Jan Henryk de Rosen (1891-1982), the painter of this triptych, Succisa Virescit (“Cut down: it grows again”), is recognized as one of the great church painters of the 20th century. Born a Jew in Poland, he became a Christian when his family converted to Calvinism. Eventually he entered the Catholic Church, and the fervor of his faith became evident in all his work. He was commissioned to paint this piece in 1946 when St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was celebrating the centennial of its founding by Boniface Wimmer. At that time, the crypt church was redesigned to commemorate the contributions of the Benedictine order to religious, artistic and intellectual development of Western civilization. This piece graces the main altar in the crypt.
Succisa virescit is the motto of Montecassino Abbey, which was founded nearly 1,500 years ago by St. Benedict of Nursia and is located 80 miles south of Rome, and the theme of this triptych, which describes the long history of the abbey’s destructions and restorations. The artist depicts the abbots of Montecassino and others responsible for the abbey’s restorations. At left is Leo of Ostia, an 11th-century monk who recorded the early restorations. Behind him stands Pope Stephen X (d. 1058) who was abbot when Leo became a monk there. Next is Desiderius (d. 1087) who built the great basilica at the abbey. He would later become Pope Victor III.
The central figure is St. Benedict himself. Next to him is Petronax (d. 750) who was the abbot who restored the abbey after its destruction by the Lombards. The kneeling figure is Boniface Krug, a monk of St. Vincent Archabbey who went to Montecassino in the 1860s and became one of its great modern abbots. The last figure is Aligernus (d. 986) who continued the restoration begun by Petronax.
The last destruction at Montecassino happened in 1946, the year this triptych was painted. Sadly, this destruction happened during World War II at the hands of Allied troops who erroneously thought the abbey was occupied by German troops. The cardinal secretary of state at that time, Luigi Maglione, bluntly stated to the senior U.S. diplomat to the Vatican, Harold Tittmann, that the bombing was “a colossal blunder ... a piece of a gross stupidity.”
So the abbey lay in ruins at the very time this triptych was painted. Happily, today it stands again, intact, thanks to the determination of the monks and the financial support of those responsible for destroying it. Succisa virescit (“Cut down: it grows again”).
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.