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Preserved in Wax: Catacomb Martyrs, Piety and Politics in Post-Revolutionary France

November 22, 2022 @ 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm

Green College Special Lecture

Bonnie Effros, History, UBC
Coach House, Green College, UBC, and livestreamed
Tuesday, November 22, 5-6:30 pm, with reception to follow

Examination of wax models of the human form in Europe has tended to focus on either the art of anatomical modeling in early modern Naples or the rise of ‘low brow’ entertainment in wax museums such as that of Madame Tussaud. Less well understood are the equally lifelike wax effigies that commemorated alleged ancient martyrs and more recent saints in western Europe during the nineteenth century. Especially during the catacomb excavations of Giovanni Battista de Rossi, when a substantial number of newly discovered bodily relics were presented to the faithful in Italy and further abroad, these papal gifts were made more appealing with fine clothing and faces, hands and feet of wax. The practice of covering the martyrs’ holy bones with wax made them less macabre and more accessible to contemplative devotion and veneration; it appears to have been exported from Italy to France, and became an increasingly popular form of Catholic religious expression. Ultramontane clerics in France like the highly influential monastic advocate Dom Prosper Guéranger thus encouraged their circulation in France. This method was applied not just to ancient bones but saints more recently dead, including Vincent de Paul, Catherine Labouré and Thérèse of Lisieux. This presentation will examine this ephemeral art form in the context of ultramontane religious practice in France, and explore its support of the establishment of closer ties between Rome and France. Bonnie Effros will also ask why this form of religiosity was condemned by critics as dangerous: on the one hand, it was understood as attracting predominantly female devotion that was difficult for clerical authorities to control, and on the other, it was seen as anachronistic, anti-historical and superstitious by those promoting the values of scientific modernity.

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