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Saint Fabiola in fiction, in history, in portraiture.

TO SAY THAT FABIOLA IS A MINOR SAINT may well be an overstatement. For most English-speaking persons, she is completely unknown and unheard of. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, purportedly the standard one-volume work in the field of hagiography, does not include her among its 1,500 entries because that work presents only English saints. It first includes those of English origin who died abroad and those of foreign origin who died in England. Second, it lists saints in whose honor churches have been dedicated, who have been commemorated in place-names, or who are venerated in the calendars of the Sarum Rite, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Roman Church as revised in 1969. Third, it names saints whose biographies are important to understanding more fully the lives of other saints. Fabiola meets none of these requirements.

After lying in historical disregard for centuries, however, Fabiola entered public awareness with the publication in 1854 of Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Wiseman's novel Fabiola. The semi-historical fiction is set in pagan Rome in the years following A.D. 302 during which Maximian ruled as emperor.

Maximian was a barbarian of the lowest extraction, endowed with little more than brute strength. He had no sense of justice or feeling of humanity and had never ceased to oppress, persecute, and slay whoever stood in his way. This tyrant struck terror into the hearts of all who beheld him--all, that is, but the Christians. This fact alone would have made him hate even the name "Christian," but joined to his naturally unrestrained vileness, it further dictated that all Christians should be hunted with unrelenting savageness and perseverance until there was a complete extermination, a wholesale butchery of the believers--from their leaders to the most lowly of persons.

Fabiola's heritage differed markedly from Maximian's barbarianism. Her father Fabius had amassed great wealth that left her wanting nothing and fostered her immense self-indulgence. She was proud, haughty, and irritable, exacting humble homage from all who approached her. At the same time, she had been afforded excellent teachers to hone a superior intellect, and she read much, particularly in what are called "profound" books, and so was knowledgeable about the pagan philosophers and the sensual Epicureanism fashionable in Rome at the time. Her intellectual curiosity, however, did not prompt her to investigate the Christianity that she had despised for its apparent lowness and vulgarity. Her Christian cousin Agnes, just before she died, characterized Fabiola's early anti-Christian prejudices: "You abhorred us as followers of the most ridiculous superstitions, as perpetrators of the most odious abominations. You despised us as being unintellectual, uneducated, unphilosophical, and unreasonable. ... The Christian name was only an object of hatred in your generous mind." (1) As for the pagan religion with its gods, its fables, and its idolatry, Fabiola also intellectually scorned it although practically she followed it. Because of Maximian's eradication edict, Christians practiced their faith in secret, giving no public indication of their being followers of the Faith. Still, for those in daily contact with them, their calmness of demeanor, sweetness of tone in discourse, quickness to smile, and cheerful eagerness to do work betrayed a character that was immediately recognizable even though exasperatingly unexplainable. And for Fabiola the three persons who most noticeably demonstrated these qualities were Syra, her slave; Agnes, her cousin; and Sebastian, captain of the praetorian guards.

Syra's calm assurance and unabashed honesty at first drew Fabiola's ire, even to the point of her severely gashing Syra's arm with the stiletto that she kept at hand to punish or vent anger on her slaves. Agnes, who had witnessed this entire scene, asked to buy the slave girl. Fabiola reluctantly agreed, but when Agnes presented the idea to Syra she asked to remain with Fabiola to have more opportunity to convert her to Christianity. Syra's continued presence and generous service showed Fabiola a genuine and disinterested love that she had never seen before.

Agnes, a young girl of marriageable age, always dressed in snow-white apparel without jewel or ornament--as if she were a bride, Fabiola observed, adding in jest that she always seemed "to be calculating one eternal espousal." (2) Fabius argued that Agnes should make a little more display in her attire to win the affections of some handsome and eligible young man, and when he thought Agnes was not listening to him, he concluded that she already had someone in mind. She answered: "Oh yes, most certainly. He has already pledged me to Him by his betrothal-ring, and has adorned me with immense jewels." (3) Fabius did not understand her veiled admission of being Christian, just as Fabiola could not explain Agnes's extreme unselfishness, purity, simplicity, sensibleness, and wisdom.

Sebastian, as a professional defender of the emperor, had to walk a thin line between what that responsibility entailed and what his Christian belief dictated. He demonstrated his ability to do so when he made clear to the evil Fulvius his views on the "noble" spectacles of the amphitheater. He said: "Fulvius, I don't merit the title [brave] you just gave me, if I could contemplate with pleasure, in cold blood, the struggle between a brute beast and a helpless child or woman, in such spectacles which you call noble. I will draw my sword willingly against an enemy of the emperors or of the state; but I would as readily draw it against a lion or the leopard that should rush, even by imperial order, against the innocent and defenseless." (4) Fulvius, thinking he had heard a treasonous statement, was ready to act, but Sebastian stayed his hand by pointing out that Cicero, the greatest of the Roman orators, expressed a like point of view when he said: "Magnificent are those games, no doubt; but what delight can it be to a refined mind to see either a feeble man torn by a most powerful beast, or a noble animal pierced through by a javelin?" (5) Sebastian then went on to emphasize his Christian view by saying that if he himself were ever in the amphitheater he would be "on the side of the defenseless, not on that of the brutes that would destroy them." Fabiola applauded Sebastian's noble sentiments at this point perhaps because she saw herself as a "refined mind" but also because Sebastian, like Syra and Agnes, had begun to stir in her an awareness of Christian qualities still not identified by her as such.

Having thus set the basic character relationships and the conflicting ideologies of the Christians and pagan Rome, Wiseman introduces his readers to an assemblage of other characters, both pagan and Christian, acting in a variety of situations according to their individual motives. We meet those who long for martyrdom, some who delight in inflicting it, others who fall from the Faith and become traitors, wise patriarchs, and rash exuberant youths. We are introduced to the Church of the catacombs and an occasional pagan infiltrator of it. We are at the martyring of Agnes in the Roman Forum, the stoning of Agnes's foster-sister Emerentiana as she is at prayer, and the shooting with arrows and final clubbing to death of Sebastian. Most of all, however, we are shown Fabiola's direct or indirect connection to all of this that draws her at last to conversion and baptism on Easter eve of an unspecified year.

Throughout the novel Wiseman "pays the debt of serious scholarship to the facts of the age being recreated," as the writer of a historical novel should. (6) Agnes's refusing marriage because of her dedication to Christ, her preferring death to any violation of her virginity, her martyrdom in the year 305, her throat being pierced by the executioner's sword, the building of a basilica over her grave; Sebastian's strengthening the purpose of the confessors Mark and Marcellian in prison, his manner of death already noted, the year of his death being in the time frame Wiseman sets forth; the detailed description of the catacombs and their use, and dozens more of like details all are truthful and factual depictions of the persons and the age presented. And yet, earlier we noted that Wiseman's novel was only "semi" historical. Surprisingly, the historically unsupportable aspects in a work titled Fabiola pertain to Fabiola herself.

The "Fabiola" entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that Fabiola had been married to a man of such extreme vices that she found it impossible to live with him and, as Roman law allowed, divorced him. Her extremely passionate nature as well as her need to protect herself, however, caused her to take a second husband, separating her from Church communion since her first husband was still living. "On the day before Easter following the death of her second consort," as J. P. Kirsch writes in the Catholic Encyclopedia, "she appeared before the gates of the Lateran basilica, dressed in penitential garb, and did penance in public for her sin, an act which made a great impression upon the Christian population of Rome. The pope received her formally again into full communion with the Church." (7)

The encyclopedia also says that Fabiola was one of several noble Roman women who came under the influence of St. Jerome when he visited the catacombs and later when he spent three years in Rome producing a standard Latin text of the Bible now known as the Vulgate. Jerome was also the writer of the finest letters of antiquity, and sections 3 and 4 of Letter 55 to Amandus are generally thought to be about Fabiola. Amandus, a presbyter of Bourdeau, had written to Jerome concerning three passages of scripture but had attached to his own letter a short note saying: "Ask him [Jerome] whether a woman who has left her husband on the ground that he is an adulterer and sodomite and has found herself compelled to take another may in the lifetime of him whom she first left be in communion with the church without doing penance for her fault." (8) Common thought holds that the note was from Fabiola. Because of no certain time reference for that to which the note refers, however, the question remains: was Jerome's answer ("No," in short) what compelled her public penitence at the Church of the Lateran or, as some think, was she contemplating a third marriage? (9)

Whatever the case might have been, after the public penitence Fabiola devoted her immense wealth and personal energies to the care of the poor and the sick, establishing a fine hospital in Rome and erecting with former senator Pammachius a large hospice for pilgrims coming to Rome.

When Jerome left Rome in 385 he went to Bethlehem where with Paula and Eustochium, two of the noble company of women mentioned above, he established convents for nuns and monasteries for monks. In 395 Fabiola journeyed to Bethlehem with her relative Oceanus and stayed in the convent with Paula and Eustochium. There, under the direction of Jerome, she studied the Scriptures and devoted herself to ascetic exercises. During this sojourn, Jerome and Bishop John of Jerusalem quarreled bitterly concerning the teachings of Origen, a synthesizing of the fundamental principles of Greek philosophy (particularly those of Neoplatonism and Stoicism) with the Christianity of creed and scripture to prove that the Christian view of the universe was compatible with Greek thought. Efforts were made to draw Fabiola to the side of the bishop, but she would not forsake her attachment to Jerome and his teachings. The discomfort she experienced under the pressures from John and his coterie plus rumors of an invasion of Jerusalem by the Huns prompted Fabiola to return to Rome. There she continued her legendary charitable works until her death in A.D. 399. All of Rome attended her funeral.

Jerome's eulogy for Fabiola is Letter 77. There he writes: "Whatever point in her character I choose to treat of first, pales into insignificance compared with those which follow after. Shall I praise her fasts? Her alms are greater still. Shall I commend her lowliness? The glow of her faith is yet brighter. Shall I mention her studied plainness in dress, her voluntary choice of plebeian costume and the garb of a slave that she might put to shame silken robes? To change one's disposition is a greater achievement than to change one's dress. It is harder for us to part with arrogance than with gold and gems." (10) Jerome here shows that the person Agnes characterized just before she died had been drastically transformed.

With this information in hand we return to the point that some of the details about Fabiola in Wiseman's novel are historically unsupportable. The novelist tells us early that in the year 302 Fabiola was twenty years of age. If that were so, simple arithmetic says she would have been 117 years old when she died, 100 when Jerome arrived in Rome in 382. Such longevity is never mentioned in any accounts of her life as it certainly would have been had it been true. Also in Jerome's Letter 55, written about the year 394, Jerome addresses specifically Fabiola's saying that she "found herself compelled to marry again." In Letter 77 he specifically names this compulsion as the physical needs of a young unmarried woman. There he says:
  If however it is made a charge against her that after repudiating
  her husband she did not continue unmarried, I readily admit this
  to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may
  have been a case of necessity. "It is better," the apostle tells
  us, "to marry than to burn." She was quite a young [my italics]
  woman, she was not able to continue in widowhood. In the words of
  the apostle, she saw another law in her members warring against
  the law of her mind; she felt herself dragged in chains as a
  captive towards the indulgences of wedlock. (11)

Whether the English translator means she was quite a woman who was young or a woman who was quite young is not clear; either way, although she is a young person in her sexual prime in Wiseman's novel, historically she could not have been a contemporary of Agnes and Sebastian.

For anyone aware of the few facts that are known about Fabiola's life, he or she can recognize details in Wiseman's melodrama that form parallels to the history that he does not specifically reference. Two examples of note from among the several that occur are Fabiola's baptism and the character Corvinus. Fabiola's baptism in the novel occurs on Easter eve in the year 304, close upon the burial of Emerentiana. Historically we do not know the year of her baptism, but when Jerome says that after her penitence the pope received her aqain into full communion with the Church, we know that it had taken place at a time prior. The parallel, of course, is that both Fabiola's fictive baptism and her real-life reconciliation occurred on Easter eve. The second chosen example is in the character traits of Corvinus, a sottish, coarse, brutal, dissolute, and dissipated man with a certain amount of animal courage and strength. One of Fabiola's slaves, with a cunning equal to that of Corvinus, schemes with him to win the proud Fabiola's acceptance. The slave makes clear that with enough gold Corvinus would be irresistible to the proud Fabiola. This fictional character, wanting to seek the hand of the richest match in Rome, may well be the parallel of the brutish husband that Fabiola actually did marry. More such cognates reveal themselves before the novel ends saying that Fabiola, after "many years of charity and holiness ... went to rest in peace." History says "amen" to that.

The reasons for the anachronistic placement of Fabiola among the Church of the catacombs are unknown and reasonably beyond extensive speculation. When George Spencer, a Catholic convert and student at the English College in Rome where Wiseman was rector, brought the Oxford Movement to the rector's attention, Wiseman believed that a Catholic revival in England was at hand. He was even more convinced when John Henry Newman, while still an Anglican, came to visit him and then later converted to Roman Catholicism. For Wiseman, Newman was a religious genius whom he had long desired to adorn his Church. During Wiseman's many years in Rome he worked to have the pope reestablish the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. Then when he became a cardinal and archbishop of Westminster his preeminent purpose when he returned to England was to foster Catholic growth throughout the country. He expected Newman's joining the Church to provide a major impetus for that growth. It was during this period of intense effort to increase conversions that the cardinal wrote Fabiola, which became extremely popular. This popularity contributed significantly to Wiseman's reputation as the architect of the English Catholic revival. Perhaps he "discovered" Fabiola during his years in Rome and thought her story of conversion set in the context of martyred saints would bolster his crusade to effect wholesale conversions in his own time.

However that may be and whether or not the novel, as some have suggested, gave rise to a cult devoted to a generally obscure saint, one fact seems inarguably certain. Wiseman's novel prompted Jean Jacques Henner, a French academic painter, to create a portrait of Fabiola in 1885. As a student, Henner developed a particular interest in portraiture and during his five years at the French academy in Rome produced his first Magdalene painting, The Repentant Magdalene, the forerunner of later works to be known as the Magdalene series. At one point in his career he devoted his talents to quasi-mythological subjects, creating paintings of imagined characters. Then, as Lynne Cooke (art historian and author of at least one brochure for the Dia Art Foundation) says, Henner, "riding the wave of the evangelical Catholic revival ... sweeping Western Europe" in 1885 "created the definitive albeit fictitious portrayal of Fabiola." This depiction, she goes on to say, "had its visual sources in the portraiture of secular subjects developed by the Bellinis and others working in fifteenth-century Venice." (12) Fabiola's historical story combined with Wiseman's fictional story was one of wealth, domestic violence, rebellion, risk, self-sacrifice, and altruism but Henner's portrait was one of manifest simplicity: a lovely woman in profile, wearing a red cloak with the hood drawn up, pensively gazing slightly upward.

Sometime in the late nineteenth century Henner's portrait vanished but not before it had become the prototype for many copies and copies of copies. Again, for reasons that are unclear, the copies proliferated to such an extent that Gregory Volk, art critic and professor at the School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, has concluded that "there are probably thousands of Fabiola paintings rattling around, constituting a Fabiola movement or subgenre operating entirely outside the art world." (13) Lynne Cooke says that "handcrafted and painted versions [of the Fabiola portrait] by amateurs and professionals alike continue to be limned over a century later." (14) She further asserts that Fabiola, not the Madonna, as one might think, is the copyist's favorite model.

It is surprising that all of these copies are replicas of a less than renowned masterpiece whose subject was less than well known, but it is equally surprising that nearly three hundred of the reproductions were installed as a collection in an established museum. The exhibition titled Francis Alys, Fabiola--An Investigation, 1994 was mounted under the aegis of the Dia Art Foundation at the galleries of the Hispanic Society of America in New York from September 20, 2007, until April 26, 2008. Alys, Belgian born but a long-time resident of Mexico, abandoned his initial career as an architect to pursue a conceptually driven art practice. "Practice" is an apt word for, in addition to his paintings, he creates "art" experiences like his pushing a large block of ice through Mexico City for nine hours until it was reduced to drops of water. He captured this episode in a five-minute video titled Paradox of praxis 1, 1997. Another product of a "stroll," as he calls such experiences, is The Leak, 1995 that documents his walking through a working-class neighborhood in Sao Paulo carrying a punctured can of blue paint to leave a trail on the streets as a reminder of his transitory presence. These efforts, like much of his work, show his preoccupation with moving through time and space, a concern that also touches the items in the Fabiola exhibit.

After forsaking his architectural career, Alys thought to acquire a personal collection of "hand painted" copies of the masters to be found in flea markets and like venues. As he travelled extensively, however, he began to discover and acquire the Fabiola works that over a fifteen-year period turned into the exhibition at the Hispanic Society. The variety among the sameness in the displayed pieces comes in the execution: large oils painstakingly depicting Fabiola on canvas, a Fabiola made of pigmented coffee beans and seeds, Fabiolas on wood panels with flaking paint, a needlepoint Fabiola, a hand-painted Fabiola on a plate, and slight but noticeable differences in Fabiola's profile, skin tone and texture, and eye and mouth treatment. Dia's eight-month showing allowed viewers to visit the collection repeatedly to absorb the differences and perhaps come away with their own reasons for Alys's calling it an "investigation."

The brochure that accompanied the exhibit presents Alys's provocative questions to help viewers formulate some of those reasons: "Why that image in particular? What gives it that power to resist ... first mechanical reproduction and now digital reproduction? What does the act/ritual of painting that image ... mean for its author? What is it that made it become an icon, an object beyond any consideration of taste? How has it served as a reminder of the existence of a completely parallel and separate art scene from, say, 'ours,' one with its own references and obsessions?" (15)

These questions are primarily concerned with the "art" function of the collective works, but when Volk provides several speculative answers, he emphasizes a range of human reactions that may account for the Fabiola proliferation. He says: "Maybe it's the simplicity of her pose: Fabiola against a dark background uncluttered by anything tricky or confusing and without any indication of a specific place. She could be anywhere, in any country or era, and therefore she is a flexible subject." This is akin to moving through time and space that was mentioned earlier. Volk goes on: "But perhaps there is something else about this figure, something mysterious and indefinable, that has inspired generations of artists and Sunday painters to offer their own versions of her, as if through a strange hypnotic pull." In some instances the pull might be the same as that for an actor playing the role of Hamlet, the conviction that he or she can present the as yet unachieved ne plus ultra portrayal. If that be true, it belies Cooke's statement that Henner created the "definitive" portrait of Fabiola. But let us return to Volk once more:
  Maybe it is her timeless beauty, her look of strength mixed with
  vulnerability, the fact that she's alone but appealing to something
  or someone. Maybe she has something that they'd like to have, calm
  wisdom in the midst of sorrow and suffering. Maybe she is an
  excellent friend, known for patience and compassion, or a
  bittersweet reminder of what it was like to be young, or a
  surrogate lover. Maybe her quiet eroticism is appealing to some,
  and her independence to others. Maybe they are drawn to the way
  she's clearly visible, but also partly concealed. Maybe they see
  her as a cross between a saint and a celebrity, say a movie star on
  a poster. Maybe they just like her name. (16)

(Some general evidence may exist for the last two of Volk's speculations, for a few persons of some note--one a movie star--have been christened or have taken the name Fabiola. For instance, the Spanish-born Queen Consort of the late King Baudoin I of Belgium was named Fabiola. So was the Brazilian seven-time world champion in-line skater Fabiola da Silva. Fabiola Beracasa, Mexican model and correspondent; Fabiola Zuluaga, Colombian tennis professional; Fabiola Groshan, author; and Fabiola Castillo, online marketer are other namesakes of the saint one can find in biographical searches. Obviously the individuals who named those persons or those who chose the name for themselves certainly liked the name, so it is not beyond imagining that some artists may have been so taken with it that they created a Fabiola copy.)

I have quoted Volk at length because his list of "maybes" enlightens the Alys exhibition in a way that he almost certainly did not intend. To understand that enlightening we must return to a basic point that has been ignored in the artist's, the exhibitor's, and the critic's statements except in two instances. That point is that Fabiola is Saint Fabiola. In modern times it is not always easy for ordinary persons to apply Christian teachings to their own circumstances. As a laborer, a mother, a professional, a citizen in a world of disasters and consuming needs, a victim of unprecedented pressures, how does one behave? How does one practice the charity and justice preached by Christ? It is human nature to look for exemplars and Catholic teaching holds that the saints by their example are often the answers to the faithful's questions. The saints are, as it were, the words of the Gospel come to life. The veneration of the saints in the ages of ardent faith--the time of the Church of the catacombs, for example, or the era of the evangelical Catholic revival at the end of the nineteenth century--often fired and may still fire the imaginations of the faithful to help them enter into the life of the Church triumphant through prayer, literature (especially poetry), and art. (17) With all this in mind, if one returns to Volk's list he or she can read for the most part the "maybes" in a spiritually meaningful way. One can conclude that some of the artists might not have seen Fabiola as "a cross between a saint and a celebrity," but only as a saint worthy of their veneration through whatever level of artistic ability they possessed.

Cooke said: "Even if some [of the Fabiola portraits] appear to have been created for a religious market or to serve devotional needs, most betray the hands of novices, amateurs, or Sunday painters." (18) I suggest that the serving of devotional needs is exactly why the novices, amateurs, and Sunday painters may have tried their hands at presenting Saint Fabiola in "art." It was not a case of "even if." It was a case of "because." Fabiola in fiction, in history, in portraiture has moved us outside of "our"--Alys 's term again--limiting unknowingness so that now to say that Fabiola is a minor saint may well be an understatement.


(1.) Cardinal Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, Fabiola or The Church of the Catacombs (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1982), 404.

(2.) Ibid., 44.

(3.) Ibid., 49.

(4.) Ibid., 55.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) See William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, A Handbook to Literature, revised by C. Hugh Holman (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1960), 223.

(7.) J. P. Kirsch, "Fabiola," The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909).

(8.) The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 55. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume VI (Wikisource), [section]3.

(9.) "Fabiola," New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Gale in association with The Catholic University of America, 2003).

(10.) The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 77, [section]2.

(11.) Ibid., [section]3.

(12.) Lynne Cooke, "Francis Alys: Fabiola" (New York: Dia at the Hispanic Society of America, September 20, 2007--April 6, 2008), tri-fold brochure, panel 1.

(13.) Gregory Volk, "Walkabout," Art in America (February 2008), 124.

(14.) Cooke, "Francis Alys: Fabiola," panel 1.

(15.) Ibid., panel 3.

(16.) Volk, "Walkabout," 125.

(17.) For a concise presentation of the Church's view on saints see N. G. M. Van Doornik, et al. A Handbook of the Catholic Faith, ed. John Greenwood (New York: Image Books, 1956), 223--44.

(18.) Cooke, "Francis Alys: Fabiola," panel 1.
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Author:Howard, H. Wendell
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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