Today's Gospel in Art - Feast of the English Martyrs

  • Patrick van der Vorst

The Martyr's Picture, by Durante Alberti 1583 © The Venerable English College, Rome

The Martyr's Picture, by Durante Alberti 1583 © The Venerable English College, Rome

Gospel of 4th May 2020 - Matthew 10:17-20

Jesus said to his disciples: 'Beware of men: they will hand you over to Sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the pagans. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.'

Reflection on the Painting

Today is the Feastday of the English Martyrs. Our painting, 'The Martyrs' Picture', was painted by Durante Alberti in 1583, just after the foundation of the Venerable English College (1579) in Rome, where the picture still hangs today. It depicts the Blessed Trinity with two English martyrs: St Thomas of Canterbury (on the left) and St Edmund, King of East Anglia (on the right). If we look more closely at the middle vertical band we can see a burst of light behind God with a triangle; the Holy Spirit symbolised by the dove and Christ held by His Father. Blood is pouring out from Christ's wounds and is falling onto a map of the British Isles. A cherub is holding up the College motto: Ignem veni mittere in terram (I have come to bring fire to the earth). According to tradition, students would congregate around this picture to sing the Te Deum whenever news reached the College of the martyrdom of a former student having been executed for professing the Catholic Faith in Protestant England in the late 16th century. A total of forty-four of these alumni students have been declared Saints and Martyrs.

These martyrs gave their lives for bearing witness to Christ and, as per today's Gospel reading, they lived their lives 'with the Spirit of their Father speaking in them'. For most of us practising our faith today, the idea of laying down our lives for the Church is a remote concept. But the sacrifice of these martyrs, fully embracing the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, goes far beyond any geographical constraints of nations or even historical constraints. Still today people shed their own blood in less tolerant areas of the world. When Pope Paul VI gave his homily in 1970 at the Canonisation of the English Martyrs, he quoted Tertullian:

'The blood of Christians is the seed that is sown as it was with the shedding of Christ's own blood, so it is with the sacrificial offering of her Martyrs in union with His: a source of life and of spiritual fecundity for the Church and the entire world.'


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