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An engraving by Stephen Verstegan (c. 1581)  showing the arrest of a priest and several women who had sheltered him. (By permission of the Governors of Stonyhurst College. Copyright Stonyhurst College).An engraving by Stephen Verstegan (c. 1581)  showing the arrest of a priest and several women who had sheltered him. (By permission of the Governors of Stonyhurst College. Copyright Stonyhurst College).

The year is approximately 1592. Eleven-year-old Frances has been roused from her bed at dawn by a loud banging on the front door. When she answers, a group of angry men with swords push their way inside. “Bring us your priest!” they demand.

This is far from the first time Frances has faced this situation. Catholicism is illegal in England and her aunt, Eliza Vaux, is well-known for her faith and her risky habit of sheltering Jesuit renegades. In fact, one of them is upstairs right now, fast asleep in bed. In the past, Frances has avoided catastrophe by feigning innocence or fear, but today she won’t be so lucky. The leader grabs her and holds a knife to her neck. “Tell me where he is, or I’ll slit your throat.”

“If you do that,” she responds, “it will be the hottest blood you’ve ever spilled.”

A new exhibit at Stonyhurst College is a powerful testament to the role women played in maintaining the faith through dark times.

This incident, recorded by Jesuit Father Henry Garnet during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, is just one example of the courage of England’s underground Catholic women, whose faith and work are commemorated in “Hot Holy Ladies,” the exhibition running from now until Christmas at Stonyhurst College and online. The collection, which features everything from manuscripts to relics to exquisite religious art, is a powerful testament to the role women played in maintaining the faith through dark times.

I spoke with Dr. Jan Graffius, who planned and curated the exhibition, via a Zoom call. As we chatted about history, womanhood and our shared Catholic faith, I was struck by how dramatically the world has changed. This now commonplace technology, which allows us to easily bypass vast distances, would have been inconceivable to these women. At the same time, there is an unbroken thread connecting us to them, uniting us in our yearning for God and our hope for a better world.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

To start off, I’d love to get a sense of who you are. What is your background, and what is your role in this exhibition?

I’ve worked as a museum curator since 1982, which is a very long time. I worked mostly in museums and galleries in London, until I got this job 21 years ago, which is in a school. Schools don’t tend to have museums, and museum curators don’t tend to work in schools. But this is a very unusual organization.

You’re speaking about Stonyhurst College.

Yes. It was founded in 1593 as the English Catholic Jesuit College in the Spanish Netherlands, because you couldn’t have a Catholic school on English soil. It was against the law. It was founded as a school for English boys in exile under the protection of Phillip of Spain. When the boys started coming across in 1593, they also started bringing along items of material culture—that’s the technical term for stuff—that were being sought out for destruction under the religious laws of the time. Medieval things, relics, silver, vestments, manuscripts and 16th and 17th century artifacts. The school used these objects right from the very beginning as symbolic acts of Catholic continuity. Now they’re used to inspire, to provoke and to engender conversations about culture, spirituality and identity.

‘The women whose lives I’m portraying and displaying were incredibly powerful and strong and independent.’

Hot Holy Ladies”is such a provocative name. Where does that title come from?

It is provocative. I do my best to be as provocative as I can. That’s the way you start conversations. The title comes from a 1602 pamphlet written by a Catholic priest who wasn’t a Jesuit called William Watson. He was very cross with the Jesuits, who he accused of coming into England and scooping up all the praise and all the glory and all the rich widows. The other priests were left with the crumbs. He coined this phrase “hot holy ladies”to describe the women who supported the Jesuit mission. The hot was their zeal for the mission and the holy bit was, I think, sarcastic. It was meant to be an insult. But having planned this exhibition for a while to look at the role the women played in preserving and commissioning artifacts and heritage, it’s the obvious title. The women whose lives I’m portraying and displaying were incredibly powerful and strong and independent. I think it’s a good description for them.

What role did the “hot holy ladies” play in preserving Catholic culture?

I don’t know how much you know about the English situation in the 17th century. Effectively, it was illegal to be a Catholic. It was illegal to be a priest. If you were a priest and you were caught, you were almost certain to be executed. If you harbored a priest or sheltered a priest in your house, you were liable to execution. If you went to the Catholic Mass, then you would be fined huge amounts of money. So there was a very heavy persecution. The only way that Catholics could maintain their religion was through access to the sacraments, for which they needed a priest. Most of the people doing the sheltering and the heavy load were women. There were a number of reasons for that. First, the laws of the time didn’t regard women as being equal to men. They were mentally inferior. They were not able to make judgments. They were guided by emotions, and they were easily led. So the penalties for women doing these things were, generally speaking, lower.

Because they were considered incompetent.

Exactly. So the women I’m talking about realized this and exploited it massively.

That’s awesome. That brings me to the woman who is at the center of this exhibition, Helena Wintour. You describe her as one of your personal heroes. Who was she, and what about her do you find so inspiring?

First, her work. Her embroidery is just breathtaking. When I came here, there were these beautiful creations known as the Wintour vestments, which date from about 1640-1660. These were immediately fascinating. The fact that she embroidered her name on them intrigued me, because her father and her uncle were members of the Gunpowder Plot, which was a massive conspiracy to blow up the house of parliament, the king and his family.

Guy Fawkes!

Correct. So Helena’s father and uncle were executed when she was about five or six years old in a particularly horrible way, and her family name was associated with treason. So it intrigued me that she sewed her name and family crest on so many of these vestments. The more I looked into it, the more I realized this was an incredibly independent and brave woman, as well as being a creative genius. Here was a woman that was determined not to follow the usual path of marriage or a convent, but to follow a very risky and individual path of sheltering priests and supporting charitable endeavors. This is an incredible woman, and she’s almost vanished from history, so we need to resurrect her.

‘This is an incredible woman, and she’s almost vanished from history, so we need to resurrect her.’

What compelled her to adhere so closely to her Catholic faith, despite the pressures around her?

I don’t actually know what compelled people to do that, because the pressure was intense and unrelenting. The vast majority of English and Welsh Catholic families conformed because they had to. In many cases, it was a question of losing your house, your income or the custody of your children. But I think Helena didn’t really have much to lose. She had no children. She was never married, so the worst they could do was take away her income and her house. Or they could kill her. And she really didn’t seem to mind that. She was quite intrepid.

Let’s talk a little about her art. Do you have a favorite out of the chasubles that she embroidered?

It’s difficult. All of them are beautiful. I think perhaps my favorite is the red Pentecost chasuble, because it’s so complex in its spirituality and so unusual in the images that she uses. For instance, on the back of the chasuble is a big embroidered gold and pearl monogram, with IHS for Christ, and underneath that is a massive dove in silver with ruby eyes and outspread wings with rays of glory coming out of it, which is obviously the Holy Spirit. There are these weird things dropping down from the dove, which are tongues of fire and the wind of Pentecost, but they look like jellyfish and prawns. They’re very quirky. Below that, you have a monogram to Mary, then below that you have a reference to the Jesuits and then below that you have Helena’s name. It’s as if she’s saying, “Everything comes from Christ, through the Holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Virgin, and the work on Earth of the Jesuits, right down to me at the bottom.”

That is beautiful.

It’s quite spectacular. Because everything she did was structured specifically. None of this is casual. In the book that accompanied my original exhibition, I used the phrase “A hierarchy of grace.” I think that’s what she was getting at.

I particularly like the green chasuble with the embroidered flowers. Can you tell me about the symbolism in that piece?

That one I find fascinating, because if you look at the design structure of it, it’s a garden. The gold scrolls effectively create the design of a rock garden. In between, you’ve got all these flowers, which are references to the virtues of the Virgin Mary. And dotted around are these opals and jewels and pearls. It’s one of the most heavily embroidered of all of them. It draws on the Jesuit spiritual writer Henry Hawkins, who described Mary as an enclosed garden, or hortus conclusus. When you go into the garden, there are all these fragrant, beautiful flowers. Jesuit spirituality is based on the senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. So that’s what Helena is evoking in this chasuble. This beautiful garden with these glorious flowers, which are all different colors with silks, gold thread, pearls and so on. You’re encouraged to immerse yourself in this garden.

‘You need to discern what’s right, according to your own informed conscience, and you need the courage to stick to it. That’s probably what these women have got to teach us nowadays.’

Who are some of the other women whose work is displayed here?

There’s a number of them. There’s Mary Bodenham. We have a beautiful chalice veil that she embroidered to commemorate the miraculous healing of her father-in-law at St. Winefride’s well in north Wales, which has a spring that is reputed to have healing properties. She embroidered this very obviously Catholic chalice veil with an embroidery of St. Winefride, and she put her name on it. We also have letters that she wrote describing numerous cures at this special place in Wales. So again, Mary was one of these people that had this extraordinary skill for embroidery, but she was very focused on recording stories, getting them written down. As a curator, that really resonates with me. Write it down, for goodness sake, before things are forgotten!

Then, there are the Vaux sisters, Anne and Eliza, who were very fiery characters. Eliza Vaux particularly, she was always getting into trouble and fighting with people. Eliza used to shelter priests, Jesuits, a lot. She was targeted on a number of occasions.

As one Catholic woman to another, what can thehot holy ladies” teach us about faith today?

It’s a discernment of what is right and important to yourself. The difficulty in the 16th and 17th century was that the English government was trying to portray Catholics as treasonous, disloyal. And when you look around the world now, goodness knows there are so many examples of unfair treatment and discrimination. Not only religious discrimination, but discrimation on the grounds of color, sexual orientation and gender. You need to discern what’s right, according to your own informed conscience, and you need the courage to stick to it. Speak out for freedom and justice. That’s probably what these women have got to teach us nowadays. Not only that, they made some fantastic embroideries!

Are there any other pieces of art you would like to talk about?

Apart from the glorious embroideries of Helena and others, one of the things that I found most touching about this exhibition is the women whose names we don’t know. We have a number of 16th and 17th century chasubles which are not embroidered but are made from women’s dresses. They turned their own Sunday best into chasubles, because it wasn’t easy to buy fabric. And so there are about a dozen examples of clearly women’s frocks that have been turned into chasubles, and that I think is deeply moving. Just making do with what you had to hand, and turning over your best to serve the people who are serving you as priests.

Turning over your best to God.

Exactly.

The physical exhibition of “Hot Holy Ladies” opens on July 8 at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, England, and runs until Christmas.

The online exhibition is available now. It features a lovely 20-minute documentary on the life of Helena Wintour, narrated by Dr. Graffius, as well as six short videos detailing the design and symbolism of each of the Wintour chasubles.

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