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Catholic Spiritual Direction

St. George and the Power of Purpose – Praying Through Art

October 11, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Meditations, Prayer & Art, Praying Through Art

I was spending a college semester abroad in Florence, Italy. That day, we were visiting the Bargello, one of Florence’s great sculpture museums. We made it up to the second floor of the medieval palace and turned the corner into the Donatello room – a feast for any eyes, and especially for those of a college kid studying art history. Yet, almost immediately, my attention was uncannily riveted by a marble figure on the far side of the cavernous space. It was as if that figure was addressing me personally, insistently demanding my full attention.

As I recall, everything else faded into the background. I turned away from the group tour and stepped through the maze of other sculptures, drawn irresistibly by the force of this sculpture, until I found myself face to face with St George.

As in all of Donatello’s works, the marble had been superbly molded, so that the skin looked as if it would be soft to the touch. And the marble itself seemed to vanish within the entrancing depiction of the various materials compromising the figure’s clothing and accoutrements. The proportions were effortlessly natural, and the entire composition seemed almost to be breathing. It’s presence was powerful.

But I couldn’t explain the poignant reaction I was having simply by Donatello’s technical mastery. He had captured more, much more. That “more,” whatever it was, pierced me, resonated in the depths of my soul, called out to the very core of my identity.

Who Is St. George?

St. George, the ancient tradition goes, was a Cappadocian officer in the Roman Imperial Guard, raised by his mother in the Christian faith during the period of persecutions. While returning from a successful military campaign in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), he rescued a local King’s daughter from the clutches of some kind of terrible dragon, showing supernatural strength (which he attributed to his faith, not to himself) in his defeat of the monster. Later, he professed his faith boldly before the Emperor Diocletian, who used blandishment and torture to try and make him recant. All to no avail, the saint continued to profess his faith, convert witnesses, and even perform miracles as the persecuting authorities attempted to break his spirit. He finally received the martyr’s crown by being beheaded in the first years of the fourth century.

If you were commissioned by the local Armorer’s Guild to fashion a life-sized figure of such a saint, as Donatello was in 1415, where would you start? How would you depict his heroic virtues of courage, humility, faith, and self-forgetful service? Most artists choose the dramatic encounter with the dragon. But Donatello didn’t. Rather, he chose simply to show the man himself. And that choice made all the difference.

Donatello’s St. George is standing in his armor and cloak, bareheaded, leaning slightly on his shield, the tip of which is touching the ground in front of him. His strength, his youth, his vigor – all these qualities shine forth brilliantly. But something else, some mysterious characteristic, brings them all together and elevates them. That elusive quality, enhanced by the technical perfection and reverential human beauty of the figure, was what struck such a deep chord in my own heart when I first encountered the sculpture.

It took years of reflection and admiration before I was able to put a word to that mysterious quality. But I think I have.

The Power of This Presence

Donatello’s St George is imbued with something that today’s world is in dire need of, something that I too was searching for in those years prior to my conversion to Catholicism: This mesmerizing marble figure embodies passionate and life-giving purpose. This man, standing with this weight forward, poised for action, his head held high, and his gaze intent on the horizon before him, knows what his life is for. He knows where he is going. And that destination is filling him with quiet determination, with unwavering meaning, and also with a dynamic joy that brings an almost other-worldly light to his marble features.

Yes, St. George was a soldier, and he remains a patron saint of soldiers. But he was first and foremost a soldier of Christ, eager to bear witness to his Lord and build Christ’s Kingdom on earth, to the point of risking his reputation, his career, his fortune, and even his very life. This purpose united and elevated his natural gifts and talents to the point that he became a saint. And somehow, Donatello has captured this inner secret and permitted it to penetrate every facet of the sculpture.

This is the power that Christ can give to each and every soul, a true purpose, worthy of the inestimable dignity of every human heart and capable of unifying all the disjointed chards of life in a post-modern world.

The sculpture somehow gave me a taste of that transforming power of Christian purpose, and I began from that moment on to desire a fuller share of it. And the desire sparked by this work of art was so intense that I still consider that encounter as the first step on my path to the priesthood. It was the first inkling of my vocation, the first echo of my call.

St. George, holy martyr of God,  pray for all of us to let Christ’s purpose take possession of our hearts!

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • $1650412

    BRAVO! Love this tack on reflection! (I am very keen on St. George’s expression on his face in this image-) Can you, or anyone reading along(!) also recommend music as an addendum/footnote- maybe consistent with the liturgical season- or coinciding with the art in some way (although you might not be able to offer commentary on it)?

    • Guest

      JoFlemmings, how about humming the Te Deum as one watches this Artistic Marvel. Even though it falls under the Easter Season, it belongs to the Eucharistic Celebration every Sunday and is part of the Divine Office for the Day. 

  • Ana

    Let’s all learn to see the hand of God in all of His creation. 
    Thank you for showing us how, Father.

  • Mbtvalli

    Amen!  Thank you for sharing and encouraging us all.

  • Avila Power

    Wonderful article. The second last paragraph..”.This is the power that Christ……………………………in this post-modern world”. Just this morning in my prayers I praised Jesus  for the wonderful way in which He can draw all people to Himself , if they allow Him to. How we can all love Him with a dignity that can transform the world.  Its going to be all our efforts that will ultimately bring everyone into the glory and happiness of Heaven, where we will spend eternity with Him , Our Lady and all the saints.

  • Mcvea2000

    The world needs more St Georges. And I’m happy that I took the time to read this reflection

  • Penguintrble

    An expression of faith

  • Mary100

    I have been feeling called by God to spend more time and energy sculpting. I have been sculpting realistic images of the Madonna, St. Catherine, and currently St. Michael.  Your article has been for me another “whisper” inspiring me onward, even though I do not know exactly where it is leading. Thank you.