Debate with a HereticThe above painting is entitled Scene from the Life of St. Thomas Aquinas: The Debate with the Heretic, by Bartolomeo degli Erri, believed to be painted around 1465. It’s part of the collection at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (you can zoom in on the image here). I’ve seen it so many times over the years and probably thought too much about it.

I’m assuming that the black robed figure is Aquinas. He appears twice in the painting, arguing and piously praying to St. Mary. But wasn’t Aquinas accused of heresy? Is he the heretic, or is he arguing with one? The commentary on the wall of the museum suggests that his opponent is the heretic with the darkness of the outside of the church behind him. It also speculates as to whether the heretic is Jewish, or something I read makes the suggestion anyway. On the other hand, the heretic appears to be backed up by clergy, unless their physical positioning is coincidence.

Don’t know why this painting has my attention, but every time I visit the museum I spend some time looking at it. It’s not particularly brilliantly crafted. Has to be the subject matter. Aquinas is of course credited with paving the way for the Renaissance and ultimately the Enlightenment at least in terms of the power of reason, except as it applies to “theological virtue.” But he gave license to reason.

Now the object of the theological virtues is God Himself, Who is the last end of all, as surpassing the knowledge of our reason. On the other hand, the object of the intellectual and moral virtues is something comprehensible to human reason. Wherefore the theological virtues are specifically distinct from the moral and intellectual virtues.

The Summa Theologica, Of the Theological Virtues

The theological virtues assigned to humanity are faith, hope, and charity, all of which are to be independent of reason. All else is in the human realm is within the purview of reason. From the same source:

Faith and hope imply a certain imperfection: since faith is of things unseen, and hope, of things not possessed. Hence faith and hope, in things that are subject to human power, fall short of the notion of virtue. But faith and hope in things which are above the capacity of human nature surpass all virtue that is in proportion to man, according to 1 Cor. 1:25: “The weakness of God is stronger than men.”

I can live with that. Even a secularist like me acknowledges faith, that despite all of the aspects of human nature that divide us, there is something above (or beneath the surface) that connects us and can’t be broken by our shortcomings. At least I like to see it that way.

Time for bed.

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