With the Order planning to celebrate the Fourth Centenary of our holy mother Saint Teresa’s canonization, it is worth pointing out that our monastery in Washington, DC has an iconic reference to that event gracing the walls of one of its parlors. This image shows an artistic tribute to that significant day in Church history:

To explain how it got there we must go back forty years, to the fourth centenary of her death celebrated by our Province in 1982. Part of the weekend celebration in October of that year was an exhibit at the Catholic University of America’s Mullen Library. Several beautiful items were put on display from our own rare book collection here on Lincoln Road. We also used a primitive shield of the Order from one rare book, reproduced here:

The Carmelite nuns of Terre Haute Carmel contributed a marvelous banner of Teresa (now encased and on display in Holy Hill) made from vestments done in the Lisieux Carmel and some original needle point. But the painting above (and below) was found in the respected National Gallery of Art on the Mall in Washington. Some research into images of Saint Teresa owned by the gallery jogged the memory of this member of the Province’s centenary commission (Fr. Christopher Latimer, Chair / Fr. Michael Griffin / Fr. Brian Hennigan / Fr. Paul Fohlin / Fr. John Sullivan).

Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691 – 1765) has several of his paintings displayed by the Gallery, and one of them had caught my attention. The painting depicts Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A pair of Carmelite friars stand in the middle of the floor in their brown habits and white mantles. Up high in the basilica’s ceiling above them one could see another Carmelite habit included by the artist. Closer inspection of that detail of the painting identified Saint Teresa of Avila with the seraph of her transverberation. Further study led to the conclusion that this was the artist’s way of displaying in a detail of the larger oil painting (from 1735) a banner that would have hung inside the transept of the basilica on the day of the canonization of Teresa. That day Rome celebrated what became known as the grand canonization of the Counter Reformation serving as a retort to the iconoclastic tendencies of the Protestant Reformation (including four Spanish saints, i.e., Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Isidore the farmer, OHM Saint Teresa, and Italian Saint Philip Neri).

When asked permission, the curators of the National Gallery arranged to have one of their staff photographers take an excerpted photo of the Teresa segment of the larger painting for placement in the exhibit at the Catholic University Library:

After the celebration we placed it on the wall in the small parlor, and there it has remained all these years. When you get a chance to visit Washington again, include in your tour of the National Gallery, the “Mellon” as it is known, this painting of Saint Peter’s Basilica. If you have time too, you can look at Panini’s rendition of the Pantheon in Rome. In his 1734 canvas of that ancient monument in Rome you can spot another pair of peripatetic Carmelite friars.

We are fortunate that this artist –nicknamed the “painter of the monuments of Rome” – included seraphic Saint Teresa in one of his paintings and Saint Teresa, in fact, as she could have appeared to the Roman crowds on the day of her canonization. No one, unfortunately, knows what has happened to the tapestry originally displayed on March 12, 1622 which might have inspired him. Ars artis gratia.

Fr. John Sullivan, ocd
Institute of Carmelite Studies