Saint Pantaleimon

We’re recently back from a week in Venice, where the weather was glorious, and we spent a lot of time in churches, not least because some seem to be open now which never, ever, were in the last twenty years or so – at least when we were passing by. Thus we were able to go inside San Silvestro (which has a large painting of St Thomas Becket), and to look at the extraordinary works of art in San Pantalon.

Why is St Thomas Becket inside San Silvestro, and why is he inserted into another image?
The church of San Pantalon.

Quick diversion on Venetian names – there is a tendency to contract (to put it mildly), as in the examples of these churches:

San Trovaso = SS. Gervasio and Protasio

San Zanipolo = SS. Giovanni e Paolo

San Marcuolo = SS. Ermagora e Fortunato

San Zan Degola = San Giovanni Decollato (St John with his head cut off)

San Zan Degola on a gloomy day some years ago

Among these, the contraction of Saint Pantaleimon through San Pantaleone down to San Pantalon is not a huge stretch (so to speak); but the name has an interesting afterlife as that of the foolish old miser in the plays of the Venetian version of the commedia dell’arte. Shakespeare could use his name for an old man, and expect it to be recognised:

‘ … The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.’  (As You Like It, Act II Scene VII)

Two versions of Pantalone: the one below is from Masques et bouffons (comédie italienne), 1860, by Maurice Sand, aka Jean-François-Maurice-Arnauld Dudevant (1823–89), son of the more famous George, who like his mother was a novelist but also produced a major study of the commedia dell’ arte.

Goldoni regarded him as one of the four stock character types of Venetian commedia – the Vecchio or ‘old man’ – but his chief claim to fame is of course that his costume was adopted by men, first in France and then in England, as a pair of long and baggy trousers (as opposed to the tight-fitting and aristocratic culottes) and his name went, so to speak, with the pants.

The Sixth Age of Man as depicted by Robert Smirke (1753–1845), father of the more famous Robert, architect of the British Museum. The Seven Ages were painted for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. (Credit: The Yale Centre for British Art)

Later, pantaloons or pantalettes became the name of ladies’ undergarments, which became a necessity when the crinoline came into fashion, bringing with it fewer layers of petticoats and an embarrassing tendency to tip up when its wearer bent over. Young ladies could even, apparently, get away with a shorter skirt (to just below the knee), provided that their pantaloons covered their ankles …

A fashionable, if daring, young lady in the 1850s.

But what about the saint? Pantaleimon, Παντελεήμων, ‘all-compassionate’, is one the many who may or may not have existed. He is revered especially in the Eastern and Russian Orthodox churches (the Russian church complex on Mount Athos is dedicated to him), and is one of the three patron saints of Oporto in Portugal. Allegedly born about 275 in Nicomedia (modern İzmit in Turkey), which during the Tetrarchy was the eastern capital of the Roman empire (Constantine moved it to Byzantium in 330), Pantaleimon had a pagan but wealthy father, Eustorgius, and a Christian mother, whose name is given as either Ebbua or (Saint) Euboula.

St Pantaleimon, an icon in St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.

She taught him Christian beliefs, but he did not stick with them in his youth. He studied medicine under a well known physician, Euphrosinus, on whose recommendation he became physician to Galerius, son-in-law of and co-emperor with Diocletian. (Other versions have made him doctor to Maximian, or to Diocletian himself.) He was brought back to Christianity by a conversation with St Hermolaus, a priest and later martyr. According to St Alfonso Liguori (1696–1787), founder of the Redemptorist order: ‘One day as our saint was discoursing with a holy priest named Hermolaus, the latter, after praising the study of medicine, concluded thus: “But, my friend, of what use are all thy acquirements in this art, since thou art ignorant of the science of salvation?”’

A coin of Galerius, issued in Trier in 298.

Inspired, Pantaleimon cured a blind man by invoking the name of Christ; this converted his father, who on his death left his son his considerable estate, which Pantaleimon gave away to the poor, also freeing his slaves. He refused to take any fees for his work as a physician (he is one of the Holy Unmercenary Healers of the Eastern Church, and well as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in the West), and his generosity made him very popular in the city – to the extent that other doctors, jealous of him, told Galerius that he was a Christian. The emperor tried to persuade him to deny Christ, but Pantaleimon refused, and Galerius regretfully ordered his execution.

According to the account in Catholic Online, this was not an easy task: ‘Pantaleon’s flesh was first burned with torches, whereupon Christ appeared to all in the form of Hermolaus to strengthen and heal Pantaleon. The torches were extinguished. Then a bath of molten lead was prepared; when the apparition of Christ stepped into the cauldron with him, the fire went out and the lead became cold. Pantaleon was now thrown into the sea, loaded with a great stone, which floated. He was thrown to wild beasts, but these fawned upon him and could not be forced away until he had blessed them. He was bound on the wheel, but the ropes snapped, and the wheel broke. An attempt was made to behead him, but the sword bent, and the executioners were converted to Christianity. Pantaleon implored Heaven to forgive them, for which reason he also received the name of Panteleimon (“mercy for everyone” or “all-compassionate”). It was not until he himself desired it that it was possible to behead him, upon which there issued forth blood and a white liquid like milk.’

The cathedral of Sta Maria Assunta and San Pantaleone at Ravello.

St Alfonso Liguori also commented that ‘At Ravello, a city in the kingdom of Naples, there is a vial of his blood, which becomes blood every year [on his feastday], and may be seen in this state interspersed with the milk, as I, the author of this work, have seen it.’ (See also San Gennaro in Naples.)

So much for the legend. The first evidence for Pantaleimon’s being venerated as a saint appears in the fifth century, and there is a record that Justinian I rebuilt a chapel of the saint in Nicomedia. The Venetian church was built by 1161, when it is mentioned in a document of Pope Alexander III, but was restyled (and the nave rotated by 90 degrees) by Francesco Comin from Treviso, between 1668 and 1686. The bare brick façade was presumably intended to be faced with marble, but for some reason this never happened.

Fumiani’s ceiling canvas – hopeless to examine at this size!

Inside, you are likely to be staggered by the ceiling canvas, painted between 1684 and 1704 by Giovanni Antonio Fumiani (1645–1710), a Venetian by birth who studied in Bologna but returned to the Veneto and painted mostly for churches. He has his own legend – that he died after falling from the scaffolding in the church (a bit like poor George Basevi in Ely Cathedral) – but if he finished the painting in 1704 and died in 1710, this may not be true.

The painting has been said to be the biggest single canvas ever painted. It shows the martyrdom and apotheosis of the saint, and is staggering, even if, like Ruskin (predictably), you don’t like it:

‘For the ceilings alone of these two churches, St. Pataleone and St. Alvise, are worth a day’s pilgrimage in their sorrowful lesson.

All the mischief that Paul Veronese did may be seen in the halting and hollow magnificences of them; — all the absurdities, either of painting or piety, under afflatus of vile ambition. Roof puffed up and broken through, as it were, with breath of the fiend from below, instead of pierced by heaven’s light from above; the rags and ruins of Venetian skill, honour, and worship, exploded all together sky-high. Miracles of frantic mistake, of flaunting and thunderous hypocrisy, — universal lie, shouted through speaking-trumpets.’ (St Mark’s Rest, in Vol. 24 of the Cook and Wedderburn Works)

You really have to be there: it is possible to enlarge an online image here, but the quality is not very good, alas.

Antonio Vivarini, Coronation of the Virgin, with the Evangelists and their emblems, as well as the Doctors of the Church, to the fore.

Rather more to my taste is a Coronation of the Virgin, by Antonio Vivarini (active c. 1440–80 and father of the more famous Alvise), assisted by his brother-in-law Giovanni d’Alemagna (c. 1411–50), who may have been either of German descent or merely from Murano.

Veronese, San Pantalon Cures a Young Boy (1587).

Ruskin’s much-despised Veronese is also represented, with St Pantalon Healing a Boy, allegedly his last work; and the wall-mounted font is flanked by two beautiful marble columns and surmounted by a plaque showing the Baptism of Christ and the beheading (decollazione) of St John the Baptist.

The font.

It just goes to demonstrate yet again that it’s impossible to go to Venice (however frequently) and not see and learn something new – looking forward (with fingers tightly crossed) to our next trip …


This entry was posted in Art, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries, Venice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Saint Pantaleimon

  1. Pingback: St Clement(s) | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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