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The Three Faces of St. Marcellin


FMS Marist Message 28, February 2000

His canonization has provided us a new image of St. Marcellin, an image with universal appeal. It is one that has gone beyond being simply the heritage of the Marist Brothers to become part of the patrimony of the entire Church. This essay will look at three of these images, corresponding to three important events in our history and preserved in three portraits. The first, which was created immediately following his death, attempted to portray his physical appearance. (Another similar project has recently been completed in Brazil, using cranial reconstruction techniques. However, the results do not portray facial expression.) The second “face”, related to Marcellin’s beatification in 1955, stressed the transcendental aspect, consistent with both the spirituality of the times and of the artist. The third, which was displayed on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica at the canonization, stressed St. Marcellin’s pastoral dimension, appropriate for “a heart without bounds”.



Before photography became widely available, having one’s portrait made was considered a sign of pride or of luxury, something to be avoided by religious. The thinking was that the only portrait of themselves religious should leave for posterity was that of Christ, whom they were to imitate faithfully. This spirituality, though praiseworthy from an ascetic point of view, is less so from the point of view of history. In order to reconcile these two contradictory views, religious congregations put forth three possible solutions:
- The first and simplest was that an assembly or Chapter or statute would decree that every Superior would have his portrait done. A home-grown example: In its session of July 17, 1860, the General Chapter of the Little Brothers of Mary gave Br. François, [who was about to resign (?)] six months to fulfill this obligation. He complied.
- The second solution was more debatable: a close relative was enlisted. This was the case with St. Peter Chanel, martyred in Oceania. His sister, a Marist nun, sat in his place.
- The third solution was to wait for death, and then paint the portrait of the person whose features were to be preserved. This method was used with Father Champagnat.



The very day of his death, June 6, 1840, a call was made to a portrait artist from Saint-Chamond, a friend of the Founder by the name of Mr. Ravery, who had done some paintings for the Hermitage chapel. After washing and shaving the deceased, they dressed him in his cassock, surplice and stole. His body was set on a sofa in his room, with his profession cross in his right hand. On a small table to the side were placed his breviary, his biretta and pictures of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin. Two lighted candles illuminated the scene…barely. Marcellin Champagnat’s face “was very pale but not at all distorted; his face retained the manly features and kindly, dignified countenance that in life gave him such great influence over others and won their hearts. Being there (by his corpse) was not repulsive in the least; on the contrary, one felt at ease and filled with joy on being able to gaze on him”
(Cf. LIFE, bicentennial edition, p. 257)

The artist had to work quickly – though of course he did finish his work at his ease later on at his studio in St. Chamond - and his portrait faithfully reflects the rigidity of death and the sunken eye sockets characteristic of a dead person. A section reading “historic”, located quite unesthetically in the upper right corner, served to identify the subject and give it the seal of approval as an “official portrait”.

The portrait, kept first at Our Lady of the Hermitage from 1840 to 1858, was then taken to the new motherhouse in St. Genis Laval, along with all the other “Champagnat relics”. It remained there until 1903. In that year of the great diaspora that followed the decree of suppression and the expulsion of religious congregations from France, the famous portrait disappeared and was thought lost forever. In 1934 Br. Jean-Emile, at the time Secretary General of the Institute, wrote an article in the “Bulletin” (Num. 95, Vol. 14), in which he advanced the theory that the portrait had been taken to Spain, to the provincial house of San Andrés de Palomar-Barcelona, and that it was there that it was lost in the fire that had destroyed the house during the “Semana Trágica” of 1909. Br. Jean-Emile had the bright idea of reproducing the portrait, in black and white, using an old photograph found in the Archives. This led to a Brother’s finding the priceless “original” in an attic of a house in northern Italy. It had been transported there – to Carmagnola, near Turin – “temporarily” 30 years before!
Upon its discovery, the picture was taken to the Motherhouse, then located in Grugliasco, Italy. In 1939 it returned, along with the General Administration, to Saint-Genis. It remained there until 1962, when it was taken to the new General House in Rome. It is still there, displayed in the Superiors’ chapel, along with other relics of the Founder. The portrait measures 20 by 60 cm and bears neither the artist’s name nor the date it was painted.



Tito Ridolfi was the painter chosen to create the official portrait for the beatification of Marcellin Champagnat. He enthusiastically accepted the commission and set to work. Periodically, Br. Alessandro di Pietro, Postulator, would go to check the progress of his work, usually accompanied by another Brother. Br. Alessandro was not averse to expressing his observations. Mr. Ridolfi, quite exasperated by the many instructions he was getting, said he had put all his passion into painting the portrait, that he would often kneel before it, thinking of how he had wanted to give the Brothers the best of what he considered the results of his insight, after having analyzed the different pictures that had been provided him. When he showed the Brothers his sketch, their response was favorable. While working on the portrait, Mr. Ridolfi unexpectedly suffered the loss of his sight. Once more, he knelt before the image of the Founder, this time asking that his vision be restored. It was, partially, enabling him to finish the portrait, but not to faithfully reproduce the sketch he had previously done. This difference caused a certain amount of uneasiness among the superiors, which they expressed to Mr. Ridolfi. But the artist was in no condition to retouch the portrait, and the day of the beatification was fast approaching. So the Founder’s human facial characteristics remained incomplete, lending an angelic transcendence to his face, which would have been agreeable to a certain form of spirituality of the time, but which did not correspond with the original intent of the artist’s rough sketch.



Towards the end of 1998, the preparatory commission for the canonization sent a portrait of Marcellin to a number of artists. They were asked to create a picture 50 by 70 cm (media undefined) of the upper body of the Founder, which would represent a man of about forty years of age, French, and that would show joy, enthusiasm and congeniality. Mention was also made of the rights of the artist and of other details such as the date due, etc. They were given a minimum of material, such as some written descriptions by people who had lived with Marcellin and the data on his passport. Five artists responded, four men and one woman. The submission chosen was by Gregorio Domínguez González, “Goyo”. It was executed in acrylic. He was asked to retouch the portrait a bit and to adjust it to the age that had been stated. The portrait was returned to him after some photographs were taken of it. Goyo made the finishing touches on the original, and the resulting work is what was enlarged and displayed on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica the day of the canonization. Goyo, 39, an artist from Burgos who lives in Villalba, Spain, has produced a large volume of paintings dealing with Marcellin Champagnat. His ties to the Marist Brothers through these commissions have given him a deep understanding of Marcellin. Presently, he is a professional artist and has had his work exhibited in Geneva, Miami and Chicago. The preparatory commission for the canonization stressed the pastoral significance of the painting.



Marcellin made a lasting impression on his contemporaries. Following the information below from his passport, we offer the recollections of four Brothers who lived in community with him.

Passport data:
Age 47
Hair brown
Eyes gray
Facial hair brown
Height 1 m 79 cm (5’ 6”)
Forehead unblemished (broad)
Chin rounded
Eyebrows brown
Mouth normal size
Face elongated
Complexion pale
Distinguishing marks a scar on the upper cheek and another above the right eye
Passport issued August 22, 1836

Br. Jean-Baptiste Furet, his first biographer:

“Father Champagnat was tall. He stood erect and with dignity. He had well-defined facial features with a wide forehead and a dark complexion. His serious, modest and peaceful demeanor instilled respect and even, at first, fear. But this feeling quickly changed to one of trust and affection after one got to know him better, for underneath this apparently austere and severe exterior there existed a most cheerful personality. He had a well-formed conscience, a deep and sure power of discernment, a kind and sympathetic heart, as well as high-minded and noble sentiments. His character was cheerful, open, sincere, enthusiastic, zealous, tenacious and always balanced.
Such valuable gifts and qualities, perfected by grace and heightened by a deep humility and charity made him deeply loved by the Brothers as well as by everyone who came into contact with him. God, who had destined him to form educators of youth, had gifted him with the ideal character for teaching. And so the Brothers, in this regard as in all others, were enabled to follow his example and found in him a model of the virtues and qualities necessary for a teacher to do good among the children.”
Chapter 1, II Life


Br. François Rivat, first Superior General

“Let us feel with him the joy that he found in the most humble and simple of employments; let us recall his constant vigils, his untiring vigilance and the paternal care that he always showed, even if it was for just one Brother. He knew how to wait for souls and encourage their return, using every form of maternal instinct. His spiritual direction did not consist of long monologs; often, it was simply a fatherly hug, a single word, the same word repeated a number of times but, uttered by him, reaching the depths of the heart, causing repentance to surge forth—the love of God, the desire to be better. How many Brothers found with him peace, confidence and happiness!
He was upright and energetic. True, his tone of voice or a glance of his could make us tremble; but, above all else, he was good, he was compassionate, he was a father! When starting the Congregation, his goal was to make it a family, a family in which the superior was a father and in which the older Brothers would take care of and protect the younger Brothers.”
Notebook of Br. François


Br. Lawrence, Jean-Claude Audras:

“Father Champagnat had a joyful and pleasant character, but was also steadfast. He knew how to bring humor into a conversation so as to enliven a gathering. He never felt ill at ease among the Brothers. From time to time, we would pose very complicated questions, but he never had any problem in responding to them, and he did so in such a clever way that the Brothers always ended up satisfied. He had much to contend with due to the diversity of characters among the Brothers and because of some quite intransigent Brothers, who resisted guidance. These had, nevertheless, the assurance of a special remembrance in his prayers; but if, after having exhausted all means possible to win them for God, they still proved incorrigible, unfortunately he was then forced to send them away.”
Manuscript of Br. Lawrence


Br. Sylvester, Félix Tamet:

“I can still see myself, along with a postulant who was from the same town as I, and the Brother who accompanied us, arriving at the modest quarters of our venerated Founder…and the impressions I had at the time: his height, his air of dignity, his cheerful gravity, the respect his visage evoked, his sunken cheeks, his thin lips that seemed to smile, his searching eyes, his strong and sonorous voice, his clear words that were neither too concise nor too long-winded. Everything about him was in balance… In a word, everything about him seemed to me to be like one of those paradigms of holiness you see in the pictures of saints.”
Memoirs of Br. Sylvester, pp. 262-63.

Sources: Brothers Pierre Zind, Agustín Carazo, Alessandro di Pietro, Gabriele Andreucci, and Lluís Serra.

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