A “saintly” mystery solved

san antonio prior to lampIf you have visited Villa Finale, you most-likely remember seeing the very unique “saint lamp” in the home’s Library.  The piece was not “born” a lamp; in fact, it is a Walter Mathis originale.  As he was known to do with several items in his collection, Mathis altered the item from church relic to a clever piece of home-decor by having a custom-made pedestal wired for use as a lamp.  The statue, which is the centerpiece of this “enlightened” piece, fits perfectly at the base and in fact, itself was not altered in any way, thereby maintaining its integrity other than the addition of a crucifix and timepiece by Mathis.

The “saint lamp” was an item Mathis acquired early on in his collecting endeavors.  In fact, there is an interior photograph (left) of the statue – before its conversion – proudly displayed in his home in Monte Vista, circa 1950s, years before his purchase of Villa Finale in King William.  The home, located at 705 East Mulberry, was razed for the Highway 281 project.

st anthony river walkIn all the years Mathis owned the lamp, he was quick to identify the statue as being that of Saint Anthony of Padua, something that would make perfect sense since San Antonio, Mathis’ hometown, is named after the saint.  (A Spanish expedition arrived here on June 13, 1691, St. Anthony’s feast day.)  However, there has been some question about who the likeness is truly representing, especially since opening the house to tours.  As some have pointed out, St. Anthony is normally depicted holding an open book on which sits the Christ-child, a reference to a vision had by Anthony.  (See photo at left: statue of St. Anthony along the River Walk.)  The statue on the lamp contains none of the symbolism normally associated with St. Anthony.  So who could the figure truly be?  A few people, even some of Villa Finale’s volunteers, have suggested it may be St. Francis Xavier.

St. Francis Xavier (1506 – 1552) was attending the University of Paris where he met Ignatius Loyola.  The pair, along with others, took monastic vows and were the first Jesuits after being ordained in Venice in 1537.  Due to his missionary work throughout Asia, where he converted over 2,000 people, St. Francis Xavier is known as the “Apostle of the Indies.”  Despite his work throughout the continent, he never accomplished his life-long dream of reaching China.  He took ill and died on the island of Shangchuan, less than nine miles from mainland China while waiting for the ship that would take him to his destination.

IMG_2997So how is Francis Xavier depicted in art?  Normally as a young, bearded Jesuit (humble) holding a torch and flame, cross and / or lily.  Other than the beard and Jesuit robe, the statue on the lamp has none of the other symbols, either but the hands, despite missing several digits, show clear indications of having something resting in them at one time (left).  Additionally, Dr. Marion Oettinger, Curator of Latin American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, identified the saint in question as being Francis Xavier on a recent visit to Villa Finale.

Although Walter Mathis was a great admirer of religious art as well as an avid collector of it, he cannot be faulted for mis-identifying Francis Xavier as St. Anthony of Padua.  With over 8,000 saints, blesseds and venerables recognized by the Catholic Church, many of us would have made the exact same assumption.

Cited: Jones, Alison.  Saints.  New York: W & R Chambers Ltd., 1992

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