The legends of the saints are written without footnotes. They can’t be checked and verified. The significance of these legends lies in the moral ideal that lives on in elaborate portrayals as a gentle entreaty to follow their saintly example.
Kurt Messmer is a freelance historian with a focus on history in public space.
In the Middle Ages, what did people do if they were at the mercy of some disease, defenceless, or forced to endure hardship and torment? They called on the saints – Blaise for throat problems, Margaret when being delivered of a child, Agathius in time of mortal fear. If you had a stomach ache that felt as if your intestines were being twisted, you prayed to Erasmus, whose attribute is a windlass.
The Fourteen Holy Helpers
To ensure that intercessions were addressed to the appropriate saint, in around 1400 the Regensburger Normalreihe defined the group of Fourteen Holy Helpers – three women and eleven men, all from late antiquity and almost all of them martyrs. There were regional variations, but the basic guideline served its purpose. Those in need knew from childhood onward which saints to pray to in which situations.People also requested protection for their animals. Horses were ‘presented’ to St Eligius, as it was elegantly put in the German lands. Here in Switzerland, farmers hoping their flocks would thrive and multiply prayed to Säuli-Toni, the Egyptian hermit Antonius, who was later worshiped in San Antón, Spain – not to be confused with Anthony of Padua (after 1200), to whom one sacrificed a two-franc coin in order to find something lost.
‘John, you must go in the stove!’ – Reformation, banishment of the saints
The Zurich reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) opposed the veneration of saints. He considered invoking the Holy Helpers to be idolatry and a blasphemous diversion; Christ alone could act as mediator between God and His people. Along with this basic rejection of the concept of saint worship, Zwingli was also concerned for morality: ‘Here is a Mary Magdalene, painted like a whore, so that every cleric has asked himself, how am I to be devout at the sight of her and say mass? Yes, even the eternally immaculate virgin and mother of Jesus Christ is portrayed in such a way that you can almost see her breasts.’ In June 1524, the Council of Zurich rescinded the rules protecting images of the saints, although a committee was to prevent wanton destruction. All churches and monasteries were closed for two weeks.
But there was still covert disobedience and damage. For example, Thomas Platter (1499-1582) noted in his biography: ‘As I was now sexton, I often needed wood for fire to warm the place up. One morning I had no wood, and Zwingli wanted to preach in the Fraumünster early in the morning. When the church bells were already ringing and people were being summoned to the church, I thought: you have no wood, and there are so many idols in there; and because no one was in the church yet, I went to the first altar I saw, grabbed a statue of John, and said to him “You must go in the stove!”’
Felix and Regula – interim special status for Zurich’s patron saints
The question arose as to whether the anathema should apply to all saints indiscriminately, including the city’s patron saints. Even Zwingli didn’t go that far. The Zurich reformer counted the feast day of the city’s patron saints, Felix und Regula – 11 September – among the four principal feasts of the year, along with Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. As if in affirmation of this view, in 1547 Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), baptised his youngest son with the name Felix.
Nonetheless, an altarpiece featuring Felix and Regula also got caught up in the iconoclasm. But it wasn’t just any old picture. Its background was a ‘likeness’ of the city of Zurich that surpassed all previous works in its level of detail; it was on a par with contemporary cityscapes of Venice. Even the iconoclasts must have recognised the significance of this painting. So the legend of the saints was vandalised only to the extent that the cityscape itself wasn’t damaged. 60 cm was sawn off the bottom, and 15 cm off the top. Four decades later, even that was no longer enough. The holy figures were painted over, and the areas they had covered were filled in with other features, most notably buildings in the city’s Schipfe area.The fire lit in Zurich grew into a conflagration. By 1536, in addition to Bern, Basel and Schaffhausen, the allied cities of St. Gallen, Biel, Mülhausen and Geneva had also joined the Reformation. The iconoclasm escalated.
The Last Judgement – perplexing arbitrariness
In Bern, the cathedral’s porch survived the destruction relatively unscathed. We can only guess at what made the difference there. Perhaps the Last Judgement in the tympanum was spared because even church dignitaries would ultimately have to have their souls weighed on the scales and the magnificent sculpture, with its intensity and richness of life, didn’t conflict with the new set of beliefs.
In contrast to Bern, in Basel the tympanum in the main portal of the cathedral was destroyed. At the northern side entrance of the same church, however, the Last Judgement above the entrance of the Gallus Gate was spared – strange! Was it because here, Christ was receiving the people with clemency and kindness, not with fearsome severity? Did the powerful aura of the oldest Romanesque sculptural portal in the German-speaking area (around 1185) make the vandals think twice?
Exceptions to the rule
At the same time as the tympanum over the main portal of Basel Cathedral, the statue of the Virgin Mary on the mullion of the entrance was destroyed in 1529. The figures in the two niches to the left and right outside on the main façade suffered the same fate. In contrast, the sculptures of George and Martin on the two towers remained untouched, for the time being. A plausible explanation for this is obvious – from the 13th to the 15th century jousting tournaments were held on the Münsterplatz. The city of Basel was famed for its tournaments. This fits with the fact that both cathedral towers were embellished with statues of horsemen towards the end of the 14th century.Seven decades after the Reformation, in 1597, the beggar on the St Martin tower was removed and remodelled into a tree stump at the horse’s hind legs. The Martin figure was no longer to commemorate a saint. He was given a crown and sceptre, and made into a king. He retained these symbols of kingship until 1883, when he was given a new head, based on the original. The original head from the Gothic period was no longer there. Basel, iconoclasm, second and third edition.
George – chivalric bravery in the fight against evil
Chivalry had long since had its day when the iconoclasm struck Basel. This is exemplified by the Ritterschaft mit St. Georgenschild (knights with the shield of St George). Founded in the Lake Constance area in 1407 as a defensive alliance against the Appenzell peasant farmers, the group was disbanded after 1437. However, the knightly ideal flourished again in the Renaissance, all over Europe, but under quite different terms.
In town and countryside, members of the ruling elite who sought to distinguish themselves as being ‘of good repute’ acquired grants of arms (Wappenbrief) and patents of nobility (Adelsbrief) at foreign courts and spent good money on having themselves created knights. There is a certain humour in the fact that Aegidius Tschudi (1505-1572) elevated to the knighthood, of all people, the mythical knight-conqueror Winkelried, as can be read in his Chronicon of 1550: ‘Arnolt von Winkelried, an honest knight’.In the 15th century, St George no longer fought with physical strength, but at a spiritual level, as the magnificent statue in Sursee signifies. Holding the dragon captive between his ankles, neatly and effortlessly, the noble knight is almost gentle as he pierces the serpent’s neck and throat. The animal’s contorted body curves back elaborately into the figure of St George. The knight’s posture, part gangling and awkward, part graceful dancer, with an elegant sway to his stance, is simultaneously fragile and beguiling. Welcome to the ‘musée imaginaire’!
Martin – compassion that touches both parties
Winter, biting cold. At the city gates, a Roman officer encounters a beggar. One man is equipped with everything he needs; the other is half-naked. Two people, one mantle. The officer draws his sword, and cuts his cloak in two. The gesture has an impact on both men. The warmth that Martin foregoes is given to the beggar. Loss here, gain there. There are acts of giving that are painful, and others where the giver hardly notices. We should make a distinction between the two types.
As is so often the case, the legend of St Martin dates back to late antiquity. In terms of source, it too comes out of pitch darkness. But Martin’s cutting of his cloak is unquestionably part of the world’s moral heritage.The facial features noble, his demeanour dignified, the scene is a performance. Just the way the cloak sits around Martin’s body is mesmerising, really drawing the viewer’s attention to his act of compassion. The gaze of the horseman is complemented by the expression on the face of his steed. No horse could convey with such perfection how proud it is of its benevolent rider.
Nicholas – not everything depends on gold
Poverty threatens three young women with prostitution. Nicholas goes to their home and throws three balls of gold through their bedroom window. Before the three women can comprehend their good fortune, he’s gone. The original form of gift-giving, without any expectation or keeping score. Nicholas didn’t look for thanks and tribute; he wasn’t seeking lucrative assignments or coveted positions.
According to notable folklorists, the St Nicholas figure was ‘tenacious, resilient and clearly psychologically essential even in Zurich’. It is believed that the St Nicholas tradition persisted in areas of the new religious denomination even during the Reformation. Archetype remains archetype.Who can afford, one might argue, to follow in the footsteps of the Bishop of Myra and toss lumps of gold into the bedrooms of the poor? St Nicholas usually gives three balls of pure gold, the same size as the balls used when playing boules. But not everything depends on gold. Instead of gold balls, it could be bread, as in the old days in the Basel region or, as in Bavaria, apples. At a pinch, a kind word will probably suffice.
George’s bravery and fortitude, Martin’s empathy and compassion, and the helpfulness and generosity of Nicholas have shaped the way people think and behave for hundreds of years. There’s nothing to suggest this will change. Humanity is timeless.
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