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An Odd Feature of Roman Catholic Holy Cards

June 23rd, 2009
Marketing Advertising Blog — VuManhThang.Com

St. StephenI recently happened across this Roman Catholic “holy card” of the stoning of St. Stephen. As I’ve often noticed before, St. Stephen is depicted as looking, frankly, like a young woman. There is a disconcerting effiminate quality about a lot of these saints cards. Now, aside from the fact that Stephen was not stoned wearing vestments, one can’t help but wonder why it is in so many of these holy cards the saints are looking quite feminine. It is just something I’ve noticed. Not sure what it means. You’d almost think St. Stephen was one of the first deaconesses.

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Categories: Art
  1. June 23rd, 2009 at 19:50 | #1

    While I can see what you mean, he looks more like a child to me. I wonder if the artist isn’t trying to express his innocence visually.

  2. June 23rd, 2009 at 19:54 | #2

    @Rev. Dr. Chris N. Hinkle
    He looks like a teenage girl to me. There is an offensively effeminate quality to this kind of image.

  3. marflu
    June 23rd, 2009 at 22:20 | #3

    In sacred art, what looks effeminate to popular culture is actually a method used by some artists of protraying sweetness, innocence, and piety. One cannot cast the eyes of modern culture on sacred art. It is certainly not meant to degrade but rather to pass on a deep understanding of the character of a certain person or event.

  4. B.Preston
    June 23rd, 2009 at 22:52 | #4

    Acts 6:15 says of St. Stephen, “all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” It looks like the artist is trying to capture that look on that card.

  5. Mike Baker
    June 24th, 2009 at 05:21 | #5

    This is a common trend that I have also noticed in traditional church art. While effeminate male saints is nothing new (what’s with St. John the Apostle!), it seems to go off the deep end in modern saint depictions coming out of Rome. My favorite is the sissified St. Francis with his little woodland creatures and green meadows. You can almost hear the Snow White melodies. I also like the depictions of purgatory where the saints going through purification look like they aren’t in pain even though they are standing in chest deep fire… with their gaze upward and dewy-eyed in the hope of entering heaven.

    I hate to say it, but I suspect this to be partially influenced by the ultra-matriarchal trends within the laity of the Roman church. Saintly charms and knicknacks are big business so alot of it is probably just shrewd marketing on the part of schlock manufacturers. It’s a good bet that the kind of customer who would be so heavily into saint invocation that they would want this kind of stuff is also a supporter of Mary as Co-redemptrix, gender neutral Divine names, female clergy, etc. The publishers are just going where the money is.

    I would chalk this up in the column with the protestant versions of this (i.e. the “Precious Moments” nativity sets). It is just a targeting of the large audience who loves sappy, tailor-made religion. You can see the opposite side of the coin with t-shirts of Jesus doing push-ups with the cross on His back. Same thing just taken to the opposite extreme.

  6. June 24th, 2009 at 08:22 | #6

    I suspect there’s some connection with Orthodox iconography, where figures are depicted in particular ways with no interest in factual accuracy, but only for identification–almost as a kind of hieroglyphics (thus St. Peter is always an old, bald man, even though the gospel of John makes it clear he was young during Christ’s ministry). The effeminacy I attribute to a probability (I don’t know) that the cards were painted by nuns.

  7. June 24th, 2009 at 12:28 | #7

    Marflu: Not sure I see your point. How is depicting Stephen in vestments, looking like an effeminate boy or a girl being somehow more faithful to the scene? It is images like this that contribute to the myth that church is for wimps and/or women and children.

  8. June 24th, 2009 at 12:36 | #8

    B. Preston: I don’t think that the interpretation of the text requires the depiction of Stephen appearing as an effeminate boy or young woman.

  9. Pr. Tom Fast
    June 24th, 2009 at 12:54 | #9

    Ask Dan Brown.

  10. EGK
    June 24th, 2009 at 12:54 | #10

    This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s words in his introduction to The Screwtape Letters, where he notes that, whereas the first words out of an angel’s mouth in biblical appearances was “Fear not!”, in much of Christian art it seems like the words should have been “There, there.”

  11. Phil
    June 24th, 2009 at 13:19 | #11

    Is it necessary that the card show a “scene”? I think it’s trying to represent an idea symbolically rather than a “scene”. Was Cranach representing a “scene” in the altarpiece that you clearly love?

  12. Lindsey
    June 24th, 2009 at 13:43 | #12

    This is an interesting topic. When I was growing up, I often saw Jesus portrayed as effeminate in childrens’ Bibles and Sunday School lessons. He was always really thin, pale, delicate looking, with curly hair that look like it had just been styled. I remember I never liked those pictures but couldn’t figure out why, until my mom made a comment about how disgusted she was at the “femmy Jesus” often portrayed in art. My sister even said that for awhile this image caused her to stumble and think of Jesus as a wuss.

  13. June 24th, 2009 at 15:17 | #13

    Phil, Cranach’s Weimar painting is a montage of Biblical truths, not a painting of one specific Biblical incident. Further, Cranach’s characters do not like effeminate young boys or girls.

  14. June 25th, 2009 at 15:15 | #14

    I did a post on Catholic “holy cards” a couple years ago on CLEAR. I use some of these cards occasionally for crafting purposes (such as the occasional Christmas or Baptism card). They do have a tendency to be very saccharine. In addition to the ideas that other posters have put forth, I’d add that the images are a hold-over from Victorian-era Catholic devotional art. The images are still often portrayed that way because they are now deemed “traditional” and have a kitschy sort of nostalgia about them. Sometimes it can come across as charming. A lot of the time it can come across as “Egh!”

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