Santa Brígida - What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like New Mexico?
by Thomas J. Steele, S.J.

My friend Charles G. Ryan gave Regis University a generous gift in memory of his wife Alice Gass Ryan: four nineteenth-century New Mexican retablos. One of them, by the great santero José Rafael Aragon, showing a woman in a nun's habit holding a heart, appeared to depict Santa Gertrudis; but upon cleaning, the nun's veil turned out to be not black but pink with a red border, and what had seemed to be Gertrude's red pennant on an abbess's crozier was in fact a large candle with a very large flame.

Quick, the iconography books! Look for a woman in a black gown and a pink and red veil, holding a burning candle in her right hand and a heart in her left. Fortunately, the old standbys stood faithfully by me and revealed that the subject was Santa Brígida de Suecia, Saint Bridget (or Birgitta) of Sweden. The Rafael Aragon panel is the first identified representation of this subject in the New Mexican tradition, but Larry Frank's New Kingdom of the Saints (p. 56) pictures a Pedro Antonio Fresquis panel that also represents Santa Brígida, since a crucifix is a normal variant for the candle.1

Bridget was born to a very prominent and powerful noble family of Sweden. Her father was godfather to King Magnus, her husband Prince Ulf of Nericia was a principal counselor of the king, and Bridget was the godmother to the crown prince. She received a sort of vocational vision of Christ at age eleven and wished to become a nun, but her father insisted that she marry at fourteen; she and her husband observed voluntary celibacy for two years, then had eight children. Bridget's initial vision led eventually to high mystical prayer and to a mystical-marriage experience of exchanging hearts with Christ, so that she lived thereafter by Christ's heart and he by hers; thus the heart as a portion of Bridget's iconography.2

Bridget, who always remained quite independent, made the three great pilgrimages of the time: to Jerusalem, to Rome, and to Compostella; she and Santiago are often shown as pilgrims, and she is a special patron of pilgrims. Ulf and Bridget, who had long been devout members of the Franciscan Third Order, finally separated when their children were old enough, becoming Cistercians (Trappists). Ulf soon died. Bridget practiced severe corporal penances, especially on Fridays when, in honor of Christ's passion and Mary's compassion, she dropped hot drops of candle-wax onto her forearm until it bled. The candle component of her iconography is echoed in her vision of Christ's birth, for she saw Saint Joseph enter the cave with a lighted candle and then leave Mary alone to give birth to the Holy Child; when he had been born, his radiance completely eclipsed the weak earthly light of Joseph's candle.3

Her auditions, during which Mary spoke to her and described her life in the Holy Land, and her visions, when she saw various central events of the New Testament as if she were present, led to Bridget's Revelations, drafted in Swedish and translated into Latin after her death by her two spiritual directors and eventually into several vernacular languages. These unofficial addenda to the gospels provided grist for the mill of later medieval spirituality, which focused above all on the changing humanity of Jesus Christ during his birth and childhood and during his suffering and death. The people of medieval Western Europe had an insatiable hunger for every available detail of the Christ-event. Santa Brígida's writings brought Christ's infancy and his passion together because Mary described how she, the Child, and even Joseph clearly knew that Jesus would suffer crucifixion. Since all this information was verbalized, it took over a century for it to be transformed into the images of devotional art that showed El Niño Pasionario, a child from infant to early adolescent carrying the cross, being scourged, and so forth. But Bridget transformed artists' portrayal of the Nativity and the Crucifixion from her lifetime onward.4

Toward the end of her life, Bridget founded the Brigittine Order of nuns, and she is shown in the habit she designed, the black gown and a pink or white veil with a light red border - the final components of an iconography unidentified in New Mexico until the occasion of the Ryans' generous gift.5 But now that we know that two Santa Brígida retablos survive from nineteenth-century New Mexico, perhaps collectors and museums might want to take a second look at the nuns in their possession: could there be more surviving Brígidas than two?

1 The "standbys" are Juan Ferrando Roig, Iconografía de los Santos (Barcelona: Ediciones Omega, 1950), pp. 64-65; Louis Réau, Iconographie de l'art chretien (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955-59), 3:246-48; Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1971), 1:78-83, 2:196-206; George Kaftal, The Iconography of the Saints in Central and South Italian Schools of Painting (Florence: Sansoni, 1965), col. 233-40. Roig and Kaftal list the crucifix as an alternative for the burning candle.
I received special help from Anthony Butkovich, Iconography: Saint Bridget of Sweden (Los Angeles: Ecumenical Foundation of America, 1969), passim; Butkovich, Revelations: Saint Birgitta of Sweden (Los Angeles: Ecumenical Foundation of America, 1973), pp. 53, 65, 96, 202-03, 249.
Larry Frank, A New Kingdom of the Saints (Santa Fe: Red Crane Books, 1992), p. 56
2 Réau, 3:150-51, lists the "saints cardiophores - heart-bearing saints" as Bridget, Gertrude, Augustine, and Anthony of Padua.
3 Réau, 3:247 (patron of pilgrims). "Every Friday she made the flaming wax of a candle drip upon her bare flesh so that it left wounds, and if the wounds healed somewhat before the next Friday, she would plow them open with her fingernails so that her body would not be without them She did so to commemorate the Lord's passion"; Acta Sanctorum, Octobris IV (Paris: 1856), 403; Réau, 3:246, 248; Kaftal, cols. 233, 236; Butkovich, Iconography, pp. 65, 67; Butkovich, Revelations, p. 65; Marguerite T. Harris, Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 96-97, 249n114 (wax on forearm). Schiller 1:78; Butkovich, Iconography, pp. 49-50; Harris, pp. 202-04, 305n768 (Joseph's candle).
4 Réau, 3:247-48; Schiller, 2:196; Butkovich, Iconography, pp. 52, 54-57; Butkovich, Revelations, pp. 31, 43.
5 Anna Murphy Jameson, Legends of the Monastic Orders (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865), pp. 235-37.

Thomas J. Steele, S.J., is a regular contributor to Tradicion Revista. He is also the author of Santos and Saints and author or editor of at least a dozen other books on Southwestern art and culture.

Iconography of Santa Brígida
by Paul Rhetts

Feast Day:
July 23

1303-73. She experienced several visions and revelations, was the founder of the Order of the Most Holy Savior (the Brigittines, follow the Augustinian Rule), and embarked on at least three pilgrimages (Santiago de Compostella, Rome, and the Holy Land).

Sweden, scholars, and pilgrims

The Opening Prayer of the Mass begins: "Lord our God, you revealed the secrets of heaven to St. Bridget as she meditated on the suffering and death of your Son. May your people rejoice in the revelation of your glory."

Black nun's habit of the Brigittine Order with a pink veil with a red border; holding a heart in the left hand, and a candle with a flame in the right. Outside of New Mexico, frequently seen with symbols of the pilgrim (seashells pinned to her cloak).

Paul Rhetts is the co-publisher of Tradicion Revista and the author or editor of five books on the arts and culture of the Southwest.

First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 5, No. 4, Winter 2000.
Copyright 2000. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.