by Tine Van Osselaer
Photograph of Louise Lateau (1877), Archives of the Seminary of Tournai (see ‘The affair’)
How do you photograph sanctity? When you look at the picture above, there does not seem to be much to it. You photograph a girl praying the rosary, solemnly closing her eyes. If your model is a well-known stigmatic, and a young girl from a humble background on top of that, it does not seem to require much effort to produce the right saintly effect. Still, the moment you gaze a little more attentively at this picture of Louise (Lateau, 1850-1883), you start to notice small details. Wasn’t the bed on the other side of the room and not nearly as close to window as it seems to be here? And what are those hands doing on the right-hand side of the picture holding up a white sheet?
If you did not see the hands of Louise’s sister Adeline when you first looked at the photograph, do not feel bad. Most people seem to filter them out of the picture focusing their attention on the face of the stigmatic (I’ve tested this on my students). It means the photographer did a good job and Louise’s face is indeed quite an eye-catcher, perfectly lighted as it is so close to the window and with the white sheet reflecting the natural light. A slightly better framing of the picture, a little turn to the left, and we would never have known about the staging. Luckily for us, there was this one more clumsy moment, and a picture amidst a series of photographs that tells us more than the flawless versions that eventually made it onto the devotional cards.
Louise’s pictures are part of a trend that started with photographs of Bernadette Soubirous, shot in a studio in the 1860s (making her therefore the first saint every to be photographed). Scholars like Claude Langlois, Therese Taylor and Suzanne Kaufman have pointed out how these photographs were staged and emphasized (exoticized) the rural background of the Lourdes visionary (e.g. her wearing the Pyrenean costume). It was an ideal image of a pure, unspoiled, young visionary created with modern technology and multiplied on a massive scale. These scholars have pointed out how changing techniques meant new demands and the faithful desired a ‘true’ image rather than the idealized, pastel-painted faces they could find on devotional cards and that were easily interchangeable. Faces of saintly people could now be preserved ‘exactly as they were’ for future generations. The new medium seemed to exclude all human intervention and produced images ‘true to nature’. It only takes two hands on a photograph to ruin that idea for you (sorry).
Photograph of Bernadette Soubirous
As an historian, I love little flaws like Adeline’s hands. They are very honest (or at least seem to be). I like the blatant lies in the sources too. A wonderful example of the latter is a devotional card that circulated at the end of the nineteenth century described as the true image of the German stigmatic Anne Catherine Emmerick („Wahre Abbildung der gottseligen A.K.E., geboren am 8. September 1774 zu Flamske bei Coesfeld, gestorben am 9. Februar 1824 zu Dülmen“). Do not be mistaken however, the ‘truthfulness’ of the image left much to be desired for and the person we see on the card is the Parisian nun Marie-Madeleine Postel, the founder of the Sisters of Christian Schools of Mercy. A bankrupt photographer pasted image and text together in the 1870s as he was in desperate need of some money and tried to make the best of Emmerick’s popularity and the fact that there were no well-known images of the former Augustinian nun.
Image of Marie-Madeleine Postel, turned into a ‘true’ image of Anne Katherine Emmerick in the 1870s
Anne Katherine’s and Louise’s pictures document how the faithful craved for images of the people they deemed worthy of veneration. The supporters of their cases (and the commercial thinkers) tried to answer that need (sometimes already during the lifetime of the ‘saintly’ persons). Numerous images of stigmatics have been preserved providing us with information on the conception of sanctity at the time. As the two cases I mentioned here show, looking at the less than perfect specimens and at the deliberate lies sometimes tells us more about the mechanisms and ideas behind them than the ‘perfect’ pictures do. Rest assured, as in the case of Adeline’s hands, the little flaws are present, it might just take a second look to see them.
Tine Van Osselaer, “The affair of the photographs. Controlling the public image of a nineteenth-century stigmatic,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History (forthcoming).
Günter Scholz, “Anna Katharina Emmerick- dargestellt in Bildern”, pp.23-61 in: Clemens Engling, Hermann Flothkötter, Johannes Heming (eds.), Anna Katharina Emmerick – ihre mystische Existenz aus nachmoderner Sicht, Dialogverlag, Münster, 2007.
Erzbistumsarchiv Paderborn, Waltraud Hermes: Louise Hensel (1798-1876), Box 11, Hans Hüer, Das Bild der Anna Katharina Emmerick“, Westf. Heim. Kal. 72 (Münster), pp.66-68.