Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Life and Times of Saint François Xavier - A Vignette

Today I'm taking a break from the blog to finish the last minute Christmas preparations, so Ann Isik is kindly taking my place! Thanks, Ann!

Thank you for asking me to guest blog, Cathy. I'm Ann Isik. I'm English and I live in France, about 20 minutes away from the Champs-Elysees. I'm an artist and I'm writing a mystery/suspense series called 'The Laurel Grove Mysteries'. Book One 'Flint and Feather', set in Normandy and Paris, is in revision and Book Two, set in Paris, Normandy and Corsica, is in the planning stage. (www.annisik.com)

What can I write, in one blog, on the vast topic of La France? France is such an historically dense country, divided into regions which are little countries in themselves, each with their own dense histories, some, such as Brittany, the Basque lands and Corsica, clammering for independence.

Although a secular republic, it would be difficult to represent France without mentioning catholicism. Every day of the calendar in 'The Hexagon' is designated for a saint. To rescue myself from the danger of trying to write an entire potted history of France in one go, I decided, since my blog is to appear on 22 December 2009, to write about the saint for whom this date is named, Saint François Xavier. I decided also to find out what music and literature was being produced in France during the lifespan of this saint.

In my 'acknowledments' at the end are links to sources for some of the topics and characters touched upon. Some are music and video links - enjoy!

By the time François Xavier was born, 7 April 1506, 'France' had been conquered by Les Celtes - 800 years B C, Les Gaules - 400 years BC, then the Romans. Then came the Vandales, Wisigoths, Sueves ... and so on. The first Christian king (Clovis le Merovingien) was born in 476. Saint François Xavier was born into the reign of François I, some eight or nine kings later, at the time when Henry VIII was monarch of England.

From research I learnt that Saint François Xavier was born into a noble family at Javier, in the Navarre region, bordering Spain. By the time of his death, on the island of Sancian (Shangchuan), China at the age of 46, he had travelled far and wide as a Jesuit evangelist.

He studied theology at the Sorbonne, where he was befriended by Ignatius of Loyola. With five others, Ignatius and François Xavier created the Society of Jesuits, in 1534. He was ordained priest in 1537. He embarked for Goa, in 1541. In 1545, he left Goa for Malacca, but while in Goa encountered some Japanese, which resulted in his disembarkation in Kagoshima, Japan in 1549. He died in 1552 during a sea voyage to Sancian. Most of his remains are in the Basilica of 'Bon Jesu de Goa', though his right arm is today in a reliquary in Rome, the Mother Church of the Society of Jesus. He and Ignatius were canonised in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. He is the Patron Saint of Mongolia, all catholic missions and of tourism.

When he first left Paris he journeyed to Venice, where he attended to the sick in hospitals, then in 1539 he was in Rome, attending the conferences held by Ignatius that prepared the way for the foundation of the Society of jesus. The basic premise of the Society was the 'imitation of Christ' but while in the beginning the Jesuits were evangelising among the pagans of India, Japan, China, Canada, by the time of the Counter Reformation they had become instruments for the re-conquest of southern and western Germany and Austria to the catholic faith and for the preservation of the faith in France and other countries.

What of the music of the time of François Xavier? What was being composed in France while Henry VIII might have been composing 'Greensleeves'? What literature, what art was being produced in France during the lifetime of this saint?

When François I ascended the throne, royal palaces were decorated with but a scattering of great paintings and not one example of sculpture either ancient or modern. It was during his reign - the period known as the 'French Renaissance' - that the art collections of the French kings, which can still be seen in the Louvre, began. It was this king who rebuilt the Louvre, converting it from medieval fortress into building of renaissance splendour.

He became a major patron of the arts, enouraging many great artists to come to France. Some produced works for him, including Leonardo da Vinci, whom François convinced to leave Italy in the last phase of his life. Leonardo brought with him many of his great works, such as the Mona Lisa and these stayed in France upon his death.

In the late 15th century, France was brought into contact with the goods, paintings and creative spirit of both the Northern and Italian Renaissance. The renaissance spirit was translated into french by artists such as Jean Clouet and his son François. The art of the period from Fancis I through to Henry IV is often heavily inspired by the late italian renaissance development referred to as Mannerism, characterised by unnaturally elongated figures, brought about by artists such as Michaelangelo and Parmigianino. The renowned manuscript and portrait artist Jean Fouquet of Tours lived and created during this period.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the French Renaissance was the construction of the chateaux of the Loire Valley.

The picture at the top of this blog is of the Chateau d'Ussé, where Charles Perrault wrote 'La Belle au Bois Dormant' (literally, The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood, which became 'Sleeping Beauty'). The rooms in one of the towers - the foremost in this picture I think - are set up with scenes from Disney's animated classic.

Scanning a list of french literati of the time of Saint François Xavier, my eyes stopped at the name of Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585). He was known in his lifetime as the 'Prince of Poets'. I remembered an old anthology of french poetry I picked up from a secondhand book shop in Auvers-sur Oise, (where Van Gogh spent the last 3 months of his life). I say 'shop' but it's really a series of old railway carriages. And an Aladdin's Cave of old literature. I've made many exciting finds there. Once I bought an old illustrated magazine and when I opened it I found to my astonishment ... but that's another story.

I pulled the poetry book off my shelves and found a poem of Ronsard's. Entitled 'A Son Page' (To His Page), it begins:

"Rafraîchis-moi le vin, de sorte
Qu'il soit aussi froid qu'un glaçon;"

which translates (literally, not poetically) into:

"Refresh my wine, so that
it be as cold as a (block of ice/ice floe);"

Glaçon also translates, these days, into ice cube. Ronsard goes on to exhort his page to bring a certain woman (Janne) to him, with her lute, to 'tell' a song.

Setting aside a meaning for Ronsard's poem, I was struck by the idea of his being able to have his drink refreshed with ice, since in the 16th century, there were no fridges with ice-making compartments. I remembered being at the 'fete des plantes vivantes' (festival of plants) at the Chateau de Saint-Jean de Beauregard, earlier this year. This privately-owned chateau is situated on the perimeter of the village of Les Ulis, not far from Paris. As an aside, the footballer Thierry Henry - now infamous for his handball goal during the recent France-Eire soccer match - comes from Les Ulis.

The festival takes place twice a year and we always try to go. The autumn event is consecrated to 'forgotten' vegetables and we inevitably come home loaded up with unusual veggies just uprooted from the chateau's vast potager. As we were leaving, I overheard two women marvelling. It was at a small structure just off the path to the right. It resembled a large stone igloo. It was an 'ice house'. If Ronsard had the right to command 'ice cubes' then he must have owned a chateau. I read how Ronsard had prospered as a poet. I wonder how many poets today earn so much from their poetry they can afford to buy a castle - with ice house?

I wondered what sort of music 'Janne' might have played to Ronsard on her lute. From a list of musicians living in the time of François Xavier, my eyes fell upon the name of Josquin Des Prez. I read that conditions in France at this time were particularly favourable to the growth of secular music. That the 15th century had seen the rise of a new and wealthy bourgeoisie who had the wherewithal to emulate the 'courtly tastes' of the nobility. In other words there was a new market for the musician, the artist, the poet.

Change 'courtly tastes' for courtly love' and we enter upon another aspect of the society into which François Xavier as born. The 'philosophy' of 'courtly love' had first sprung up in the medieval courts of such as Eleanor of Aquitane in the south and Marie de Champagne in the north.

I came across the term 'Gai Saber' in connection with courtly love, meaning 'Gay Wisdom' and I was reminded of a CD I have, entitled 'Lo Gai Saber' and hunted it out. It is subtitled, 'Troubadours and Minstrels 1100-1300'. I read in the libretto that preserved for us today are in the region of 4,000 poems of the troubadours, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken. I looked through the lyrics:

"Alas, sweet breeze ...
My mouth is open, my desire is so great."

It isn't possible for me to do more than mention this type of music, the 'madrigal' or the names of 'courtly' dances of the time of Saint François Xavier: pavane (noble, slow); gaillarde (fast and lively); branle (like line-dancing).
This was the time of Saint François Xavier and the society into which he was born and would have moved. That he eschewed it for a life dedicated to the 'imitation of Christ' is perhaps to his honour.
I hope you have enjoyed this 'vignette' of the life and times of Saint François Xavier and if you have time, do click on the links below to some videos of performances of the music of Josquin Des Prez and Troubadour music.

Ann Isik


On Saint Francois Xavier:

On Vandals, Visigoths and Huns:

On Navarre:

Le Chateau de Javier:

The Island of Shangchuan:

On the French Renaissance:

Painting by Jean Clouet (of François I):

Painting by François Clouet:

On french chansons of the 16th century:

On Josquin Des Prez:
Josquin music on You Tube:

Performance of a Troubadour song:


  1. Ann, thanks for sharing a slice of French history with us :-)

  2. You're welcome. It was a large slice - sorry, but I had such a lot of fun doing this. Especially the music as I sing some of this stuff. I had lots of pics but couldn't find out how to put them in the right places, they all stayed up at the top!

    I hope I am invited again! Ann

    Merry Christmas to all!