Old photographs are fascinating.We value them, especially when loved ones die, or when they move to another part of the world, or indeed out of our lives.And photos evoke all kinds of memories and emotions, some joy-filled and happy, and others which call up worlds of pain and sorrow.


Despite her long life and contacts with artists, no true portrait or photograph of Sophie Barat exists.We have many artists' impressions of Sophie, yet none of them were commissioned or permitted by her in her lifetime.

In the 1820's the community in the rue de Varenne in Paris tried to persuade Sophie to have her portrait done, to no avail. This was all the more frustrating, since there were many portrait artists in Paris at this time, including Pauline Perdrau. Before she entered the Society, Pauline was a portrait artist in oils and her work is still on display in the Treasury of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Once Pauline Perdrau tried to take Sophie's photograph surreptitiously, but Sophie laughingly saw through this. Ironically, when Sophie died late in the evening of the 25 May 1865, Pauline was asked then to do a quick sketch in view of a portrait but she simply could not do it. Consequently, a photographer was called in to take the only photograph we have of Sophie Barat, taken after her death, in the early morning of 26 May 1865.

So then we may well ask the question: What did Sophie Barat look like? What was her manner like? How did she present herself in her world? How did others see her? What were her gestures like, what was typical of her mode of behaviour? How did she speak, what tone of voice did she have?


It is important to ask these questions since we have been influenced by many artists' impressions of Sophie Barat, probably more than we realise. Numbers of portraits were painted either in view of the canonisation in 1925, or were commissioned afterwards by way of celebration. These were done with integrity, and yet they often tell us more about the artists, their theology and understanding of sainthood, than of Sophie Barat herself, in her time and space. If we all took a few minutes to ask ourselves: what is our image of Sophie Barat, we would have some interesting reflections to share, as much about ourselves as Sophie Barat.

In the General Archives of the Society in Rome, we have several of Sophie's passports, which she used within France and Europe for travelling. However, in the 19th century passports did not have photographs. Nevertheless, these documents tell us that Sophie was 150 cm in height (4 foot 10 inches), that she had brown eyes, and that she had brown hair until her middle sixties, when she turned grey. Her face was noted as oval and pleasant. A further detail is given by Adèle Cahier, Sophie's secretary for over 20 years and her biographer. She speaks of Sophie's striking brown eyes, and noted the mark on the pupil of Sophie's left eye, a vestige of smallpox, which Sophie had as a child.

My own vintage

There are many ways of painting portraits, and since we have the gift of an empty canvas, how about imagining Sophie, just as she was: trying to make her way in life and fulfil what she considered her spiritual task and destiny in the world? When we observe one another long enough, we begin to know one another, we recognise how we speak, and we become familiar with gestures, patterns, tastes, modes of being.


By studying Sophie Barat in our imagination,we can paint our own image of her. We can imagine her at different stages of her life. In this way a series of pen pictures emerge: the play of sunlight on the face of the tiny child in Joigny, who survived birth in the midst of a fire; the little girl, premature and precocious, chatty and charming, loved and spoilt until the age of seven.Then the shadows cast by the seriousness of her brother, Louis, placing iron, a strengthening of will, in the soul, necessary but certainly premature and damaging. By the time Sophie was ten years old Revolution convulsed France, Joigny, and the Barat family. Darkness and violence entered Sophie's life. She grew up quickly and by the age of twelve Sophie was helping her mother live through a long bout of depression and running the family business. It was a short childhood. There are a lot of portraits here.


Then, a dramatic turn.We see Sophie Barat in Paris, in the wake of the Terror of 1795, a young woman of sixteen. She lives in the Marais district of Paris, close to the Bastille. She lives a life more suited to a Trappist than to that of a young girl coming into young adulthood. Her face is becoming different, shadows and shades grow, even lengthen. How can her features balance the light and shadow of those experiences? Sunlight returns when she can return to Joigny for the harvest. There she resumes home life, works hard and goes to parties. Her mother and the parish priest hope Sophie will settle back and marry.Yet Sophie returns to Paris, to the place of her future destiny, her own choice, not just that of Louis.What was that about?


In 1800 the portraits of Sophie Barat, in Paris and then Amiens, change again. They present the face of a young woman with an impulsive, energetic nature, which even the strictures of Louis Barat could never curb.

Rather enclosed in herself, Sophie Barat is firmly drawn out into the centre of her group, and named the leader by Louise Naudet who visits Amiens briefly in 1804. From that moment of being named, the life of Sophie Barat changes radically. Sophie enters the public world and never leaves it. Until her death in 1865 Sophie Barat's life is lived in the public eye, both within the Society and beyond, especially in Paris and Rome.


How can we imagine the public image of Sophie Barat, say in 1826, when her leadership was not in question, but Sophie herself was struggling with enormous personal difficulties? In the intimacy of her inner world of pain and confusion how could she possibly have agreed to have her portrait done? As leader, Sophie asked the membership of the Society to strive to integrate their inner world of contemplation and the world of activity.Yet she herself was finding the task overwhelming.Was this the reason she resisted a portrait? Perhaps it was a question of truth, or because the revelation would be too difficult for her to live with? Sophie's features and portrait are also that of the leader who experiences two prolonged testing times of leadership, 1806-1815 and 1839-1851. Both periods have similar patterns and processes. She emerges from each of them shaped and formed anew.


Pauline Perdrau wrote a biography of Sophie Barat: Les Loisirs de L'Abbaye. It is an artistic biography and describes Sophie Barat in her later years. Instead of painting Sophie in oils, Pauline paints her in pen images.As Sophie moves into her seventies we see her much more relaxed and at ease with herself and her world. She laughs more and expresses her sense of humour, though this had never left her, despite the dark periods of her life. She is still impatient and impulsive and yet she is surer of herself. She knows, finally, that she is truly in the right place.What is her portrait now? It is of the leader, governing an international community, of a woman who has made peace with herself and with her friends, mending relationships and letting go of others. These noble and hard won battles are etched in her face, in her gestures and mode of being. Perhaps that is her final portrait. Sophie Barat had come to terms with her own self and had learnt painfully how to stand alone, in her own individuality. Her inner world of prayer and contemplation and her outer world of intense activity flowed together. In that space and place, with her earthly task complete, Sophie was at peace and already turned towards the eternal horizon.

Further Reading

From: Madeleine Sophie Barat A Life (Cork University Press)

Some personal images of Sophie Barat: pp 3-6; 14-17; 22-5.

Images of the leader: pp 55-9; 103-4; 109-11; 369-72; 408-11.

Images around her inner journey: pp 164-7; 238-41; 429-432 (Epilogue)


* Look at some photos of yourself, at different stages of your life: child; adolescent; young adult; mature woman. If you have none to hand, remember how you were and how you felt, at different stages of your life.What do these images convey about you?

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MadeleineAuthor - Phil Kilroy

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