Why is a non-Catholic depicting saints? Enlightenment comes in stages and in the 4th grade I started looking for some answers. Even though I was raised Methodist I enrolled in catechism classes with an Air Force priest where we were stationed in New Jersey and was immediately impressed by the pageantry and theatrical elements of the Catholic rituals that just did not exist in my Methodist upbringing. Upon completion of my classes I surprised my parents when I chose to be baptized in a Catholic rather than Methodist ceremony, a decision that was based purely on ritual rather than belief. I can point directly to that moment for my fascination with saints over the years. While many look to the saints for comfort they have served to confound me over the years with their dubious origins and abilities.
In fairness, many of these saints are from a less enlightened time and reflect the beliefs of a medieval mind even though they continue to be venerated by the Vatican today. Like the scriptures themselves, the classic depictions of these holy people have been established and repeated to the point where they have become iconic in liturgical thought. For centuries Christian scripture has been reinterpreted and edited by countless sources to better dovetail with a more enlightened time. While this effort can be accused of the same practice, it is my intention to work within the accepted iconic conventions to create depictions that are not intended to be irreverent but to better reflect the aesthetics of modern culture.
I understand that anyone who approaches this type of subject is inviting controversy, I prefer to consider it inciting conversation, I believe anything that asks one to self-verify their core beliefs is serving a valid function.
From the onset of this project I decided to light everything with a simple dish (no light modifiers) to elicit the pallor of medieval life. To make the best use of my model’s time (all of whom were kind enough to volunteer) we shot everything in the studio over the course of just a few days and finished in post primarily sourcing images I made in France. I was thrilled that one of my favorite make-up artists, Melanie Manson, was excited about the project and brought her esthetic to the process which was key in setting the tone and pallet for these images.
Saint Agatha (died 251, Sicily) was a virgin martyr who rejected the advances of a powerful Roman prefect named Quintianus. As a result Quintianus had her sent to a brothel to be defiled. When she continued to resist he ordered her to be tortured and her breasts cut off. Agatha is generally depicted holding a small tray with her severed breasts on it and is the patron saint ofbell makers, breast cancer survivors and bakers. On her feast day each year it is still tradition to consume small cakes made in the likeness of her disarticulated breasts. Agatha’s feast day is February 5th.
I was drawn to Agatha by her iconic depiction with which I took very little creative license.
Saint Joseph of Cupertino (died 1603, Italy) was a Christian mystic who was reputed to be “remarkably unclever”. Joseph began to experience ecstatic visions as a child and after many failed attempts to join the clergy he was finally ordained in 1628. As the years passed and the occasions of ecstasy in his life began to multiply he began to levitate while participating at the Mass. As the phenomenon of flying was widely believed to be connected with witchcraft, Joseph was denounced to the Inquisition and deemed disruptive by the church and eventually was confined to a small cell, forbidden from joining in any public gathering of the community. He is the patron saint of aviation, astronauts and the mentally handicapped. His feast day is September 18th.
I find it fascinating that the church had to make a decision on how to venerate this man since he was simultaneously renowned as being so slow and yet so gifted. Ultimately the church decided it better to prosecute him for his shortcomings rather than celebrate his gifts. Like a bird, it seems the cruelest incarceration for one that could fly would be to confine them to a skyless cell.
Saint Bartholomew (died first century AD, Armenia) was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. Bartholomew made many pilgrimages and while in Armenia is said to have converted the king to Christianity. The king’s brother consequently ordered Bartholomew’s execution in which he was skinned alive while crucified upside down. The miracles attributed to him tend to deal with gravity. Not only was he one of the few to witness Christ’s ascension but he is attributed with making a small statue of himself become so heavy that it drew the entire town from their homes in an effort to lift it. While gathered around the statue the villager’s homes crumbled to the ground saving countless lives. Later he is credited with causing the same object to appear almost weightless to dissuade the Nazi’s from melting it for the metal. He is patron saint to butchers, leather tanners and sufferers of neurological disease. His feast day is September 11th.
I was inspired by the details of the miracles attributed to Bartholomew and his feast day with which I took artistic license and strayed from the iconic depiction more than others. The fact that his feast day is 9/11 and that the effects of gravity and crumbling buildings were key to his legend I allowed modern events to shade the way I chose to depict him.
Saint Anthony of the Abbot (died 356, Egypt) is known as the father of all monks as he popularized the practice monasticism. In Anthony’s case this resulted in his enduring the supernatural temptation of beautiful women as he was often summoned by heavenly sirens. When he would turn to the cross for guidance the sirens would transform into demons that would beat and shred him with their knives. He is traditionally depicted carrying a cross bearing bells and is the patron saint of amputees, grave diggers and pig herders. His feast day is January 17th.
When I was contacted by a model with a gothic appeal who informed me that she had a prosthetic leg, I naturally decided to do a little gender-bending and portray her as the patron saint of amputees.
Saint Kevin of Glendalough (died 618, Ireland) was a priest born into nobility and lived the life of a hermit wearing only animal skins and sleeping in a very small cave overlooking a lake. Little is known of him but legend has it that he once drowned a woman who tried to seduce him and then entered a trance with his arms outstretched for a period long enough for a blackbird to build it’s nest in his hand, lay it’s eggs, allow the eggs to hatch and for the chicks to fledge thus making him the patron saint of blackbirds. Kevin’s feast day is June 3rd.
My decision to portray Kevin was spawned by The Dubliners song The Glendalough Saint where they recount Kevin’s drowning the young woman
Saint Apollonia (died AD 249, Egypt) was a virgin and martyr who refused to renounce her Christian beliefs even at the threat of being burned alive. A fire was built and she was tortured by having all of her teeth removed. After having her teeth extracted she managed to free herself just long enough to jump into the fire. Appolonia is usually depicted holding tongs gripping her tooth and is the patron saint for dentists and people experiencing tooth pain. Her feast day is February 9th.
I find Appolonia particularly interesting since her apparent suicide didn’t stop her from being canonized as a saint but according to scripture it would exclude her from entering heaven.
Saint Drogo (died 1186, France) was born to Flemish nobility. Drogo was able to bilocate, which refers to the ability to maintain one’s actual presence in two totally different places at the same time. He was stricken with an affliction and became so terribly deformed that he frightened the townspeople. In his twenties, a cell was built for him by the church to protect the local villagers from his appearance. St. Drogo stayed in his cell without any human contact, except for a small window where he remained for the rest of his life. He is patron saint to the ugly and deformed, coffee house patrons and the mute. Drogo’s feast day is April 16th.
I was drawn to Drogo because constant confinement to a single space seems particularly cruel to someone who could literally be any two places simultaneously.
Saint Lucy (died 304, Sicily) is one of eight women, who along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass. Lucy was a virgin and martyr who refused to renounce her Christian faith by consummating a marriage arranged by her mother. Her wealthy pagan husband sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel where she gouged out her own eyes to discourage her persistent suitors that admired them. She is typically portrayed with a lamp, holding a tray with her eyes or kneeling before the tomb of Saint Agatha and is the patron saint of light and for the blind. Her feast day is December 13th.
I chose to depict St. Lucy since I long ago claimed her as the patron saint of photography (since to date the Catholic church has not named one) as she is the patron saint of light and beauty.
Saint Denis (died 258 France) was the Bishop of Paris. As Bishop he was so successful in converting the French to Christianity that pagan priests executed him by beheading him on the highest hill in Paris (now Montmartre), which was likely to have been a druidic holy place. Denis is said to have picked his head up after being decapitated, walked six miles, preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology. St Denis is the patron saint for those that suffer headaches and the possessed. His feast day is the 9th of October.
I have to admit, I was drawn to Denis by the sheer ludicrous nature of the thought of a man picking up his severed head and doing a 10k while continuing to preach along the way.