The Face of a Saint

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I should begin by admitting I was fascinated by Diana's face prior to her death. In fact, in that other Diana media event - the 1995 BBC Panorama interview - I found myself obsessively analysing her performance, noting her resemblance to faces of saints etched deeply in my memory as a result of a catholic upbringing. To be even more specific, I was taken in by Diana's martyr-like sufferance of calumny as an amazing imitation of the face of Joan of Arc. In death, Diana's resemblance to Joan was uncanny. Both Diana and Joan were so-called 'ordinary' women whose deaths were violent, public affairs: Joan was put to death in the spectacular medieval practice of burning at the stake, while Diana's death was, as one obituary put it, 'a horrible twentieth century, twisted metal, kind of death'. In death, both women have been patriotically 'claimed' by their respective nation states: Joan is the patron saint of France; and Diana, thanks to Elton John, has been memorialised as 'England's Rose'; she is also England's new mythic 'Lady of the Lake', laid to rest in an unmarked grave on a small island in a man-made lake on her family's estate at Althorp. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Napoleon used images of a sword-wielding, banner-carrying maiden Joan as a symbol of a unified France. Likewise, pictures of Diana in 90s-style Perspex armour striding through minefields in Angola continue to have a unifying effect in the Red Cross campaign for an international ban on land mines. And the list goes on, raising the question of whether it merely a coincidence that these two women, who are regarded so similarly by the 'faithful' in death, have a remarkably similar countenance? Or, is it the case that their faces determine their saintly status?

The first thing we need to note about the processes of canonisation is that it is not so much a question about a person being saintly, but being recognised as such. In Saints and Society, Donald Weinstein and Rudolph Bell make the point that popular perception plays an important part in being recognised as a saint: 'While the church uses heroic virtue to distinguish saints from wizards and witches, in popular belief saintly virtue was less a legalistic than a charismatic matter. A combination of the force of personality, rigorous self-denial, humility and good works led people to believe that a saint was in their midst.'ii But while this may be the case, saintly recognisability is complicated by the fact that sainthood is by definition a state of perfection that only the saint can fully know. A saint's holiness is technically unrepresentable; an impossible image. In one way this fits precisely with Edith Wyschogrod's thesis on saints and postmodernity: that is, 'Not only do saints contest the practices and beliefs of institutions, but in a more subtle way they contest the order of narrativity itself'.iii In other words, saints trouble the basic premise of representation. For this reason, artists have turned to indirect or reflective means of depicting saints. Images of saints are not portraits - that is, images of the face as a mirror of the soul. Rather, faces of saints are emblematic of particular and easily recognisable (identifiable) Christian virtues. Saints are recognise d by the faithful as 'exemplars' - models of behaviour which the faithful are encouraged to imitate.iv But as George Hersey points out, although imitation is meant to take the form of spiritual transformation, the fact is that in visual culture there is an unavoidable imbrication between the spiritual and the physical,v setting off a mirroring effect. Becoming a saint is a process in which the faces of the saints are the same as the faces of those who imitate the saints. Or, to put it slightly differently, in order to become a saint, one must have the right kind of face.

Of course not all saints are born with the required face. Take Joan, for example: images circulating in religious and popular culture of a beautiful, brave and innocent heroine bear little resemblance to the historical figure. In fact, the truth is that not much is known about Joan's actual physical appearance. Not that this has prevented historians from speculating. It is generally considered that Joan was 'ruddy-faced', though one historian lamely interprets the absence of any descriptions of her face as a sign that she was However, historical accuracy is not the point here. What is of most interest is the way in which a particular facial type has been conferred onto the historical figure of Joan. Just as I, who, as a child, read the lives of saints and prayed before statues of them in my local church, immediately recognise d Diana's presentation of self in the Panorama interview as an imitation of Joan, Joan herself is an imitation of female martyrs who came before her. Joan was besotted with St Catherine, claiming that she 'spoke' to her. Joan's love for St Catherine inspired St Therese of Lisieux's book on Joan, and Diana, it is reported, had a great devotion to St Therese.

In the reports of Diana's death and tributes to her life there are numerous images of her 'acting like a saint'. One example is the now famous image of her cradling an unnamed dying child at Imrahn Kahn's cancer hospital in Pakistan. In terms of perceived saintliness, many commentators of the day noted that this highly staged performance was a very good imitation of that other well-known twentieth-century female saint - Mother Teresa, who by coincidence died just two days following Diana's death, sparking an outpouring of commentaries on the similarities and differences between these media-age saints. But if, as I have suggested, saints are required to wear their virtue on their face, then Diana's youthful beauty and crafted glamour betray her performance of selflessness. It is interesting to note that while Mother Teresa's much commented on 'plain' face was on view in her death, Diana's face was kept under wraps. Mainstream media colluded to keep _ the only known photograph of the seriously injured Diana from public view.vii Hence, we might well ask what virtue we recognise d in the face of Diana. What virtue was protected by keeping alive the memory of Diana's living face? And why is Diana's saintliness more attractive than Mother Teresa's selfless piety?

James A Golden returns to Socrates' view of beauty to explain the power of Diana's face. He argues that what we recognise d in her beauty were Platonic virtues of the Good: dignity, humility, mildness, good nature. He quotes a British journalist, who, at the time of Diana's death, wrote the following: 'The Princess' captivating beauty was obvious from the moment she came to public attention. What changed over the years was her ability to project her beauty [in such a way that she became] a powerful figurehead for charities and campaigns'.viii But such 'true' goodness was not always recognise d. It is interesting to note how in many of the reports immediately following her death, Diana's often maligned, emotional and direct style of responding to situations - 'I touch people. I believe everyone needs to be touched' - was suddenly redeemed as a saintly virtue. Journalists and commentators who once criticised Diana for her naivety, such as the time she shook the hand of a dying AIDS patient in full view of the world's news cameras, now claimed that her innocent, direct approach was an appropriate, if not exemplary mode of response to the world's complex problems.

As with Joan, Diana's perceived saintliness or if you like, goodness, derived from her ability to project the quality of innocence.ix But being perceived as innocent involves more than having a youthful, sweet-faced appearance. Innocence is associated with artlessness. We assume, for example, that the expression on the face of a child is an unmediated expression of their state of mind. The innocent face is considered to be fully open and hence, absolutely legible. For this reason we find that in visual art, the expression of innocence is fixed in delicate child-like facial features. François Rude's romantic sculpture of Joan as a girl with far-away eyes is a good example of such an expression. However, in the age of the moving camera, the task of 'capturing' the virtue of innocence in a mobile face is more difficult. Many films have been made about Joan of Arc, including French director, Luc Besson's, 1999 version, featuring the well-known US actor Dustin Hoffman playing God, no less. But many critics agree that the best cinematic depiction of Joan's story is Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc.x Consisting nearly entirely of close-ups of the faces of Joan and her persecutors, the film is, as one critic describes it, an 'orchestration of faces'.xi Dreyer does not, however, try to get 'inside' Joan's head. Rather he spiritualises Joan's face by making it relentlessly and intensively express the affects of the pain and humiliation of torture and persecution. In other words, in this film Joan's holiness is perceived in the extraordinary performance of physical pain and mental confusion she endured.

Like the actor Maria Falconetti, who brilliantly performed the face of Joan in Dreyer's film, Diana was a master in the art of facial expression, as seen in the 1995 Panorama interview. The interview was a clever defence of her position in the Royal family. Instead of attacking her 'enemies', Diana 'confessed' her sins, and in so doing so, redeemed herself in the eyes of her beloved public. The success of her presentation lay in the expression of her pain and personal suffering. This was achieved in part through her self-characterisation as an innocent child who had suffered at the hands of uncaring adults, including her husband, his family, her lovers and, of course, her parents. Diana's self-infantalisation was also expressed in her face: uncharacteristic dark eye make-up and flat pink lipstick gave her a dramatic tragic quality. Her head, tilted downward and held slightly to one side added to the appearance of child-like timidity, while throughout the interview Diana's eyes welled with tears, and her trademark upward glance sealed her innocent appeal.

To what degree Diana's performance in the Panorama interview was a conscious act is not the issue. What is more important is the fact that this self-performance was widely regarded as artless and thus, authentic. In the days immediately following Diana's death images from this interview were recycled as the authentic image of Diana. The BBC, for example, used this image as the back-drop for their memorial special, hosted by Jonathon Dimbleby, screened in Britain the night following her death. They also used this image in their television coverage of Diana's funeral service. When the casket was being carried out of the Westminster Abbey this image suddenly appeared like a ghost in the top left-hand corner of the screen: Diana the innocent, presiding over the event of her death.

There are, I am sure, many reasons why journalists gravitated toward this image as the image of Diana, one being, perhaps, that of all her many faces - 'lady in waiting', 'fairytale princess', 'adoring mother', 'cover girl', etc., - the face of Diana as innocent, suffering martyr makes the most sense of her senseless death. Martyrs are not supposed to survive. In fact, death and physical suffering make them all the more glorious, more beautiful, and more useful to the living. Conscious or unconscious, sincere or insincere, the face of Diana as saint is neither a mirror to some pure and holy soul, nor that in which we might recognise ourselves. Rather, Diana's fantastic capacity for self-transformation reveals the imitative nature of sainthood, thus exposing the faces of saints as the masks they are. But more than this, to look upon the alluring, radiant face of Diana in the hope that her innocence will somehow redeem our sins, or that her eternal beauty can in some sublime way make sense of a senseless world, will surely end in disappointment. For what we discover is that this face of our age is a mirror blindly reflecting back to us an image of this world as a world of mirrors. I do not mean this is in a facile or cynical way. I want only to suggest that perhaps it is precisely this distorted, negative reflection that caught the world off guard and, for the briefest time in world history, made death visible on a scale hitherto unthinkable.

Of course the shock of this face of death was quickly recouped for other purposes: nationalism, sentimentality, profit, revenge, and so on. Two years later, collective embarrassment had set in. On the second anniversary of Diana's death, journalists declared Diana the 'forgotten princess'xii, while public commemoration of her had considerably diminished: there was a noticeable lack of attention to the anniversary of her death in the media, the British government announced it had cancelled its plan to build a statue in her honour, there was a marked decline in visitors to the Diana museum at Althorp, and sales of the many publications on Diana had fallen.xiii By the fifth anniversary in 2002, there was little more than an embarrassed murmur - no official wreath-laying, no minute's silence in the Commons, no church service - leading writer, Robert Harris, to comment: 'Not since Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 has a prominent public figure been so comprehensively airbrushed out of a nation's life.'

For Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, the disappearance of Diana image from British public life is part of larger, ongoing conspiracy. In the only interview given on the occasion of the fifth anniversary, he claimed: 'I think there was a feeling among those who were never Diana's supporters of "let's marginalise her and tell people she never mattered and tell people that in the first week of September 1997 they were all suffering from mass hysteria"'.xiv It is tempting to see the official erasure of Diana in terms of class conflict - that is, as an erasure of the common experience. But more significantly, I think, this forgetfulness confirms that Diana's death is emblematic of death in general in the media age. In 2002, memory of the spectacular event of Diana's death is overshadowed by media events leading up to the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Building (more analysis of these reports is provided in the afterword). In this way, the increasingly forgettable face of Diana shows not that we have become blasé about death, but that death is increasingly experienced only as an image. And, as with all images, the face of Diana is not durable, eternal. Rather it exists only as it is recognised, and in the media age, recognisability is short-lived.

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