Two people stand along a path, stopped in their tracks, as they happen upon the body of a beautiful young girl floating lifeless in the water ahead. They look horrified, one collapsing against the other in shock. This is the profound effect of Paul Delaroche’s Young Christian Martyr of 1855. The painting moves all who come upon it, yet few have ever studied it in depth or attempted to understand the circumstances surrounding its creation. Two prevailing interpretations remain: that from the standard Delaroche scholars and that of more contemporary reviews and casual observers. Delaroche scholar Stephen Bann and French scholar Claude Allemand-Cosneau argue that there is a connection to Millais’ Ophelia of 1852. Even recent reviews from The London Times of 2010 recognize the resemblance and call her a “Christian Ophelia.” Still other contemporary reviews romanticize the work and analyze it solely as a biographical commentary on the artist’s life, as they see the work as a vision of Delaroche’s own impending death or as a memorial to his beloved wife’s passing. While the Ophelia motif seems to hold true, this presentation argues that the artist’s biography is not the best way to understand this work.
Previously, the young martyr’s identity has not been identified or treated as in any way integral to the interpretation of the work. This oversight is perhaps the most crucial piece of the puzzle missing in the attempts to understand the work fully. This paper will illuminate the identity of this young Christian martyr as Saint Philomena and build upon the scholarship of Bann and Allemand-Cosneau. This foundation will explain why we should consider this an image of a Christian Ophelia that is in dialogue with the Pre-Raphaelites of London and the convictions of nineteenth-century Paris—a context that celebrated the role of Saint Philomena.
Selena Erdman, ’16
Beaver Dam, WI
Sponsor: Christina Penn-Goetsch