There are half a dozen in front of me as I write – prayer cards, the kind of holy picture that people would once slip into their prayer books. Now that churchgoers tend not to use them, it’s hard to see their modern function, except in the form of remembrance cards for the dead, which bereaved families might give to well wishers. But the point of the cards is they have pictures of Our Lord, Our Lady or the saints, of a very particular kind: pretty, gentle on the eye and redolent of a kind of piety that has almost vanished from the world. They are Victorian in character and mostly in derivation; without exception, sentimental.
As a child I used to collect them – and there were plenty. Our Lady of Fatima or of Lourdes was popular, but so too were St Francis or St Joseph or the Christ child. The six cards before me are from the pretty prayer book my mother had as a child, published in 1928, and some of them are inscribed to her. The picture on the cover of the prayer book is similar in character: it is Christ the Good Shepherd, with a pink robe over his tunic, bearing a lamb, as he opens the door to the sheep shelter for his flock.
I thought it beautiful as a child. And I still do, even though I can see as an adult that it’s dreadful art … sentimental, prettified, with Christ’s expression meek to a fault. Yet for a child it was enormously pleasing: I liked the mild expression on the holy face, I liked the pink robes, I liked the obedient sheep and the sweet little lamb and the sunny countryside at the back. Sentimental pictures are designed precisely to evoke sentiment; the sentiment being intense empathy and softness of heart. You felt without knowing that you should identify with the lamb.
Bad art in this sense of being pretty without rigour and shamelessly emotionally exploitative serves a useful spiritual purpose. It draws the eye of simple and unsophisticated people and children, and inculcates a particular kind of piety. It is impossible to feel fear before these images; they are intensely reassuring. Among my mother’s cards is one of St Francis holding up Christ on the Cross as the Saviour bends down from the cross to him. Christ here is graceful, not torn; his movement towards Francis is an embrace. There are none of the terrors of the Passion here but it has, nonetheless, a powerful emotional charge.
Then there is another image, of the Christ Child, again in pink bearing a lamb and holding out a branch to his recumbent sheep. That too draws the eye of a child. “Jesus, divine child, come reign in my soul” is the prayer and the bright colours and the sweetness of the expression drew me for a long time. Another picture of the Christ child shows him standing solemn, against a pleasing green backdrop with green palms, holding an open book with Alpha and Omega on opposite pages. The face is of a doll, expressionless but sweet and grave. In Latin underneath it says,” Learn from me … for I am meek and humble of heart.” A further different Christ child with lambs – this was plainly a running motif for children’s religious pictures – shows him seated, with a luminous IHS above, a cross illumined at his back and doves at his side and feet and a lily to one side. It is tranquil, expressive of trust on the sheep’s side, and of holiness on the part of the child.
These pictures do their job extraordinarily well. They are intended to help make the recipient feel love, not fear, for Christ, and those images – their smallness adds powerfully to their appeal – are an admirable aid to affective spirituality, with the viewer intended to feel that the images are hers or his. The one of St Joseph carrying the Christ child, with lilies galore, would be intolerable to a grown up with any claim to artistic sensibility, but that is not the person they are intended for; they are to inculcate gentle veneration in those who are not too clever to be pleased by sweetness. The nearest equivalent in respectable art is perhaps Murillo, or Greuze if he were to do devotional art.
These cards are, like plaster statues, redolent of a vanished piety. But they are moving precisely because they are for the childlike. And for such as these is the Kingdom of Heaven.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.