Sacred Art Series: St. Peter Claver

Fr. Willie ‘87 | President
(The Sacred Art Series will feature and explain the artwork which will be included in the Our Lady of Belen Chapel. The chapel is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2021.)

This painting was commissioned to Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa and will be included in one of the side chapels.

St. Peter Claver was born in the Catalan village of Verdú in June 1581. After completing his studies at the University of Barcelona, he entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 20. 

At the urging of his mentor, St. Alphonsus Rodríguez, Claver volunteered for the missions in the Spanish colonies and was sent to the New Kingdom of Granada. He arrived in the port city of Cartagena in 1610. He was deeply disturbed by the harsh treatment and living conditions of the black slaves who were brought from Africa.

As a young priest, Claver would head for the wharf as soon as a slave ship entered the port. Boarding the ship, he entered the diseased holds to treat and minister to the slaves. After they were herded from the ship and penned in nearby yards to be scrutinized by crowds of buyers, he would join them with medicine and food. With the help of interpreters and pictures he carried with him, he gave basic instructions.

Claver also visited the plantations to give spiritual consolation to the slaves.  He preached in the city square to sailors and traders and conducted missions, returning every spring to visit those he had baptized, ensuring they were treated humanely. During these missions, he avoided the hospitality of planters and overseers, lodging in the slave quarters. 

Peter Claver died on September 8, 1654. He was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII and declared the patron of missionary work among all African peoples. He is also one of the patron saints of Colombia.

Painting References:
  • Banner: The angels above hold a banner with the title, El esclavo de los esclavos (The slave of the slaves). This was the title St. Peter Claver used to refer to himself.

  • Angel: The angel on the left holds a shell. This is the symbol of the sacrament of baptism. It is estimated that during his 40 years of ministry, Peter Claver personally catechized and baptized over 300,000 slaves. 
  • Chain: Cartagena was a slave-trading hub with over 10,000 slaves pouring into the port yearly. Although Pope Paul III and Urban VIII condemned the slave trade, it continued to be a lucrative business and flourished. Peter Claver saw the slaves as fellow Christians and encouraged others to do the same. He fought for their rights and denounced the practice of slavery. This earned him many enemies and was constantly harassed and persecuted because of it. Through years of unremitting toil and the force of his unique personality, the situation of the slaves slowly improved.
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Belen Jesuit Preparatory School was founded in 1854 in Havana, Cuba by Queen Isabel II of Spain.  The task of educating students was assigned to the priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), whose teaching tradition is synonymous with academic excellence and spiritual discipline.  In 1961, the new political regime of Cuba confiscated the School property and expelled the Jesuit faculty.  The School was re-established in Miami the same year, and over the next decade, continued to grow.  Today, Belen Jesuit sits on a 30-acre site in western Dade County, only minutes away from downtown Miami.