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Portrait of female saint is focus of unorthodox exhibit

An installation consisting of 300 images of a beautiful but unsung female saint can be seen in Zapopan through the end of February.

Born in the 4th century AD, Saint Fabiola was a wealthy, noble Roman woman who gave up all earthly pleasures after her second husband died, not long after she had committed the “sin” of divorcing her first husband.  Devoting her life to the needs of the poor and the sick, Fabiola was responsible for building the first hospital in Rome, as well as a large hospice for pilgrims.

For her good deeds, Fabiola is the patron saint of nurses and the hospice movement. And because of her marital problems, she is also venerated by divorcees, adulterers, victims of abuse and widows.

For Francis Alÿs, a 54-year-old Belgian artist based in Mexico City, Fabiola has become something of an infatuation. For the last 15 years he has scoured flea markets and junk shops in Mexico, the United States and Europe for pictures – nearly all of them by untrained anonymous artists – of the saint.

The common characteristic of the images is that all are based on a single original portrait of Saint Fabiola (in a classical Roman profile) painted in 1885 by Jean-Jacques Henner, a largely unrecognized French artist.  Henner’s idealized rendition of Fabiola was lost in 1912 but not before scores of other artists – mostly amateurs – had rather mysteriously copied the work. 

Says Alÿs: “I asked myself, why, among all the models available, these amateur (artists) insisted on copying a work by a forgotten master of the 19th century. The seductive simplicity of the reproduction alone isn’t reason enough to explain this power for multiplication.”

Art experts offer several theories as to why so many copiers have been drawn to this obscure, somewhat haunting work.

Among them is the possibility  that many of the copies could be ex-votos created by women who had suffered in their relationships and who found comfort from praying to Saint Fabiola. Another idea mooted is that trainee artists would have found painting the profile of a young woman much easier than a full-face.

Alÿs’ exhibit has traveled the world, lifting Fabiola’s fame and mystery to new heights. It first ran at the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, then the LACMA in Los Angeles, before heading to the prestigious National Portrait Gallery in London, where the show sparked wide interest among critics.

The current exhibit is curated by the Museo de Arte de Zapopan (MAZ) but is actually being held at the Convento Franciscano de Expectación de Zapopan.  Guided tours to the Convento depart from MAZ Tuesday through Friday at 10, 11 a.m., noon, 4 and 5 p.m.  Saturday’s tours are at 10, 11 a.m. and noon.  MAZ is located at Andador 20 de Noviembre 166 in Zapopan Centro. Call (33) 3818-2575 for more information.


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