Saints Preserve Us: In Conversation with Debbie Thompson Wilson
Saints Preserve Us is a Guelph Museums exhibit featuring Debbie Thompson Wilson’s miniature paintings of the saints who lent their names to Guelph’s schools, churches, streets and organizations. It opens November 7 and runs to March 22.
Wilson stopped by the museum the other day to talk about her interest in saints and medieval prayer books, her inspiration for the show, the meticulous method of manuscript illumination, her favourite saints, and her artistic background.
How did you first get interested in Saints?
DW: Well, I did my degree in fine art, mainly focusing on Medieval and Renaissance painting. Saints were common subject matter in those works, because the church was one of the biggest commissioners of art. I’m particularly interested in medieval manuscripts, and the personal prayer books that were popular at that time, such as A Book of Hours.
A Book of Hours was basically a prayer book that you would read at the canonical hours of the day. When the bells rang, you’d open your book and read the prayer for that section of the day. Also, the prayer books would be customized to the owner. They’d have their name saint, and perhaps some of the local saints that were important to them and to their families.
These books were mostly for the wealthy, because they cost a lot to be made even then. It was a status symbol like a Mercedes Benz. It was a way to show that you were devout, that you were a good person. They ranged from very humble little books to elaborate illuminated things that have been passed down from families. A lot of them are in private collections now or in public collections. I’ve studied those for years.
At the beginning of A Book of Hours there’d be a calendar and the calendar would consist of a list of saints. I’ve even got an example of one that I have reproduced for the month of December. Interestingly, this is where the phrase red letter day came from, because important saints would be written in red letters.
What gave you the idea for the exhibit?
DW: Saints were such a big part of religious life that when the early settlers came to Guelph, they named a lot of things for saints. The Catholic school board still names schools for saints. One day, I started counting up things named after saints, and there was over 30.
“I realized that many people don’t know much, if anything, about the saints that their organizations or buildings are named for, so I thought it would be fun to portray all these saints in a show. I started doing the research and looking up images online. There were thousands of images. And not just medieval ones, but contemporary ones too. Then I got the idea of pairing my paintings with photos of the buildings in Guelph named after Saints from the museum’s archival collection. The research kind of snowballed from there.
Tell us about the method you used to create the paintings.
DW: Well, I use the authentic medieval method. That means real, 24 karat, gold leaf. Years ago, one of my teachers told me, “when in doubt,
I am also working on calf skin vellum, which was used for all pages of books before the 15th century in Europe.
What was the interesting thing you learned in the course of your research about Saints?
DW: I guess it was what I learned about St. John Ambulance. The organization has its origins in the medieval times with the Knights Hospitallers or the Knights of St. John, an order that provided care and protection to pilgrims of any faith that came into the Holy Land. Later, during the Industrial Revolution, it became important to train ordinary people in first aid, so that people who got hurt using new machinery wouldn’t die before they got some kind of care. That’s when St. John Ambulance was formed.
We’re all familiar with St. John Ambulance, but you are totally blown away when you find out how far it goes back.
Do you have a favourite Saint?
DW: Saint Christopher. He is not a saint of Guelph, but he’s everyone’s saint. He is the patron saint of travelers. He was more myth than man, so he was eventually taken off the liturgical calendar. I find Saint Christopher’s story a kind and inspiring one. I wrote on his label for the exhibit that many an atheist have a Saint Christopher hanging from their rear-view mirror.
Which painting was the most fun to create?
DW: I would say the full page Saint George miniature I did. I’ve actually done a full page miniature, rather than just a little portrait. Because it was bigger than the others, it took me a long time to do – about four weeks. It has all these supposed scenes from St. George’s life: the angel presenting him with his helmet and sword, him fighting the dragon, etc.
How long have you been an artist?
DW: I feel that I have been an artist forever. I was always painting and drawing as a kid. It seemed natural for me to continue my education at university level in fine art. I also work as a calligrapher, cartoonist, and graphic designer, since we all know that very few people can make a living from being an artist.
I tend to be a perfectionist – probably why I like the detail in creating miniature paintings and icons – but I have learned to let go a bit. From what I have read, medieval artists sometimes made deliberate mistakes in their work – “because only God is considered perfect”. I’m just following tradition.