. Raymond was the king’s confessor.  

James was inclined towards lust, and Raymond demanded the king put away his concubine. When he was unsuccessful, Raymond announced he would leave Majorca, which James forbade, barring any sea captains from carrying the priest away. Raymond then announced, “Soon you will see how the king of Heaven will confound the wicked deeds of this earthly king and provide me with a ship.” He raised a stick mast, to which he attached his cappa (the black cape Dominicans wear over their white habit, which is why they are called the “Black Friars”). Raymond sailed away on the garment, escaping the king and returning to his beloved Catalonia. The miracle converted the king.

Dolabella’s depiction of the event puts Raymond front and center, somewhat out of proportion to his surroundings, a receding shore behind him on which a fellow Dominican stands. Raymond holds in his hand a key, indicative of his role as confessor (“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven, whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven” – Matthew 16:19). Raymond looks heavenwards, because the miracle is not about “showing the king” but standing up for what is right, in the hope of moving his penitent’s heart. 

While Dolabella is a Baroque artist (and hence the prominence of movement, e.g., in Raymond’s habit or the sea), there is some effort to maintain medieval elements here, most interestingly the sea monsters that both stalk and are amazed by Raymond’s escape. The monsters, like the land, are brown; the sky and sea are blue, symbols of hope, Mary (so important in the Dominican order), and heaven (where the blue stands in contrast to the “earthly” land, where the sinful king remains attached to things of the flesh). Note that Dolabella, like most artists who attempted this scene, have Raymond kneeling on his cappa, a fitting recognition of piety in that it is God, not man, who works miracles. A few artists have had him standing.

When we hear about the “conflict between religion and science” or the accusation that the Church is against enlightenment and progress, let’s look at Raymond. Universities were not the creation of the state. They were born in the Church and Raymond was a scholar at the best of them. He devoted the intellectual talents God gave him to advance the faith, engage people where they were at in his day, and remain faithful to Christ and his teaching. He was no intellectual slouch and, on the scale of his day, quite global and cosmopolitan. But Raymond also always remained anchored in Christ and his Church.