This painting, by the American artist George Frederick Bensell (c. 1837-1879), was inspired by the medieval legends of Saint Genevieve of Brabant. Not to be confused with the earlier 5th-6th century St. Genevieve of Nanterre, the artwork’s subject—St. Genevieve of Brabant—was a later medieval legendary figure who reportedly lived around the 8th or 9th century. According to the tales about her, Genevieve of Brabant was married to Count Siegfried, the ruler of Treves and Brabant. Their marriage proved fruitful, and they soon had a newborn son named Schmerzenreich or Scherzenreich. Yet, the family soon was torn apart by rumor and paranoia.
As the story goes, Count Siegfried succumbed to suspicions that Genevieve had been unfaithful and that the newborn son was not his child. The saintly woman, of course, was innocent of the charges. Nevertheless, engulfed by his fears, Count Siegfried ultimately decided to condemn Genevieve of Brabant and her child to death. Following the count’s orders, authorities arrested Genevieve and the child, yet the executioners could not bring themselves to kill the innocent pair. Instead, the merciful captors released the saintly mother and child into the wilderness, giving them a chance for survival.
Legend told that Genevieve and her son made a home within a cave in the Ardennes. Genevieve was not much of a hunter-gatherer, but fortunately for her, she became one of the many legendary figures who was said to have been cared and provided for by nature—in Genevieve’s case, a roe deer brought whatever supplies were needed. These bizarre living arrangements were not short-term. Quite the opposite, Genevieve and her son supposedly remained in the Ardennes cave for around six years. Such are the circumstances involved in George Frederick Bensell’s painting, which depicts St. Genevieve of Brabant and her son with their guardian deer at the wilderness refuge they found in the Ardennes. The deer eventually played a part in reconciling Genevieve and her son to Count Siegfried. The count, who regretted his actions and had finally discovered that the rumors about his wife’s infidelity were unfounded, was one day out on a hunting trip when he spotted a roe deer that was acting peculiarly. The brave deer stayed in sight, but out of range, of the hunter’s bow. Through that dangerous method of luring the count into the Ardennes, the deer ultimately was able to bring Count Siegfried to the cave where his wife and son were hiding. As the count was by then repentant and clear of his doubts, the reunion went well and St. Genevieve and her son were finally able to end their long exile.
Written by C. Keith Hansley