Witness of Marian Devotion
The Scapular
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Click to return to Carmelnet

The Witness of Marian Devotion in Medieval Carmelite Churches

John Hornby testified to the Dominican custom of presenting an image of the Blessed Virgin bestowing the Dominican habit in each of the churches of the order.  Carmelites also kept an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in their churches.  In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these images, while not portraying the scapular being given to Simon Stock, often provided a center for the popular cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I would like to look at pictures of some of these images.

The first of the images to look at is that of LaBruna from the Carmine Maggiore of Naples.  The relationship of this image to the Carmelite church in Naples dates from the closing years of the thirteenth century. It is a painting of the Madonna and child typical of this century.  The queenly aspects of Mary more common in the twelfth century are no longer there, even as the iconic Christ with the all-comprehending eyes of wisdom has begun to yield to a more childlike infant.  There is still strong iconic influence, however, particularly in the way in which the child brushes his cheek close to that of the mother.  This is a common, though not universal, theme in icons of the Theotokos.  I suspect, thought I am not an art historian, that this painting should be dated to the thirteenth century because it is right in that transitional phase between the very formal iconic that prevailed until the close of the twelfth century and the more humanistic style that will emerge in the fourteenth century.

The second of the images to look at is the Madonna del Popolo of the Carmine basilica in Florence.  We know that this painting was venerated in the Carmelite church of Florence at least from the closing decades of the thirteenth century.  It is significantly different than LaBruna.  Mary, seated on a cushioned throne and robed in rich colors, has some very queenly characteristics more typical of the twelfth century artistry.  The image shows a very strong Byzantine influence. The child is definitely an image of the all-wise Word and his divinity is highlighted by the jeweled cross that comprises his halo.  The posture of both, and especially the hand of the two figures, are very Byzantine. Nonetheless, the paining is a Western image that draws on the Byzantine tradition.  There are several Byzantine elements that are not present such as the three stars on Mary's veil, and the Greek letters that signify she is Theotokos, usually painted beside her on the icon.  While the throne she is seated on is Byzantine, it often appears in twelfth century Western images of Mary.  The delicate brush strokes giving the gold background a filigree look are also more Italianate than Byzantine.  This image could be considerably older than its Carmelite connection.  In fact, it could be older than the Order.  [27]

What I would like to emphasize about both of these images is not their age but their connection to popular Marian cult in their respective Carmelite churches.  Both images functioned as a Madonna to whom the people of Naples and Florence had recourse in their needs.  They were images that the Carmelites made available to the people for their needs and did not stress any particular patronage of the Blessed Virgin over the Carmelites themselves.

A third image that falls in this same category is the twelfth or thirteenth century marble image venerated at Trapani.  This statue was allegedly carved by Nino Pisano, of the famous family of Pisan sculptors.  Legend has it that it was carved in the Holy Land for a Crusader church.  When the Crusaders abandoned Syria/Palestine in 1291 the statue was shipped to Pisa, but was put ashore in Trapani while repairs were made to the boat that was carrying it to its destination.  Our Lady made some clear signals that she did not want her image to leave Trapani and that its home should be the Carmelite church. Whatever the historical reality is beneath these legends, the statue had stood in the Carmelite church for seven centuries.  What is more important to this presentation is the tremendous devotion of the people of Trapani to their beloved Madonna, patroness of the Trapanese people.  The festival connected with this statue, August 16, is preceded by a novena that sweeps the city with devotion as even the modern and sophisticated Trapanese turn to their Madonna for their intercession in their time of need.

Let us look at a fourth and final image.  This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary is from a museum on Cyprus.  It is hard to date it, and it would be tempting to think that it might be from Mount Carmel.  However, if you notice the Carmelites gathered under Mary's mantle are wearing white cloaks, not barred mantles; the painting must be dated after 1287-1290 and therefore most likely comes after the final exodus from the Holy Land in 1291.  This painting, unlike the others, does express the patronage of the Blessed Virgin over the Carmelites.  It does not do this by means of the scapular, however, but by putting the Carmelites under Mary's mantle.  This was a device that originated with the Cistercians and was subsequently used by many religious orders to portray Mary's protection.

The first images of Mary bestowing the scapular date only from the fifteenth century.  Given that the Dominicans long had a tradition of portraying Mary bestowing the habit on them, it would be very strange that the Carmelites did not depict Mary in the same act if they had known of the scapular vision previous to the fifteenth century.  The Carmelites could not have been stronger about encouraging devotion to Mary as protectress and intercessor, but it is not connected with the scapular until almost two centuries after the alleged event.

The story of the scapular expanded from the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Simon Stock promising him that he and all Carmelites who die in the scapular will be preserved from hell to a claim that the Virgin would deliver from purgatory on the first Saturday after death any soul who had died in the scapular.  This promise was allegedly revealed to Pope John XXII in a vision of 1322 and came to be called the Sabbatine privilege (from the Sabbath or Saturday connection).

The privilege was not without opposition.  In 1603 a book containing the privileges of the Carmelite Order, including the Sabbatine privilege, was condemned by the Portuguese Inquisition.  Six years later all books mentioning the Sabbatine privilege were put on the Index of Forbidden Books in Portugal.  An appeal to Rome ended when the Roman authorities supported the Inquisition's ban.  However, on January 20, 1613 the Roman Inquisition permitted the Carmelites to preach:

    the faithful may devoutly believe that the Blessed Virgin by her continuous intercession, merciful prayers, merits and special protection will assist the souls of deceased brothers and members of the confraternity, especially on Saturday, the day which the church dedicates to the Blessed Virgin.  The conditions for trusting in such a favor are that the recipients die in a state of grace, wear the Carmelite habit, observe chastity according to their state in life and recite the little office of the Blessed Virgin; if they can not recite it they are to observe the church fasts and abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, unless Christmas falls on these days.  [28]

This was not a confirmation of the Sabbatine privilege.  It simply permitted that the faithful may believe that Our Lady will assist members of the scapular confraternity after the deaths if certain other requirements are kept.  As to the Sabbatine privilege, and the alleged bull of John XXII, the Inquisition wanted the whole matter to fade from the memory of the faithful:  "It (the above decree) was accompanied by a recommendation that the Carmelite Fathers 'shall not mention the Sabbatine bull, in order that the term may be forgotten'."  [29]

The Sabbatine Bull was long suspect by historians for a curious reason.  John XXII would not have written a bull supporting the claim that the Blessed Virgin would deliver souls from purgatory for the very simple reason that John XXII did not believe in purgatory.  [30]  Another significant problem regarding the authenticity of the Sabbatine Bull is that there is no record, much less copy, of this bull in the papal archives. While this would not guarantee 100% against the authenticity of a particular bull, combined with the other evidence it does indicate almost certain forgery.  Carmelite historians have indeed determined that the bull is a fifteenth century forgery originating in Sicily.  [31]