Lecture of the Bydgoszcz Academy of Art
Jowita Jagla. Healing Saints. On the links between old medicine and art
Over the past centuries, the saints have been for Christians an extremely important community of active helpers/advocates/patrons and supporters able to interfere in the frail, sinful, human world. In this community a special group consisted of so-called “holy healers,” that is anti-disease patrons (inheritors of the power of Christ the Healer). In the face of scarce anatomical knowledge, poor access to professional medicine, and the universality of not always appropriate “folk medicine,” the popularity of healing saints was really enormous, as evidenced by the abounding iconography, the multitude of forms of worship given to them or the so-called “pharmacy of saints” – publications and ephemeral prints containing rich lists of patrons protecting from all kinds of diseases.
There was a conviction that the healing saints “specialized” in miraculous healing above all thanks to the power that they had over a specific illness; and that this power usually resulted from the association of a given illness with a kind of martyrdom [a saint deprived of teeth by torturers became a patron of dental diseases (St. Apolonia); blindness resulted in patronage over vision diseases (St. Lucy and St. Odile) etc.]. There was also a group of Heavenly Healers suffering from illnesses and body ailments, which in turn entitled them to patronage (St. Roch, who suffered from the plague, became the anti-epidemic patron saint; leprosy-stricken Lazarus and Job gained patronage over leprosy and skin diseases). The patronage over mental illnesses, obsession and epilepsy was shaped in a slightly different way; these illnesses, perceived by the public as being caused by the demons, had to gain special patronage – patronage of holy exorcists with the power to liberate and free the crippled body from the demon. These saints included St. Valentine, St. Cyriak, and St. Vitus.
In the face of centuries of human struggle against diseases and epidemics, the healing saints were a particularly necessary community. In the places they are worshipped, a votive offer in the form of a sick organ was made in order to ask for a cure or to thank them for a miracle of healing. Such an object expressed a mysterious sign of the illness, but it was also a symbol of communication between the sick person and the holy power that is lavish with miracles. Importantly, in the case of the cult of the healing saints, the reward given to the saint in the form of the aforementioned votive offerings, donation for the church, or fulfilling a secret – promised earlier – vow played a very important role, because it was believed that the act of neglecting this sphere could backfire… The healing saint who was able to cure people from illnesses could at the same time have the ability to send it back!
Nowadays, due to the developments of medicine, the need for therapeutic patronage has diminished, shrunk, and in some cases the rich forms of worship of holy healers have disappeared, and in many sanctuaries the role of the “holy healer” belongs, above all – especially in Europe – to the Mother of God. However, the preserved extensive iconography is still a magnificent visual trace of the highly exposed meaning that these saints had in the Middle Ages and modern times.
Jowita Jagla – art historian, doctor of humanities, head of the History of Medicine Department of the Nicolaus Copernicus Museum in Frombork.
Author of several dozen scientific articles and books (“Divine Medicine and Heavenly Healers in the face of disability and human diseases. Iconography of Patron Saints of Diseases and Saints Loving Beggars in the Polish art of 14th–17th centuries,” Warsaw (Neriton) 2004; “Eternal pleading and thanksgiving. On the symbolic relations between sacrum and profanum in votive representations from Central Poland,” Warsaw (Neriton) 2009). She is interested in medieval iconography, medieval and modern iconography of saints, votive gesture and mutual relations between art and medicine.