St. Olaf

The relics of Norway’s patron saint seem to have been found:

Norway’s Saint Olaf Uncovered: Archaeologists Believe They have Discovered the Shrine of the Lost Viking King

A team of Norwegian archaeologists believes they have discovered the remains of a 1,000-year-old church that once served as the final resting place for one of Norway’s great Viking kings, and its patron saint.

Olaf II Haraldson reigned in the eleventh century, from 1015 until 1028 AD, and today is largely credited for spreading the Christian religion throughout Norway. Olaf was driven into exile by the Danish King Canute and was slain in battle upon his return to Norway, just north of the city of Trondheim, where his forces fell to the enemy Danes and a rebellious group of Norwegian nobles.

Olaf was proclaimed a saint and was buried in St. Clement’s Church in Trondheim, but as his cult grew larger and larger, his body was eventually moved to the Trondheim cathedral. Some time after, historians believe that St. Clement’s church was destroyed, its location lost – until now.

Researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) may have discovered the original foundations of St. Clement’s Church, and even believe that they have identified the lost shrine of the martyred King. They uncovered a stone slab which they claim had been the foundation of the altar where the King’s coffin once rested. Researchers have also found skeletons at the site, believed to be the remains of the church graveyard, but they were likely buried many years after Saint Olaf.

More at the link.

Professor Buzzkill

In honor of the feast of St. Francis, a podcast debunking several myths about him, by my friend Bill Campbell. The teaser:

St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular saints in the Christian religion. He’s known as a lover of animals, the first eco-warrior, and a peace-negotiator during the crusades. How much of this is true, and how much is myth? “Make me the instrument of your buzzkilling!”

Thomas Becket’s Book of Psalms

From the Guardian:

Thomas Becket’s personal book of psalms ‘found in Cambridge library’

A Cambridge academic believes he has discovered Thomas Becket’s personal book of psalms, an ancient manuscript the martyred saint and so-called “turbulent priest” may have been holding when he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

Dr Christopher de Hamel, a historian at Cambridge University, stumbled across the book during a conversation with a colleague. De Hamel, author of the just-released Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, had said that books belonging to saints were generally not used as relics, and his fellow historian replied that he knew of an exception.

He showed de Hamel an entry from the Sacrists’ Roll of Canterbury Cathedral, dating to 1321, which gave a detailed description of a Psalter, or book of psalms, in a jewelled binding, that was then preserved as a relic at the shrine of Becket in the cathedral. Becket, archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170, was murdered by four knights inside the cathedral, who took on the task after supposedly hearing Henry II remark: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

De Hamel said that he read the Psalter’s description, and realised he had seen it before: an Anglo-Saxon Psalter in Cambridge’s Parker Library bears the same description on its flyleaf. It is undoubtedly the same manuscript from Becket’s shrine, he believes.

A 16th-century note says the book once belonged to Becket, but “everyone has always said it was ridiculous,” said de Hamel. “Becket is a big name and there’s a list of his books. This isn’t one of them.” But a link had not previously been made between the 14th-century inventory and the Parker manuscript.

In a piece in Saturday’s Guardian Review, De Hamel lays out how the Psalter was clearly made in Canterbury, and dates from the very early 11th century. It was probably, he said, made for the private use of an archbishop, likely Alphege, who was archbishop from 1005 to 1016, when he was killed by the Danes in Greenwich. Alphege was later canonised, and was Becket’s personal patron saint.

“People hadn’t matched it up, and suddenly there it was,” said de Hamel. “The inscription says this is the Psalter of the archbishop of Canterbury. It clearly is a private Psalter … I assume Becket had come across the book and taken it into his own possession.”

More at the link.

Some More Saints

I was interested to discover a new saint in San Antonio – the namesake of the San Juan Capistrano Mission:


Note the “Oriental” head underfoot.

From a plaque nearby (given by the San Antonio Hungarian Association):

Giovanni di Capistrano [Italy] (1386-1456), lawyer, public official, Franciscan priest, teacher, and missionary, participated in the Battle of Nandorfehervar (now Belgrade), Hungary. Sent by the Vatican as spiritual advisor to the defense forces led by General Janos Hunyady, the fearless friar, confronted by a serious emergency, accepted command of a large contingent of the Christian army. Before the battle actually began, Pope Calixtus III, on June 29, 1456, ordered church bells rung at noon throughout Christendom to encourage the defenders of Nandorfehervar to persevere.

A few months later, to the great relief of Europe, in halting the Turkish invaders at the southern frontier of Hungary, the Christian warriors safeguarded the rest of the continent from further assault. To the Hungarians, the daily ringing of church bells represented the victory at Nandorfehervar, a commemoration later taught to all school children.

Shortly after the battle, General Hunyady and Fray Capistrano died, victims of a scourging plague. A grateful nation promptly acknowledged Janos Hunyady as a Hungarian hero. Two centuries later, in 1690, the Vatican canonized Juan De Capistrano. At Mission San Juan Capistrano, loose strands of cultural history have intertwined in thoughtful reflection.

There is no indication why the Franciscans named it after St. John Capistrano in the first place. The mission was originally named San José de los Nazonis when it was established elsewhere in 1716, but when it moved to San Antonio in 1731 they renamed it after St. John Capistrano, since there was already a mission in San Antonio named after San José. Obviously the fact that St. John was a Franciscan mattered to them, but why they picked such a crusading saint (as opposed to a preaching one, for a mission) I do not know.

In the gift shop, I acquired some prayer cards for my collection:


The back of this card features a “Prayer for a Safe Delivery” and is addressed to St. Gerard, whom I reckon is Gerard Majella (1726-1755), an Italian Redemptorist canonized in 1904. According to Wikipedia, his intercession is sought, among other things, “for children, unborn children, women in childbirth, mothers, expectant mothers, [and] motherhood.” Nothing in his biography suggests a specific connection to these things, however, and it’s surprising how an eighteenth-century saint (and a male one!) could come to exercise such competence, as those concerns have always been with us. Were the older saints no longer doing their jobs? His miracles, while alive, include reviving a boy who had fallen from a cliff, multiplying a poor family’s store of wheat so that it lasted until the next harvest, and walking on water to lead a boatload of fishermen through a storm to the safety – indicating that Enlightenment values were not universal in the eighteenth century. 


This is St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus – or in this case, St. Joseph the Worker, “model of all those who are devoted to labor.” A good and necessary patron!


This is St. Padre Pio (1887-1968), Italian Capuchin Friar, who was canonized 2002. Padre Pio famously received the stigmata – here covered by fingerless gloves.


St. Peregrine Laziosi (c. 1260-1345), Italian Servite friar, canonized 1726. Like St. Roch, he is depicted with a sore on his leg. St. Peregrine’s sore developed because he always stood when he could sit. On the night before his leg was to be amputated, Jesus came down and healed it. St. Peregrine is therefore invoked against cancer, AIDS, and other maladies.


St. Rita of Cascia (1371-1447), Italian widow and Augustinian nun, canonized 1900. Note the wound on her forehead, and the crown of thorns:

When St. Rita was approximately sixty years of age, she was meditating before an image of Christ crucified. Suddenly, a small wound appeared on her forehead, as though a thorn from the crown that encircled Christ’s head had loosened itself and penetrated her own flesh. For the next fifteen years she bore this external sign of stigmatization and union with Christ.

Note also the rose:

It is said that near the end of her life Rita was bedridden at the convent. While visiting her, a cousin asked if she desired anything from her old home. Rita responded by asking for a rose from the garden. It was January, and her cousin did not expect to find one due to the season. However, when her relative went to the house, a single blooming rose was found in the garden, and her cousin brought it back to Rita at the convent.

(Both quotations from Wikipedia).

New Orleans

Happy to have experienced New Orleans for the first time this summer. The French Quarter is not exactly “family friendly,” of course, but there’s plenty of history to gratify people like me!

The heart of it all is Jackson Square, named after the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. It features an equestrian statue of the man who would later become the seventh U.S. president:


I had to wonder: given that Jackson has been removed from the $20 bill, will we see the square revert to its original name?


At the top of the square, the famous Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France:


I quite liked the historic flags, and the stained glass illustrating scenes from the life of St. Louis, including planning the Sainte-Chapelle and receiving the keys to Tunis while on crusade.

I was pleased to see that the arms of the Archdiocese of New Orleans (left) make an obvious reference to the arms of the French city of Orléans (right, via Wikipedia). The colors are reversed, and the pelican refers to Louisiana.

armsNOarchdiocese         600px-Blason_Orléans.svg


Flag of Louisiana, via Wikipedia.

Speaking of the connection between Old Orleans and New Orleans, down the street we find an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc. The original, by Emmanuel Frémiet, can be seen in Paris.


Joan, of course, raised the siege of Orléans in 1429 during the Hundred Years War. I was pleased to see the coat of arms of Orléans near the plinth, along with those of Lorraine (Joan’s birthplace), Reims (where she presided over the coronation of Charles VII), and Rouen (where the English burned her at the stake for witchcraft).

Arms of St. Michael

St. Michael was one of the most popular saints in medieval Europe, in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. This is rather odd, because Michael is not a saint at all, but an angel. Saints were human once, and performed some noted service to Christianity; the most prestigious ones were martyred for their faith. Saints are in heaven with God, and in the Middle Ages acquired the function of intercession: you could pray to them, and they would be deputized with answering; they might specialize in providing a particular type of miracle, and amass a particular set of devotees.

Angels are different. In both the Old and New Testaments, angels function as messengers of God. Gabriel, Uriel, and Michael are the three best-known. They had never enjoyed a human existence, but were always semi-divine members of the court of heaven. As such, one would think that they would enjoy a Christian cult like that of the most powerful saints, but only Michael seems to have. (One would think that Old Testament prophets like Moses, Elijah, or Isaiah could be Christianized in this way as well, but one generally does not find churches dedicated to them, prayers addressed to them, or accounts of their lives included in saints legendaries.)

Why St. Michael should have enjoyed church and guild dedications, heard Christian prayers, had his own feast day (Michaelmas, September 29), been included in the Golden Legend, etc., is a mystery I’d like to explore more. Gabriel, despite his appearance to the Virgin Mary herself, was nowhere near as popular. The only thing I can think of right now is artistic: St. Michael was often shown battling the devil, as he does in Revelation. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons why St. George was so popular was simply because he was shown fighting the dragon; people loved the action. In England, George and Michael were sometimes paired, each one overcoming his scaly enemy.

This leads to a very important aspect of St. Michael’s patronage: he was a warrior saint. He protected and encouraged “those who fight,” as they fought. This was not entirely a Christian thing to do, but once the Church endorsed crusading (Holy War to liberate Jerusalem from the infidel), it was only natural that different saints should be accepted as specialists in warfare – whether practiced on crusade or not. Once the English managed to monopolize St. George in the context of the Hundred Years’ War (following the Battle of Crécy in 1346), the French turned increasingly to St. Michael. Colette Beaune talks about this in her Naissance de la nation France; the Norman monastery of Mont-St-Michel played a role, as did the foundation of the French Order of St. Michael in 1469.

Depictions of St. Michael followed suit. Normally, he was shown as an angel, dressed in dalmatic. As the Middle Ages wore on, however, he acquired more and more pieces of military equipment, such as helmet, breastplate, greaves, and shield. And on the shield – a coat of arms.

What coat of arms does St. Michael bear? When he’s dressed as a knight, he has the chance to display arms on his shield, and perhaps also on his breastplate. Sometimes he holds a banner, although this does not necessarily display his personal arms.

Unfortunately, no clear patterns have emerged. Here are some rough groupings:

1. “Michael” means “Who is like God?” with the implied answer, “No one.” Thus, St. Michael can bear a shield bearing a Latin form of his name as a motto: Quis ut Deus?

José Raphael Aragon (1796–1862), Saint Michael (San Miguel), c. 1840


2. As a Christian warrior, it is only natural for Michael to bear a cruciform shield.

2a. Oftentimes, this shield is simply St. George’s red cross on white.

Altarpiece of St Michael-Gerard DAVID [Netherlandish Northern Renaissance Painter, ca.1460-1523] Sienese14cent

2b. Red and gold are also seen.

Horae ad usum Parisiensem , dites Heures de Charles VIII 1475-1500

2c. Also gold on gold!

CodS384 BrusselsBroodhuisMuseum

2d. Sometimes charges appear in the quarters.

quarters Saint Michael, 1450–1500, Master of Belmonte; the saint symbolises Christ triumphant over evil and the demon, the Antichrist. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

2e. A Russian Michael bears a Russian cross:


3. Several shields aren’t heraldic at all, but are simply blank and/or decorative and/or functional.

c85c66698751ec3f7a452c8d77a45641 Francisco de Zurbarán and Studio - The Archangel Michael

4. Many shields feature rays of light or flames.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1171, f. 71r. Book of Hours, use of Rome. 16th century


5. A couple of shields bear an escarbuncle, which is a charge derived from the way a shield is constructed.



6. St. Michael occasionally bears a shield of one of his votaries – in this case, the king of France.


saint michel terrassant le dragon The Fouquet missal , Beinecke MS 425 , f. 305v, c. 1450 - 1475,

7. I found one that seems to be covered in feathers, like Michael’s wings.

St. Michael and the Devil. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 1156B, detail of f. 165r. Book of Hours, use of Rome (15th century)

So as you can see, unlike with St. George, who is almost universally identified with Argent, a cross Gules, artists of St. Michael could get quite creative with his coat of arms. If this has any meaning, I assume that it’s because St. Michael is even more heavenly than your average warrior saint, and not constrained by any heraldic rules.

Erik the Lawgiver

The coat of arms of Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, features a bust of King Erik IX (d. 1160), also known as Erik the Lawgiver. Although never canonized, he is widely considered a saint, with his feast day on May 18. St. Stephen of Hungary, St. Louis of France, St. Edward of England, and St. Olaf of Norway are other such king-saints, although Erik is only patron of Stockholm, not all of Sweden (that would be Briget of Sweden [d. 1373], mystic and founder of the Bridgettines).


Via Wikipedia.

Erik’s remains may be found in a reliquary in Uppsala Cathedral – whence they were recently removed and analyzed by a team at Uppsala University, looking to confirm details of his life as they have come down to us. From Atlas Obscura:

Wednesday’s press release from Uppsala University explains the exhaustive interdisciplinary research the team utilized in the two years since they opened the reliquary and began their work, including radiocarbon dating, aDNA analysis (ancient DNA), isotope analysis, and forensic medicine. According to the researchers, 23 of the 24 bones in the reliquary belonged to the same individual—there’s also a bonus “mystery” shinbone—who was male, between 35 and 40 years old, and died around 1160. The skull shows signs of healed wounds that may have occurred in battle, aligning with the tales of a Finnish crusade. So far, so good.

But the most interesting discoveries surround Erik’s death. According to the researchers, “The saint’s legend says that in the king’s final battle, the enemy swarmed him, and when he fell to the ground they gave him wound after wound until he lay half dead. They then taunted him and finally cut off his head.” True to legend, Erik’s bones show signs of cuts inflicted in connection with his death and indicate that he was lying face-down during the injuries. Furthermore, one of his neck vertebra was cut through; not only is this consistent with decapitation, the injury could not have been inflicted during battle as the hauberks worn at the time would protect that part of the neck. This aligns with the legend’s assertion that he was swarmed in battle, captured, and taunted prior to his decapitation. So while the research doesn’t tell us much about what Erik was like as a person, the available evidence of the king’s death in no way contradicts the account in Catholic legend.

The Habsburgs Come to Atlanta

Pleased to have been able to see the exhibit “Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections” at Atlanta’s High Museum today. Some pictures:


Embroidered Habsburg coat of arms.


One knight…


…faces another.


Hans Daucher, Emperor Maximilian I on Horseback as St. George, a “Christian Soldier,” 1522.


A fuller Habsburg coat of arms.


A painting of a girl with Ambras Syndrome. For more on the phenomenon, see Merry Wiesner-Hanks, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their Worlds (2009).


The hem of a robe of a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Note the fleece and flint-and-steel devices.


A silver St. Sebastian shot with golden arrows.


Corregio’s Jupiter and Io (c. 1530).


On the way out: a building reflecting another building.

St. Patrick

Legend has it that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, as illustrated on this prayer card:

But Gerald of Wales (late twelfth century) knew better. From the History and Topography of Ireland:

Of all kids of reptiles only those that are not harmful are found in Ireland. It has no poisonous reptiles. It has no serpents or snakes, toads or frogs, tortoises or scorpions. It has no dragons, It has, however, spiders, leeches and lizards – but they are entirely harmless.

Some indulge in the pleasant conjecture that Saint Patrick and other saints of the land purged the island of all harmful animals. But it is more probable that from the earliest times, and long before the laying of the foundations of the Faith, the island was naturally without these as well as other things.

Alas, the remarkably clear deductive power on display here is not sustained throughout the rest of the book, which repeats a lot of fanciful stories. Methinks that in this passage, Gerald was trying to undermine any claims of Irish holiness by means of justifying the English claim to the country.

The note to this passage mentions that “some modern theory on this matter maintains that the legend of the expulsion of snakes from the country is of Norse, not Irish, origin. It is based on a confusion between the Norse word for ‘toad-expeller’ (Pad-rekr) and the Irish form of Patricius (Padraig).”

Brought to you by the Letter I

From Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. May we all have copy-editors this good:

One day Baithéne came to St. Columba and said:

“I need one of the brethren to help me go through the text of the psalter I have copied and correct any mistakes.”

The saint said to him:

“Why do you bring this trouble on us when there is no need? For in your copy of the psalter there is no mistake – neither one letter too many nor one too few – except that in one place the letter I is missing.”

So it was. Having gone through the whole psalter, it was found to be exactly as the saint predicted.