The art essay

The Miracle of Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo (1726) by Sebastiano Conca (1680–1764)

Outside of Latin America, not many people today know of Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo, yet he played a crucial role in forming the global Church. Born to a wealthy family in Spain in 1538, just as Peru was entering Spanish dominion, Turibius couldn’t know the far-flung adventures in store for him. Excelling at his law studies at the University of Salamanca, he caught the eye of King Philip II, who appointed him chief magistrate at Granada. His life was on track to be prosperous, devout, and local. That is, until he was named Archbishop of Peru at age forty, without ever having taken holy orders. 

 Despite his remonstrations, Turibius was prepared first for his priestly and then episcopal ordination before boarding a ship for the long trip to Paita, Peru, 600 miles from Lima. The mission could not have been more daunting: to correct the abuses and scandals caused by both clergy and secular rulers throughout the 170,000 square miles of this archdiocese and revitalize the evangelizing mission to the people. Yet when he stepped off the boat, Turibius ventured forth and didn’t stop until he died twenty-six years later, still serving his archdiocese. 

 “Time is not our own, and we must give a strict account of it”

 This was Saint Turibius’ favorite saying, and explains how he managed to traverse his immense diocese three times, preaching, baptizing, and healing rifts along the way. He faced illness, opposition, rugged terrain, and wild animals, teaching as much by his holy example as by his words. He learned the native languages, shared his own possessions, slept and ate in the same conditions as his flock, and always found time for a suffering soul. Saint Turibius brought the Gospel of salvation halfway across the globe and showed his people how it fit perfectly into this very different culture.

 Intent as always on visiting his diocese, Turibius fell ill at age sixty-eight and died at Saña, leaving behind many great fruits, not least of which were Diego de León Garavito, the first Peruvian student to attend the University of Bologna, and the future saints Rose of Lima and Martin de Porres, both confirmed by the bishop. He built hospitals, schools, and roads, as well as the first great seminary of the New World, blending the infrastructures of the Old World with the dynamic faith of his new home.

 The Miracle of Saint Turibius

 “We have no water, and we must abandon our lands” was the cry that greeted Saint Turibius on April 27, 1594, when he arrived outside Macate. The riverbed had dried up and the impoverished people would be forced to migrate in search of sufficient water. The saint celebrated Mass before walking to the arid riverbed; then Turibius struck the rock beneath his feet three times and the waters gushed forth, forming a shape of a cross.

 This was one of two miracles attributed to the saint, along with resurrecting a man who had been stabbed through the chest. Even though the sword, steel, and salvation elements of this second miracle might appear to be the most picture-worthy, it was the miraculous flow of water that best summed up the life and mission of Saint Turibius.

  In the catacombs, the early Christians frequently depicted Moses striking water from the rock as a symbol of baptism. Saint Paul wrote that our ancestors were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. (1 Cor 10:2-4)

  Later, this scene transformed into Saint Peter striking a stone to baptize his jailors, since Saint Augustine equated the figure of Saint Peter with that of Moses. Now thoroughly Romanized, the image underscored Saint Peter’s role as the new leader of God’s people. 

 Baptism was central to the mission of Saint Turibius in Peru. He is believed to have baptized close to a half a million people—an average of about fifty people a day! 

 Old world elegance meets new world rigor 

 When Turibius was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726, one of the more cosmopolitan cardinals, Pietro Ottoboni, decided to commission an image of this distant saint for his Roman palace. He turned to his in-house painter Sebastiano Conca from Naples, at the time the most important painter in Rome. Conca introduced the Roman Rococo style, with his soft colors and elegant compositions in smaller canvases, as opposed to the larger-than-life figures of the Baroque.

To recount this faraway miracle to the heart of urban sophistication, Conca took a few artistic liberties. The saint stands in the center of the work, isolated by both size and color. One hand holds the bishop’s crozier while the other stretches across the waters. Conca united two moments of Moses’ mission, not only drawing water from stone but also crossing the Red Sea, universally understood as the quintessential image of salvation. 

 On either side of the painting, the figures rise and fall in waves like the coursing water below. The costumes are romanticized—a queenly mother in scarlet grasps her child as she points toward the miracle, while a turbaned, scimitar-sporting soldier and a kneeling, fur-clad musketeer evoke for a European audience the legendary Inca warriors who battled against the Spanish settlers. 

 The composition circles around the saint—masses of amazed witnesses, a few palm trees, and an interesting pack animal that appears to be a cross between a donkey and a camel—but the heart of the work is the Church. The heavens cast a ray of light on the bishop as the two acolytes focus our eyes on the miracle. 

 Saint Turibius brought an Old Testament miracle to the New World, showing that the Gospel message had no geographical or cultural boundaries, and reminding the modern age that to be global is to be universal, which means Catholic. 

 

Elizabeth Lev Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy   

The Miracle of Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo (1726), Sebastiano Conca (1680–1764), The Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy.