Hot Holy Ladies
The phrase ‘Hot, Holy Ladies’ was first used as a sarcastic insult in 1602, aimed at an impressive and effective group of strong-minded female supporters of the Jesuit Catholic mission. The exhibition examines the lives, circles and works of a selection of influential, educated Catholic women who carried out remarkable acts of creativity and subversion spanning the early Tudor pre-Reformation period into the George IV era of Catholic Emancipation.
The Hot Holy Ladies exhibition, open to the public from July 8th, features a range of women ranging from high-profile historical figures who shaped policy and national events to less well-known individuals who achieved extraordinary acts of religious defiance and cultural creativity in the shadows imposed by state-imposed religious intolerance and persecution. Their stories are told through the remarkable array of artefacts, manuscripts and relics held at Stonyhurst College, and through significant loans from the British Jesuit Province and Douai Abbey Library.
Who is Helena Wintour?
A major part of the exhibition consists of the flamboyant and defiant embroideries created by the remarkable Helena Wintour. Helena, of course, bears the same surname as Anna Wintour, and it is intriguing to reflect on the possibility that she might have been an ancestral relation.
This film tells her life and highlights her extraordinarily beautiful vestments. Helena’s life story is told here; from orphaned child of a proscribed traitor, to the centre of a creative, erudite, spiritual and charitable recusant network, with close ties to Jesuit missionaries and Jesuit spirituality. The paradox of Helena’s life is encapsulated in her embroideries. She was creating illegal vestments for a proscribed religion, forced to operate in secret under threat of exposure- sheltering priests and enabling the celebration of the mass in the 16th and 17th centuries carried the death penalty. In addition to which, Helena’s family name was tainted by association with the most notorious attempt at terrorism of the 17th century- the Gunpowder Plot. Yet she persisted in this dangerous, subversive work, and defiantly embroidered her name on the vestments.
Rebecca Somerset (Archivist, British Jesuit Archives) conducts an interview with Dr Jan Graffius (Curator, Stonyhurst College Collections) about the Hot, Holy Ladies exhibition launched in April 2022. They discuss the remarkable life of Helena Wintour and the underappreciated but essential role of 16th and 17th century Catholic women in saving many of the artefacts held by Stonyhurst and the British Jesuit Province today. The podcast also offers an understanding that vestments are a fundamental part of English and Welsh creative, literary and artistic history.