This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 27 -- Feast of Saint Fabiola of Rome

Henner's Fabiola
I am surprised to find myself continuing to discuss the National Portrait Gallery again, but an image search for Saint Fabiola took me there.  I had declared that three portraits of Andrew Jackson was over-representation, but now I find that an exhibit in 2009 had over three hundred portraits of Saint Fabiola, all variations from an original work by Jean-Jacques Henner.  The original painting is now lost, but an oddly compulsive Belgian artist named Francis Alÿs combed Europe and North America, buying copies of the portrait.  His assembled collection, which included embroidery and shell/bead work as well as traditional paints, toured some of the most popular museums in the world.  Over-representation?  I don't think so.  Whether or not Fabiola or the lost painting by Henner merit such intense contemplation is only one thing a person might consider in such an exhibit.  With three hundred variations on the same portrait, the patient visitor must inevitably also begin to consider color, size, medium, light and shadow, simplicity and detail, youth and age... The various combinations of factors might eventually betray, or at least suggest, different attitudes toward the subject. It's sort of a highbrow version of what Penn Gilette did in the film The Aristocrats: tell the same joke so many times that one breaks past the tedium and rushes into hilarity. 

A Study in Scarlet: Some of the 300+ Fabiolae
As for the saint herself, she did not begin in very good stead with the Church.  We are not talking Mary of Egypt here, but neither was she one of the abundant virgin-martyrs with whom the Church fathers were so -- dare I say -- enamored?  To understand the objection to her, we can first look at her list of patronages: she is a patron of difficult marriages, abused spouses, and victims of adultery and faithlessness.  She is also the patron of divorced persons, a fascinating assignment from the Roman Catholic Church, given Matthew 5:31-32: "It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."  Luke says the same thing in Chapter 16, Verse 18.  The idea is elaborated in Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12, refining the Law from Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  

But Fabiola was a modern Roman woman -- it was, after all, the fourth century and the Fabii were one of the finest families in the City.  There was no need to suffer an abusive, adulterous husband, just as there was no need to remain celibate after dumping him.  She married again; let the Bishop make his own peace and she would make hers.  [Okay, I have no idea if she were that defiant in her attitude, but the attitude does not seem implausible to me.]  

St. Jerome attended by angels, also painted by Henner
She was of course condemned by the Church, and while she did not give up her second husband, she did perform some penance.  I don't know if Saint Jerome assigned the penance or sanctioned the marriage, which under later canon law would not even be recognized as a marriage unless the first was annulled.  Annulment, by the way, is not the same thing as Catholic divorce.  Annulment is a declaration that the sacrament of marriage took place under false circumstances and was therefore did not really happen (in a spiritual sense, the souls could not have been united if one or both were deceiving or deceived).  Divorce is the termination of a civil contract and may be granted for any circumstances that the state chooses to recognize. 

Fabiola's husband and ex-husband both died while she was relatively young.  This allowed her to reconcile with the Church.  She made a penance, was readmitted into Communion, and would have been free to take another husband if she chose.  Certainly a woman with her wealth would have found prospects in fourth century Rome, but she chose instead to establish charitable works.

The foundation of a hospital for homeless Romans who suffered the most repellant ailments established her bona fides.  She then traveled to Jerusalem, where she met the abrasive Saint Jerome, Saint Paula, and Paula's widowed son-in-law, Pammachius.  They (and the rest of Jerome's circle) fled to Jaffa during a heterodoctrinal dust-up with John II, the Bishop of Jerusalem.  When they had the all-clear to return, Fabiola went back to Rome, where she founded and administered a hostel for sick and needy pilgrims.  Pammachius worked with her on this project, and though they were both widowed, they were too deep into the religion thing to abandon their chastity.  This innovative institution became famous (as Jerome says) from Britain to Parthia (Iran).  Her death was marked by a huge funeral procession chanting Alleluia.

That brings us back to Jean-Jacques Henner, whose portrait of Fabiola was so celebrated that the fine craftsmen of Limoges copied the image onto plaques and jewelry.  The smoothness of her skin contrasts with the gloss on her lip and scarlet cloak.  Her eye is clear, not clouded or dull, yet it has no sparkle or hunger.  She has no cause to be ashamed, and yet she is not shameless.  She is a pious woman who knows the world.  Perhaps three hundred studies of her image are not enough. 

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