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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Where the Wild Things Aren't; or, Don't Mess Around with a Saint

The coming of Halloween is too often heralded with an overabundance of violent, gross and mass-produced images.  Ghouls, goblins, devils, etc., rise up in our collective (and mass-market) psyche, causing us to compensate by buying (and consuming) vast quantities of unneeded sugar-based products. Today, I would like to add my own eerie "ghost" story ...

Feast of All Souls (day after the Feast of All Saints.
From the Arca Artium Art Collection at Saint John's University.

For some (myself included), Halloween is just the evening before the feast of All Saints (All Hallow's Eve).  This makes it a time to remember and reflect on those who have gone before us, doing good works and making God's creation better in some way (I have to admit that my definition of "saint" is tainted a bit by more inclusive definitions, not technical ones that require evidence of "miracles").  In my case, Halloween is the start of a season to remember people who have been important in my own life--especially family members, colleagues, friends.

Today, however, I am going to step out of my usual reveries and fall into a different realm.  As I was searching for musical materials in the shelves of uncataloged materials at HMML this morning, I happened to open a book of plates dedicated to the life of Saint Theresa of Avila (1515-1582). The printer, Gio. Jacomo Rossi, was active in Rome in the 17th century. Beyond that, I have little information on these plates at this point.

"Title page" of a pictorial life of Saint Theresa of Avila, from the Arca Artium Rare Book Collection
(Saint John's University).

As with several of the uncataloged items in our collections, this one does not have a definitive "title" page (or perhaps it has the page, but not a definitive "title").  In recent months we have moved several similar "books" from the Arca Artium "book" collection to the Arca Artium "art" collection.  Many of these volumes (some in modern, some in older bindings) are gatherings of plates, sometimes removed from books, without the accompanying texts, or simply gathered up at some point as "collectibles."

In consultation with our curator for the Arca Artium Art Collection, Brother Alan Reed, OSB, these volumes have moved to the collection of unbound prints and manuscript leaves, where they can be cataloged as individual prints or series of prints, but not as books.  The Arca Artium Art Collection is largely represented in the HMML image database called Vivarium (

Of course, the first leaf I found this morning was not the picture above, of the Saint pointing at the Cross; rather, I opened it to a scene that looked freakishly too familiar.  There in front of me was Saint Theresa, wielding a cross (just like in vampire movies) and shooing demons out of her room into the closet.  What immediately came to mind, however, was Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are!

Saint Theresa of Avila ridding her apartment of demons.

Most of us baby boomers (and later generations) remember this 1964 classic about mischievous Max and his experiences with a group of "wild things" that appear in his room (see:  Max tames them and then enters into a marvelous night-time celebration with them.  After a night of carousing and dancing under the moon, Max decides to go home and leave the "wild things" behind.

Of course, no respectable Saint would go carousing with "wild things," so instead we find Theresa chasing off her demons.  However, the depictions of the demons and their poses look almost exactly like those in Sendak's own imaginings.  One demon crouches down in fear and shame before a higher power; another's pained expression demonstrates the same.  All of the demons have animal-like characteristics and long, pointed ears (sorry, Mr. Spock). I showed the scene to colleagues at the library, and they all quite readily recognized the parallels.

Saint Theresa of Avila, interceding on behalf of a priest.

Fear of the flog?

(sorry, but the little heads in the clouds kind of freak me out ...)

Indeed, other demons appear in the life of Theresa, but they have less direct parallel to those in Where the Wild Things Are.  Overcoming the evil that surrounds us (and how we represent evil in our imaginations) is a theme that has been around for millenia. Finding parallels like this between a 17th-century hagiographical work and a 20th-century children's book offers a point of departure for further reflection and study.  Perhaps these are the demons that I wrestle with?

In conclusion, I have one more question that I can't answer--yet.  The portrait of Saint Theresa (especially the expression on her face) on the "title page" looks again to me like a character I have seen in a Maurice Sendak book, but at the moment I cannot resurrect the related image from my memory.

Theresa of Avila looking up at the Holy Spirit.

Does this image have the same effect on anyone else, or is this just my own over-active imagination?  To paraphrase the words from long-ago of a curious five-year-old:  "If you had any guesses (about similar facial expressions), what would they be?"