A New Exhibition

September 05 2022 | by

FROM June 1 to October 2, the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua is hosting an exhibition of four artefacts associated with St. Anthony: the wooden board that served as his bed, the stone that was his pillow, his ‘cilice’ and his habit. Each of these articles, so intimately associated with the Saint’s earthly life, gives us material for meditation.


The sleeping board


The wooden board that Anthony used as his bed is generally located in the church of St John Baptist (also known as St Anthony’s) at Camposampiero, near where the Saint spent his last weeks in the little tree-house constructed for him by Count Tiso. The original church known to the Saint having fallen into disrepair, it was rebuilt in the early 1400s by a local cloth-merchant, Gregorio da Camposampiero, and the board was displayed there. In 1486, the Venetian artist Andrea da Murano was commissioned to paint on it an image of the Saint – we know this, because the picture is signed and dated. Later legend speaks of the image being impressed on the wood by the sweat of the Saint, an alleged miracle that has resulted in some damage to the board, as fragments were taken to be venerated as relics. The picture itself is of interest to art historians as contributing to their reconstruction of the artist’s career and development.


Virtue of sleep


Anthony has a few things to say about sleep. For instance, St. Joseph is an example of one who encounters God in sleep. In his sermon for the Holy Innocents, Anthony sees Joseph as typifying every Christian who seeks God. “His ‘sleep’ is peace of mind and the sweetnes of contemplation.” Quoting Aristotle, he says that “Sleep is the rest of an animal’s strength, with an intensification of its natural powers.” By analogy, when the Christian rests from all worldly concerns – the needs of his human nature, legitimate though they may be – his spiritual powers become stronger. As Anthony laid himself down on his sleeping board, he surely committed himself to the care of the Lord, saying like Job, “Now I should have been asleep and still, and should have rest in my sleep” (Job 3.13). Joseph was “still from the noisy world,” and did “rest in sleep from tumultuous thoughts, so that the angel of the Lord may appear to him and say, ‘Arise.’” In a very homely image, Anthony gives this advice to every sleeper, “Arise – that is, mount up, that you may grow high; don’t be like a turnip, that grows in and under the earth; be like a palm-tree which mounts on high.” Anthony was surely no turnip!


The stone


The stone that the Saint used as his ‘pillow’ during the last moments of his life is believed to have come from the Monastery of Santa Maria della Cella in Capodiponte (Arcella), and it was donated at the beginning of the 19th century by Elisabetta Speroni, Abbess of the monastery of Blessed Elena, accompanied by a recognized certificate of validity from the bishop of Padua, Francesco Scipione Dondi D’Orologio, in 1809. At one time the stone was wrapped in golden foil, though now all that remains is a seal of authenticity in red sealing wax, yet to be identified.

The stone reminds us of Jacob’s sleep at Bethel, “Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep” (Gen 28.11). Jacob dreamed of a ladder between earth and heaven, with angels going up and down upon it. The Lord stood beside him, and promised him a numerous posterity, and possession of the land. This was a renewal of the original promise to mankind at the creation, to increase and multiply and have dominion over all the earth. When Jacob awoke, he recognised that he had been in the Presence of God, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He set up the stone as a memorial, anointing it with oil, and called the place Bethel, House of God.


Jesus as ‘ladder’


In taking a stone as his pillow, we may be sure that Anthony was reminded of this passage, and with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Scripture he would also have recalled Our Lord’s words to Nathanael, alluding to this episode, when he told him that he would see the angels of God going up and down upon the Son of Man. Jesus is the ‘ladder’ that connects earth and heaven, and also the Presence of God in the world, the true House or dwelling-place of God. He is also the true Israel (Jacob’s other name), and the true Adam who has inherited the promises of God. He has by right dominion over all the earth, and his ‘posterity’ is the Church, which is “the blessed company of all faithful people.” We can imagine Anthony, as he prepared himself for sleep, running over all these passages and uniting himself in spirit with the Lord.


The ‘cilice’


A ‘cilice’ was originally a garment made of goat’s hair from the Roman province of Cilicia. It was also known as a ‘hairshirt’, and could also be referred to as ‘sack-cloth’. It was worn as a means of penance and self-discipline, but as time went on the term ‘cilice’ was applied to other instruments of penance, such as a prickly belt worn next to the skin. St. Anthony’s ‘cilice’ is of this type, and a portion of it is preserved in an elaborate monstrance which until the 18th century was carried in procession on June 13, the feast of the Saint.


Reparation for sins


The growth of penitential practices throughout the Middle Ages reflects a change of emphasis rooted in the differences between the Greek and Latin languages. St. Matthew’s Gospel, in its Greek form, referring to the preaching of John the Baptist, uses the term ‘metanoieite’ (change your minds, or hearts). It looks to a future of renewal. When this was translated into Latin, the expression became ‘poenitentiam agite’ (do penance), from the Latin poena, a penalty or compensation for a crime committed. Thus it referred back to the past, although still implying a fresh start. This change of vocabulary led Christians to stress the reparation that should be made for past sins. In times of hardship – such as famine or flood – processions were held in which penitents scourged themselves with whips, sometimes getting frenzied and mutilating themselves. The Church did not altogether approve of such practices. However, Religious in particular adopted milder forms of self-discipline, such as the hair-shirt or the cilice, to detach themselves from worldly pleasure and to unite themselves with the sufferings of Christ. Anthony’s cilice would have had this purpose.


Anthony’s habit


As I described in an earlier article, when the tomb of the Saint was opened in 1981, it was found to contain a small chest with two compartments, in one of which was found the remains of the habit worn by Anthony at the time of his death, and in which he was originally buried. Although it had deteriorated considerably, when it was unfolded it was possible to recognise part of the hood, fragments of the sleeves and parts of the lower habit. Experts at the Abbey of Bern were able to restore much of it, so that it can be displayed in flattened-out form under glass. The original ashy-grey colour has become dark brown as a result of oxidation of the wool.


Symbol of poverty


Anthony had exchanged the monastic life of the Augustinian canons for the itinerant vocation of the poor followers of Francis. The Rule specified that the friars should have a simple habit of coarse material, with a hood, and girded simply by a cord. A spare tunic was allowed, and trousers under the habit. “At all times the friars may wear poor clothes and they can patch them with pieces of sackcloth and other material” – Rule of 1221, more or less repeated in that of 1223. They were to wear sandals rather than shoes on their feet, except in cases of necessity. In one of his sermons, Anthony rebuked monks or canons who, although allowed much more clothing than the friars, complained bitterly that the Rule was not being observed if they lacked their full allowance, yet were very easy-going when it came to observing the Rule of Jesus Christ. Elsewhere, noting how the disciples spread their garments on the road as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he said, “The clothes are our bodily members, with which the soul is clothed… We should spread them on the road by exposing them to suffering and death for the name of Jesus.” Looking at the remnants of Anthony’s simple habit, we are reminded of the poverty of the first friars in every aspect of their lives.

Updated on September 05 2022