The Mass of Saint Basil,
Painted by Pierre Hubert Subleyras (1699–1749),
Painted in 1746
Oil on canvas, transferred from canvas
© The Metropolitan Museum, New York
Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels
The disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ So he called a little child to him and set the child in front of them. Then he said, ‘I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
‘Anyone who welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.’
Reflection on the Painting
Today we celebrate the Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels. But what are angels? We speak a lot about angels and see them often floating around in paintings, but who are they? St Augustine says: “Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is spirit; if you seek that name of their office, it is angel, from what they are: spirit; from what they do: angel.” It is a clear definition of something that is very hard for our minds to grasp.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in nr. 350 can help us even more: “Angels are spiritual creatures who glorify God without ceasing and who serve his saving plans for other creatures: "The angels work together for the benefit of us all" (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 114, 3, ad 3)”.
One step further now. Why do we call them ‘guardian’ angels? Because we believe that they are assigned to watch over and protect individuals from harm, danger, and negative influences. They are thought to intervene in times of need to ensure the safety and well-being of the person they are guarding.
St Basil believed that by each believer an angel stands as protector and shepherd leading him or her through life. Our painting is Pierre Hubert Subleyras’s highly finished proposal, or modello, for his most important commission: a design that would be translated into an enormous mosaic altarpiece for Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Subleyras depicts Saint Basil the Great (ca. 330–379) celebrating Mass in the presence of the Emperor Valentius (328–378). We see Saint Basil surrounded by angels whilst receiving the chalice, just before its consecration.
Share this Gospel Reading