The recent canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta made headlines around the world, usually accompanied by a photograph of the saint in her signature white sari. We don’t often think of saints as having been photographed; in part because their photographs are not widely circulated, and also because we think of saints as having lived many centuries ago.
Photography places a subject in a specific point in time, while illustrations are timeless. Saint Francis, who died in 1226, has a holy card illustration similar to Saint Maximilian Kolbe who died in 1941. Traditionally, Catholic saints are represented by illustrations, often depicted in solemn prayer or looking to the heavens. For centuries, eyewitness accounts of saints’ appearances were often unreliable, or worse, were disregarded entirely in favor of an idealized illustrated portrait. Prior to the invention of film in 1884, the Catholic Church did not usually posses historically accurate portraits of saints. Even into the early 20th century, photographs were not common in rural areas and remained expensive, so photographs of the people who would be canonized were rare. One might think that the widespread adaption of photography should have resulted in major shifts in Catholic imagery, and yet holy cards, prayer candles, and other items depicting saints continue to predominantly use illustrations, albeit more in the style of realism than in previous centuries.
The following images show a selection of saints who lived after the birth of photography. Their photograph is paired with the Church’s holy card illustration or canonization portrait. The illustrations are romanticized, highlighting aspects of the saint’s character and personality to overshadow their physical attributes. By choosing to use non-representational media, the Church creates distance between the person who lived and died, and the saint that has been canonized.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.