Thursday, 15 December 2011

15th December – The Sisters of Charity

So, apparently it will snow tonight. Not just a bit of snow, but apocalypse levels of snow fall, enough to bury a double-decker bus. I was told this by someone who read it in the Daily Mail, so I may take it slightly with a pinch of salt, but I may also sprinkle that salt on the pathway to my door, just to be sure. It seems to me that we get over-excited in England when it snows, and rush out, buy forty loaves of bread, and hide. We should relax more, it used to snow in olden days and no-one got phased back then. Look, they had time for things like this…

The Sisters of Charity (1871) Charles Burton Barber
Ahh, it’s a touching tale of the extremely rich at Christmas. Mother and daughter stand on their doorstep and sprinkle food for the assembled cast of Bambi. The deer are exquisitely observed, the two on the right are especially beautiful, and a seemingly endless procession of them are filing up from the forest on the left. Wouldn’t that be a lovely, if disconcerting, sight on Christmas morning? I’ve opened my door on a guilty-looking hedgehog before, but I think a great herd of deer might top that, especially as I live in the middle of a city.

Turning to the two figures, the title refers not to their relationship but to their spiritual position. The mother and daughter are bestowing gifts of food upon the poor and needy, who just happen to be animals. Mind you, you don’t get much poorer than that. That poor young deer in the front has never even owned a pair of shoes. It’s shocking, there should be a charity single for him.

I noticed the woman is dressed in black. It could be that her fashionable, fur-trimmed outerwear just happens to be black, but I wonder if she is a young widow, which would make her act of kindness to others even more full of pathos. Here’s where my ‘narrative art’ gene kicks in and I wonder if there is a story behind it. Did her husband die while out hunting and so she vowed to tend the deer rather than cause them harm, ultimately the downfall of her husband? Are the pair of does on the right any reflection of the figures in the doorway? I strongly suspect that she is a widow and her role now is to bestow charity, even if it is to deer. Mind you, if the deer were to blame for her husband’s death then maybe they ought to approach with more caution, she might want revenge…

I think it was the robins in the centre front that did in her husband. No-one ever suspects the robins…

See you tomorrow.


  1. I think Victorian mourning etiquette is fascinating. They just loved a good old mourn. I didn't realise until quite recently that in Anne of Green Gables, Anne wore the black for three years after Matthew died.

  2. They did love a good mourn, look at Queen Vic. I'll have to find out if there were rules attached that you had to follow, because the Victorians loved rules too. We both wear black a lot of the time since third year in school, but I always get a bit suspicious when I see a chick in black in a painting.

  3. Bill Bryson mentions some rules in his History of Private Life book. I can't remember the details and Mr Bryson has a tendency to exaggerate, but I remember it being jolly entertaining.

  4. The Sisters of Charity is also is a Roman Catholic religious congregation (nuns), although I doubt they would wear fur trimmed habits. Although it would explain the absence of men in the painting!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx