Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

St. Fabiola and her hospital

In about AD 380, a wealthy patrician matron gave money for a hospital to be built in Portus, the ancient port of Rome. This hospital was one of the first of its kind in the western part of the Roman empire, designed to provide care for the multitude of poor people living in the capital. The name of the donor was Fabiola. She had become a Christian early in life and married, but being accustomed to having her own way, she later divorced her husband. Divorce was legal under Roman law but against the teachings of the Church, and Fabiola incurred further opprobrium by remarrying while her first husband was still alive. But when her second husband died, she came under the influence of St. Jerome and sought to rejoin the Church.

After undergoing the required penance by appearing in public wearing sackcloth, she was embraced by the Pope and allowed to rejoin his flock. Henceforth she led a life of asceticism and abstinence, abjuring the pleasures of the flesh and turning her possessions into money to care for the poor. In her hospital she worked as a nurse and undertook the most menial tasks. “Need I recount,” wrote St Jerome, “the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burned, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often too did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even men, could not bear to look at…” (See: Cambridge History of Medicine 2006, p. 181)

Fabiola died around AD 400. She became a saint in the Catholic Church, albeit an obscure one. But over time, she became one of the patrons of nurses, of difficult marriages, of divorced persons, and of abused or victimized spouses. In 1854 she was brought out of obscurity by the English Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman who wrote a best-selling book titled Fabiola or The Church of the Catacombs. The book inspired several artists to paint what they imagined she had looked like. Notable among these artists was the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Henner, who in 1885 showed her in profile as a beautiful woman wearing a red headscarf. The original painting was later lost, but not before numerous copies were made of it, apparently for devotional purposes.

In the early 1990s the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs decided to cover the walls of his house with inexpensive copies of paintings by the great masters. He found in the antique shops, flea markets, and junk shops of Mexico City so many copies of Henner’s image of St. Fabiola that he and his friends were stimulated to look for similar paintings in cities elsewhere, such as Maastricht, Beirut, and Cyprus. They found almost five hundred painted copies, all slightly different. These they assembled in what became the “Fabiola Project” and later part of the Menil Collection. The project grew and was expanded to include carvings, ceramics, jewelry, and even a mosaic made of rice and beans. It can be visited in Houston, Texas, and has been exhibited in other cities around the world. In a way the works commemorate the efforts of a Roman matron who almost two thousand years earlier dedicated her life to the service of the suffering poor.

Fabiola by Jean-Jacques Henner.
Via Wikimedia.
Fabiola, a Roman lady, listens to the readings given to her by Syra, her slave. Painting by Amanda Fougère, 1859, after the novel Fabiola by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman. Archives nationales, site de Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. Via Wikimedia. Francis Alÿs: Fabiola Exhibition Brochure.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
via the Internet Archive.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 2 – Spring 2023

Fall 2022  |  Sections  |  Hospitals of Note

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