A chair, a pillow and other trivia: the material culture of a saintly reputation

by Tine Van Osselaer

‘… and you can still see the traces of blood on the chair.’ My guide pronounces these last words with apparent pride and a smile on her face. Feeling a little uncomfortable, I take a step back. Am I, who has been working on stigmatics for a while now, still not used to the blood? My curiosity trumps my revulsion and I look closer. Yep, there are definitely traces there, but whether or not these are really marks left by Louise Lateau during one of her Friday passions I cannot say. To be honest, I would not only have missed the droplets of blood but I would have completely ignored the chair if the kind lady had not pointed them out to me.

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Ill.1: The chair of Louise Lateau in her house in Bois-d’Haine

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Ill.2: The same chair in a photograph of Louise-memorabilia.

This was not the only time I needed help in seeing the meaning and religious value of what, at first glance, seemed to be quite trivial objects – a chair, a coffee cup, a pillow… Whilst working on the houses of stigmatics, help came in the guise of enthusiast guides and archival findings. Among these was a nineteenth-century catalogue of all objects collected for a memorial house in honour of Anne Catherine Emmerick (opened in April 1877). The catalogue was no mere list, but actually narrated the stories of how and why these objects were preserved after the death of the stigmatic. These short texts showed how the objects that are still on display today (albeit in another location) were meaningful for the faithful because they had once belonged to Emmerick, much like we cherish possessions of deceased loved ones. An old pillow in one of the display cabinets for instance got added value upon reading that a former owner (a good friend of Emmerick) explicitly reserved it for her own deathbed and did not want to part with it beforehand. The files I tracked down also contained small statements of former owners vouching for the authenticity of the objects. Sources like that comfort the historian in me. Not because they prove that these objects were ‘the real thing’, but because they tell us something about how the faithful looked at them. I am better trained in reading texts and images than I am in reading objects.

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Ill. 3 The pillow of Anne Catherine Emmerick on display in the Emmerick memorial site in Dülmen

Was Lateau’s chair ‘the real thing’? Did it once belong to Lateau or was it put on display – like the sewing machine in the house – because it fit the time period? I’m not sure, but older photographs and captions exist in which the chair features prominently in a Lateau-collection. Whatever the case, for the present-day owners of the house it fits the story they want to tell about Lateau.

Working on the houses of stigmatics, I had seen other living quarters before I entered Lateau’s room. I was therefore well aware of how the re/construction of a room (often a combination of sacralization and musealization) could serve the creation of a saintly image. Lateau’s house was no exception in that respect. What was different from the other houses, however, were the alleged blood spatters on the chair. Given the context that should not have surprised me at all, but the other stigmatic settings were more ‘sterile’ and had nothing of that ‘crime scene’ aspect to them. The sites often featured elements that contributed to the construction of the image of a saintly, bedridden and pious virgin: a pristine bed, some devotional pictures on the wall (or small statues), a rosary… Blood marks were only found on devotional cards and textile (blankets, hoods and the like) that were put on display in separate vitrines. These cards and cloths were thereby explicitly set apart as devotional objects. In contrast, the marks on Lateau’s chair painted a rather vivid picture of the everyday life of the stigmatic. Maybe it was exactly because they were taken out of the realm of the extraordinary (to be stared at in display cabinets) and shown in this everyday setting that they shocked me a little. You could all too easily visualize Lateau sitting there… and imagine just how bloody her Friday passions must have been.

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Ill.4 Cloths with bloody imprints in the showcases of the Sister Rumolda museum in Herentals.

For more information on the houses, see:

Tine Van Osselaer, “‘Valued most highly and preserved most carefully’: Using saintly figures’ houses and memorabilia collections to campaign for their canonisation”, Museum History Journal, 11.1, 2018, pp.94-111,

https://doi.org/10.1080/19369816.2018.1429097

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