The wondrous journey of Saint Valerie to Nova Scotia

A couple of Halifax artists have thrown themselves into the heavenly task of restoring a broken sculpture of Saint Valerie of Limoges after a box carrying shattered remains landed on their doorstep.

Halifax artists hope to repair broken statue

Two Halifax artists have thrown themselves into the heavenly task of restoring a broken sculpture of Saint Valerie of Limoges after a box carrying its shattered remains landed on their doorstep.

Renee Forrestall, who studied medieval icon painting, and Jessica Winton, a multi-media artist and sculptor, both work with Wonder'neath Artist Studios in the north end.

A few weeks ago a mysterious box appeared on their door step.

Inside were a few pieces of a statue: the head and neck, two hands and two feet wearing Roman-styled sandals made of crisscrossed leather straps with colourful gemstones on them.

Forrestall and Winton describe her face as serene. Her lips are vibrant red and slightly open. Her eyelids only open a sliver, so you can scarcely see her eyes. Also, she has real human hair.

'She’s undergone tragedy, but she’s also quite well-loved and cared for.' - Jessica Winton

“She’s got these long brown locks and it’s all secured with a little thin bandana around her head. Real eyelashes too, I think they’re hair eyelashes,” Winton said.

They believe the sculpture is of Saint Valerie of Limoges because of the huge bloody gash on her neck. According to Catholic history, Saint Valerie was decapitated around the year 280.

Forrestall and Winton think the statue is from Italy, probably made sometime in the mid-1800s. She was likely brought to Canada by a Canadian bishop or a nun who had visited Italy around that time.

“She was a young lady who was betrothed to a man; she was basically going to be forced into marriage. She didn’t want to do it, she wanted to be a nun, she wanted to stay a virgin and dedicate herself to God,” said Forestall, a devout Catholic.

“They didn’t want to have that, so the fellow cut off her head. Basically, she was a victim of domestic violence."

According to religious tradition, the decapitated woman lifted her own head and walked through the village. The saint entered the cathedral and placed her head on the altar. 

Possible relic included

A simple, handwritten note was included with the statue pieces. In Latin it says "S. Valeriae Mart,” short for martyr.

The box also held a piece of bone Forrestall and Winton believe is a relic, a physical remain taken from saint after death.

"It's a little, likely sterling silver, container sealed with a little glass window and inside there’s a piece of bone. These were very common in the church. This is what you’d call a first-class relic, an actual piece of the saint,” said Forrestall.

“It’s got that really dehydrated, dusty look. That’s really old.”

Forrestall hopes to get it carbon dated.

The artists believe the sculpture’s body was made from straw and then canvas, which has been eaten by mice.

Working to repair

The statue has had such an effect on Forrestall and Winton that they quickly started restoring it. They refer to the lifelike figure as “she” and “her.”

“It’s a big deal to have this responsibility. It’s really intense to see her. She’s a beautiful figure, beautifully made. She’s gone through some evident hardships. You know, lost parts of toes, cracked fingers ,” said Winton.

“But there’s also evidence they cared about all those pieces because every single piece that broke off is wrapped in bubble wrap and labelled and packed. She’s undergone tragedy, but she’s also quite well-loved and cared for. There’s still hope she can be put back together and become beautiful again.”

The statue was previously owned by a woman who doesn’t want to be named. She told the artists she rescued the figurine on its way to a dumpster. She said she no longer had anywhere to keep it.

"I think Saint Valerie was very important to the woman who had her. I think it took a lot of personal courage and bravery to come and pass her off. It was almost like she was  giving us a child. Well maybe not that bad, but it was really hard on her” said Winton.

She believes the woman found her and Forrestall on the internet.

“These relics don’t just accidentally land somewhere. They come to you for a reason, they’re with you for a while and then they go on to where they’re supposed to go next,”  said Forrestall.

“Saint Valerie will choose where she’ll end next.”

The pair said they’d like to find a suitable new home. In the meantime, they invite anyone with expertise in this sort of restoration to get in touch with them.

They're also interested in hearing from historians who've researched saints from this period.