The widest range of historical and cinema images for editorial and creative use
Advanced search >>

Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), French peasant girl of Lourdes, whose claim to have encountered Jesus's mother Mary earned her sainthood but also a lot of unwelcome attention.

1864
Time is a candle burning down, rural France, 1858

 

An onlooker said of Saint Bernadette that her body was a waxy surface

ready to take impressions. I agree she was white as a candle.

 

The whitest candle was made from spermaceti wax, mined from

inside a sperm whale’s head. Translucent as the tubercular skin

 

of Bernadette. Tallow, which stank, made from beef or mutton fat,

was the candle of hovels; resin lit the almost-cave of Bernadette’s home.

 

No-one compared the saint to beeswax, used in church, scentful but yellow.

Children like Bernadette were so meagre they nibbled church candles

 

on the sly, to fill their bellies. You can catch someone’s soul

in a candle, then snuff it out. And if you wish to lift a curse, stick pins

 

in a candle. Peasants held back their kitchen fat (bone, oil, skin)

for the chandler who’d journey door to door, form it into candles.

 

A candle encourages magical thinking. The incandescent lightbulb

will not be invented until 1879, the year Bernadette dies which is why

 

I’d never compare her to that. They’ll coat her in wax, preserve her in time.

Flick a switch: she may not exist at all when our eyes fill with electric light.

 

 

© Anna Kisby, inspired by Lourdes by Ruth Harris, and written as part of the Bristol University project Creative Histories of Witchcraft 1790-1940 (a collaboration between a historian, a playwright and a poet)

Picture 10180054, unattributed photograph, 1864

 

 

Anna Kisby is a Devon-based poet, archivist and author of the pamphlet All the Naked Daughters (Against the Grain Press, 2017). She won the Binsted Prize 2019, the BBC Proms Poetry Prize 2016 and was commended in the Faber New Poets Scheme. She is currently a Research Associate in Creative Writing at Bristol University on the project Creative Histories of Witchcraft 1790-1940.