St. Philomena(‘s) Remains: Religion, Sentiment, and Patriarchy Undermined in Post-Revolutionary France

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Jennifer Popiel

The bones of Saint Philomena were discovered in 1802. This was not, in and of itself, a particularly noteworthy event. The discovery of Christian remains was common in the early nineteenth century and trade in relics a centerpiece of ultramontane piety.[1] In Philomena’s case, the bones were discovered while workers were digging in the catacomb of Priscilla, outside of Rome. Accompanying the bones were a vial of blood – then taken to be a sign of martyrdom – and three tiles that, when rearranged, read, in Latin, “Peace be unto you, Philomena.” The tiles also displayed emblems of a palm (another confirmation of martyrdom), a lily (an indication of virginity), an anchor, and arrows. The relics were eventually transported to Mugnano, a small town in Italy near Naples. Miraculous events seemed to accompany the bones, including much-longed for rain and personal healings. The town constructed a shrine to Philomena which became a site for more reported miracles. Villagers told stories, priests delivered sermons, then books, images, and pamphlets spread the story of Philomena’s martyrdom.[2]

Soon Philomena’s cult supplanted veneration of other – formerly popular – saints, many of whom shared her status as a virgin and martyr.  Images of Philomena became widely available for purchase. Some of these prints were high-quality (and higher cost) engravings, though there were also holy cards or small prints that used emblems such as the palm, lily, or arrow to remind the viewer of Philomena’s martyrdom. The pictures were not only produced by Parisian engravers like Basset, Turgis, or Charles Letaille, but also offered as large-format prints sold by peddlars, such as those from Epinal and Montbéliard. There was a spectacular consumer demand for visual reminders of Philomena’s sanctity.

Philomena’s meteoric rise and the popularity of her image cannot be understood outside of the post-revolutionary context in which she was discovered and popularized. In the Revolutionary era, the Church looked increasingly feminine, a position facilitated by the destruction of the hierarchical and masculine institutional structure of the Church. Even after the Concordat of 1801, the reinstated Church had a shortage of clerics and little chance of offering the same pervasive approach to life and faith that it had only thirty years before. Devout believers continued to see themselves as embattled, the last lines of defense against the Enlightenment ideas that had led to deChristianization. Industry also responded to a growing demand for devotional objects to replace those destroyed or left to decay during the French Revolution.[3] Religious consumerism, often directed at women, flourished. The texts and objects that women purchased emphasized martyrdom and heroic sacrifice, resistance to hostile powers.

To be sure, Philomena had much in common with earlier virgin martyrs such as Agnes, Barbara, or Cecelia. Like Philomena, these women had embraced a language of sexual resistance and renunciation even as they faced execution. Unlike these earlier saints, all of whom had a long iconographic history, most going back to the medieval Golden Legend, Philomena’s picture was new. In this case, her consumer success, the conscious choice of Philomena and not another virgin martyr, another (similar) saint, demonstrates that something about this icon struck a chord with large numbers of purchasers and made reproduction profitable for printmakers. While one might assume that novelty alone could help carve out a niche in a market, tradition was an important signifier for Catholics, especially in the post-revolutionary era. Novelty would not necessarily appeal; the choice of Philomena over older and more well-known saints, with their own stories of martyrdom, indicates that something about Philomena resonated with the nineteenth-century believer.

To understand Philomena’s unique popularity, it helps to recall the fact that sentimental novels were also extraordinarily popular in the post-Revolutionary era. Stories like Atala or Paul et Virginie offered narratives that foregrounded victimization and heroic suffering. Margaret Cohen has argued that this genre struck a perfect tone for the years following the Revolution, allowing those who had experienced Revolutionary events to work through their anxieties about tyranny, liberty, and social organization.[4] Through marriage dramas or family conflict, readers confronted the struggle between two goods in a personally manageable and coherent way. For example, Madame de Staël, author of the sentimental novel Corinne, claimed that post-revolutionary novels helped readers seek appropriate resolutions between positive and negative rights.[5] In the sentimental novel, emotional experiences, including martyrdom, suffering, and exile, served as heroic inspiration.

Like the fictional women found in sentimental novels, Philomena offered a story that reinforced the importance of women’s heroic action. Unlike other virgin-martyrs, Philomena’s fame relied on a sense that the world could be interpreted through the lens of a family drama, one where fathers did not understand the hearts of their faithful daughters. Not surprisingly, engravers linked Philomena’s commercial appeal to the popularity of sentimental novels. For example, in 1844, the engraving company Turgis offered a catalogue of their available prints. Though “seller of religious objects” would soon be listed as its own profession, it had not yet been distinguished from a seller of any sort of engravings, and the Turgis catalogue did not begin its list with an emphasis on religious images. Rather, the classifications began with “Historical Subjects,” a literary and historical catchall. Philomena was the only non-Biblical religious figure listed in this opening section, and she was found alongside both Atala and Paul and Virginie. [6]

Philomena’s sentimental companions in sales and closer consideration of Philomena’s story both indicate that a post-revolutionary taste for sentimental heroism was a central part of Philomena’s appeal. The story of the discovery of Philomena’s bones and the miracles attributed to them, as well as the martyrdom narrative provided by visionaries, were circulating across Europe in the 1830s.[7]  A popular format of nine-day prayer, a novena, had also been printed and disseminated in multiple versions. Some of these works included a preface and images of Philomena; others contained only text. In all of these sources, what emerged was a narrative of Philomena’s life that depicted her not only as a Greek princess who rejected the hand of the anti-Christian Diocletion, but also as someone who refused to be corrupted by worldly considerations. The narratives, sentimental in tone, described Philomena’s fraught conversation with her parents as they begged her to think of the havoc that the emperor would wreak on their small territory if the girl were to rebuff him. Resisting the pleas of her loving – and Christian – family, Philomena claimed that “my kingdom is Heaven” and remained steadfast to “God and Virginity before all, before you, before my country.”[8] Though Philomena’s father – himself a Christian – had accepted Diocletian’s offer of marriage, Philomena stood stronger than her father, resisting political enticements for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

The theme of necessary resistance to parental authority was hardly accidental. An 1839 novena to Philomena included the following preface:

A little faith, as a mustard seed, can obtain the greatest graces. Ask and you shall receive ; seek near to Ste. Philomena and you will find ; knock with her on the door of the father of a family, it will be opened to you.[9]

As the novena – and sentimental novels – reminded the viewer, pure hearts resisted corruption, even when paternal authority might encourage compliance with the world.

Print drawing of Saint Philomena on the left, prayer text on the right.

Prints of Philomena – and their texts – demonstrate this sentimental resonance when compared to the iconography of other virgin martyrs. Certainly both Agnes and Cecelia defended their virginity. Agnes is often depicted with a lamb, Cecilia with a harp and/or an angel. Philomena, too, was depicted with a lily for purity as well as the symbols of her suffering – arrows and anchor. But in addition to reminders of her martyrdom, Philomena frequently stood in front of a tower or buildings – a symbol of the worldly kingdom that she was born into and rejected for Christ. She was accompanied by text that reinforced the ascetic conflict between heaven and earth.  Often she was shown wearing ermine or a jeweled crown, reminders that Philomena had rejected compromise with her parents and Diocletian, despite a legitimate claim to an elevated place in society. When Philomena was the centerpiece of a large-format Pellerin icon, she was dressed as royalty, in front of a city, and the text reminded readers of “the good use of her strength.”[10]  Small wonder that she was found alongside sentimental heroines in a catalogue!

Philomena’s choice to stand against her family had a clear impact beyond the home. Pious images used iconographic resources, including buildings or secular crowns (even thrown upside-down on the ground!) to make this clear. Philomena’s story resonated because she stood for a vision of the world that reverberated in the post-Revolutionary era. Philomena was not only a virgin: she was an idealist and a heroine. As such, she served as a reminder of the perceived conflict between the imperfect world as it existed and the world as it might be created. The forceful opposition of heaven and earth did not, however mean that Philomena was private. On the contrary, it was a call to action outside of the family. As an early novena explained,

God. . . wants to glorify His holy name in the midst of a depraved and perverted nation, and to console at the same time His Church, now plagued by so many desolations. Consequently, to demand graces in Philomena’s name, is to enter into her views, and to give her an opportunity to manifest, for the confusion of the wicked, the power of her arm and the perpetuity of her love for her unique spouse and Beloved, the Holy Church of Jesus Christ. [11]

Philomena’s popularity cannot be removed from the post-Revolutionary sense that the Catholic Church was in danger of corruption. Though Philomena was a virgin, her resistance was less a sexual battle against Diocletian than a direct confrontation with secularization, represented by her father.

Print of an entrance ticket to heaven.
Photo taken by Jennifer Popiel.

Even so, resistance to corruption did not imply retreat from society or domestic tranquility. Instead, pious texts and images united behind the conviction that the Christian was a member of a community, defined by faith and acts, answerable only to God. The values promoted by sentimental piety continued to appear in religious images throughout the century, with suffering, exile, and martyrdom being a sign of the sure path to God, an indication of how the world could be central to attaining heaven, even as it paled in importance next to the Heavenly Jerusalem.  The sentimental model did not provide a sense that dutiful love and marriage marked the path to heaven, nor did it encourage women to submit to paternal leadership. Instead, popular religious models foregrounded heroic suffering and independent judgment in a sentimental context, like Philomena’s.

Jennifer Popiel is Associate Professor of History at Saint Louis University. She is the author of Rousseau’s Daughters: Domesticity, Education, and Autonomy in Modern France (2008), and Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791: Reacting to the Past. 2nd ed. (2015) with Mark Carnes and Gary Kates. She is currently working on a book entitled Heroic Hearts: Sentiment, Religion, and Authority in Modern France; this comes from that project.

Title Image: Bénédiction des maisons. Ste Philomène, vierge et martyre, thaumaturge du XIXè siècle : [estampe], 1836. 

Further Readings:

Albaric, Michel Albaric, “Le commerce des objets religieux dans le quartier Saint-Sulpice,” in De pierre et de cœur: l’église Saint-Sulpice, 350 ans d’histoire (Paris: Cerf, 1996).

Margaret Cohen, The Sentimental Education of the Novel (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Catherine Rosenbaum-Dondaine, L’image de piété en France 1814-1914 (Paris: Musée Galerie de la Seita, 1984).

Patricia Mainardi, Another World: Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Print Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).


[1] Philippe Boutry, “Les Saints Des Catacombes: Itinéraires Français d’une Piété Ultramontaine (1800-1881),” Mélanges de l’école Française de Rome 91, no. 2 (1979): 885.

[2] Pellerin produced an image of Philomena as early as 1826. BN Estampes, Images d’Epinal, Li 59, Vol. 1.

[3] Michel Albaric, “Le commerce des objets religieux dans le quartier Saint-Sulpice,” in De pierre et de cœur: l’église Saint-Sulpice, 350 ans d’histoire (Paris: Cerf, 1996), 132.

[4] Margaret Cohen, The Sentimental Education of the Novel (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2002), 33.

[5] “Essai sur les fictions,” in Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1838), 69.

[6] Vve Turgis, Catalogue Des Estampes et Lithographies Publiées Par Vve Turgis, Éditeur (Paris: Lacrampe, 1844), 1–2.

[7] Colette Yver, Marie-Pauline de Jésus Christ (Paris: Editions Spes, 1937), chap. 9.

[8] Joseph-François Barrelle, La Thaumaturge Du XIXe Siècle, Ou Sainte Philomène, Vierge et Martyre (Lausanne: Delisle, 1834), 38.

[9] si on a un peu de foi, comme le grain de sénevé, peu lui obtenir les plus grandes grâces. Demandez, et vous recevrez ; cherchez auprès de Ste. Philomène, et vous trouverez ; frappez par elle à la porte du Père de famille, et l’on vous ouvrira…Notice Sur Sainte Philomène, Vièrge et Martyre et Neuvaine En Son Honneur (Lyon: J.M. Barret, 1839), 14.

[10] See the title image. 

[11] Notice Sur Sainte Philomène, Vièrge et Martyre et Neuvaine En Son Honneur, 6–7.

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