The Prophet Elijah.
Sixteenth century painting in the Church of San Martino ai Monti, Rome
The Elian Character
Their connection with Carmel, the mountain famous from antiquity for its having been the dwelling of the proto-prophet, Elijah, made it only natural that the Carmelites would turn to him for inspiration. The testimony of Jacques de Vitry informs us that there was, from the earliest period of development, a clear identification of the hermits on Mount Carmel with the great prophet of that mountain. Sometime prior to the 1281 Constitutions of the Chapter of London, the Carmelites had developed an understanding of themselves as having descended from the “Schools of the Prophets” established by the Prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel. They chronicled this descent in the Rubrica Prima traditionally affixed to the Constitutions of the Order. This legend did not sound as outrageous to medieval ears as it does to moderns as a tradition going back to Cassian and other early monastic sources called Elijah the Pater Monachorum and attributed the development of the monastic life to the Old Testament prophet. The Carmelites, since they came from the Mountain on which the prophet lived, simply asserted that they were the channel by which the monastic charism had passed down from the Hebrew Prophet to the Christian desert-dwellers.
The Madonna del Popolo—
13th century painting from the Carmelite Church in Florence
The Marian Character
There also has traditionally been a strong Marian Theme to Carmelite Spirituality. Although Mary is mentioned neither in the Rule nor the Fiery Arrow, Carmelites were devoted to her from the beginning. The original oratory on Mount Carmel was dedicated to her and the hermits themselves known as the Brothers of Saint Mary from Mount Carmel. A very old icon, perhaps dating from the end of the thirteenth century, is preserved in Cyprus and shows the brothers gathered under Mary’s mantle for protection. The Carmelites espoused devotion to the Immaculate Conception, weighing in to the great theological debates of the Middle Ages on the Franciscan side in favor of the doctrine. By the early fifteenth century the Carmelites had invented a number of legends associating Mary’s protection with the scapular of their habit. From the fifteenth century onward they spread devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary by encouraging the laity to wear a miniscule version of their scapular.
The English Carmelite John Baconthorpe (d. 1348) who had studied at Paris and wrote extensively on a wide variety of medieval theological subjects, is the first of the Order’s great Marian authors. He is the first to explain the origins of the Order’s name being connected to the chapel on Mount Carmel and goes so far as to say that the order was founded for the purpose of venerating Mary. His commentary on the Carmelite Rule seeks to demonstrate that the Rule reflects the life and virtues of the Virgin. The title of the Order, The Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Mount Carmel creates a curious devotion within the order to Mary as Sister alongside her more traditional title of Mother. In 1479 the Flemish Carmelite, Arnold Bostius, (1445-1499) wrote his work, the De Patronatu et patrocinio BVM in dicatum sibi Carmeli ordinem which synthesizes Marian devotion. Carmelite mystical writers of the period include Henry of Hane (1299) whose work showed the influence of Ekhardt.