The Birth and Rebirth of Fabiola, Patron Saint of Nursing: Hagiography, Female Piety and Salvation Through Care of the Sick in the Fourth and Nineteenth Centuries
This paper explores Belgian artist Francis Alÿs’ accidental discovery that Fabiola, the first patron saint of nursing, was a popular subject for amateur painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This discovery led to Alÿs’ contemporary artwork entitled The Fabiola Project, which consists of more than 500 found amateur reproductions of the 1885 portrait of the saint by French artist Jean-Jacques Henner. Fabiola’s nineteenth-century popularity arose as a result of a wildly popular novel by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, Fabiola; or, The Church of the Catacombs, which was published in 1854 in the midst of the Crimean War (1853–56). Wiseman’s exciting story and Henner’s serene image combined to make the long-forgotten figure of Fabiola material, establishing her as a familiar and popular nineteenth-century trope. Taking a material culture perspective on the nineteenth-century resurrection of Fabiola through both fiction and portraiture, it is argued that the Fabiola story reveals both the longevity and political utility of pious female archetypes. The paper discusses the life of Fabiola, as told by Jerome, focusing on the radical nature of her devotion to the physical care of the sick as an advanced form of asceticism and feminized religious practice. Picking up this thread on religious self-shaping through the work of care of the sick, it then turns to the resurgence of interest in Fabiola in the context of nineteenth-century debates by churchmen on both sides of the confessional divide concerning the appropriate expression of female piety. It argues that The Fabiola Project reveals an archive of devotion to the rehabilitated saint, whose popularity in fiction and visual culture provides a rare insight into the energizing of a Catholic ideal for nineteenth-century women as active workers and nurses to the sick poor.
Fourth Century Christianity
European Journal for Nursing History and Ethics