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Compte rendu: Hannah Williams, 'Enlightenment Miracles'

posted 17 Nov 2014, 09:35 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 28 Jan 2015, 08:39 ]
The painting with which Hannah Williams began, Domenico Veneziano’s A Miracle of St Zenobius (1442-48), was chosen not for the date or place of its composition, or indeed for its form, but rather for its function as an ex-voto: an offering made to God in thanks for performance of miracle.

Williams used this as a starting point to discuss three eighteenth-century ex-votos offered to Saint Geneviève, the Nanterre shepherdess who saved Paris from Attila the Hun, and was the subject of nearly fifty rituals of invocation in the eighteenth century alone. Largillière’s 1694 Ex-voto à Sainte Geneviève was painted in thanks for miraculous rain that brought an end to drought; Jean-François de Troy’s painting of the same name was completed in 1725 in thanks for what may or may not have been a miraculously good harvest, and Soufflot’s church of Saint Geneviève, now the Panthéon, was begun in 1744 in thanks for the restoration to health of Louis XV.

The eighteenth century ended with the destruction of Saint Geneviève’s bones in 1793, but the story of her fate across the century was not, Williams argued, one of increasing secularisation, but rather a tale of appropriation, and of the inextricable links between secular and religious powers. From the city-wide invocation processions that brought together the clergy and government, to repeated attempts by the Bourbon monarchy to associate itself with the popular Saint, to the destruction of her bones (at least in part) for ‘collaboration with the crown’, the cult of Saint Geneviève was tightly bound up with the political life of the city.

Williams argued that this snapshot of the continued – if evolving – power of religious belief across the century of enlightenment should act as a counter-narrative to traditional tales of secularisation and the birth of modernity, and to an art history that has traditionally obscured the religious facets of eighteenth-century art.

Images: fitz.cam.ac.uk; wikicommons; Roman Bonnefoy.

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