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  • Writer's pictureAhmed

Save us from plague

Updated: May 6

In today's blog we will discuss a devotional antique object which has some curious resonance today.

The scapular has a long and rich history. Originally it was a long piece of cloth that goes over the head and hangs down the front and back- the name comes from its position between the shoulders. The scapular was the distinguishing sign of some of the earliest religious orders in catholic history, beginning with the Benedictine Monks. In its original form, it was often referred to as jugum Christi, or the yoke of Christ, and was worn at all times. 

Scapulars were also taken up by lay people who would voluntarily oblige themselves to monastic vows (hence the people were called 'oblates') to a monastic order but not live within its boundaries- cooks, cleaners, service people.

Eventually, this tradition evolved into the small sacramental scapulars of today that are worn daily under or over regular clothing as an open sign of devotion. Its purpose now is as a reminder of Christian conduct, in thought and prayer and action. So, we were excited to come across this item, a scapular with a sacred heart!

Scapulars are usually associated with monastic orders (especially Benedictine) but who would use the flaming heart as a symbol like this? And what to make of this fine script in French?

It turns out this isn't a Scapular at all but a Sauvegarde, but an object with its own peculiar history in France...

It's 1720. Plague has laid low the city of Marseille in the South of France. Over 1000 die each day. The parlement of Aix has ordered the city gates shut and the wealthy have fled to their country retreats. The Bishop of Belsunce, however, refuses to abandon the city. Instead, he holds improvised services in the open air. He goes out daily among the dead and dying with three confessors and his household staff, giving alms and organizing the administration of the last rites and preaching to the dying to confess their sins. He uses the image of the Sacred heart freely, a symbol of Christs' own humanity and suffering.

[François Gérard, "Monseigneur de Belsunce pendant la peste", 1824-1825 via La Nouvelles Athenes]

The plague eventually abated in Marseille and Belsunce became a clerical hero. Not only was he with the masses in their time of suffering, his intervention was credited with healing Marseille itself. Belsunce is today a famous street in Marseille and the name of one of its central districts. Of course, the bishop gets a statue or two as well.

We've discussed Jansenism before, and its popularity with many clergies in the 18th century. Belsunce, however, was a Jesuit and in particular he enthusiastically supported the Jesuit sponsorship of the Sacred Heart. Marseille in the plague became a microcosm of France; the plague a metaphor for spiritual sickness, to be met with a strong coherent message of penitence and love. Its almost too easy to create parallels with contemporary events... The idea of wearing a badge of the Sacred Heart had been popular since the mid 17th Century when mystic Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque had made and distributed her own badges. The example of the Bishop created a revival of these 'Sauvegardes' with an image and a prayer to serve as an everyday reminder. The badges became a symbol of Catholic penitence and fortitude during the revolution. Although the Jesuits were expelled from France in 1764 thanks to Jansenists and distrust of Roman influence (we've come across French distrust of supranational organisations before...). They were associated with the old order and the wearing of the Sauvegarde was seen as a sign of being a fanatic of the ancient regime. In particular it could often be seen as symbol for the Vendee counter-revolutionaries. Attitudes changed of course. Within a lifetime, Napoleon had been and gone (twice) and the Jesuits were back in France. Nevertheless, the devotion encapsulated in this kind of antique piece has, however, always been there and it remains built into the fabric of French faith. Sources:

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