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Iconography 1

The Ursuline Martyrs of Valenciennes
Iconographic Approaches
1st part: Up to 1908

In the Archives of the communities of Notre-Dame de la Garde and Merici, in Saint-Saulve, we keep some pictures, portrayals and paintings on the Ursulines of Valenciennes. Most of them represent their martyrdom. This iconography is certainly a very modest one, but it presents a certain diversity and a real unity.
Of course, during the torments of the French Revolution, there are no pictures of the deceased. And this is not surprising, because these women were considered as the worst traitors and were even deprived of a death certificate.
In our Archives, we have found an interesting document: a small card with the title: “The Ursuline Martyrs of Valenciennes, October 17th to 23rd, 1794”. It has two parts, separated by what seems to be a martyr’s palm. The part on the right is called “After the sentence”, which was pronounced in a court room, according to the documents. The one on the left is called “On the way to the scaffold”.

On the back, we can read a very astonishing inscription : “Photograph taken before the first pictures, around 1804.”

This refers to 10 years after the events, when the rest of the community had been dispersed and condemned to a life of great poverty. If we consider the part on the left, we can already see all the details that will gradually become constant iconographic elements, frequent in representing our Sisters’ martyrdom.

The greater part of the scene takes place on earth. We can see:
• The Ursulines, deprived of their religious habit, their hands fastened behind their back. They are 5 in all. In this case, their death would be on October 17th. If they are 6, in that case, they were put to death on October 23rd.
• The policeman on horseback.
• The stairs or the ladder leading to the scaffold – awesome because of its height. The blade, cleanly seen, looks terrifying.
• The executioner seems ready.
• Behind, the houses of Valenciennes. They are important, because it was for their sake that the Ursulines came back from Mons.
• Above the Ursulines, the crowd or the court.
• On the right, the huge Church of Saint Peter, evidently part of the earth, but it rises up to heaven, thus fulfilling its role. leading us from earth to heaven.
• Finally, in heaven, an Angel prepares the palm.

Iconography 1

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