2007-2012

Early photographic works

We know it isn’t really a severed head, and we know it isn’t John the Baptist. The latter is unproblematic because the image immediately joins other visual representations of John the Baptist’s decapitation. But the former point, that it is not really a decapitated head, is not of the same kind. This visual dilemma is not as easily reconciled, specifically because the photographic process allows for the fact that a real decapitation could be depicted, although of course, it most likely is not. - Lindsay Smith 1


Between 2007 and 2012 Sabina Mac Mahon made a series of small-scale photographic works reinterpreting scenes from the lives of saints and religious personages using early twentieth century vernacular photographs from family albums compiled in the 1920s which she inherited from her maternal and paternal grandmothers.

This body of work, comprising some forty photographs in all, was strongly influenced by early allegorical fine art and composite photography and inspired by the (frequently bizarre) goings-on of Christian saints and the odd attributes and symbols used to identify them in traditional Western representational painting, sculpture and manuscript illustration from the Middle Ages / early Renaissance up to the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to extensive visual research, the work was also informed by the close reading of hagiographical texts and martyrologies, from classics like the Rev. Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints and Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend to online compendiums of saints’ feast days. Many of these accounts occupy the strange grey area that exists between historical fact and the apocryphal world of myth and legend, between belief and the suspension of disbelief.

Preying on the impulse that encourages us to view photographs as indexical documents rather than pictures composed and mediated by human agency like any others, the series reimagined members of Mac Mahon’s family as saints engaged in ordinary leisure activities – day-tripping to the seaside, hillwalking, picnicking, visiting friends and family, going to garden parties. The photographs were printed on a domestic scale and presented in found picture frames, simulating the original images’ manner of display and attempting to enhance their believability.

1  Smith, Lindsay (1996) Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: The
   Enigma of Visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Cambridge:
   Cambridge University Press.

research image:
Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1813-1975)
Head of St. John the Baptist on a Charger
1857
albumen print
14 x 18 cm
[image via the Royal Photographic Society / Getty Images]

The Levitation of St. Joseph of Cupertino
2010
photograph on archival paper, found picture frame
unique
33.75 x 24.5 cm


St. Joseph of Cupertino was born in 1603 in Southern Italy and was a slow-witted, angry child, prone to fits of ecstasy, and spent much of his time staring blankly into space. In his early twenties he joined the Franciscan order to lead a life of prayer and poverty. On 4 October 1640, at a celebration of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph soared several feet into the air and hovered over the gathered crowd who had assembled for St. Francis’ feastday celebrations. This was the first of many flights and after that St. Joseph could not contain himself, spontaneously floating around in rapture whenever he heard the names of Jesus or Mary or thought of God the Father. He is the patron saint of air travellers, astronauts, and students sitting exams.



St. Denis of Paris in the Jardins des Tuileries
2012
hand-coloured photograph, found picture frame
unique
38 x 28 cm



St. Denis Taking a Photograph of Himself and St. Genevieve in the Jardins des Tuileries
2012
hand-coloured photograph, found picture frame
unique
31 x 25.5 cm


Born in the third century AD, St. Denis came to Paris with his companions Rusticus and Elutherius and became bishop of the city. He converted many people from his base on the Île de la Cité but was sentenced to death by beheading by pagan priests. When he was decapitated he picked his head up and walked six miles with it to the top of the hill of Montmartre, preaching a sermon along the way. The place where he finally died is the location that St. Genevieve chose to build the basilica dedicated to him. He is depicted in art carrying his own head in his hands and is invoked against diabolical possession and headaches. Saints who are known to have carried their own heads are called cephalophores. Here he is enjoying a holiday in France with his companion saint, St. Genevieve.

Here, in a tradition of religious painting popular since early Christian times, the ordinary rules of time and space are disregarded in order to depict two associated saints who lived at different times together in the same pictorial space. St. Genevieve, a follower of St. Denis, was born more than 150 years after his death.

Jesus Walking on Water as a Young Man
2010
photograph on archival paper, found picture frame
unique
25.5 x 30.75 cm


The miracle of Jesus walking on the water of Lake Galilee is told in the Gospels of Matthew (14: 13-21), Mark (6: 13-44) and John (9: 10-17). After hearing of the death of St. John the Baptist and retreating to a place near Bethsaida, Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish and then bid the Apostles go on across the sea to Capernaum in a boat, saying he would follow them when all the people had gone. A great storm blew up during the night and the Apostles were only halfway across the Sea of Galilee by morning, when they saw Jesus walking towards them on top of the waves. At first they were afraid and thought he was a ghost, but when he revealed himself and climbed into the boat they were reassured.

Polyphemus and Mother Pauline of the Agonising Heart of Jesus on the Promenade
2011
photograph on archival paper, found picture frame
unique
51 x 38.2 cm
[private collection]


Polyphemus was the gigantic, one-eyed, primordial son of Poseidon, god of the sea, who lived in a cave on the Island of Cyclopes. He spent most of his time working as a shepherd but he was also a cannibal, as six of Odysseus’ friends found out when they went with him to the Island of Cyclopes on their way home from the Trojan War. Odysseus avenged them by blinding Polyphemus with a flaming stake of unseasoned olivewood and then escaping by tying himself to the underside of a sheep. Here he is seen in happier times walking on a promenade with Mother Pauline of the Agonising Heart of Jesus, a Brazilian nun whose middle finger and then right arm were amputated after she was diagnosed with diabetes. She died in 1942.

St. John the Baptist Standing on a Bench
2008
inkjet print on 304 g/sm photorag, found picture frame
unique
31.5 x 25.5 cm
[private collection]


St. John the Baptist was born to Zachariah and Elizabeth, an elderly, barren couple, six months before his cousin, Jesus, and he is often described as the forerunner or precursor of Christ. At the age of twenty seven he was guided into the desert by an angel and while in the wilderness he ate locusts and honeycombs and wore a shirt made of camel hair. When he left the desert he was invited to a banquet in Herod Antipas' house in Machaerus. At dinner he denounced his host’s marriage to his half-brother’s wife as adulterous and incestuous and he was imprisoned in the dungeon. After dinner John’s head was demanded by Salome, Herod’s step-daughter, at the instigation of her mother and he was summarily beheaded. According to some accounts Herod's wife Herodias kept his severed head on a fancy plate and occasionally stabbed at his tongue with a hat pin. John the Baptist is the patron saint of hailstorms, motorways, spasms and French Canadians.

St. Eloi’s Demonic Horse and a Centaur
2011
photograph on archival paper
unique
41 x 51 cm


St. Eloi was born in 588 AD at Chaptelat near Limoges, Aquitaine (now part of France). His parents, Eucherius and Terrigia, were members of influential Gallo-Roman families and when he was still young his father recognised that Eloi’s peculiarly long fingers meant he was suited to work as a metalworker. He was apprenticed under Abbo, mint master of Limoges. While he was still a practicing blacksmith, a priest whose horse had become demonically possessed came to him to have the horse re-shod. St. Eloi had gained a reputation as a spiritual man through his good deeds and the priest believed that only he could handle the horse. St. Eloi managed to calm the horse and re-shod him by removing each of his legs in turn and reattaching them, except for the left hind leg which went missing. The demon left the horse through his mouth and a white star appeared on his forehead.

St. Dymphna on Holiday in the Wilderness of Sin
2010
photograph on archival paper, found picture frame
unique
30 x 26.5 cm


St. Dymphna was born in Clogher, Co. Monaghan in the 7th century. Her mother died when she was fourteen and her father Damon, a king of Oriel, wanted to marry again but would only have one as beautiful and kind as his first wife. A search of the world was made but no one was found, and Damon began to think that his own daughter was the only one suitable to replace her mother. Appalled by her father’s desire to marry her, Dymphna fled with her confessor, St. Gerebernus, to Gheel in Belgium, but Damon followed them and when Dymphna still refused his advances he decapitated them both with his sword. The story of St. Dymphna has been identified with Aarne-Thompson folktale type 510B, ‘unnatural love’, and her feast day is celebrated on 15 August.

St. Genevieve’s Apparition of St. Denis’ Key to the City of Paris in Brittany
2012
hand coloured photograph
unique
31.5 x 24 cm


St. Genevieve was born at Nanterre near Paris in 422 AD. When she was seven years old St. Germaine of Auxerre singled her out of a crowd of villagers while preaching in France on the way to Great Britain to combat the heresy of Pelegius and foretold her future sanctity. At her bidding he brought her to the cathedral and consecrated her. In 451 she led a ‘prayer marathon’ that protected Paris from Attila and the Huns – they attacked Orléans instead. Genevieve is known as the foundress of the Basilique Saint-Denis in Paris on the place of St. Denis’ martyrdom and for dressing in a long, flowing gown with a mantle covering her shoulders. In 1129 her relics were carried through Paris and credited with stopping an epidemic of ergot poisoning.