I began St. Hope of Rome, Virgin and Martyr as a belated birthday present to a college friend who was part of the generation left behind at Notre Dame when I graduated. Doing art as a gift is always a pleasure, as it forces me not only to finish my work, but also to share myself, and to create a work that taps into the general patrimony of mankind, something set apart from me and capable of being shared with others. The gift becomes common ground: It takes me out of myself to a small degree, which is intensely important for a Christian artist. My best works are often gifts for friends and family.
St. Hope is one of the more nebulous saints that some confine to the misty borderlands of folklore, pious legend, and allegory. Considering her sisters Faith and Charity, and her mother Sophia, unromantic probability is already stacked against her. Yet her feast, whether through obsolescence or providence, felicitously remains undisturbed; you still find her name in the registers of the blessed if you dig hard enough.
In that medieval best-seller The Golden Legend the three daughters and their mother rate a whole chapter filled with the blood and wonder, the indiscriminate mix of fairy-tale vagueness and you-are-here specificity one expects from the tale-tellers of that polychrome epoch. Faith survives the frying-pan and the gridiron only to have her head sliced off, Hope is unsuccessfully boiled in a cauldron of pitch, wax and resin and then killed with a sword, and Charity is subjected to a complicated assortment of tortures including a furnace that goes dangerously haywire and kills six thousand idolatrous bystanders, a fact the chronicler notes with a certain dry relish.
I have depicted St. Hope, the martyr crowned in victory, clothed in the robes of a Byzantine empress. This refers to the popularity of the cultus of Holy Wisdom, her mother St. Sophia’s namesake, in Constantinople. The polyglot macronic inscription Agia Spes at her feet inspired by similar examples at the ancient basilica of San Clemente in Rome, and also helps further underline the antiquity and Eastern mystery at the heart of her story. She holds in her right hand the anchor of hope, which holds us in stormy times, alongside the pot of steaming pitch used in her gruesome and unnecessarily complex martyrdom. Other symbols of hope, such as the sparrow, a combined anchor-and-Chrismon insignia, and the inscription Spera in Deo from the Tridentine liturgy, further highlight the web of symbols that tie saint, eponymous virtue, and Christian culture into one harmonious whole.
Perhaps this seems unduly prettied-up, a dry celebration of a strange and messy story. Such tales baffle and shock the modern mind like something out of a supermarket tabloid. Faith, Hope and Charity got their names on Hadrian’s hit list because they refused to let themselves be adopted by the emperor. Love refuses to be bought; the crown of Faith is above mere royal rule; and Hope is the right of all men, prince or pauper. Hope in God can survive anything, even boiling wax.
It’s not just allegory, however. The real-life drama of the Passion reminds us that narratives, whether fiction or fact, illuminate the human experience. Setting aside the pious lessons of allegory, the outrageous weirdness of these tales justifies their existence: They remind us that our faith is a great and occasionally dangerous thing that compels us to risk everything for the sake of God. And there is nothing more strange, audacious or dangerous as a God who fell to earth and had the strength to let Himself be made Man. No stranger thing has ever happened, and the wild coincidence, whether imagined or real, of Faith, Hope and Charity is small by comparison.
Matthew Alderman is a recent graduate of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, and a contributor to the blogs The Shrine of the Holy Whapping, the New Liturgical Movement, and the Society of St. Barbara. He currently works with a classical residential architectural firm in Manhattan.