Protective saints: Prints and relics

Protective saints: Prints and relics
Between 1701 and 1800. Print of Saint Raymond Nonnatus. INVENT/30066. Unknown author © National Library of Spain, ‘Hispánica Digital Library’

Protective saints: Prints and relics

IV The passage into the world


Historic demographic studies have shown that maternal mortality during childbirth accounted for around 1% of cases in Western Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, a relatively low figure. However, the historian cannot ignore mothers’ hopes, concerns, emotions, and fears of pain and suffering or death at the time of childbirth which were passed down through the generations. The hagiographic accounts tell us about anointed (oleadas) women —those who during or immediately after childbirth had received the sacrament of extreme unction in the face of what was believed to be certain death. They refer to the unbearable pains of a woman who could not expel her child, the loss of blood, the despair and lack of strength, and the death of the mother, the child, or both.

To overcome these moments and to «help give birth well», women in labour had a large number of saints and virgins in the Catholic world to whom they could turn to help them endure the pain. The woman, with the collaboration of the midwife, prayed and implored the saints to show her devotion, surrounded herself with devotional pictures and sometimes, in the most serious cases, had the relics of those specialized saints brought to her.

Among the saints was St. Raymond Nonnatus, a Mercedarian friar from the 13th century who was canonized in 1657 having lost his mother in childbirth (he was extracted from his mother’s womb when she had already died). He became a great intercessor and author of many miracles. Women used to have «stamps and holy water passed by their relic» as a possible antidote to a difficult delivery. They also used to say: 

«O most pious Virgin Mary of the Remedies! Through the sweetest bowels of your mercy, please hear the afflicted who call you, and through him to whom you gave birth without pain, and through the merits of your servant St. Raymond, whose birth was miraculous, favor me in this birth, that I offer to be your humble slave, to better serve your only begotten Son, Christ our redeemer. Amen».

Thanks to saints and their relics; thanks to the Virgin Mary and Christ, women had spiritual and psychological assistance at a time when they were emotionally vulnerable and on the precipice between life and death. [Jesús María Usunáriz Garayoa]