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A Community of Saints

  Cima da Conegliano (Giovanni Battista Cima),  Polyptych,  C. 1486-88,  Tempera on panel. Parish Church of St. Bartolomeo, Olera (Bergamo), Italy

Behold this nine-panelled polyptych with the Virgin and Child taking the top panel, presiding over the congregation and the community of saints below. The standing figure in the middle (a statue) is Santo Bartolemeo or Saint Bartholomew the Apostle. He is also known as the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and is therefore beloved by the Armenians. 

We didn’t travel to Armenia to get a sighting of St Bartolomeo. We took a little drive from the city of Bergamo to the hillside village of Olera to visit a church perched on a verdant hilltop, surrounded by quaint village houses. The church is dedicated to St Bartolomeo. So, it is apt that this polyptych takes pride of place at the centre of the church. 

The polyptych was painted in 1489 by Giovan (aka Giovanni) Battista Cima from Conegliano, Veneto. This is the reason why this altarpiece is also attributed to Cima da Conegliano — Cima from Conegliano. 

I am not a practising Catholic, although I’ve had a convent education spanning 10 years, and have lived amongst the staunchest of Lutherans, Protestants, and Catholics for more than three decades of my life. I’d admit that Catholicism will always remain close to my heart. I love Catholic saints for the stories they tell. There are just some very sagely trivia that I love to study about these saints. I don’t have a photographic memory, so I don’t always remember all that I’ve read. But I know that Bartholomew was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Legend has it that Bartolomeo (his Italian name) was skinned alive and beheaded. His emblems are a knife (the one that he was skinned with) and his flayed skin. For this, he is beloved (in some perverse way) by tanners and those who work with leather, or skins of all sorts, I guess. 

The bottom far right panel is that of San Rocco. He is the patron saint of dogs (woofy funny), bodily afflictions and diseases, such as the plague and rashes, amongst others. San Rocco’s emblems are a staff and he is always depicted with a wound on his thigh or knee. 

Born of nobility in Montpellier, France, in 1295, San Rocco gave his riches to the poor, attended to the sickly and dying, and legend has it that he miraculously cured some people. It is also believed that San Rocco was born from a miracle, his mother having been barren for many years, with a birthmark that looked like a cross on his chest. As an adult, he was arrested on accounts of espionage and imprisoned. He languished in jail for five years without him ever once mentioning his noble connections. Apparently, he was cared for by an angelic presence until he died in 1327 of natural causes. By then, he had already done many things. 

Luca Signorelli – San Rocco 
1515-20. 29.6 x 16.3
Academy Carrara (Accademia Carrara), Bergamo.

San Rocco is now the all important saint invoked in the Catholic world. His help is needed to get rid of the pestilant COVID-19 virus that is circumventing the globe today. 

Above San Rocco is Santa Caterina or Saint Catherine. She is the patron saint of literature. Known also as Catherine of Siena, Santa Caterina was an activist, mystic, author and was conferred Doctor of the Church for her contribution to theological studies. She was the second woman in the Catholic world to be given this recognition. Hence, this makes her the only female saint on the polyptych. 

Her attributes are a crown of thorns, a rose, a book, a crucifix, amongst others. She is invoked for her power to cure the sick, for miscarriages, and bodily afflictions in general, amongst other divine powers that she possesses. [It is good to note that saints are living divine beings as Orthodox Christians and Coptics believe them to be.]

Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa was born in Rome in the year 1347. She had a twin sister, Giovanna, who unfortunately died in the arms of the wet nurse. Caterina’s mother, Lapa Piagenti, was the daughter of a poet, and she was what doctors today call a geriatric primigravida when she had the twin girls at the age of forty. Not only that, Lapa had given birth at least 22 times before Caterina and Giovanna were born. Half of her children had died by that time. Twenty-two times!! — that in itself is a miracle and Lapa Piagenti should’ve been canonised for the sacrifices she had made with her body. By the time Caterina was 2 years old, her mother had givnen birth yet again. Caterina finally had another sister named after her late twin. This would be Lapa’s 25th child. 

Caterina’s father had a cloth dying business which he managed and ran with his sons. (If I were Lapa, I’d have made sure he died in a bath of red dye for impregnating me this many times. But hey, I am no saint.) All in all, Caterina was born into a middle-income family. Her parents played a big part in Caterina’s life, as most parents do. With so many children to feed and protect, the Benincasas ran a tight ship. When Bonaventura, one of Caterina’s sisters died at childbirth, she was asked to marry her widower. Caterina flatly refused because she knew how Bonaventura had suffered as his wife: Bonaventura had to go on a hunger strike to force her husband to be better. It is not known if he was a wife-beater or a bully. But for Bonaventura to take such a drastic action, he must’ve been most undesireable. A jerkass in today’s lingo. Following in her late sister’s foot steps, Caterina fasted as well when she was told to marry her brother-in-law. I shall just say it as it is — she went on a hunger strike; to fast would be putting it mildly. She never married Bonaventura’s widower. In fact, the only marriage Caterina ever had was with God. 

It is a well known fact that women use their bodies to challenge the status quo. The suffragettes went on hunger strikes in the early 1900s to protest against not being imprisoned as political prisoners for they saw themselves as fighting a political cause — the right for women to vote. The authorities forced-fed the women as a means to keep them alive. This force-feeding became the most poignant docuementation of the suffragette’s fight for gender equality and a basic human right. You can read more about it here

Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa had a love for God so strong that she became politically active in  fighting for clergical reforms. She travelled widely preaching and advocating her beliefs. She used her body to challenge the authorities, to show her love for the common people and for the Catholic Church. She cared for the sickly and dying. She walked miles to get to places and people that needed her. She wrote reams and reams of letters to the Pope asking for this and that reform. And, she starved herself: fasting was her means to get closer to God. This was ironically  frowned upon by the clerical authorities. Not the getting close to God part, but the starving of oneself to get near Holiness part. The authorities, it has been said, felt that fasting was unhealthy.

It was indeed unhealthy because in 1380, Caterina suffered a massive stroke after months of refraining food and water. She faded away because there is only so much an anorexic body can take, and let’s not forget a dehydrated one too. I think it is a miracle that she managed to last so many months before finally succumbing to the angel of death. She passed away at the age of thirty-three, commending her soul and spirit to God. By that time, she had written The Dialogue of Divine Providence, her most important and remembered work. There were also over 380 letters to the Pope (as well as many to women) and prayers that she’d penned that are still whispered today. Santa Caterina di Siena was indeed a woman of letters. She is my patron saint.

A Community of Writers

I was recently invited to join a community of authors who have come together to find ways to promote our books and work. We’re a hodpodge of authors ranging from children’s to YA to adult fiction and nonfiction. 

Top left to right: Daryl Kho, Joyce Chua, Vicky Chong, Middle left to right: Audrey Chin, Nabeel Ismeer, Eva Wong Nava, Bottom left to right: Nidhi Upadhyay, Vivek Iyyani, Leslie W [photo credit: Joyce Chua]

And behold, we are also a nine-panelled polyptych:

  1. Daryl Kho — Mist-bound
  2. Joyce Chua — Land of Sand and Song
  3. Leslie W — The Night of Legends
  4. Audrey Chin — The Ash House 
  5. Vicky Chong — Racket and Other Stories 
  6. Vivek Iyyani — Engaging Millennials
  7. Nidhi Upadhyay — That Night 
  8. Nabeel Ismeer — The Hunter’s Walk 
  9. Eva Wong Nava — Mina’s Magic Malong and The Roti John Poetry Club (forthcoming)

I hear you asking what our emblems are.

These, my dear reader, are pen and paper, computer and wifi (for research), a vase of imagination, a feather of creativity, a walking stick of kudos, and a mettle of bravado. 

My colleagues and I will vouch that our sacrifices are many: time stolen from family, sleep deprivation from working in full-time day jobs and part-time grave yard shifts writing, anguish when the page is blank and fear that our ideas have run out, cardiac palpitations as the deadlines loom and we still have half a book to write, to name but a few. And let’s also not forget, the long TBR list that forms the basic ingredient to good writing. And for some of us, research — years of research for this is what historical fiction and nonfiction requires. Add to this, the brainwave and physical effort to promote our work because publishing budgets for underrepresented, debut, and back-listed authors are small (unless, of course, your debut novel was acquired through a nine-way auction).

I think every writer is a saint. The Church of Writing has canonised many and these have become household names, sanctified and revered, much like the various saints (santi (m) and sante (f) in Italian) whose names Catholics invoke. 

And like the many saints, these canonised authors are mostly Caucasian/White. Such is the way with publishing. But that is starting to change. And I am so excited to be part of this change. More on my forthcoming picturebooks with Walker Books and Scholastic UK soon.

This aside, the question always comes back to why writers do what they do? And since we’re talking about saints today, let’s flip this and ask, “Why are people canonised?” Well, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I don’t write for fame and fortune (if only), or to enter the canons of literature (that’d be lovely, though). No one who has ever picked up a pen to write or typed away on their computers would say that their motivation is to be canonised. We write because our lives depend on it. We have stories to tell that we would like you to read. And, I feel, most of all, we write because we really do enjoy writing, hard as it is, under the various circumstances and situations that afflict us, and the stiff competition that we face in the publishing world as underrepresented and marginalised writers of colour. (And you know how I dislike this term). Too many adjectives for this nine-member strong community, I feel. But hey, I didn’t invent those descriptors. 

What can you do to help? I pray thee, my dear reader — go buy our books. If not, our efforts would have all been wasted, and that would be a shame. 

For those who are interested in understanding and rethinking diversity in publishing, click here