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Paula (Rome, May 5th, 347 - Bethlem, January 26th 406), or Sancta Paola Romana, was a wealthy Roman matron born during the reign of Constantine II. She belonged to the high Roman aristocracy but her relevance is mostly due to her participation in the writing of the Vulgata, a fundamental text in the history of the Church.
The important origins of her parents are told in the letters and in the Epitaphium Sanctae Paulae 5-6 -Saint Paula's epitaph- by Saint Jerome (in Italian, "San Gerolamo" or "San Girolamo"), but are not consistent with what has been found in other documents, though the wealth of the family is never questioned, as evident by her marriage and those of her descendants. In 362 she married senator Tossozio; from their union five children were born: Blesilla, Paolina, Eustochio (often also named "Eustochia"; being her a female, the trailing "a" comes natural), Rufina and Tossozio.
In 379 the husband died and Paula was welcomed in the Christian circle of Marcella, on the Aventino (one of the historical Roman Hills) and in 382 she met the Dalmatian (Saint) Jerome for the first time. Jerome was in Rome as secretary for pope Damasus I, and also served as the spiritual guide of the circle. Today he is remembered as one of the great Fathers of the Western Church.
Blesilla, eldest daughter, died in 384, maybe because of the excessive fasting imposed by the strict rules imposed by the Saint, and Paula is comforted by the teachings of Jerome. In the same year took place Damasus' death and Jerome decided to travel to the Orient; Paula and Eustochio followed the Saint. They stayed in Antioch and visited the sacred places of Palestine and Egypt where they studied the life of cenobitic communities.
These travels shaped the model for the foundation of Sancta Paola's two monasteries on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, one for men and the other for women, and a home for peregrines. Her life ended in the female monastery, on January 26th, 406.
She was buried in the Basilica of Nativity, Bethlem, and Saint Jerome wrote her (rather famous) epitaph. Eustochio and Jerome were later deposed by St Paula's remains.
The privileged relationship between Jerome and Paula generated rumors to which the Saint replied on many occasions, such as in the letter (epistula) 22, where he underlines the difference between love of the flesh and spiritual love.
Chaucer, in the "Prologue of the Bath Woman" (The Canterbury Tales), jokes on their union; actually the Woman, visiting the same places where the Saint was, costantemently cites Jerome's words.
Paula's importance is testimonied by Claude Lorrain, the praised master of ideal landscapes, on the background of which the armony of classic architecture stands out. The painting "Embarkation of Saint Paula Romana at Ostia" (1639) was commissioned by Phillip IV, king of Spain. The canvas is hosted in the Museo Našional del Prado (Madrid).
The "Embarkation of Saint Paula Romana" is an exemplary ouvre in Lorrain's genre
Saint Paula's figure responds to the concept of perpetual widowhood as after her husband's death she never married again. For this reason she was depicted with an austere dress typical of Roman matrons, but at the same time her ascetic life is emphasized, being far from the wealth and luxury of her previous existence. Indee, she is embarking for a new life of prayer and full renounce of material goods and pleasures. The choice of deicting a monochrome dress in a consequence of the woman's commitment and sobriety, and at the same time a representation of her icoming sanctity.
She lived till the last of her days inside the monastery that she founded; from this biographic information we deduce why the Saint is portraited by both André Reinoso and Francisco de Zurbaràn in a monastic dress.
de Zubaràn here displays the importance of Saint Paula for the Church
In particular, in André Reinoso's canvas (Saint Paula with her nuns, 17th century, conserved in Lisbon, Hieronymites Monastery) her philantropic action is displayed along with her role as the congregation abbess (mother superior).
Francisco de Zurbarßn, in "Saint Jerome with Saints Paula and Eustochio" (1638-1640, National Gallery of Art, Washington), enlightens Paula's cuture. Indeed, it is said that she helped Jerome in translating the Bible from the Hebrew and from Greek into Latin, the so-called "Vulgata". Together with her daughter Eustochio, she later took care of the copyoperations aimed at spreading of the text.
Such role is also highlighted in "Jerome Penitent in the desert between Saint Damasius, Saint Eusebius, Saint Paula, Saint Eustochia and donors" by Francesco di Giovanni or Botticini. In the scene, a book slips out from Saint Paula's tunic. Here, the daughter Eustochio has a prominent position: she's in the first row, holding a white lily, the symbol of purity and chastity. As the mother corresponds to the permanent widowhood, so Eustochio represents the perpetual virginity because she decided to never marry; as long as she lived, Eustochio dedicated herself to the monastery founded in Bethlem by her mother.
Finally, Paula is in "Apparition of the Trinity to Saint Jerome, Saint Paula and Saint Eustochio" (1453-1454), (Apparizione della Trinità a San Girolamo, santa Paola e sant'Eustochio), a work by Andrea del Castagno that can be admired in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, Florence.
In Andrea del Castagno's scene, the Saint is placed by the master and together with her daughter, while the shattering Trinity falls on Jerome's halo. The scheme reproduces the classic triangular template of the divine portrayal. The gestuality of tranquil devotion and the shininess of the golden dress seem to echo Jerome's words: in the Epitaph, he defines her a "very precious gem", who "the more she made herself humble", the more she raised towards Christ.
Saint Paula is one of the widows' patron saints.
On the recurrence of her death (January 26th), she is celebrated in Bethlem, in Rome and in other monasteries of the Hieronymites nuns (the Hieronymites belong to the Order of Saint Jerome; in Italian, "girolamite" or "gerolamite"). It was Pope Clemens XI who, in 1702, decreed the celebration of the Mass in her honour.
Santa Paola Romana is not celebrated with processions or pompous religious events, but through a Mass in which her endevours of charity and devotions are cited. According to the tradition, at the end of the Mass a "Agape" is held, a fraternal meal that unites the believers, to underline the charity of the Woman.
by Giulia Rustichelli
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