Francis Alÿs: Fabiola, 1994

Artist : Francis Alÿs
Fabiola, Installation View, National Portrait Gallery, London

Essay by Lynne Cooke

Francis Alÿs, Fabiola—An Investigation, 1994 –

This collection of works, all bearing the profiled image of a young woman in a crimson cloak, was begun some fifteen years ago. Now comprising almost three hundred items, it is installed here for the first time in a museum as a collection.1 Viewed en masse, its striking cohesiveness depends on the fact that every work not only depicts the same subject—the Christian saint known as Fabiola (d. 399 AD) —but also strictly adheres to the same iconographic formulation. All are, in fact, replicas. Given the composition’s manifest simplicity, it is highly unlikely that the image was copied for the usual pedagogical reasons—as either an exercise in acquiring technical skills or refining an academic style. Even if some appear to have been created for a religious market or to serve devotional needs, most betray the hands of novices, amateurs, or Sunday painters.

In 1885, a French academician, Jean-Jacques Henner, created the definitive, albeit ficticious, portrayal of Fabiola.2 The prototype for all these works, Henner’s disarmingly conventional rendering owed its repute to a bestseller. An inspirational hagiography in the guise of a romantic historical novel of the kind popularized by Sir Walter Scott, the melodrama Fabiola, or The Church of the Catacombs (1854) by the British Cardinal Wiseman gave rise to a cult devoted to this formerly obscure female saint. Riding the wave of the evangelical Catholic revival then sweeping Western Europe, Henner’s depiction had its visual sources in the portraiture of secular subjects developed by the Bellinis and others working in fifteenth-century Venice. So widely venerated was his devotional image that it ensured both its subject and its creator considerable renown. Alongside the myriad printed reproductions that have long flooded mass markets throughout the Christian world, handcrafted and painted versions by amateurs and professionals alike continue to be limned over a century later.


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