Culture

Today Is Also ‘St Gertrude’s Day’; Celebrate The Patron Saint Of Cats

Move over, Patrick.

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Everyone knows March 17 is St Patrick’s Day, when we are all supposed to be wearing green, eating raw potatoes with the skin on, drinking Guinness, making stereotypical and demeaning assumptions about an entire nation, and harassing women by asking if they have any Irish in them.

But March 17 is also the feast day of St Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of cats. She’s also the patron of travellers and gardeners, and protects against rats and mental illness. Basically, she’s a saint that Simpsons character Eleanor Abernathy, MD JD could really get behind.

Who Was St Gertrude?

Most of what’s known about Gertrude comes from her Vita Sanctae, the official Catholic biography produced to justify her worship. She was born around 626 in what’s now Belgium. Her father was Pippin of Landen, a powerful Frankish nobleman and political operator at the court of King Dagobert I. Aged ten, Gertrude feistily refused a marriage proposal from the son of a duke, “saying that she would have neither him nor any earthly spouse but Christ the Lord.”

When her father died – although sources disagree, Gertrude was probably about 14 – her mother Itta shaved her head into a monkish tonsure to deter would-be suitors from marrying into her wealthy family by force. Itta and Gertrude established the monastery of Nivelles and retired to a religious life – historically, this has been one of women’s few options to preserve their intellectual, economic and sexual autonomy. When her mother died in 650, the now 24-year-old Gertrude took on sole governance of the monastery, and was known for her hospitality to pilgrims.

She died in 659 – worn out in her early thirties, says the Cambridge Medieval History, “because of too much abstinence and keeping of vigils”. A visiting Irish monk, whose brother Gertrude had sheltered, predicted she would die on St Patrick’s Day, and that “blessed Bishop Patrick with the chosen angels of God… are prepared to receive her”. Begorrah, it was so.

How Are Patron Saints Decided, Anyway?

The Catholic Church holds that saints are kind of like holy MPs. They have clearly defined areas of knowledge or expertise on which they intercede with God on your behalf. You can still pray directly to God, but a saint is just that little bit closer – someone who was once human, but is now repping you in heaven. As an official FAQ states: “We pray with saints, not to them.”

The mythology of sainthood has it that saints are legitimately pious miracle workers. But of course, it’s a worldly honour that reflects the Catholic Church’s strategic aims at a given time. Some Christians, such as St Patrick, were canonised as an evangelical move to link Christianity to the saint’s hometown or home country: to make locals warm to the religion, and to justify establishing churches there.

Appointing patron saints for occupations, pursuits and quotidian phenomena also helped bring the Church closer to the fabric of everyday life. In medieval England, there were 40,000 religious organisations, charities and professional guilds, each of which had its own patron saint.

Patron saints for diseases – who were often martyred by a given disease, or cared for those who suffered from it – were also intended to give hope to the sick that God would heal them, or that faith would help them bear their suffering.

These days, the procedure of canonisation is bureaucratic, regulated from the Pope down, but early saints were often canonised by popular opinion. Historically, their areas of patronage have also established more by tradition and interpretation than official decree.

St Gertrude’s family, known as the Pippinids after her dad, became the Carolingians – the most famous of whom is Charlemagne, the papally anointed Holy Roman Emperor who united most of Western Europe. So, maintaining written records of a holy aunt’s miracles and good works was politically strategic for both the Church and the Carolingians.

Statues, illuminated manuscripts, church fresco paintings and stained glass windows commonly depict Gertrude in a garden setting, surrounded by cats, rats and mice – often with a mouse running up her staff. The animals are often held to represent souls in purgatory, for whose salvation Gertrude fervently prayed when she was alive. As recently as 1822, pilgrims left offerings at her shrine in the form of golden and silver mice. More prosaically, Gertrude and her nuns also kept cats to combat the vermin problem at Nivelles abbey.

Is Gertrude The Only Patron Saint Of Cats?

Several other saints can also be considered in charge of cats. St Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of all animals, including cats; while cats loved St Mary Bartholomew Bagnesi, a 16th century Dominican nun from Florence. “At least once when the cats knew Maria was hungry and hadn’t been looked after they went and fetched cheese for her,” says Catholic Daily.

And while cats are the internet’s spirit animal, Gertrude has no power online. That would be the domain of St Isidore of Seville, whom Pope John Paul II deputised in 1997 as the patron saint of internet users. Isidore was a real ideas man – he wrote 20 books and invented the word ‘etymology’.

But Gertrude’s patronage of travellers relates not only to her kind treatment of pilgrims in life, but also to her second attributed miracle, in which an Irish monk beset by a great storm at sea – including a sea monster! – prayed to her and the storm instantly subsided. Her hospitable treatment of Irish pilgrims was important to a Church that wished to establish its cosmopolitan reach, which is why she shares her death date with St Patrick.

On a day that has become unfortunately associated with public displays of boorish masculinity, wouldn’t it be nice to honour a saint whose domains of patronage have traditionally been belittled as feminised and domestic? Gertrude was an independent woman who refused to be treated as a chattel. Now she watches over nature, and calms stormy seas and minds… if you have faith in her.

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Editor’s note: The feature image initially posted with this piece was by Carolee Clark, King of Mice Studios, found via Pinterest. Our apologies to the artist for failed attribution; more of her work can be found here.

Feature image of a Swedish fresco via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

Comments

  1. Todd Smith says:

    Are you? Gross.

  2. What_Tha says:

    I like a tight one.

  3. kingofmicestudios says:

    Wonderful article, and thanks so much for sharing my painting, but please do properly credit the artist – Carolee Clark, King of Mice Studios. :)

  4. Peter says:

    That tight one is probably your right hand.

  5. Anthony says:

    Worship is the wrong word. Respect or veneration is better. If you mention Catholic saints talk about them correctly please. K thanks.

  6. I hate people who don't google says:

    Her feast day is November 16… but you’re only 8 months and a day off… Google man. Google.

  7. I hate people who don't google says:

    The person who wrote this article should probably be fired for not even bothering to get the entire article correct. Her feast day is not St Patrick’s day and they are very obviously not Catholic.

  8. Jenn says:

    Feast day for St. Gertrude the Great is Nov. 16th, feast day for St. Gertrude of Neville is March 17th.

  9. Corinne Stubson says:

    Yes…I was going to ask the same thing. Instead of just stealing an image from Pinterest, give this amazing artist full credit!! Carole Clark..of King of Mice Studios. You are infringing on copyrighted material, when all you do is say image is from Pinterest. That is illegal. Give all artists credit!!!

  10. Corinne Stubson says:

    That is Carolee Clark.

  11. What_Tha says:

    It’s true, i can adjust the tightness that way depending on my mood.

  12. Lilly Von Schtupp says:

    Cats Save Lives

  13. disqus_0NPgPrcivJ says:

    *please* learn to use the word ‘worship’ correctly – it doesn’t apply to saints!

  14. RHood2 says:

    In Catholic canon, the saints are NOT worshipped, as the article states. They are venerated, and we appeal to them for intervention. But only God is worshipped.

  15. kingofmicestudios says:

    Removing the art wasn’t necessary – I have no problem with it being used as long as credit is given. Either way, thanks for doing that. :) ~ Carolee

  16. Eleni says:

    are you sure that St Isidore of Seville *invented* the word etymology? Perhaps he also invented the language it comes from too? For a saint the 2500 years of written existence should be no problem but I hope his other miracles are more trustworthy or people’s faith in him is misplaced. (etymology is a Greek word by the way)

  17. Tommy says:

    True that…My Little Girl (“Kitten”) woke Me up with a constant, “being annoyed” meow on at least 3 occasions before I slipped into diabetic (insulin) shock….I’ve had Type 1 for 56 (going on 57 this May 2015) years…

  18. Nancy says:

    My cat has done this too. Once my blood sugar was 32 and my cat woke me I was able to get the juice I keep in my night stand. Her name is Sugar and she has done this many times. God bless all cat!

  19. JellicleCat60 says:

    Another Saint is Sylvester 1 (Not making that up! LOL!) He is the patron saint of PETS :)

  20. JellicleCat60 says:

    Correct RHood2 :)

  21. JellicleCat60 says:

    Probably his mother :)

  22. The saints are the (1) human beings and (2) angels with God in heaven. Describing saints as “once human” is misleading about the former and mistaken about the latter.

    Journalists writing about the Catholic faith probably feel like foreign correspondents, but the locals are more than willing to help review their copy, if given the opportunity.