Above, from left to right: Saint Fiacre; England, Nottingham, 15th century, Alabaster; H. 16 in. (40.6 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1925 (25.120.227), Former owner: George Grey Barnard, New York; Saint Dorothea, Detail from The Virgin Mary and Five Standing Saints above Predella Panels, 1440–1446, German; Made in Rhine Valley, Pot-metal glass, white glass, vitreous paint, silver stain; Each window 12 ft. 4 1/2 in. x 28 1/4 in. (337.2 x 71.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1937 (37.52.1-.6), See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
The feast of Saint Fiacre is celebrated on September 1 in France and in Ireland, but on August 30 in other places. One of several patron saints of gardeners, he was an Irish monk who came to France to dwell in a forest hermitage at Breuil, east of Paris. It is said that Saint Faro, bishop of Meaux, offered Fiacre as much land as he could turn in a day. Miraculously, Fiacre was able to clear enough of the forest to accommodate not only a hermitage, but also a monastery, a hospice, and an oratory dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Although some medieval accounts say that Fiacre accomplished this miracle using only his staff, a spade or a shovel became the saint’s special attribute, and it is thus equipped that he remains a popular subject for garden statuary to this day.
The story of the miraculous clearing of land appears in one of the earliest lives of the saint, who is believed to have lived in the second half of the seventh century, although the first recorded stories of his life and works date to the ninth century. By the twelfth century, the cult of Saint Fiacre was so widespread that no less than twelve priories were dedicated to him, and he had gained a reputation for miraculous healing that drew many pilgrims to these shrines. Because his name was believed to derive from the Latin ficus or fig—a term used to describe hemorrhoids in the Middle Ages—Saint Fiacre was thought to have a special power to relieve this painful condition, but he was also invoked against many other ills, including venereal disease.
Despite the saint’s devotion to the Virgin, no women were admitted to the enclosure or to the chapel of Saint Fiacre, and many stories stress the saint’s aversion to the female sex and his refusal to admit women into his presence. In La Vie Monseigneur Saint Fiacre, a mystery play that probably dates to the end of the fourteenth century, the saint, who had already consecrated himself to a life of chastity, flees Ireland to avoid a marriage arranged by his parents. The forsaken bride pursues him to his forest hermitage in France, where Fiacre prays to God to protect him from her advances. Fiacre’s appearance is miraculously altered in answer to his prayer, and the girl believes the disguised saint’s assurances that he knows nothing of her intended bridegroom (Barbara Craig, “Saint Fiacre, Patron of Gardeners,” in Gardens of the Middle Ages, edited by Marilyn Stokstad and Jerry Stannard. Spencer Museum of Art, 1983).
In the Golden Legend, a story is told of a woman who interpreted Fiacre’s miraculous clearing of the land around his hermitage as witchcraft and reported him to the bishop, who commanded that Fiacre should cease to work until this charge could be investigated. Angered at the accusation, Fiacre sat down on a stone, which softened and became a healing stone, even as he prayed that no woman should ever enter his church without being struck ill. Females who made the attempt were miraculously discouraged; the leg of one woman who dared set her foot within the sanctuary swelled and sickened—others lost their minds or their sight. The misogyny so strongly associated with Fiacre’s name in the Middle Ages was still manifest in the seventeenth century, but seems to have been glossed over in modern times.
Fortunately for women seeking help in the garden, Fiacre is not the only garden saint represented in the collection at The Cloisters. Saint Dorothea—a patron of gardeners and of florists whose attributes include apples and roses—is discussed in the February 6 post, “February Fill-Dyke“.