(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 during the 2021-2022 school year.)
St. Jean de Brébeuf was born in Condé-sur Vire, Normandy, in the Kingdom of France, on March 25, 1593. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1617 and was nearly expelled when he contracted tuberculosis and was unable to continue with his studies.
Overcoming the illness, he taught for several years at the Jesuit College of Rouen. In 1625 he was chosen by his provincial to embark on a mission to the territory of Quebec in New France (the North American territory colonized by the French).
Brébeuf mastered the Huron language and published many works of grammar and Huron culture to help future missionaries. He insisted on inculturation as the best way to evangelize the Natives. He also gave the modern name to the Native American sport of lacrosse because the sticks used in the game reminded him of a bishop’s crozier.
In 1649, the Iroquois Indians destroyed the Huron mission of St. Ignace and Brébeuf was captured. He was tortured by having boiling water poured over his head as a mockery to baptism and his fingers were removed. The Iroquois drank his blood in order to “absorb Brébeuf’s courage.” Throughout his torture, it was reported he was more concerned for the fate of the other Jesuits and the captive Native converts than for himself. He died on March 16, 1649.
Brébeuf was beatified in 1925 and later canonized by Pope Pius XI on June 29, 1930, along with several Jesuit companions. He was eventually proclaimed one of the patron saints of Canada by Pope Pius XII.
Martyrdom: Brébeuf’s martyrdom was a long and particularly painful one. The painting depicts the moment he is tied to a stake and burned. In addition, there is a pot of boiling water on one side. The Natives used the scalding water to pour over the saint’s head mimicking the practice of baptism. Around the saint’s neck is a collar of hatchet heads. These had been stoked in the fire and placed around Brébeuf’s neck. Over his shoulders, the saint is wearing the remnant of his cassock. Around his waist, he wears Native clothing, a symbol of the missionary’s insistence on practicing inculturation to evangelize.
IHS: The saint is portrayed looking up to the symbol of the IHS illuminated by the sun that tries to peer through the clouds and smoke. I-H-S are the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek. This moniker had quickly become the symbol of the Society of Jesus.
St. Gabriel Lalemant, S.J.: In the background to the left is the distant image of St. Gabriel Lalemant, faithful companion of Brébeuf. He too was captured by the Iroquois, along with Brébeuf and endured similar tortures and death. His image is portrayed humbly looking down as he is bound hand and foot in preparation for his martyrdom.
Angel(s): The angels are wearing red and white loincloths representing the colors of the flag of Canada. They hold the phylactery with the phrase, Dieu est le témoin de nos souffrances et bientot notre grande recompense (“God is the witness of our sufferings and soon our great reward”), a phrase Brébeuf wrote in a letter to his companions. The angel located on the right side of the painting is depicted as a Native American child and holds a palm branch, the symbol of martyrdom.