Beaded Sacred Heart


Oil painting and beadwork depicting a red burning heart encircled by a crown of thorns against a light blue background and vermillion border.

Peinture à huile et perles sur écorce de bouleau.

Juli Saint-Laurent
Private Collection
Soeur Marguerite-Marie (Sara) Riel
30.5cm W x 31.3cm L x 1cm H
Oil Painting and Beadwork on birch bark
Beaded Heart

This painting portrays an image of Christ’s Sacred Heart and is based on a 19th century French embroidery. The work is painted in oil on a 12” x 12” piece of Betula papyrifera, or, white birch, a Northern Saskatchewan tree species that grows in the Canadian boreal forest. The background of the painting is of a faded, pale blue sky with soft white clouds. The painting has a 1/2” faded border that clearly was once a vibrant vermillion. At the centre of the painting is a faded red heart, also vermillion, with orange and red flames fanning out of the top of the heart. From the flames rises a small vermillion cross. The heart itself is at the centre of a faded golden-ochre five-point star. The star is encircled with a crown of thorns. Radiating from the heart are a series of 48 golden rays made of small strands or ‘sheafs’ that resemble wheat stalks, though without seed heads. A large, vermillion five-point star is painted at each ordinal point, like the hours of a clock. Between each ‘sheaf,’ and against the cloudy background, the artist has painted smaller golden stars. Small golden stars are also painted on alternate sheafs (i.e., at the 5 and 10 minutes positions) beginning at the 12 o’clock position. These stars are arranged closer to the crown of thorns than the red stars and every second star is positioned closer to the crown of thorns. In the four corners of the painting the artist has painted a pale purple prairie crocus, Pulsatilla vulgaris, also known as the Pasque flower because in more temperate climates it blossoms in early spring, that is, around Easter.

The verso of the painting shows the aging of the birch bark used as the canvas. It is a mellow grey-white with some orange staining, perhaps from the painting being stored amongst a stack of other folkloric paintings of the region as found in a recent renovation of a deserted 19th century schoolhouse.

There are no overt markings that indicate the name of the painter, but the words, ‘Le Sacre Coeur de Jésus, Île-à-la-Crosse,’ are written in 19th c. copperplate in what appears to be graphite in the lower left-hand corner of the verso of the painting. A comparison of the handwriting with letters from Sara Riel to her brother Louis, indicate that the former is the author of the lettering at the back of the painting.

The painting gives off a faint smell of roses, candlewax, and incense and is reminiscent of the evocative smell of the crypt of Saint André Bessette at L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

The overall condition of the painting is fair to good. There is some crackling of the canvas which gives the painting a quaint mid-19th century patina. It is somewhat brittle due to inadequate handling and storage, but it is an excellent candidate for sensitive restoration using 21st century conservation techniques.

Biographical Details: Ms. Juli Saint-Laurent (b. 1990) Nippising, Michigan was educated at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Convent, a school for gifted children. The author of the painting continued her studies in French, Fine Art, and North American Native Studies at Wayne State University, attaining her BA in 2004. She continued with an MFA at Concordia University, Montreal Quebec, where she graduated in 2007. The title of her thesis was Seventeenth Century Embroidery Designs and Their Influence on Cree and Métis Beadwork.

After working at a variety of menial service industry jobs in Quebec and Ontario, and for Parks Canada at the Batoche Heritage site in Saskatchewan as a member of the heritage team, as well as two seasons of tree-planting in the interior of British Columbia, in 2010 Ms. Saint-Laurent began another BA (studio practice) at Emily Carr University, Vancouver. She left the university abruptly after a dispute with one of her male professors in early 2012. After receiving a small legacy in 2012, the author applied for a PhD at several universities in North America and Europe and after fifteen rejections was successful at last, gaining entrance to the relatively unknown Université de Vallencourt in the Alsace region of France. There she broadened her research on the French influence on northern American indigenous fine arts. Her supervisor at Vallencourt was the late Professor Henri Erde, a combative and controversial scholar.

Ms. Saint-Laurent’s father, Dr. Philip Saint-Laurent, is a professor of Physics at Wayne State University, where he does research on dark stars, and her mother, Melanie Saint-Laurent (née White), is a failed spoken-word poet who writes under the nom-de-plume, Margot L’Amour. Melanie  lives on Lasquiti Island, a remote, obscure island off the coast of British Columbia where she is growing and beta-testing new strains of medicinal marijuana.  Dr. Penelope Saint-Laurent, Juli’s older sister, is a world-renowned researcher in informatics at Johns Hopkin University, Baltimore.

Juli Saint-Laurent has long dark brown hair and brown eyes and an olive complexion that reflects her father’s French heritage rather than her mother’s solid Anglo-Saxon roots. Juli has no indigenous heritage but she identifies closely with what she perceives to be a marginalised and victimised populace—First Nations, or Native American, or Métis—and she does not correct people when they identify her as belonging to this group. Because of her orientation towards a fantasy of these peoples as noble and wronged, she is keen to raise the status of this populace through her research, particularly that of indigenous women. Juli genuinely does not believe her forgery to be anti-intellectual or fraud. Further, Juli Saint-Laurent needs a job and ultimately wants the status of an academic position to fulfill her father’s expectations whom she has continually disappointed since she began school. Juli has dyspraxia but does not know it, and is generally characterised as distracted, unorganised, and congenitally late. Juli knows that the only way she can make her mark in the academic world and get publications and the pre-requisite book deal for a university position is through a spectacular discovery of a remarkable artefact in an obscure archive or remote location. One of Sara Riel’s Sacred Heart paintings will guarantee all of this.

Historical Context and Biographical Context of Painter: Sara Riel (1848-1883) is known primarily for being Louis Riel’s sister, yet as Lesley Erikson points out in his MA thesis, At the Cultural and Religious Crossroads: Sara Riel and the Grey Nuns in the Canadian Northwest, 1845-1833 (1997), this is an incomplete narrative. Erickson argues that Sara Riel, Sister Marguerite-Marie, led a parallel life to her brother Louis, as the first Métis missionary serving as a teacher with the Grey Nuns in the north. Erickson’s thesis challenges the portrayal of Sara’s life by other scholars as being ‘an extension of Louis’’ (2), and the tropes of ‘missionaries as “conquerers,” Catholic sisterhoods as auxiliaries, and Natives as victims’ (iii). He offers a nuanced view of the nexus of 19th century Indigenous/European contact, gender roles, and historical context that provide a much broader narrative of our understanding of women, the Métis, and the religious.

Sister Marguerite-Marie, Sara, Riel, was one of 11 children born to Jean-Louis Riel, the son of a French Canadian voyageur and Métis mother, and to Julie (née Lagimodière). Julie was the daughter of a French-Canadian voyageur, Jean- Baptiste Lagimodière, and Marie-Anne Gaboury, the first non-indigenous woman to enter the fur trade territories west of Montreal. The Lagimodière family integrated into Métis culture at Red River and Julie was raised with Métis traditions. Both Riel parents had aspired to religious vocations in their youth but both left their religious studies, then, met and married thereafter. Sara’s mother was a visionary who desired to enter the convent despite her parents’ wishes that she marry Jean-Louis Riel. Only after a vision in which Julie saw ‘an old man surrounded in flames [who] cried down from the heavens, “disobedient child”’ did she marry Sara’s father (Erickson, 54).

Integral to the Riels’ story is the notion of the class system within 19th century Red River Métis culture. Broadly speaking, the Métis could be divided into two classes, a hunting class typified by boisterous sociality and independence, and a merchant/trader class that was temperate and that valued education and a close relationship with the Church. The Riels belonged to the latter. As with many Métis families of the 19th century, the Riel’s home was decorated with the iconography of the Catholic Church—portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, crucifixes, small statuettes of Christ or Mary, and the Sacred Heart. In his 2017 study, Defining Métis: Catholic Missionaries and the Ideal of Civilization in Northwester Saskatchewan, 1845-1898, Timothy Foran quotes Bishop Légeard’s letter to a Visitation Sister of Paray-le-Monial in which the Bishop states that ‘there is not a single house at Ile-a-la-Crosse that is without an image of the Sacred Heart. This divine heart will surely grant them the blessings that are promised to all who honour it’ (CITE!!). Legeard continues:

Currently each of our métis families belong to the mission of Ile-a-la-Crosse possesses a fairly large image of the Sacred Heart painted on paper by the Sister who was healed … As for our sauvages, they too wish to have images of the Sacred Heart. We have not yet been able to oblige them because our dear Sister Marguerite-Marie is very busy teaching classes each day and has had little time to paint these images.

Foran states that ‘by the second half of the 1870s, the veneration of the Sacred Heart—together with its material accoutrements—had become one of the devotional traits cited by the Oblates of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in distinguishing a local metis population from an outlying sauvage population’. The cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was first established in 17th century France, and was brought to New France by Marguerite D’Youville with the Grey Nuns. The cult, which appealed particularly to women, focussed on devotion, the acceptance of suffering, and a passion for self-sacrifice as represented in the flaming heart of Christ. It was therefor a natural subject for Sara Riel’s paintings which she made when not teaching or nursing.

Critical Commentary/Reviews:

In May 2014 Juli Saint-Laurent gave a paper on her recent discovery of the Sara Riel painting at the North American Indigenous Women’s Fine Arts Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Within days Saint-Laurent was fielding calls from numerous Canadian media outlets including: the CBC’s As It Happens; Michael Enright’s Sunday Morning; The National; The Globe and Mail; The National Post; CTV, the BBC World Service; NPR, and many large and small newspapers from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Montana, and North Dakota. The find was hailed as one of the most significant developments in the fields of Indigenous Studies, Canadian History, Gender Studies, and Art History in decades and was covered in one of the longest essays ever published by The Walrus in the December 2016 issue. After 2016 Juli Saint-Laurent has been in demand at conferences, as a subject expert on 19th century women artists for the popular media, Métis culture and history, gender roles in 19th century settler societies and much more. She received numerous offers for publication of her doctoral thesis, post-doctoral positions, as a lecturer in Indigenous colleges throughout the Northern United States and Canada after successfully defending her doctoral thesis in France. The painting, found in a deserted schoolhouse, became a much sought-after object and after a fiercely competitive auction that pitted the National Museum of History of Canada against numerous provincial museums, was purchased by an anonymous donor who immediately donated the painting to the Prud’homme Library.