A Novel Side of Michael Novak; St. Nicola's Many Faces

U.S. Theologian’s Secret Ambition

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 9, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Michael Novak, recently featured in a three-part interview in ZENIT regarding his new book, “The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable,” is an internationally renowned Catholic intellectual and holder of the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Unbeknown to many, he is also a novelist.

“You might describe me as a failed novelist. Certainly if I could choose, I would love to write novels,” Novak said to me as we talked about another of his books. His novel “The Tiber Was Silver” was first published in 1960, and has been reprinted this year.

The book, begun while Novak was studying theology as a young man in Rome, tells the story of an American seminarian who lives a crisis in his vocation during his last year of study at the Gregorian University before his ordination.

While Novak states that the book is in no way autobiographical, he admits that some things are “uncanny.” The hero of the book, Richard McKay, meets and is drawn to Mary, a young American painter studying in Rome. Novak, after publishing the book, met and married, Karen, a young American painter who had studied in Rome. There are several other similar coincidences.

Richard, or “Padre Riccardo” as he is called, loves painting, and this gives Novak an outlet for lyrical descriptions of the city he knows so well.

He opens the book with Richard looking out over Rome from the top of the Spanish Steps “golden in the painter’s hour of the afternoon.” The steps are covered with “flower stalls … bright with flaming-red chrysanthemums, a little purpled now in shadow.”

The reader falls easily into the dreamscape which is Rome, where magical beauty surrounds the most mundane activities or the most dramatic circumstances. In this setting, a Rome still ravaged by the effects of the war yet still eternal in her splendor, Richard must discern his vocation.

Novak said, “When I wrote this story, there were several books and a movie coming out about priests and nuns leaving the seminary or convent. But I tried to tell the story so the reader’s sympathies would be for Richard to stay.”

We spoke about the Rome of Padre Riccardo and Rome today. What has changed over the last 40 years? I asked.

“I intended to set down what Rome looked like in 1956-7. I wanted a record of the times,” Novak said. “Not that Rome is ever all that different. It is that continuity of Rome which has always appealed to me.

“Rome was much poorer in those days and the damages of the war could still be seen especially in bombed-out areas outside the city. Today the city is much cleaner, busier and wired into its international setting.”

Novak pointed out a surprising modern addition to Rome — pizzerias. “When I was here, pizza was found in Naples. There were very few pizza places here in Rome.”

I asked whether he thought Rome a good place for seminarians to study.

“It’s a necessary place,” Novak answered. “They get the sense of the universality of the Church and they experience the differences in how Europeans and Americans understand certain concepts such as law.”

And the drawbacks?

“It’s not studying in your own culture, so you don’t get the concrete material to be thinking about for pastoral work and preaching with your people,” Novak responded. “There is also the danger of getting an elitist sense, sort of like what people say about West Pointers. Special discipline, special history is quite valuable … you can’t let it go to your head.”

Novak comes to Rome once or twice a year but in what he calls a “really happy year,” he may visit more often. I asked about which places he loves and visits the most.

“I love the fountains and the constant flow of water through the city, from the big elaborate fountain of Piazza Navona to the little trickle from a simple stone on a street corner,” he said. “It’s very sensual and very relaxing.”

But Novak is not only captivated by Rome’s monuments.

“Italians really know food and how to eat well,” he said. “The attention paid to food and the ‘little liturgy’ that food represents is quite wonderful.

“Heaven is going to be Italy. I think that’s the meaning of ‘celestial banquet.’ And if there’s going to be a banquet, it’s going to be Italian.”

* * *

Art Fit for a Miracle Worker

After a long dry spell with no new art exhibits or openings, hungry art lovers were finally sated June 8 at the Charlemagne wing of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Nicola da Tolentino: Image and Mystery” commemorates the 700th anniversary of the saint’s death through images spanning seven centuries.

While on the surface of it, this show seems a display of 90 images of Augustinian monk St. Nicola da Tolentino, it delves into the birth of devotion to a saint and how its imagery transforms through time.

This is an interesting question as we witness the growth of devotion to a new saint, John Paul II. How will he be represented to future generations who will have never met him or seen him? Will he be the youthful athlete of his early pontificate or the fatigued Pope of the last years? Only time will tell.

In this show we see hagiographic imagery stand the test of time. The earliest work is from 1370, part of a triptych by Allegretto Nuzi showing Sts. Augustine and Stephen with a Beatified Nicola standing alongside. It is also the first image of St. Nicola the visitor encounters upon entering the show.

The latest image is from the early 20th century, a wood sculpture of St. Nicola interceding for souls in purgatory. While the saint’s appearance has stayed the same, his powers are more pronounced.

During the press conference to open the show, Father Pietro Bellini, provincial of Italian Augustinians, spoke of the life of St. Nicola as a “model of sainthood for the Augustinians which then spread throughout Christian Europe.”

Nicola was born in the Marche region of Italy in 1245 and lived 30 years in Tolentino. Never to travel beyond his region, nor become bishop or cardinal, Nicola, like St. Francis, lived among the people and therefore became object of popular devotion.

In life, he was known for his exemplary manner of “giving himself to God without compromises,” said Father Bellini. “But as hard as he was on himself, he was compassionate with others. His life was dedicated to his apostolate.”

Nicola died in 1305 and was canonized in 1446. His fame as a miracle worker was widespread by the time of his canonization. In his church in Tolentino, 400 ex-voto offerings attest to his miraculous works.

The year after St. Nicola’s canonization, the brief reunion between the Eastern and Western Church was established and Nicola became the patron of unity in the Church. Father Bellini also emphasized St. Nicola as a promoter of social justice.

“These aspects of the life of Nicola are important to understand the development of his iconography,” explained the curator of the show, Maria Giannatiempo. “How can you recognize someone you don’t know?”

As she walked through the exhibit she pointed out how there are three sections to the show. The first few rooms are images of the saint bearing his attributes — a lily, a book and a shining sun. Nicola wears a black Augustinian habit with a leather belt. His face is kindly yet ascetic, reflecting the man who was understanding of others but stern with himself.

Visitors may find it interesting to see how the saint’s appearance changes subtly through the centuries.

The first works present the Nicola alone, idealized and static, to render him more familiar to the faithful. Later works show him grasping arrows as a protector from plague, while Santo di Tito painted an imposing vision of Nic
ola’s triple coronation by God the Father, the Virgin Mary and St. Augustine as doctor, virgin and martyr.

Toward the Baroque era of the 17th century, St. Nicola has more of mystical bent. His robes are swept by wind, his arms are outstretched and he looks yearningly out of the picture or up toward the heavens. A splendid Guercino version from a private collection uses dramatic play of light and shade as the Augustinian looks down at his book splayed open toward the viewer.

These many St. Nicolas’ gaze warmly at the visitor and by the time the viewer moves on, the saint seems like an old friend.

The next section deals with episodes from Nicola’s life and his many miracles. Again, these evolve over time from scenes painted like little fables to the great emotion-packed apparitions and ecstasies.

The evolution of St. Nicola, intercessor for souls in purgatory, is seen here. According to Nicola’s biographer, the saint once had a vision of a fellow Augustinian who had died and was in purgatory, beseeching him for prayers. From that moment, St. Nicola offered daily Mass for the suffering souls. Four enormous canvasses proclaim his intercessory power.

Four paintings on the opposite wall mirror these by showing divine favor bestowed on the Augustinian.

The most striking is Francesco Maffei’s “The Miracle of Cordova” (1665). It show two statues, one of Christ and one of St. Nicola being carried through the streets in procession during a plague. As the two statues cross, they embrace.

The last section shows images from the diffusion of the devotion to St. Nicola, with Nicola standing among other great saints and martyrs. The curator’s favorite is by Il Moretto, showing St. Nicola, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Anthony Abbot arrayed in an elegant triumphal arch.

“It took a lot to get this, but I’m so glad we did,” said curator Giannatiempo. “It shows Nicola both holy and human at the same time.”

The show is filled with interesting little treats for close observers: a St. Francis transformed into Nicola, a Baby Jesus head in place of the sun symbol, a disputed early Raphael, to name a few.

Giannatiempo pointed out that very few people who would see this show would have specialized knowledge of the life and works of Nicola da Tolentino, but that it wasn’t necessary. “All you need in front of these works are good eyes for looking,” she said.

“Nicola da Tolentino: Image and Mystery” is open every day except Tuesdays and will be on until Oct. 9.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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