The Many Faces of Vincent de Paul:
Nineteenth-Century French Romanticism and the Sacred
by Edward R. Udovic, C.M., Ph.D.
On April 24, 1864, Jean-Baptiste Etienne (1801-1874), the fourteenth successor of Saint Vincent de Pau12as the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity, presided over the dedication of a new shrine and pilgrimage complex erected at the saint’s birthplace (berceau), not far from the city of Dax in the Landes region of southwest France. The shrine was built with the expectation that the new national railway system would bring pilgrims there from far and wide. Etienne’s remarks on that day captured the Romantic rebranding of the saint in the nineteenth century.’
The strain of Gallican Romanticism of which I will speak was part and parcel of the great Romantic movement that dominated the first half of the nineteenth century. If classic American political discourse has dealt with the concept of American Exceptionalism, then by comparison we can also discern a rhetoric of French Exceptionalism in the nineteenth century. This French Exceptionalism was linked to the Romantic tenet that la patrie (the homeland)—as defined by the union of “Altar” (Catholicism) and “Throne” (whether Bourbon, Orleans, Napoleonic, or even, paradoxically, Republican)—was inherently different from other nations, and that France had an inescapable and God-given destiny to lead Western Europe, if not Western civilization.
The nineteenth century saw a growing anti-clericalism and religious skepticism within France’s elite and working classes, but it also, paradoxically, saw the emergence of a renewed Catholicism. The Gallican Church insisted that the genius of France’s exceptionalism was inseparable from its Catholicism and its traditional role as “the eldest daughter of the Church.” In Etienne’s view, consistent with this argument, the genius of Gallican religious exceptionalism was inseparable from the exceptionalism of France’s own saint, Vincent de Paul, the “apostle of modern times. ” Finally, for Etienne, the exceptionalism of France’s saint extended to the saint’s communities, especially the Lazarists and the Daughters of Charity.
The rebranding of France’s iconic national saint began late in the reign of Louis XVI, as the forces that would unleash the Revolution were gaining momentum, dooming the Ancien Regime. In 1785 the Abbe Jean-Siffrein Maury preached a panegyric for Vincent de Paul at Versailles, in the king’s presence. This famous discourse set the stage for a century of successive Vincent panegyrics in France. Each of these rhetorical efforts tried to take advantage of the opportunity for Catholicism to define modernity for France from the perspective of what the speakers all believed to be a potent narrative of romanticism, nationalism, imperialism, and traditional conservative Roman Catholic values, as illustrated in the life of the “benefactor of all humanity. “
According to this view, the “most lamentable” Revolution, “this work of destruction,” had resulted in “frightening catastrophes,” “scenes of disorder and anarchy,” and the “collapse of the social order,” “leaving our beloved France as nothing more than an immense pile of ruins.” Yet, in this narrative, even the revolutionaries, these “workers from Hell,” had recognized the brand value of Vincent de Paul and erected a statue to honor the “philanthrope Vincent.”
In the nineteenth century—as the First Empire was succeeded by the Bourbon Restoration, the Bourbon Restoration by the July Monarchy, the July Monarchy by the Second Republic, the Second Republic by the Second Empire, and the Second Empire by the Third Republic—the Romantic efforts to rebrand Vincent de Paul and French Catholicism as part of the evolving French national narrative met with notable religious, political, and cultural success.
The “Apostle of Charity” and the “Apostle of Modern Times”
When discussing Etienne’s Romantic rebranding of Vincent de Paul, it is worth remembering that Romanticism’s emotiveness represents a primal narrative force. However, if taken to extremes, this emotiveness so compromises its objectivity that it becomes increasingly irrational and even delusional. Etienne’s Discours is proof of this danger. However, even discounting the narrative’s obvious extremes, it does capture the essence of the successful nineteenth-century rebranding of Vincent de Paul as the “apostle of Charity” and the “apostle of modern times.”
Etienne believed that God gives the Church and society (and France) the saints that they need at any given time in their history to provide the light that will infallibly guide humanity through life’s perilous journey. God equips saints with the exact means (grace) necessary to promote the “moral order” and serve as the “remedy for all the age’s ills.”
Etienne asked these rhetorical questions, reflecting on France when it was in extremis in the seventeenth century: Who would God send “as the remedy for all of these evils … to help a dying country? … Who would plant in society the seeds of regeneration and health?” His answer was Saint Vincent de Paul. According to Etienne, in God’s providence, the saint would be the “restorer and savior of France”—not only for the seventeenth, but also for the nineteenth or any future century.
In Etienne’s Romantic narrative of soaring adjectival and adverbial superlatives, this humble servant of God, this “beautiful and great figure,” was a “prodigy” and a “genius” who enjoyed “astonishing success” in all that he undertook. Indeed, as a “chosen instrument of God,” Vincent seemed “to possess in his great heart all the secrets of divine mercy, and in his hands the power of God himself.” He “entirely enveloped society with the powerful force of his charity, and he placed in its midst the elements of new life, which would render it capable of accomplishing new and great destinies. ‘ These elements included the heritage institutions (“these marvelous and eminently Christian institutions”) that the saint founded or inspired, which continued his legacy across the centuries and continents—namely the Congregation of the Mission, the Daughters of Charity, the Ladies of Charity, and the newly founded Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
These institutions, according to Etienne, had created a “magnificent system of public assistance which is the pride of France and the envy of other nations. This organized charity met with “prodigious success, as it attended to “all the miseries and all the misfortunes of humanity from the abandoned infant to the needs of the elderly approaching the grave. From this treasury poured forth assistance for all human needs, and relief for all human suffering.
Reflecting on the first half of the century, it was apparent to Etienne that it was God’s plan (“a marvelous intervention”) to rebuild the world by making use of the sanctity of Vincent as a “brilliant light” to guide the reconstruction of “the edifice [of society and the Church] that had been destroyed. ” Thus, the “fraternity of the Gospel” would serve as “an antidote to revolutionary fraternity.” In addition, it would be “the charity of S. Vincent de Paul which would preside over the restoration of the patrie.” It would be this “majestic tree of charity planted in the soil of France” that would serve as the foundation for a revitalized union of Altar and Throne.
According to Etienne, Saint Vincent de Paul had providentially reappeared through the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 “to reassure the populace about the future of France and of religion. “I’ Vincent’s influence was the influence of Catholicism itself, and it was this influence that “had tamed the destructive torrent of democracy making it flow peacefully to the benefit of all ranks of society.”” In the future, this same charity would also be “the tie which would eliminate divisiveness; the balm which will clam the irritation of parties; the neutral terrain where all opinions will come together; the divine charm which will unite all hearts in the same devotion to religion (Catholicism) and the patrie.”
According to Etienne’s Romantic and Traditionalist” analysis, there was a “grave question” facing modern society, “the question of authority.” Modernity had unleashed the “two terrible diseases” of “pride and egoism,” leading to “open democratic discussion” with predictably disastrous results in “the feverish agitation of a tormented society. In contrast, Vincent, “by his life and by his teachings demonstrated the humility and devotion, which are the sole remedies capable of healing the wounds caused by these diseases.
“ According to this analysis, the only force capable of exercising ultimate authority was religion (Catholicism) because it alone possessed “the true light that enlightens.”” Whether it was the agitation and upset caused by religious heresy or political heresy, calm and prosperity could only be reestablished “by the Church definitively answering the questions which doubt and free discussion have surrounded with incertitude. ” “Religion [Catholicism] has on its side the Gospel which dissipates all illusions . . . It is the Church’s role to resolve the problems of authority and obedience, or of wealth and poverty, which human reason simply cannot resolve without its guidance. In this Etienne was echoing the position of the contemporary pontiff Pius IX.
In Etienne’s view, the clarity of Gospel teaching was the clarity of the Church’s teaching: Jesus summoned them and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Thus, according to Etienne, the Church teaches that the sole source of power and authority is God, and God chooses to reveal himself most clearly as Charity (Deus caritas est). Humanity’s best response to this revelation, therefore, is a “devotion” that calls believers “to be strangers to all worldly interests and honors and to have only one ambition to do good to all and to devote oneself to the relief of all the world’s miseries and sufferings.
This brings Etienne back to Vincent’s role in modernity: “The wisdom of devotion is eminently the wisdom of Saint Vincent de Paul. The dedication of the saint’s shrine that April day reminded each attendee of “the glorious services that he is called to render to the Church, to France, and to the entire world. Etienne said that those present were witnessing “the dawn of a beautiful new day for Religion and Society. Despite appearances to the contrary, “religion [Catholicism] has nothing to fear from the grave events which are unfolding before our eyes . They are in fact preparing its triumph. The world’s great social crises are revealing a new glory for the Church and abundant consolations, as evidenced by what we have already seen accomplished in our country. 1150 As Etienne noted triumphantly, “Today, the name of Saint Vincent de Paul is on everyone’s lips, and his heart seems to have become one with our hearts.. . the hand of God is evident here.”
The Romantic Rebranding of Vincent de Paul Reflected in Art and Material Culture The successful Romantic rebranding of Saint Vincent de Paul in the nineteenth century was accomplished through a variety of classic marketing strategies. These strategies both responded to market demand and created market demand for a wide variety of Vincent objects. Production included a steady stream of panegyrics, abridged and repackaged illustrated editions of the classic Abelly and Collet biographies, newly published biographies, paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts (including art featured regularly in the Paris Salon).52Finally, a vast amount of popular ephemera was mass-produced at all price points using new manufacturing technologies. These items—such as prints, holy cards, spelter statues, transferware plates, reliquaries, and medals—were of varying quality, from the sublime to the pedestrian. They were distributed widely, especially to middle-class markets (with their newly disposable incomes) created by the Industrial Revolution.
This nineteenth-century output of Vincentiana material cultures’ and artistic items far exceeded that of previous centuries, even outpacing what had emerged at the time of Vincent’s beatification and canonization in the first decades of the eighteenth century. These nineteenth-century items also clearly depict an iconic narrative shift to the Romantic. The vast majority of depictions of Vincent from his death in 1660 up to the time of the French Revolution portray him in a stance that identifies him as an Evangelizer, most often preaching while holding a crucifix aloft. The classic example of this pose comes from Pietro Bracci’s (1700-4773) statue of the saint installed in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1754.
By contrast, the iconic post-revolutionary image of Vincent shows him holding a foundling or surrounded by foundlings. The prototypical realization of this new iconic genre was a statue completed just before the Revolution by Jean-Baptiste Stouf (1742-1826) as a commission from Louis XVI. In another pervasive post-revolutionary iconic subtheme, the saint engages in some sort of identifiable and dramatic charitable action, such as feeding the poor, rescuing a foundling abandoned by its mother, or, most famously, substituting himself for a galley slave.
The Vincentiana Collection at DePaul University’s Archives and Special Collections is the largest and most varied collection of these material culture items in the world. In less than twenty years, the university has built these collections, taking advantage of the vast international marketplaces created on the Internet through such sites as eBay and Delcampe. These collections contribute to DePaul University’s goal of serving as the premiere international site for research into the Vincentian tradition. The present exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum continues the tradition of both digital and physical presentation of the items from the Vincentiana Collection, illustrating the historical impact of the university’s patron saint, Vincent de Paul, over the past four centuries.