Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saint Fabiola

Francis Alÿs, Fabiola,
Installation views

The artist Francis Alÿs (b. Belgium 1959) appears to have a fascination, an obsession about Saint Fabiola

The National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition called “Fabiola”: an installation of hundreds of portraits of a fourth-century Christian saint.

These portraits, including paintings,embroidery and miniatures, are all versions of the same nineteenth-century original of Fabiola by the French nineteenth-century painter, Jean-Jacques Henner, and were gathered by the artist from flea markets, antique shops, and private collections.

Jean-Jacques Henner's definitive portrait of Fabiola (1885) is the prototype for all of the works on display. Henner's depiction of Fabiola, coinciding with a Catholic revival sweeping Western Europe, became so widely admired that both his portrait and Fabiola herself gained renown.

The Henner portrait was painted in 1885 but was lost in 1912.

In the exhibition each artist projects their own idea of what a truly good woman looks like. All show Fabiola as a person of their own time. In the Fifties and Sixties, for example, Fabiola is wearing more make-up than a Hollywood starlet. Some artists show her as mature, others as a young girl; in some she is smiling, in others her brows are slightly furrowed. There are as many different Fabiolas in this show as there are artists.

The nineteenth century craze with Fabiola seems to have started with the publication in 1854 by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman of his novel, Fabiola or, the Church of the Catacombs.

Fabiola was a counter-blast to the vigorously anti-Catholic book Hypatia (1853) by Charles Kingsley.

The story is set in Rome in the early 4th century AD, during the time of the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Saint Fabiola was a Roman matron of rank of the company of noble Roman women who, under the influence of the Church father St. Jerome, gave up all earthly pleasures and devoted themselves to the practice of Christian asceticism and to charitable work. Fabiola continued her usual personal labours in aid of the poor and sick until her death on 27 December of 399 or 400.

The novel also weaves a number of martyrdom accounts and legends of real-life Christian saints into the story. These include Saint Agnes, Saint Sebastian, Saint Pancras (Pancratius), Saint Cassian (Cassianus), Saint Emerentiana, and Saint Tarcisius

But the fascination with the story of Fabiola did not stop with the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, two major films were based on Wiseman`s novel. There was one made in Italy in 1917. The second, again made in Italy, was a major production made in 1949.

It was released in the United States under the name “Fabiola”. For some reason, it was released in 1951 in the United Kingdom under the name “The Fighting Gladiator”. See below.

Is this the first film where the screen play credit shows a Cardinal ?