After a particularly bad summer, I thought things couldn’t get much worse, and when they did, I called upon my Catholic childhood and summoned the name of St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate causes and lost car keys. But since it’s been at least 35 years since I prayed to a patron saint or anyone else, I decided rather than turn hypocritical, I would turn my memories of saints and the holy cards that pictured them into something positive — another column.
Holy cards have been around since the 1400s, mostly made from woodprints or constructed by hand. These cards became gifts and treasured objects by those who possessed them, and they often pictured saints and situations from the Bible. According to Brent Devitt, a holy-card expert from Beavercreek, Ohio, one of the first holy-card salesman later became a saint himself. St. John of God became a bookseller and traveled from town to town in the early 1500s peddling books and cards. And even though he was later committed to an asylum, John of God is known as the patron saint of booksellers and printers.
Figure 1: St. Michael the Archangel appears in a classic holy-card pose, crushing Lucifer during an uprising against God. Michael is considered the guardian of Israel, and is referenced in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim literature. Michael is the patron saint of many causes, including artists, ambulance drivers, police officers, security guards, sword smiths, haberdashers, hat makers, paratroopers, and nearly 35 other worthy groups.
Figure 2: From top left to bottom right: Bartholomew the Apostle is the patron saint of bookbinders, butchers, Florentine cheese merchants, plasterers, and the afflictions of twitching and nervous diseases. Apollonia, pictured holding a tooth, is the patron saint of dentists, tooth disease, and toothache. In addition to being a virgin, Apollonia was a martyr who jumped into a fire and burned to death rather than renounce Christ — this after having here teeth broken with pincers. My favorite patron saint, Dymphna, was hit on by her own father and eventually killed by him. She is the patroness of sleepwalking, mental illness, incest, therapists, psychiatrists, insane asylums, possessed people, and epileptics, among many other causes. Paul the Apostle, also a martyr (beheaded), is most famous for being the patron saint against snakes. But he is also the patron saint of journalists (do you see any connection?) and publishers, tent makers, hospital public relations, writers, musicians, and rope makers, as well as many others.
The Invention of Lithography
But the real era of the color holy card began when Czech inventor Alys Senefelder invented the process of lithography in 1796. Realizing that oil and water do not mix, Senefelder experimented with calcium carbonate stones and grease ink in a desperate effort to find a way to make multiple copies of his own artwork and writings. He discovered that mixing the right combination of ink and water led to making multiple copies directly by pressing paper against the stone plate.
Senefelder also stumbled on a critical side benefit to his invention of lithography — that images printed on paper could be transferred back to another stone, allowing for the first practice of “ganging up” images for printing. Senefelder found, too, that certain metals like zinc, could also be used for the lithographic process and envisioned a mechanical press that would somewhat automate the lithographic process.
Figure 3: Saint Januarius, or Gennaro (upper left), was martyred for his cause (a sure ticket to sainthood) and his blood was dried. Supposedly every year since 1389 on his feast day the blood miraculously liquefies. Accordingly, he is the patron saint of blood banks and volcanic eruptions. Saint Florian (upper right) was scourged, flayed alive, had a stone tied to his neck and was dumped in a river (see Figure 8). You should pray to him if you are a barrel maker, a brewer, chimney sweep, firefighter or soap boiler. Florian can also protect you against floods, fires, and battles of any sort. Bernadine of Siena (lower left) was such an effective speaker that he is the patron saint of advertising, advertisers, communications personnel, and public-relations professionals. Oddly, he is also the patron of compulsive gamblers, people with lung problems or hoarseness, and those with general chest problems. Expeditus (lower right) may be myth, and no one is quite sure if his name inspired the term expeditious, or vice versa. Either way, he is the patron saint against procrastination and for people who have to deliver things on time.
Like many early printers, Senefelder made no money, and his invention was driven more by necessity and nobility than economic benefit. He once said that he hoped his process would “bring to mankind manifold benefits and may tend to raise it upon a nobler plane, but may never be misused for an evil purpose.”
The invention of lithography lead to the growth of all forms of color printing, but was particularly useful in reproducing the ornate color of holy cards, which were collected by Christians much like trading cards or greeting cards. When I was a young altar boy, we would trade holy cards of the saints like other kids swapped baseball or football cards. I know, it sounds pretty pathetic, and I suppose it was. But the holy cards were very ornate, often were nicely die cut, had gold or silver embossing, and pictured men and women fighting devils, snakes, and evil of all sorts.
Figure 4: Santa Catalina is not just an island off the coast of Southern California, she is the patron saint of Mallorca Spain (upper left). Assaulted by “dark powers,” Catalina often went into ecstatic trances for days at a time, and would wound herself during these periods. She foretold the date of her death, and was frequently visited by angels. Santa Barbara (upper right) is also associated with Southern California and was killed by her father, who drug her home by her hair, tortured her and then killed her. But he was immediately struck by lightening and fire from heaven, and killed. Logically, Saint Barbara is the patroness of fireworks, protection from lightening, artillery, explosives, ammunition, and other things that ignite. She is also who you pray to if you are a bomb technician, saltpeter worker, gunner or gravedigger. Vitus (lower left) was sent to prison by his father but later freed by angels. After being caught, he was thrown to the lions, but they refused to eat him so he was drowned. His name lead to the term vitality, and it was thought by Germans for some time that if you danced before his statue on Saint Vitus day, you would obtain a year’s good health. He is the patron saint of over-sleeping, against animal bites, dancers, storms, and rheumatic chorea. Saint Eligius (lower right) built the basilica of Saint Paul, was a miracle worker and clairvoyant. He is the patron of gas-station workers, locksmiths, numismatists, minters, clock makers, cab drivers, veterinarians, and sick horses.
The Lives of the Saints
Holy cards depicted many things — the resurrection, the death of Jesus on the cross, Joseph and Mary looking for an inn to stay and have their child, etc. But my favorites were always the ones that depicted rather obscure saints. These mostly had prayers to these saints and the causes they represented printed on the back. And in the Catholic Church, the practice of giving out short-run holy cards at someone’s funeral is still widespread. I still have the cards given out at my sister’s and father’s funerals — colorful reminders of their services, but both with pictures that had no relevance to their lives. I have no idea who picks these images — I suspect a funeral director with a good printing contract and a back stock of “standard” cards.
Figure 5: Two early holy cards represent Saint Gerlac (left), the patron saint of domestic animals, and Godaleva, who was murdered by drowning after being strangled into unconsciousness by her mother-in-law’s servants in 1070. She is the patroness of difficult marriages, of healthy throats, in-law problems, and victims of verbal spouse abuse.
Figure 6: Named patron saint of the internet and computers in 1999, Saint Isidore of Seville was an archbishop and one of the most learned men of his times (circa 600 AD). From his book of maxims: “All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection. By reading we learn what we did not know, by reflection we retain what we have learned.”
Saint Christopher was very popular in my youth — he was the patron saint of surfers, among other things, so in Southern California it was very cool to have St. Christopher “logo” items in your collection. I had a particularly good holy card of St. Christopher that showed him leading the way across a treacherous river. Christopher is also the patron saint of travel, and many Catholics had small statues of this saint on their dashboards.
In my own parish, the priests had a small letterpress in their basement and they would hand-set type for commemorative holy cards — printing a minimum number of copies to hand out in exchange for donations or other efforts.
A Saint for Every Occasion
According to the terrific Patron Saint Index there are 4,903 saints that cover 1,772 different topics. There are patron saints for writers (Lucy of Syracuse), clowns (Genesius of Rome), wet nurses (St. Agatha), pencil makers (Thomas Aquinas), bachelors (Luke the Apostle), and just about every other occupation you can think of (and a few you have never heard of).
Figure 7: Saint Brigid of Ireland (upper left) was an early nun who saved souls throughout Ireland. She is the patron saint of fugitives, children whose parents are not married, printing presses, infants, milkmaids and chicken farmers. Saint Bonaventure (upper right and lower left) was a Franciscan priest and is known only as the patron saint of bowel disorders. His name means good fortune. Philomena (lower right) was martyred at age 14 in Italy. Not much is known about her, but enough to name her the patroness of bodily ills, infertility, impossible causes, barrenness, sterility, and newborns.
Figure 8: Quirinus (upper left) was a bishop and was drowned in the River Raab in 308. He is the patron saint against evil spirits and obsession. Blasius (upper right) is sometimes known as Saint Blaise. He was an Armenian physician who, when drowned, walked on water, and convinced his tormentors to follow him — they fell into the water and drowned themselves. But when he walked back to shore, he was beaten, his flesh torn with wool combs, and then beheaded. He is the patron saint of goiters, whooping cough, wool-combers, construction workers, and against wild beats. Saint Florian (lower left) being thrown into the river to drown, and Aloysius Gonzaga who taught catechism to poor young boys. Gonzaga is the patron of AIDS patients, sore eyes, teenagers, and relief from pestilence.
Additionally, most saints also cover some sort of disease or horror like poisoning (John the Apostle), unattractive people (Germain Cousin), epilepsy (John Chrysostom), arm pain (Amalburga), earaches (Cornelius), alcoholism (Saint Monica), and rape victims (Zita). If you can catch it, inherit it, or be killed by it, there is a patron saint to prevent it.
Figure 9: Saint Veronica wiped the face of Christ during his crucifixion walk, and a miraculous image of him appeared on the cloth. Subsequently, Veronica became the patron saint of photographers and laundry workers.
Figure 10: Augustine of Hippo (left) is the son of Saint Monica — his father was a pagan. He is the patron saint of printers, theologians, and sore eyes. Saint Geron (right) was beheaded in Germany in 304, and ironically became the patron saint of headaches and migraines.
Some saints are patrons of many, many causes — sometimes up to 40 or 50 different things at the same time. Who determines these patronages, or how they are developed, is a bit of a mystery to me, but many of them make sense — like Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of toothaches, who was tortured by having her teeth pulled out.
Sadly, aside from the death cards I still have from my family losses, I somehow lost my holy card collection over the years. And just like everything else, today’s holy cards just don’t have the quality of those from an era when most were printed in short runs by craftsmen who took pride in their work. I particularly remember the beautiful card stock on which they were printed, and the feel of the ink, which was rich and textured.
Figure 11: Saint Valentine of Rome is closely associated with our celebration of love. The exact origin of his name being paired with February 14 is not known. But I did discover that it is a tradition to pin bay leaves on your pillow on Valentine’s Eve so you will see your future mate in your dreams. Valentine is the patron saint against fainting, for beekeepers, betrothed couples, happy marriages, love, and, I kid you not, greeting card manufacturers.
My summer is over, thank God, and I don’t know if those thoughts of St. Jude had anything to do with it. I doubt it, since renouncing my Catholicism many years ago, I am not a candidate for patron saint intervention. But at times, like when I have a migraine, arm pain, mental confusion, bowel disorders, sore eyes, or a painful tooth, I reconsider my faith and think back to those holy cards of my youth and wonder if things could have been different had I just held on to them and my faith.
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