¿Viste la pintura en la sacrastía?
Having spent this past summer in Mexico City to work on my Spanish, I spent a good amount of time exploring a city rich with history and culture—and a city with a long history of Dominican presence and involvement. On that particular day, I had just returned to the convent of San Alberto after a morning visit to Santo Domingo in the historic center of Mexico City—a beautiful church, built on the site where our brothers charged with bringing the faith into Nueva España first settled in 1526. The question came from Fray Antonio—Did you see the painting in the sacristy? I must admit—the question surprised me.
Santo Domingo is beautiful. I’d even say it’s the most beautiful Dominican Church that I have visited. Statues of Dominican saints, both common and relatively unknown, line the walls from the back doors to the sanctuary. Gilded side-altars bear centuries-old images of Dominicans and Franciscans. The first painting of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, copied from the tilma of St. Juan Diego, hangs inconspicuously in a side-chapel. A choir fashioned with hand-carved statues and murals of Dominican Saints and Blesseds sits overlooking the nave and sanctuary. A beautiful sanctuary containing red marble columns and topped with a rather large image of Saint Dominic presenting the Rosary. I thought to myself: What could be so great about a painting stuck back in a sacristy?
During my next visit to Santo Domingo, the prior of the community gave me a full tour of the church. He showed me many things which I had missed on my first pass through. He told me the history of the place—how it was, in fact, the third church built on the site, completed in 1736; how in 1861 parts of the large convent attached to the church were destroyed by the government in a time of anti-clerical persecution; that Bartolomé de las Casas, defender of the rights of the native peoples in the new world, had lived there for a time. As we were finishing the tour, I asked about the painting in the sacristy. ¡Por supuesto, hermano! Ven. He led me back to the vesting sacristy behind the sanctuary, where a 12-foot by 16-foot painting entitled La Lactación de Santo Domingo hangs.
The work was painted by Cristobal de Villalpando in 1685, and has been preserved quite well. The size of the painting alone is striking. The figures are vividly painted, and the image is not lacking in detail. The scene is a common one—Saint Dominic receiving the Rosary from Mary. However, this painting is theologically profound, and a bit peculiar, too.
We find Mary, the new Eve, seated on a cherubim throne in a garden—the symbol of paradise, once again unlocked thanks to Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Mary is surrounded by seraphim, venerating the Blessed Mother. Saint Dominic kneels beside Mary, who draws him in with the embrace of her right arm. The two are surrounded by the virtues of Heaven—three angels representing Faith, Hope, and Love.
Faith is dressed in white and is looking away from the center of the scene. Her eyes are strikingly different than the other two virtues—is she blind? Even if not, the fact that she is looking away from what is happening says something. Faith needs no visual proof in order to have certainty. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” (JN 20:29)
Love stands in front of faith, with a hand on Dominic’s shoulder, seemingly instructing him with words. She gazes upon the scene
laid out before her, face aglow with youth. Love is what drives evangelization. It is, fundamentally, the driving force behind the Order of Preachers which Dominic founded—not only the Order, but of every Christian life. As Christ stated (MT 22:36-40), it all boils down to love of God and love of neighbor. Love’s instruction is invaluable. It is to be learned, absorbed, contemplated, then preached.
On the opposite side stands Hope, dressed in the darkness of night and adorned with stars. She is visibly pregnant—a sign of things to come. She offers a hand to Dominic, as if to say, Join me in my work. Spread hope in the world. You now have, in your hands and in your heart, a tool with which to do so. Hope teaches that, no matter how difficult things may be on Earth, we trust in God’s promise of eternal life with Him in paradise. This is the end and highest purpose of the Christian life—eternal happiness in the presence of God.
The three virtues are each followed by armies of angels, countless multitudes dressed in similar fashion to their respective Virtue, awaiting orders to carry into the world. In the lower left corner of the painting stands a dog with a torch—a very common symbol of Saint Dominic—eagerly awaiting his master so that they may continue their mission of setting the world aflame with preaching.
Dominic holds the Rosary close to his heart, the strand of beads still being grasped by Mary. As my eyes followed the beads to Mary’s hand, I noticed something quite peculiar. Remember, this picture is entitled La Lactación de Santo Domingo. It was then that I noticed a fine stream of Mary’s milk, parallel to the Rosary beads, being offered from Mary’s breast and landing in Dominic’s mouth. Coming from a 21st-century American frame of mind, one can imagine my initial surprise at such an image. Yet as I sat and pondered the image, I began to realize the beauty of the symbolism contained in the scene.
Milk is nourishment in its most basic form. It is the food of infants, providing what is necessary to grow, to flourish, to continue in life. Prayer, likewise, is spiritual nourishment. The Rosary, being a simple prayer, is this basic nourishment for the spiritual life. Mary’s gift of the Rosary to Dominic is her gift of nourishment—further strengthened and ordered by the Virtues, pointing the Christian toward her Son. This is not solely a gift for Dominic, however. It is a gift for the entire Church. A gift which, like this painting, is filled with depth of meaning. A gift which is nourishment for self and for others.
The most incredible work of art at Santo Domingo, tucked away in a simple sacristy.
An incredibly powerful and rich prayer, telling the story of the life of Christ, acknowledging Mary’s important role in His life, interceding while meditating on these mysteries—all contained within a cord strung with beads.
Peculiar, isn’t it?
Happy Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary!