Finding fabiola: Visual piety in religious life
During the sixth century Fabiola was canonized and since then has been venerated as patroness of abused women. In the second half of the nineteenth century, her cult was revived among European Catholics, leading the painter Jean-Jacques Henner to produce a portrait of her in 1885, which was subsequently lost, though a photographic record remains. Hundreds of hand-made copies of Henner’s portrait were made in the twentieth century by amateur artists for various reasons. Many may have derived devotional merit from honoring the saint in this way; others may have found Henner’s sharp profile of the woman attractive and perhaps easy to emulate. Francis Alys has collected many of these, which were exhibited in 2008 as part of a project sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation in New York. The following essay first appeared in a catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition, Francis Alys: Fabiola; An Investigation (Kelly et al. 2008). Fabiola has long taught the lessons of forgiveness and charity, but her many images also have something to teach about the nature and structure of human cognition in popular piety. Empiricists are fond of asserting that knowledge is founded on concrete experience-that facts are built from the ground up, tailored to the particularities of sensation. But Fabiola in her prosaic multiplicity, in the endless iteration of her spare, quiet imagery, says otherwise. Consider her many pictures. Who are we looking at when we gaze upon any one of her many portraits? The sheer number of them destabilizes the prospect of a settled referent. Where is the fourth-century Roman lady of patrician status, befriended by Jerome and eulogized by him at her death? Finding Fabiola may not be possible, but who can resist trying when faced with so many portraits?
- Religion, Media and Culture: A Reader
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International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)
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