St James of the Marches grew up in the turbulence of early 15th Century Europe. Wars were being waged across Western Europe, and the Papal seat of authority was divided between Italy and France.
In the East, Admiral Zhenghe was spreading China’s influence and sovereignty across the sea routes of Asia, Arabia and Africa, and Parameswara founded Malacca.
Through a discovery of the presence of God amidst the uncertainties, hardships and trials in his own life, James learned to preach the Gospel with wisdom and compassion.
In this painting, positioned at the entrance of the new Friary of St James of the Marches in Masai, Johor, the Friary patron is portrayed as a middle-aged man, deep in the spirit of prayer.
We are reminded that God continues to speak to us in the different seasons of our lives. His presence is real, and He continues to call us, as we grow and mature, to respond to His Love in fresh ways.
Caught in an experience of the palpable presence of his Lord, James is depicted in the intimacy of a heartfelt response, echoing both Isaiah and Psalm 40: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”
James’ facial expression is complex, with elements of ecstasy, deep yearning, struggle and anguish. Here is a saint whose soul is filled with song, as he delights in an experience of God’s presence that is so real his heart aches with a desperate longing for that final, ultimate union with the Lord of Love.
In his struggle to accept the will of God, and in his feeble human attempts to carry out God’s commands, the saint is painfully aware of his own limitations, and experiences love so great that it hurts.
The space in which the saint sits is inspired by an antique choir stall seen by the artist while on a pilgrimage of the Camino to the Franciscan pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela. The setting hints at the saint’s struggle to balance a life of contemplation with a mission of itinerant Gospel preaching, as he bore the Christian message to the frontiers of Christianity.
On the wall in the background is the ‘IHS’ emblem of the Holy Name of Jesus, which was popularised by the friar-saint, Bernardine of Siena, who had served as James’ mentor in his youth.
James wears a rough habit that is patched and torn, symbolizing the austerity he practised in his life, as he placed a greater importance on eternal spiritual values than on temporal worldly preoccupations.
In his hand is a chalice, which is one of his main symbols. It is a reminder of the joys and the trials of his mission, of how those jealous of his successes attempted to discredit him with a controversy regarding his supposed teachings on the Holy Blood of Christ, and of his full vindication, which took place only after his death.
Ultimately, the chalice is a symbol of our own lives as we follow Christ, who poured out his blood that all may have Life to the full.