Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
I've often wondered why Jacinta and Francisco, the young shepherd children who witnessed Our Lady's apparitions at Fatima, were always so sullen in photos. I mean, they got to meet Jesus' Mother firsthand! Mary promised them that they would soon be in heaven! Their cousin Sister Lucia, who had experienced the apparitions alongside the two, wrote in her memoirs that Jacinta was affectionate, with a sweet singing voice and a gift for dancing. Francisco, she revealed, had a placid disposition; he, too, was somewhat musically inclined, and he liked to be by himself to think.
After the apparitions, their personalities remained pretty much the same. Francisco liked to pray alone, explaining that his prayer would “console Jesus for the sins of the world.” Jacinta was terrified by the third apparition, when Our Lady showed them a vision of hell and warned that many would go there. She lived a life of stringent self-mortification, praying the Rosary and making sacrifices.
So why couldn't these children, who were assured of salvation and who had in a special way attracted the attention of Jesus' Mother, crack a smile for the photographer? Whether holding their rosaries or standing alert before a wall, they seem severe, perhaps even angry. What’s wrong?
Who Were the Fatima Visionaries?
Jacinta (then 7 years old) and Francisco Marto (8 years old) were the youngest children of Manuel and Olimpia Martina. Like most Portuguese village children of the time, they were illiterate; but they were chosen for a special purpose: With their cousin Lúcia dos Santos, the Portuguese shepherd children from Aljustrel witnessed three apparitions of the Angel of Peace in 1916, and several apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary between May 13 and Oct. 13, 1917 at Cova da Iria, about 110 miles north of Lisbon near the city of Fátima. Mary asked the children to learn to read and write, and to pray the rosary “to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war.” They were to pray, Mary told them, for sinners and for the conversion of Russia.
As the apparitions gained in acceptance, the crowds grew – and more than 90,000 spectators were on hand to witness the final apparition on Oct. 13, 1917. The title Our Lady of Fatima was given to Our Lady; and on May 13, 2017 – one hundred years after the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima – Jacinta and Francisco were canonized by Pope Francis. Their cousin Lucia, who had lived a long life as a nun, was present for the beatification in May 2000 but died five years later; and no one will be surprised when Sister Lucia, too, is presented for beatification.
But Why the Sour Expressions?
So why did these sweet children, friends of Mary, scowl for the camera? Some hypothesize that the serious expressions on the faces in 19th-century photographs can be attributed to bad dental work. Braces and cosmetic dentistry were uncommon at the time, with the result that many who posed for photos were discouraged from smiling. “People had lousy teeth,” said Angus Trumble, director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, and author of A Brief History of the Smile, “if they had teeth at all, which militated against opening your mouth in social settings.”
Another view is that it took so long to take a photo in the 1800s, and the children would have been encouraged to hold still in as convenient a post as possible.
But a more common explanation is offered by Dr. Christina Kotchemidova, a professor of communications arts at Spring Hill College. Dr. Kotchemidova acknowledges that in contemporary society, it seems natural to smile for a photo; but, she says, while smiling in general may be innate, smiling in front of a camera is not an instinctive response.
A 2016 article in Time magazine adds yet another perspective:
Experts say that the deeper reason for the lack of smiles early on is that photography took guidance from pre-existing customs in painting—an art form in which many found grins uncouth and inappropriate for portraiture. Though saints might be depicted with faint smiles, wider smiles were “associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous,” says Trumble. Accordingly, high-end studio photographers would create an elegant setting and direct the subject how to behave, producing the staid expressions which are so familiar in 19th century photographs. The images they created were formal and befitted the expense of paying to have a portrait made, especially when that portrait might be the only image of someone.
Later, long after the children of Fatima had posed together against the stone wall, facial expressions may have helped to convey the emotion of a photo shoot. A saint might be portrayed with a slight smile, as is President Abraham Lincoln in a formal portrait; but still, there is a perceived difference between public performance at the turn of the century and public presentation. While Jacinta and Francisco may have spontaneously laughed and giggled in delight while playing with other children near the Cova, their formal portraits invoke a seriousness that photographers of the time had come to expect.