Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints' Day - this year: St Louis!

Saint Louis. Ital. San Luigi. Fr. Saint Louis. b 1214, d 1270
Invoked: against the death of children. Patron Saint of: barbers, bridegrooms, builders, button makers, construction workers, Crusaders, difficult marriages, distillers, embroiderers, French monarchs, grooms, haberdashers, hairdressers, hair stylists, kings, masons, needle workers, parenthood, parents of large families, passementiers (a fancy word for trim makers, embroiderers, button makers and the like), prisoners, sculptors, sick people, soldiers, stone masons, stonecutters, tertiaries (lay members of the church), trimming makers, Qu├ębec, Saint Louis, Missouri, Blois, France, Carthage, Tunisia, La Rochelle, France, New Orleans, Louisiana, Oran, Algeria, Saint-Louis, Haut-Rhin, France, Saint Louis, Missouri, Versailles, France

Attributes in art: Sword and armor as Crusader, Crown and Robes as King, Holy Relics usually including conspicuously the Crown of Thorns and or the True Cross.
Feast Day: Aug 25.

St. Louis must be one of the most overlooked saints in the modern pantheon. Patron of almost everyone (I mean really, parents??), he is not the household name that, say, Peter or Paul or even Francis is. Known in America as the namesake of the city also known as “the Gateway to the West” and for his Cathedral in New Orleans, St Louis seems to enjoy little other notice in my native land. I don’t recall seeing his image in any barber shop or construction site I’ve ever passed, though he is the patron saint of both barbers and construction workers. In all my exposure to the train wreck that is modern American broadcast media, including Phil Donohue, Jerry Springer, Dr Phil and the goddess Oprah herself, trying in every imaginable way to save, or at lease dissect the institutions of marriage and family, never have I heard an invocation of St Louis, though he is the patron saint of parents, large families and difficult marriages.

Despite all this and the magnificent church which bears his name in Rome – an enormous pile, filled with treasures including no less than 3 Caravaggios -either St Louis has fallen seriously out of fashion, though his feast day is still celebrated in both the Catholic and Episcopal churches, or else I missed something along the way.

St Louis, above, by El Greco in the Louvre, is nonetheless an interesting case. Son of Louis VIII of France, he climbed the throne of the richest and most powerful state in Europe at the tender age of 12, under the strict eyes of his ever-meddling and conniving mother, Regent Queen Blanche (the White Queen) of Castille. He gained his maturity and rights as King in the year 1234, the same year he married Marguerite of Provence, who had a serious power struggle with his mother all her life and whose sister Eleanor of Provence was married to Henry III of England and whose other sister Sanschia of Provence was married to Henry’s brother Richard Cornwall who was King of the Romans, and whose sister Beatrice of Provence was Queen of Sicily, by the way. The international relations forged out of the filial ones in these royal houses pre-set many of the alliances and entanglements which bound and annulled royal and national relationships for centuries. The story of these four important sisters from the small province in southern France fascinating in its own right, but is better told in Nancy Goldstone’s Four Queens, and is but an aside here.

Louis was apparently a very fair and pious man who instituted may reforms in the administration and judicial system of his kingdom. His contributions to the fair application of law were so profound that he is represented in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives and in a frieze of notable law-givers throughout history on the north wall of the US Supreme Court (along with Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon Draco, Muhammed, Charlemagne and Napoleon, among others), and is cited as the very paragon of the fair and benevolent most Christian King, even though he personally heeded the Pope’s cry to attack the infidels in the Holy Land, leading the disastrous 7th and 8th Crusades and bringing misery and death to hundreds of thousands. He was imprisoned by the Saracens and Queen Marguerite paid literally a King’s ransom to get him back. Not having learned his lesson in the debacle of the 7th Crusade (his first), he died probably of dysentery or plague, though some historians point out that his death pre-dates outbreaks of plague, leaving the unpleasant dysentery option, in Tunisia while leading his second crusade. Some of his gushier parts were buried on the spot in Tunisia and other bits left behind in Palermo, in what is now Italy. After a few other stops, what was left of him was interred in the royal necropolis at St Denis Cathedral in Paris. His were among the remains desecrated and destroyed during the Revolution and consolidated into a single sealed ossuary afterwards, only a finger remaining to be identified and venerated.

Because Constantinople had been conquered in 1204 in a previous Crusade, and by Louis’s time had a new Franc Emperor, Baudoin II de Courtenay, Louis enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Byzantines. Heavily in debt, largely because of his troubles with the Holy Romans, Baudoin was happy to sell the most Holy Relics in Christendom: Christ’s Crown of Thorns and pieces of the True Cross. Ownership of these treasures would bring untold power and prestige to the king pious enough to own them, even if he bought them and did despicable things in the process. Having previously promised them to the Venetians, Baudoin caused some international tension by selling them to a higher bidder, Louis, but those tensions were minor. The relics had been preserved in Constantinople ever since St Helena found them. Coincidentally, the relics of St Helena, who was the mother of the very Emperor Constantine for whom Byzantium was re-named, by the way, rest, at least in part, in St. Denis Cathedral as well.
After his death, during his canonization, it was revealed that Louis had paid an enormous sum to build one of the world’s nicest little jewel boxes: the Sainte-Chapelle in his Palais de la Cite, as a gigantic reliquary for the most important Christian relics, attempting to transform Paris into a New Jerusalem, but a sum dwarfed by more than twice the amount he paid to secure the relics themselves, or the amount he spent on his two crusades, or the ransom to secure his release from the failed first one.
Now recall that the Cathedral of Notre Dame, located just a short walk away, was already complete at this time, so the Ile-de-la-Cite, the innermost and most protected part of Paris already had a huge and venerated house of God. With great ceremony, Louis escorted the Holy Relics to Paris and, deciding against installing them in Notre Dame, built essentially a giant reliquary in which to house them, where only he and his select could see them. The church/reliquary was built in two levels, the lower the palace parish church and the upper, reachable only through the balcony of the royal palace, was the display case and personal house of worship for the pious Louis.
With windows that seem to reach the sky, and colors that are impossible to describe, the upper church was a suitable home for the most Holy Relics until they were dispersed and partly destroyed in that unpleasantness we call the French Revolution. The lacy walls are almost all glass. The stonework and windows are unbelievably intricate, deserving their nearly millennium-long reputation as wonders. Perhaps this is why he is patron of construction workers, stone masons and sculptors.Among the stories told in the 1,113 scenes in the 15 soaring windows of Sainte-Chapelle is the history of the Relics, including their relocation to Paris by Louis himself. The relics were for centuries displayed on a gilded gothic platform with baldachin just behind the altar used for masses. Except for the windows, the interior of the church was largely destroyed in the Revolution. The Crown of Thorns was spared and has since been entrusted to Notre Dame Cathedral, where it is encased in a reliquary designed in the 19th century to replace the one destroyed in the Revolution and is still displayed on Good Fridays, the presumed anniversary of its use.

So what was it that made St Louis a saint? He unified most of what we know as modern France, created judicial and administrative systems that established models for modern governments and through his and his and his wife’s connections, established the social order for centuries of European history, but that’s not saint material. Apparently he was a fantastic and fair monarch, pious man, collector of holy relics extraordinaire, builder of the impossible glass cathedral, and faithful and humble servant of the Church, but that’s not saint material either. He died (of natural causes, it may be noted) on Crusade, following the express wishes of the Pope for the Christian Princes of Europe to destroy the Infidels, and that seems to be the real reason he’s a Saint. Though subsequent popes have apologized for the Crusades, they have not completely resolved some residual issues like St Louis, whose canonization seems to have been really a result of his participation in one of the deadliest, most tragic and avoidable events in human history, a canonization seemingly as political as religious. Ah the Crusades, a dark and complex time. I like to think he’s a saint because of the splendid little private chapel he built for himself which still, 800 years later, fills one with wonder.


  1. I hardly knew any of this. When I think of St. Louis I think of a large arch and a town we were glad to get behind us on our trip to CO last summer. I have been in St. Louis cathederal in New Orleans and it was quite something, not like that private chapel above, but still nice for Americans who don't know any different. I remember that the colors were a little cartoonish, but considering the ciy I guess it was appropriate.

    Beste November voor u!

  2. Wow, that last picture is a stunner.