At the National Portrait Gallery

Peter Campbell

In the year 400 a ‘swaying multitude’ attended the funeral of Fabiola, a Roman matron. Everyone in the crowd lining streets and rooftops was ‘flattering himself that he had a share in the glory of her penitence’. Saint Jerome’s letter to Oceanus on the death of Fabiola, the primary source of details about her life and death, tells of tribulations: her marriage (to ‘a man of such heinous vices that even a prostitute or a common slave could not have put up with them’), her divorce, her remarriage and consequent exclusion from the Christian congregation. A penitent, ‘restored to communion before the eyes of the church’, she sold her considerable property for the benefit of the poor. She nursed people with disgusting diseases, unlike the ‘many wealthy and devout persons who by reason of their weak stomachs carry on this work of mercy by the agency of others, and show mercy with the purse not with the hand’. She is, the Catholic Encyclopaedia says, a patron of difficult marriages, divorced people, victims of abuse, victims of adultery, victims of unfaithfulness, nurses and widows.

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