San Luis Gonzaga.
Feast day: June 21.
Patron of the Roman Catholic youth and young students.
Invoked in time of illness, plague, and when near death.
Essay by Alex Nipper
Saint Aloysius Gonzaga was born in Castiglione delle Stiviere, Italy, in 1568. He came from a noble family and was well known for his commitment to the faith and for his work helping neighbors in need. Due to his love to God from an early age, he decided to dedicate his life to becoming a Jesuit. He became known to many as the “celestial patron of all Christian youth.” This is for his work and commitment to teaching younger students. He is also known for being reserved and even avoided eye contact with the women in his community. Gonzaga was sent to Rome to help people who had contracted the plague, where, he too, contracted the plague that took his life in 1591 at the age of 23. Gonzaga was canonized in 1726.
The retablo representations of Gonzaga, he is displayed at a young age, symbolizing his child-like innocence and his death at a very young age. Gonzaga holds a cross close to his body, embracing the crucified Jesus. The calm expression on the saint’s face while clutching the crucifix symbolizes penitence. He is often shown with Lilies symbolizing his purity of mind, body, and soul (fig. 1). Gonzaga is also depicted standing next to a small table covered with a red cloth with a Bible, a scourge and a pen (fig. 2). Occasionally, a skull is added to his attributes symbolizing sacrifice or the relinquishment of earthly possessions or vanity (figs. 1-3). He is dressed as a traditional Jesuit wearing a white cotta, black cassock, maniples around his arms, and a birria on his head.
This print influenced the retablo representations of Gonzaga in the act of prayer with a cross and skull in the center of the piece, surrounded by scenes of death and salvation (fig. 3). The centralized circular shape with the saint in prayer is consistent with keeping the traditional depiction of the saint. Three angels looking down at the scenes of death caused by the plague hover over the top section. Below in the composition, a man and woman comfort a dying, nearly lifeless, man with an inscription saying, A secourt las malades dans une epidemic, meaning, “Helps the sick in epidemic,” or “To help sick people in epidemic,” alluding to the task that Gonzaga endured when traveling to Rome to help those with illness.
Figure 1. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga / San Luis Gonzaga
Anonymous, México. Nineteenth Century.
Oil on tin. 14”x10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1967.2.77.
Donor: Dr. Ezra K. Neidrich.
Figure 2. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga / San Luis Gonzaga.
Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.
Oil on tin. 14”x10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1968.6.31.
Donor: Dr. Ezra K. Neidrich.
Figure 3. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga / San Luis Gonzaga
Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century.
Engraving with metal and glass frame. Print 6¼ x 5¼”.
NMSU Art Gallery
Hall, James, Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1974.
Steele, Thomas J. Santos and Saints: The Religious Folk Art of Hispanic New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1994.
Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil, and Charles Muir Lovell, eds. Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.