Sacred Art Series: The Martyrs of La Florida

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. This painting was commissioned to Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa and will be included in one of the side chapels. The chapel is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2021.)

The Martyrs of La Florida is a title given to a number of missionaries who came to an area west to the Mississippi and north to St. Lawrence, collectively referred to as La Florida, in the New World in the 16th century. These men were from various religious orders, including Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits. This painting portrays two of the Jesuit priests.

Fr. Pedro Martínez was born in Teruel, Aragón, Spain on October 26, 1533. After graduating from the university in Valencia, he discovered his vocation and entered the Society of Jesus. After holding several administrative positions in Spain, he expressed his desire to Francis Borgia, then Superior General, to serve in the missions to the New World. 

Along with two other Jesuits, he arrived on a Flemish ship to the shores of Florida in September of 1566. Unable to find their intended destination, Fr. Martínez led a group of sailors ashore to look for much-needed water for those onboard. 

The party eventually came in contact with the Tacatucuru tribe. They captured Fr. Martínez close to the shore of the St. John’s River. They held him underwater and eventually clubbed him to death. He was martyred on October 6, 1566, not far from present-day Jacksonville.

Fr. Juan Bautista de Segura was born in Toledo, Spain, in 1529. He entered the Society of Jesus in April of 1556, where he eventually became vice-rector of the University of Salamanca. Like Fr. Martínez, he also expressed to Francis Borgia his desire to go to the missions in the New World. 

He arrived in present-day St. Augustine, Florida, on June 21, 1568. Other Jesuit missionaries had already been there for two years. At the urging of Pedro Menéndez de Áviles, governor of the province of La Florida, he sailed to Cuba. While there, he suggested to Fr. Borgia not to continue the missions in La Florida, commenting that the land was nothing more than “one long pile of sand.” 

While Fr. Borgia agreed with Fr. Segura’s assessment, by the time new orders arrived, he had sailed back to Santa Elena, on the coast of present-day South Carolina in August of 1570. It was there where he came in contact with the Ajacan Indians to the immediate west of the lower Chesapeake Bay, located in present-day Virginia. Fr. Segura’s group was attacked and killed by the local Indians in February 1571. 

Fr. Pedro Martínez and Fr. Juan Bautista de Segura represent the first group of courageous men and women who lived their lives trying to bring the Catholic faith to this particular area of the New World. In total, there are 54 martyrdom events under investigation.
Painting References:

Central Figures: The two martyrs take up the central space of the painting. Fr. Martínez is kneeling at the river's shores with his sight set on heaven. Fr. de Segura holds fast to a cross and looks down and forward with a gaze that seems to contemplate the future of the New World.

Dark Cloud: It is a symbol of the tumultuous experience that was the arrival of the Europeans to the New World. In the midst of this dark cloud is a tunnel of light. This is the promise of heaven and the passage the two men will soon take after their martyrdom. The smaller angel points his palm branch to this tunnel, indicating that it is through the sacrifice of their lives that the two men will receive their heavenly reward.

Palm Tree Branches:  In the upper left-hand corner of the painting are the ends of palm tree branches. These are a symbol of the more than 50 martyrs of various religious orders whose canonization process is currently being investigated by the Church.

Other Symbols: At the feet of the martyrs is a staff and burlap sack that represents the missionary spirit of the Society of Jesus embodied in these two men. Laid across the middle of the staff is a hatchet, the instrument used to kill Fr. de Segura. The hatchet and where it is placed are a symbol of their martyrdom. Behind Fr. de Segura is a hut with an altar, chalice, and paten representing the first Masses celebrated in the New World and the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Jesuit missionaries.

Phylactery:  Each phylactery carries the name of the martyr underneath. 

Angel(s): The larger angel in the center is holding two crowns of flowers over the heads of the martyrs. The yellow flowers over the head of Fr. Martínez are lance-leaved coreopsis, a native species of the state of Florida, the area where Fr. Martínez was martyred. Over the head of Fr. de Segura is a crown of white philadelphus coronarius or sweet mock orange flowers, typical of Virginia, where he was martyred. This angel is depicted as a Native American with wings resembling the Florida flamingo. The other two smaller angels carry palm branches in their hands, a symbol of martyrdom. The one at the top of the painting with the white loincloth points his palm branch in the direction of the light that breaks through the dark cloud indicating the martyrs’ destiny.
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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.