Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Discovery of St. Philomena and her Popularity in Post-Revolutionary France

From Age of Revolutions:
The bones of Saint Philomena were discovered in 1802. This was not, in and of itself, a particularly noteworthy event. The discovery of Christian remains was common in the early nineteenth century and trade in relics a centerpiece of ultramontane piety.[1] In Philomena’s case, the bones were discovered while workers were digging in the catacomb of Priscilla, outside of Rome. Accompanying the bones were a vial of blood – then taken to be a sign of martyrdom – and three tiles that, when rearranged, read, in Latin, “Peace be unto you, Philomena.” The tiles also displayed emblems of a palm (another confirmation of martyrdom), a lily (an indication of virginity), an anchor, and arrows. The relics were eventually transported to Mugnano, a small town in Italy near Naples. Miraculous events seemed to accompany the bones, including much-longed for rain and personal healings. The town constructed a shrine to Philomena which became a site for more reported miracles. Villagers told stories, priests delivered sermons, then books, images, and pamphlets spread the story of Philomena’s martyrdom.[2]
Soon Philomena’s cult supplanted veneration of other – formerly popular – saints, many of whom shared her status as a virgin and martyr.  Images of Philomena became widely available for purchase. Some of these prints were high-quality (and higher cost) engravings, though there were also holy cards or small prints that used emblems such as the palm, lily, or arrow to remind the viewer of Philomena’s martyrdom. The pictures were not only produced by Parisian engravers like Basset, Turgis, or Charles Letaille, but also offered as large-format prints sold by peddlars, such as those from Epinal and Montbéliard. There was a spectacular consumer demand for visual reminders of Philomena’s sanctity.
Philomena’s meteoric rise and the popularity of her image cannot be understood outside of the post-revolutionary context in which she was discovered and popularized. In the Revolutionary era, the Church looked increasingly feminine, a position facilitated by the destruction of the hierarchical and masculine institutional structure of the Church. Even after the Concordat of 1801, the reinstated Church had a shortage of clerics and little chance of offering the same pervasive approach to life and faith that it had only thirty years before. Devout believers continued to see themselves as embattled, the last lines of defense against the Enlightenment ideas that had led to deChristianization. Industry also responded to a growing demand for devotional objects to replace those destroyed or left to decay during the French Revolution.[3] Religious consumerism, often directed at women, flourished. The texts and objects that women purchased emphasized martyrdom and heroic sacrifice, resistance to hostile powers.
To be sure, Philomena had much in common with earlier virgin martyrs such as Agnes, Barbara, or Cecelia. Like Philomena, these women had embraced a language of sexual resistance and renunciation even as they faced execution. Unlike these earlier saints, all of whom had a long iconographic history, most going back to the medieval Golden Legend, Philomena’s picture was new. In this case, her consumer success, the conscious choice of Philomena and not another virgin martyr, another (similar) saint, demonstrates that something about this icon struck a chord with large numbers of purchasers and made reproduction profitable for printmakers. While one might assume that novelty alone could help carve out a niche in a market, tradition was an important signifier for Catholics, especially in the post-revolutionary era. Novelty would not necessarily appeal; the choice of Philomena over older and more well-known saints, with their own stories of martyrdom, indicates that something about Philomena resonated with the nineteenth-century believer. (Read more.)

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