Sunday, 14th July 2024

St Patrick

The image of Saint Patrick, in the second panel on the right, is a synthesis of “The Breastplate” and various episodes associated with the life and legend of our Patron Saint. Patrick is said to have written this prayer to strengthen himself with God’s protection as he prepared to confront and convert Laoghaire, high king of Ireland. The prayer begins with an invocation of the Blessed Trinity: “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity. By invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three, I bind unto myself today. ” The gilded semi-circle above Saint Patrick is a traditional way of representing God the Father in heaven. The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and Christ is depicted, again following an ancient custom, as a child, before and within Patrick, who raises his hand in blessing. The scroll of the Word of God is held by Christ the Word and acts as Patrick’s protective shield: “Chríost liom, Chríost romham – Christ within me, Christ before me.”

Behind Patrick rises Croagh Patrick, the mountain in the west of Ireland where Patrick prayed for forty days and nights. This is still a place of pilgrimage where the biblical tradition of climbing a mountain to pray and to encounter God is very much alive. The shape of the mountain is mirrored in the shape of heaven above it. Between the two, the Holy Spirit descends in flames of fire. Heaven and earth are united by the descent of the Spirit which is the bond of love within the Trinity and between God and creation. This represents Patrick’swords “I bind unto myself the strong name of the Trinity, … of whom all nature has creation.” As Father Rupnik notes, “the Spirit hovered over the water at creation; the Spirit presides at every manifestation of God in the Old Twomb of the Virgin Mary; the Spirit is the principle of knowledge and union between Creator and creature.”

Patrick is standing in a well. This recalls the mediaeval Italian legend that Patrick explained purgatory to the Irish by touching the well with his crozier. This action, dramatically depicted in a fourteenth-century fresco in Todi, opened up a vision of the seven deadly sins and the way to overcome them. The water is more gold than blue, full of

light and colour, underlying the purification and regeneration that God gives though baptism. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem commented that with his baptism in the Jordan, Christ

has conferred the colours of divinity on all water. Patrick stands here on the axis that leads from the water of purification, to the mountain of knowledge and to heaven. This passage is made possible by the Holy Spirit who unifies and purifies all.

Notice the fish in the water. In the art of the Roman catacombs Christ is represented as a fish since the letters of the Greek work for fish, icthus, are the first letters of each word in the confession of faith “Jesus Christ, son of God, Saviour”. By placing the fish in the water, another invocation of the Breastplate, “Christ beneath me,” is evoked.

The presence of the deer has a double significance: in many ancient Roman mosaics the deer represents the human soul thirsting for God: “Like the deer that years for running streams so my soul is thirsting for you my God” (Psalm 42: 1); in the Gaelic tradition Patrick’s “Breastplate” is also known as the “Deer’s Cry.”

According to popular legend Saint Patrick banished snakes from Ireland. The fleeing snakes in the bottom right of the mosaic remind us that with the proclamation of the Gospel in Ireland Patrick heralded a new age where God’s grace and freedom overcame sin and oppression.