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Portable Devotion

By Fannie Caron-Roy

Object: Way to the Calvary, ca. 1900

 
Exterior of Centre historique des Sœurs du Bon-Conseil. All photos courtesy of the museum.

Based in Chicoutimi, Quebec overlooking the Saguenay River, the Centre historique des Sœurs du Bon-Conseil preserves and presents the heritage of the congregation of the sisters of Notre-Dame du Bon-Conseil. Founded in 1894, the community was originally established as a place to educate children from the surrounding diocese, including the areas of Saguenay, Lac-Saint-Jean and the North Shore of Saint Lawrence River.


The first monastery to accommodate professed sisters was built in 1895, but just 15 years later, in 1910, construction on the present monastery began. By this time, the number of professed sisters and novices had increased dramatically, and their residence was no longer sufficient to accommodate the sisters returning from mission. The new chapel was inaugurated in 1918, and in 1945, an entire wing was added to accommodate the infirmary, a section of which was dedicated to caring for sick sisters from the time of its construction.


It is here, in the infirmary, that the Way to the Calvary was used. A portable device consisting of a small wooden altar and wooden crucifix with a gold-painted figure of Christ. At the foot, three women carved in wood and painted gold are mourning in front of Christ’s sacrifice.


Way to the Calvary, ca. 1900.

Beneath the carved figures, the front of the altar is pierced by a window where it is possible to view and contemplate the scenes of the Passion. The images are depicted on a scroll that is operated using a small crank on the right side of the device. The varnish on the wood of the crank handle has deteriorated while traces of wax on the altar table and on the base of the device also testify to its use, as candles were used to illuminate the device, which was easily transportable.


The three women sculpted at the foot of the cross represent the Daughters of Jerusalem, mentioned in chapter twenty-three of Saint Luke’s Gospel. The chapter describes that as Christ began his ascent to Calvary, he summoned the women who were lamenting his coming martyrdom not to weep for him. Generally, representations of the Crucifixion show Mary and St. John the Evangelist at the foot of the cross, sometimes with Mary Magdalene, making the iconography of this piece unusual. However, it is well suited when you consider that the object was used by a community of women.


The different postures of the three women are all prayer postures that the sisters were encouraged to adopt when contemplating the Passion of Christ. So, any sisters praying in front of the portable Way to the Calvary could easily identify with the Daughters of Jerusalem sculpted on the altar. This would have inspired a stronger emotional connection with the dying Christ.


No information about the provenance of the object has been found, but it is likely that it was made around 1900. It was certainly handmade; the scrolled spandrels made of gilded metal that decorate the window overlooking the martyrdom of Christ are simply fixed with small nails. Considering the self-sufficient lifestyle that long characterized the community of the Sisters of Our Lady of Good Counsel, its very possible that the object was made especially for them, perhaps even by the Sisters themselves.


Fannie Caron-Roy earned her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Montreal, Quebec, in 2021, specializing in religious art. She has been the director of the Historical Center of the Sisters of the Good Counsel since May 2022 and continues to teach art history in University Laval in Quebec City and UQAC in Chicoutimi. She also is postdoctoral fellow at the Dutch University Institute for Art History in Florence.

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