Matthew Alderman

Saint Philomena Accompanied by Angels

Original Illustration by Matthew Alderman

Matthew Alderman visited the US National Center of the Universal Archconfraternity of St. Philomena

in Philadelphia and autographed several copies of his print.

The Persistence of Philomena

Matthw Alderman

I used to think Saint Philomena did not exist, until she started following me around. I’m not speaking literally; I’m no Curé d’Ars. Given my overactive artist’s imagination, I find it a blessing God doesn’t dole out visions too liberally. But I’m not the only one with this story. It always starts the same way: You run across Philomena in a book of saints, the entry beginning with wonder and ending in scorn, and then you discover she’s still out there. You discover a church club with her name, a rosary society under her patronage, or even a whole parish dedicated to her. Your friends start naming their kids “Philomena.” Sooner or later you’re asking her to find you a parking place. You can toss around as much archaeology as you like, but after a certain point disbelief just becomes plain rude when a smallish, wonderworking, more-or-less indestructible teenage virgin-martyr is engaging in the theological equivalent of a staring contest. I blinked first.

So, I was delighted when Fr. Kulczynski of the American branch of her archconfraternity approached me to produce a new illustration of their patroness. In addition to the devotional attractiveness of such a project, Saint Philomena poses an intriguing challenge to the artist. Given she was only twelve or thirteen at her death, she must project a childlike innocence while at the same time radiating the beauty and royal dignity ascribed to her by her biography. Also, given the manner of her death, the symbols found on her inscribed tombstone, and her many patronages and attributes, one must risk weighing her down with more martyrial hardware than all the women in the Roman Canon combined.

The sculptor Bernini once counseled that when faced with a challenge or obstacle in a design project, the artist should transform it by making it absolutely integral to the finished work. I used the saint’s symbols of sword, anchor, arrows and palm branch to divide and organize the work into discrete spaces, almost like a triptych, each inhabited by the martyr and her two attendants, the angels that appear repeatedly throughout the accounts of her martyrdom. This tripartite division gives greater verticality to the figure of the saint, accentuated by the long falling folds and broad patterned orphreys of her clothing. I kept her dress simple but dignified, a long unbelted gown under her scarlet cloak, and the remaining ornamentation principally geometric to emphasize the central figure of Philomena and the symbols that surround her. Her white and red roses are twined amidst her dark hair, and the lilies of her purity are also tucked behind the anchor at right, and on the maniple worn by one of the angels. The meander pattern I selected for the border is of Greek origin, appropriately highlighting the saint’s origins, while the designs at the corners, also drawing on Greek art, resemble both acanthus leaves and palm branches, suggesting equally victory and youth. Their overall shape is also reminiscent of ivy leaves, also another of her many symbols. Beneath her, amid the swirling folds of her train, can be seen, at left, the dome of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Philadelphia and at right the twin towers of her shrine church in Mugnano.

I hope all who look at this new illustration of Saint Philomena, the great miracle-worker to whom nothing is refused, will sense both her childlike gentleness and her powerful holiness, and that it will be a means to devotion and aesthetic delight. She followed me and now, I can add her to the great train of saints that I seek to follow as well. In her persistence, she is impossible to resist.

Saint Philomena, powerful with God, pray for us!