Paul Wood’s Absolution Under Fire: A Case Study in Religious Memory and Sacred Imagery

This month Cushwa welcomes Notre Dame graduate student Andrew Mach to the blog. Andy's research is currently focused on American nativism and transnational anti-Catholicism during the 1840s and 1850s; he also has extensive experience in public history, and has spent the past five summers as a National Park Services interpretive ranger, most recently at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. Those interested in Catholicism and art, though of a very different character and historical period, are invited to mark your calendars for our upcoming exhibit Outsider at the Vatican: Frederick Franck's Drawings from Vatican II, opening August 1.

Andrew Mach

Absolution Under Fire at the Snite Museum of Art
On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as stray Confederate shells shrieked overhead and deafening sounds of battle thundered across the open landscape of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Union Army chaplain Father William Corby led Irish Brigade soldiers in prayer and gave general absolution of sins as the troops prepared to march in support of beleaguered Northern units stationed near the Wheatfield.

Corby’s action received little coverage at the time, but by 1890 his “absolution under fire” at Gettysburg had taken on iconic status in Catholic circles. Brigade veteran St. Clair Mulholland called for Corby to be awarded the Medal of Honor and spearheaded the successful effort to erect a statue in the chaplain’s honor at Gettysburg. Another eyewitness told his wife that the absolution had made him “as strong as a lion,” while speakers upheld Corby as a model of American Catholic spiritual devotion and patriotism. [1]

Arguably the most popular and influential account of Corby’s battlefield sanctity, however, grew out of a nineteen-year-old student’s keen imagination and considerable artistic talent. In September 1891, University of Notre Dame professor James Edwards, eager to record Corby’s absolution for posterity, commissioned art student Paul Wood to put the scene to canvas. “This is just the kind of work which I love to paint,” Wood confided to his diary, “scenes of blood, carnage, death, sudden and fearful.” [2]

Taking considerable artistic license, Wood placed Corby against the dramatic backdrop of the heights of Little Round Top, further incorporating blood and carnage into the otherwise solemn scene. His finished work, entitled Absolution Under Fire, received critical acclaim for its striking imagery and lifelike appearance, leading at least one newspaper reporter to wrongly describe the teenage Wood – who had never experienced battle in his life – as a “witness” to Corby’s 1863 absolution. [3]

The Indiana State Journal’s conflation of historical fact with artistic rendition provides a starting point for discussing the interpretive promise and scholarly perils of analyzing paintings and other non-written sources on American religion. In this post, I study Absolution Under Fire in hopes of sparking a broader conversation on religious history sources and methodology, highlighting how paintings can serve as both creations and creators of historical memory, as well as differentiating sacred images from images depicting the sacred.

All sources, whether written or visual, religious or secular, reflect the historical contexts in which they were created. Paul Wood patterned Absolution Under Fire’s style and scope, for instance, on Paul Philippoteaux’s The Battle of Gettysburg and other popular late nineteenth-century battle cycloramas. These images, in turn, captured contemporary political and cultural developments, such as Civil War veterans’ growing nostalgia for the war and their calls for sectional reconciliation. [4] In this way, Absolution Under Fire appears as a historical artifact that exemplifies its painter’s personal obsession with military scenes as well as the wider cultural trends that shaped Wood’s world.

Once Paul Wood put oil to canvas, however, Absolution Under Fire began to shape popular views and memories of Corby’s battlefield blessing. Here the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” bears repeating, for visual images can capture an individual’s imagination and shape his or her memory to a far greater extent than any single written source. Writings and speeches invite audience members to draw upon their own experiences and views to craft personalized mental images, but paintings, photographs, movies, and other visual sources supply the same vision to all audience members. Individuals view these images through subjective lenses, to be sure, but their mental pictures of the event in question will conform to a single visual template to a far greater extent than in the case of non-visual sources.

In this sense, visual sources such as Absolution Under Fire serve as creators of memory that displace conflicting, even contradictory, personal images of historical events with common visions that may not reflect historical reality. Many viewers recall images more readily than written descriptions or quotes, and can even alter their own personal memories of an event to conform to the scene portrayed by a visual source. These observations point to the malleability of individual memories, highlight the role of imagination in history, and challenge scholars and students of American religion to look beyond archival documents to explore how humans experience and shape history through sight and the other senses.

Visual sources are oftentimes more widely shared, known, and reproduced than written sources. Absolution Under Fire appeared in Corby’s Memoirs of Chaplain Life, graced countless Catholic textbooks, continues to inspire visitors to Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art, and remains featured on Gettysburg National Military Park’s driving tour exhibit in the Wheatfield. Far more individuals will view these painting reproductions than will read Corby’s memoirs or St. Clair Mulholland’s postwar account of Gettysburg, and even those who read these works often encounter the painting on the next page, meaning their interpretations of these primary sources will still reflect Wood’s vision as much as Corby’s or Mulholland’s words.

Absolution Under Fire also challenges scholars and students of American religion to complicate standard notions of “sacred” images. Unlike icons and other blessed images, which are often placed at the center of religious rites and interpreted as tangible connections to the Divine, images such as Absolution Under Fire possess no inherent spiritual meaning and yet portray a sacred action. Despite Wood’s fascination with military history and battlefield suffering, for instance, Absolution Under Fire captures more than just another standard scene of martial glory and courage. Instead, it presents a sacramental moment rich in Catholic spirituality as well as Christian ecumenicalism, for all Irish Brigade soldiers – Catholic and Protestant alike – are shown bowing in reverence as Corby raises his hand in blessing.

This class of art, which I term “images depicting the sacred,” occupies the middle ground separating sacred images from purely secular scenes, inviting scholars to trace how worldly and otherworldly themes have combined to shape cultural understandings and representations of events. The secular aspects of these images, such as the flags portrayed in Absolution Under Fire, serve as reminders that religion, while not fully “of this world,” remains influenced by its wider earthly contexts. On the other hand, observers eager to fully historicize works such as Absolution Under Fire must not lose sight of the religious significance of these images. Their themes transcend time and space, shoring up faith among many viewers and capturing timeless values such as, in the case of Wood’s work, human courage and Divine forgiveness.

Incorporating paintings and other non-written sources into religious history scholarship fosters greater awareness of historical memory, complicates our understandings of audience and context, and promotes multidisciplinary perspectives. Too often, historical works portray religion as an ahistorical or “timeless” phenomenon, even though the Indiana State Journal’s description of Paul Wood as a Gettysburg “eyewitness” and the continued popularity of Absolution Under Fire both reveal how religious history features issues of collective memory and commemoration. Continuing to incorporate memory studies into religious history scholarship will help students and scholars examine how visual as well as written artifacts have been displayed and popularized over time, interpreted by various audiences and generations, and eventually transformed into collective memories. In the process, we must often journey beyond our disciplinary homes, seeking insight and advice from public and art historians, theologians, artists, movie critics, interpreters, and other professionals on how to more fully describe, analyze, and evaluate religion’s place in American life and society.

[1] For more on postwar efforts to memorialize Corby, see Lawrence F. Kohl’s introduction to Corby’s Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years With the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992). See also Margaret Tinsley to William Corby, December 19, 1897, Folder 33, William Corby Papers, University of Notre Dame Archives, Notre Dame, Indiana [hereafter UNDA], and the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (Pennsylvania), February 7, 1912, page 18.

[2] Paul Wood Diary, September 30, 1891, Paul Wood Collection, UNDA.

[3] Indiana State Journal (Indianapolis), May 20, 1896, page 1.

[4] Biographical Sketch [of Paul Wood] by His Father, S.F. Wood,” Paul Wood Collection, UNDA. For more on Civil War memory and reconciliation, see David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).


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