The art essay

Saint Vincent de Paul (1847) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904)

 Monumentally poised between photographic precision and painterly inspiration, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of Saint Vincent de Paul heralded a new era in religious art. The meticulous detail of the lace of the surplice, the crisp linen of the veil, and the portraitlike depiction of the saint reflect the reality offered by the newly invented art of photography, while the powerful composition, with its low vantage point, was drawn from the tradition of Christian apses and altarpieces.

  In 1847, twenty-three-year-old Gérôme had just returned from studying in Rome with his teacher Hippolyte Delaroche, where he had produced both this work and his more famous The Cock Fight. While in the latter work, preparing for his debut in the Paris Salon, Gérôme had evoked the idealized era of ancient Greece, his depiction of Saint Vincent, painted for the Sisters of Charity in Gérôme’s hometown of Vesoul, is strikingly Roman in its form and composition.

  Centered in the painting and elevated from the ground by a plinth, the figure of Saint Vincent is reminiscent of the depictions of Christ or the saints common in Roman altarpieces. Gérôme was deeply influenced by Raphael during his journey, in particular his Santa Cecilia, which inspired the composition of this work.

  Here, Saint Vincent stands erect in the center, holding up a small child—an iconographic theme typical to this saint. The Solomonic columns (similar to those in Saint Peter’s Basilica) decorated with Cosmatesque inlay, the triumphal arch opening into a niche, and the two male figures, one holding a crosier, who emerge from the Caravaggesque background, summon to mind the grandeur of Christian art in the Eternal City.

  In contrast to the tenebrous deacons, two women join Saint Vincent in the illuminated foreground. One is a Sister of Charity, a member of the order co-founded by the saint, and the other is a young noblewoman whose face is unseen as she turns toward Saint Vincent. Two forms of charity—donating material goods to help the poor and donating one’s life to the service of the needy—suggest the virtues so often painted and sculpted in Roman funerary monuments.

  The union of old arts and new

 Gérôme embraced photography from its inception. His teacher Delaroche was so enamored of the new daguerreotypes that he is credited with saying in 1839 that “painting is dead.” Gérôme took a more conciliatory course with the new art, using his academic research, his painter’s eye, and his love of color to make paintings that, while presenting a strikingly accurate scene, brought to life aspects of a story that could exist only in the artist’s imagination.

  Delaroche passed on to his finest student the desire to represent, more than heroic narratives or delightful escapades, an “eternally valid moral truth.” In his first engagement with sacred art, Gérôme, fresh from experiencing centuries of Christian artistic tradition embedded in the walls of Rome, sought to express such a truth.

  Saint Vincent, despite the infant in his arms, the box of jewels before him, and the religious sister praying by his side, keeps his eyes fixed on an unseen reality beyond the scope of the composition. It is the small child, radiant notwithstanding her indigence, who engages the viewer and becomes the star of the show. Her poverty is accentuated by her nakedness, drooping socks, and simple bonnet. In turn, Saint Vincent, although absorbed in his otherworldly vision, draws the attention of the heavens toward the child, who cradles his hand with utter trust. The temporal and spiritual realms unite in the care of the innocent, the helpless, and the needy.

  Universal charity lived locally

 Vincent de Paul devoted much of his life to the service of the poor and of children in need, and it was the concrete circumstances of those he met face to face that inspired him to his life of charity. In one of his letters, Saint Vincent wrote: “We must try to be stirred by our neighbors’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.”

  The true witness of Saint Vincent, and the reason he bears the title “apostle of charity,” lies in his ability to recognize the needs of the poor before him and to be moved with the love of Christ to act on their behalf. “If you consider the poor in the light of faith,” wrote Saint Vincent, “then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God, who chose to be poor.” To be able to recognize the face of Christ in the face of the poor: this is the example of Saint Vincent and is a fruit of faith, a gift for which we must beg God— hence the direct gaze of the child in Gérôme’s work.

  The composition itself demonstrates the Christian call to respond to the sight of Christ in the poor. As the young noblewoman offers a chest overflowing with jewels and pearls, the poor infant dispassionately draws forth from it a golden chain. This gentle communication and motion between the young woman and the child says everything. She has seen Christ doubly: in the priestly alter Christus of Saint Vincent but also in the face of the small child. It is to this little one that the young woman offers her wealth and livelihood, as Saint Vincent did through his dedication to serving the poor and the orphaned, and to the reform of the Church.

  We, too, must pray for the grace to be able to recognize Christ not only in the face of those saints depicted in the splendid art reflecting the glory of Christ, but also in the needy face of the poor summoning us to a life of charity.

 

  

■■ Father Garrett Ahlers

 

Studied Patristic theology and early Christian art in Rome

 

Saint Vincent de Paul (1847), Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Georges Garret Museum, Vesoul, France.

 © Photo: studio Claude-Henri Bernardot