07 November 2008

Far-Away Peter and the Lion in the Rafters

He is a clumsy thing, this mannikin with the great hands. Barely a foot high and so far away as to be nearly invisible, he stands at the right end of the triumphal arch in the church of Ag. Pareskevi in Halkis, Greece. He is St. Peter Martyr and at the left end of the arch is an equally clumsy but less interesting St. Dominic.

The other image here below, the merry feathery lion, even smaller and more completely invisible from the floor, is the Lion of St. Mark, painted on the end of one of the massive rafters in the same church

These two unlikely images are unlikely in their location, and even more unlikely in that they may be the oldest surviving images of their types.

The church, long claimed to be a sixth-century Byzantine basilica by nationalists who willfully failed to consider the Gothic arches and rafters before their eyes, has been demonstrated by two scholars independently to be a Dominican priory church, dated by dendrochronology to 1261 or just after. Peter, a Dominican monk, became a martyr in 1252 and was canonized in 1253, so he had barely been minted which this image of him was created.

Brother Peter of Verona was a Dominican inquisitor, and though most people have an instant hostile reaction to the word, he never did anything to anyone. In fact, he had called off an inquiry into the Cathars at Milan with the idea that they might return to the fold of the church more readily with kindness than with discipline, and he was such a good preacher that they were. He was walking to Milan with Brother Dominico to find our how things were working when he was attacked in the forest of Barlassina by two men, Carino and Manfredo who had been hired by wealthy Cathars to get rid of him. Brother Peter bled to death almost immediately. Brother Dominico was wounded and died a week later.

Brother Peter's skull survives, and it is easy enough to see the hole and slice in his skull made by the blow of a pruning hook -- and what other sure weapon could a countryman risk being caught carrying in a woods? The Dominicans, running far behind the Franciscans in interesting saints, pushed through his canonization immediately, and authorized images of him to be set up in their churches along with St. Dominic.

Very few images make any pretense of accuracy, though this portrait of Savanarola as Peter Martyr comes fairly close. Fra Angelico tones it down, but one can't imagine Fra Angelico doing anything else. This image, though, is a melodramatic interpretation of his martyrdom, surpassing most other melodramatic images such as this, this, or this, and it is probably a fair sample of the images that appeared in the first generation after his death. This little big-handed man had an iron blade slicing through his face, attached with dowels to the stone -- you can see the holes for the dowels and the place where the face was cut away for the blade. It is a shame, really, that he was too small, too high up, too far away for this to be seen.

Another first, this exuberant little lion, fairly dancing on his Gospel book, because the first known use of the winged lion of St. Mark to represent Venice was in 1261. It is a very familiar image now, painted, carved in stone, in moleca -- the last appeared by 1263. He holds a book, this one closed, but conventionally it is open and says, 'Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meum." The rest of the phrase says, "here will your body rest," because the body of Mark is believed to rest in the crypt of S. Marco in Venice. Someone has demonstrated the body of Saint Mark is really the body of Alexander the Great, because Mark was brought from Alexandria and Alexander was buried in Alexandria, and it all stands to reason.

Carino, by the way, allowed himself to be captured. He had been promised aid, and that seems to be why he was able to "escape" from prison. It is a great story. He eventually ended up, ill and wracked with guilt, in the Dominican hospital in Forli where he made a deathbed confession. When he failed to die, he became a lay brother of the Dominicans and lived a life of such devotion, that after his death he became the focus of a cult and is even now recognized as the Blessed Carino of Balsamo by the people of Forli.


  1. Greetings! With all due respect, there are two inaccuracies in paragraph five.

    Peter of Verona abandoned his inquisitorial practices in Milan not as an act of kindness, but as act of realism; the people rejected him and the teachings of the Church of Rome.

    Second, there were no 'wealthy Cathars' as the medieval movement espoused both poverty and pacifism.
    A more accurate rendering would be to say that wealthy nobles, sympathetic to the opposition of the good Christians to Papal domination hired two assassins.

    Thank you for your time.

    Brad Hoffstetter
    Communications Division
    Assembly of good Christians

  2. Thank you for taking the trouble to write. As a historian, I would appreciate being directed to your sources.

    The material here comes originally from the PhD dissertation Peter of Verona: The Martyred Inquisitor, by D. S. Prudlo, for the University of Virginia, 1999. It is inexpensive and widely available through Google.



I will not publish Anonymous comments.