– Maria Kwak (*)
The 27th of September was the feast day of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, the protectress of those who sail since the early medieval period. Since the 8th century, Our Lady has been venerated with an ancient hymn called Ave Maris Stella. St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who was a great theologian and Doctor of the Church stated that “Mary means Star of the Sea, for as mariners are guided to port by the ocean star, so Christians attain to glory through Mary’s maternal intercession.” Stella maris was a synonym of Polaris in its role as north star, a reference point for travellers in ancient times. The measurement of the altitude of the stars and the sun was crucial in ocean voyages. When the commercial sea routes were enabled by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (c. 1460s-1524), the Portuguese had the best ships and the cartographers. By the time the Portuguese reached Macau in the mid-16th century, they were equipped with the Balestilha, an instrument which allowed the altitude of the stars to be determined.
However, sea travel was challenging and risky. In fact, more than 330 ships sank along the Portugal-India route during the Age of Discovery. To begin with, the duration of the voyage was enormous. It took almost an entire year to get to India from Portugal. Despite the advanced maritime technology, there were enough factors that made the lives of those onboard difficult, ranging from diseases to crimes. Return journeys were more challenging due to even smaller space with cargo on board. A Portuguese Jesuit, Gonçalo da Silveira, SJ (1526-1561) described arduous sea voyages as “so many deaths, danger of the trips, ascertained, hopeless. Portugal to India, India to Portugal, only God leads them and only God brings them back ” in the Letter to Portugal (1557). For this reason, the devotion to Stella Maris may have been something essential for the most, if not all. Montalto de Jesus, the author of Historic Macao tells about the fascination of the Portuguese navigators with this Marian devotion.
The façade of St Paul’s is a testimony to the maritime history of Macau. The third row is decorated wih a type of vessel called the nau, commonly used for commercial trades since the 15th century. During the Age of Discovery, the missionaries from Europe came onboard along with the merchants on those vessels travelling between Goa, Malacca, Japan and China.
On the other side of the façade features a monster of the Apocalypse with horned devil’s head, which symbolises the evil forces of Satan against mankind and the Church. A medieval Franciscan theologian, St Bonaventure (1221-1274) provides a great spiritual interpretation in this regard.
“For Mary means a bitter sea, star of the sea, the illuminated or illuminatrix. Mary is interpreted as Lady. Mary is a bitter sea to the demons; to men she is the Star of the sea; to the Angels she is illuminatrix, and to all creatures she is Lady.”
Today, sailing across the oceans no longer has the risks that the forerunners have encountered. The ships are navigated through GPS (Global Positioning System) which does not require human efforts or skills. However, we as believers may interpret sailing as life’s journey, where we meet with challenges and strive to reach salvation through faith. Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), one of the most notable doctors of the church, also mentions that believers in Mary are protected from the dangers at sea and guided to the port of safety. One of the oldest English hymns text written by John Lindgard (1771-1851) illustrates the spiritual power of Our Lady, Star of the Sea in a more congenial way to the contemporary audience.
“Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star, Guide of the wand’rer here below! Thrown on life’s surge, we claim they care, Save us from peril and from woe. Mother of Christ, Star of the Sea, Pray for the wand’rer, pray for me.”
(*) MA in History student at the University of Saint Joseph