The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 05 Oct 2021

Worst. Miracle. Ever.

Some traditional miracles ascribed to saints and other holy people are better than others. Jesus walking on water and quieting the storm are impressive and showy, but essentially unhelpful. Contrasting this kind of show-magic with the miracles of the Buddha, Jorge Luis Borges describes “a miracle of courtesy”:

The Buddha has to cross a desert at noon. The gods, from their thirty-three heavens, each send him down a parasol. The Buddha does not want to slight any of the gods, so he turns himself into thirty-three Buddhas. Each god sees a Buddha protected by the parasol he sent.

(It's Borges, so it's also possible he just made it up.)

My favorites of the Christian miracles are the miracles of the loaves and fishes, which are miracles of generosity and compassion. A multitude of people have come to see Jesus heal the sick:

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

(Matthew 14:15–20)

Much better than walking on water.

Anyway, that is peripheral to what I wanted to write about. Lately I learned that there is a painting by Il Sodoma (1477–1549, original name Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) titled St Benedict repairs a Broken Colander through Prayer.

A broken what now? Colander? Like, the thing I use to drain my tortellini?

ordinary green plastic colander.  It is bowl-shaped, with handles and

I looked in the Big Dictionary to find out if maybe “colander” might sometimes mean something more impressive than the kitchen utensil, maybe some expensive and specialized piece of church equipment. Nope:

A vessel, usually of metal, closely perforated at the bottom with small holes, and used as a sieve or strainer in cookery.

There doesn't appear to be any such thing in the painting:

In the left half of the
picture, a brown-skinned woman in a brick-red dress gazes down, hands
folded, and a very young St. Benedict, with long hair and no beard,
gases piously to heaven.  To the right, the outside of the house, with
Il Sodoma, righly dressed, in the centre, and a crowd of visitors on
the right.

St. Benedict is kneeling in prayer, second from left, wearing a halo. The colander, it turns out, is the two rectangular brown things by his knees. As you see, one piece is visibly cracked. I don't know what is the red schmutz on the other piece.

(The long-haired guy in the middle, with the expensive gloves, is Il Sodoma himself. He is known to have kept pet badgers, which also make an appearance here.)

Google searches for "st. benedict" "colander" were no help. They mostly produced references to this painting again.

I then wondered if maybe “colander” was a mistranslation. The Italian title for this painting is Come Benedetto risalda lo capistero che si era rotto. The Goog translates this as “How Benedict heals the broken master”, which was quite confusing. Google further confused me by glossing risalda as “rises”, which made me wonder if the repair of the broken colander (risalda lo capistero) was somehow a metaphor for the rising of Jesus. The idea seems rather silly, but Renaissance thinking does not always make sense to me, so I did not rule it out immediately. But no, risalda is repair, and capistero is a colander, or more precisely a sieve. The Goog's translation was simply wrong. (Fair enough, Google Translate is not intended to translate early-renaissance Italian.)

Book 2 of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory is about St. Benedict, and chapter 1 is titled “How he made a broken sieve whole and sound”:

It fell so out that his nurse borrowed of the neighbors a sieve to make clean wheat, which being left negligently on the table, by chance it was broken in two pieces, Whereupon she fell pitifully weeping, because she had borrowed it. The devout and religious youth Benedict, seeing his nurse so lamenting, moved with compassion, took away with him both the pieces of the sieve, and with tears fell to his prayers; and after he had done, rising up he found it so whole, that the place could not be seen where before it was broken.

So “colander” isn't quite right, but it's not too far off. The implement is probably made of wood, not metal. But it is indeed a perforated kitchen utensil. The suntanned lady on the left of the painting is the nurse, gazing ruefully at the table.

Detail of the painting,
showing just the two piece of the broken colander, lying on the
floor. Each piece is a medium brown color, perhaps made of wood.  The
left piece has a large crack running lengthwise almost the whole way
across.  Both parts are shallow rectangular trays with raised lips
around the edge.  There is a reddish-brown smudge in the right-hand

The colander is a tray for sifting wheat. The upper part (at left, with the big crack in it) has some sort of perforations or screen, which don't show up well in the painting. The lower part (at right) is a tray in which the sifted material is caught.

The right side of the painting depicts a later time after the colander has been repaired. The miraculous sieve has been hung up on a column (top center) for the wonderment of a crowd of admiring visitors.

Saint Anthony could command animals and was such an arresting speaker that even fish came to hear him preach. Some saints invoke the power of God to heal the blind and paralyzed, the drowned, the leprous, and the epileptic. St. Benedict healed a broken colander.

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