The Martyrs of Gorcum
In the Vatican Museum there is a painting that spans an entire wall between two doors, from near the floor to almost the ceiling. The setting is a kind of barn, with a hole in the roof, through which light is streaming in on one of the central characters. The artist’s eye was captivated by the juxtaposition of arms and hands as the characters themselves were juxtaposed between murder and murdered, between violent hatred and serene love.
In the background a Dominican’s hands, bound behind his back as he hangs from the rafter, are claws frozen in death. A Norbertine lies dead on the floor, and though a sword is being drawn from his body, his face has the look of peaceful sleep. The hands of a young Franciscan are folded in prayer next to an elder secular priest; the youth looks wide-eyed at an impending eternity as he confesses his sins while the older priest confidently reassures him with his hand gently, paternally on his arm.
This central character, on whom the light mostly falls, is a Franciscan, with arms and hands expanded to meet the will of God in the form of a loose noose being lowered for him, while the Ragamuffin Calvinist facing him has fists clutched in rage.
These are the Martyrs of Gorcum, put brutally to death on July 9th, 1572 in Holland for not renouncing their faith in the Holy Eucharist or Petrine primacy. The account of their martyrdom retells some of the more lurid details. It says that all were suspended from the rafters, and one of the two Norbertines from a ladder. It rightly says suspended because to say hung implies that the noose fit tightly around the neck and that the victim died. But they didn’t. What it doesn’t say is that the Calvinists were too drunk to hang them right—only wrapping the rope around their mouths or just under the chin—so they took them down, and since some of the Catholics were still alive, the Calvinists mutilated their bodies until they were all dead.
We may wonder about martyrdom and all its romanticism, if time slowed down or stopped at any point, if like St. Stephen anyone saw the heavens open and Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, or even if the light did filter in—like a ray of heavenly grace—to indicate God’s chosen one. According to the account, no. Even the light was probably not there since it all happened from two to four in morning. Nevertheless, the signs of God’s presence were tangible, unmistakable, and just as incongruent with the background of mob rage as visions from on high.
For as the booze-sodden Calvinists wound themselves up for the kill, the Franciscan St. Nicholas Pick embraced and kissed his fellow martyrs, encouraging them to remain steadfast in their contest, to remain united in faith and love as much in death as they had been in life. And as if that weren’t enough, the account says pointedly that he joyfully mounted the ladder and that he exhorted his fellow soldiers in Christ to follow him joyfully on the path in which he was leading them. Peace, grace, encouragement, and joy in the midst of waves of hatred and contempt for the faith—these are the romantic, incontrovertible signs of God’s presence breaking through the veil of our reality.
How is our life different, if not that blood is usually not actually shed? In the midst of death, we are life. No less than the Christian soldiers of Gorcum, we too are called to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you.” And if we do so joyfully, then does God’s fiery glory shine through our ordinary lives, and then where the martyrs have gone, to that same eternal bliss, we are sure to follow.
Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.