“Monumentally poised between photographic precision and painterly inspiration, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s pointing 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 portrait-like depiction of the saint reflect the reality offered by the newly invented at 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….
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…
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 min and to be moved with the love of Christ to act on their behalf…
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."
(Excerpt by Father Garrett Ahlers from Magnificat September 2017, Vol 19, No 7)