Praying to Saints and Folk Magic: Santa Gertrude di Nivelles

Praying to Saints and Folk Magic: Santa Gertrude di Nivelles

Santa Gertrude or St. Gertrude is more commonly known as "Gertrude of Nivelles."

Historically devotion to St Gertrude was spread fairly widely in Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, France, and some neighbouring regions. She was venerated as a saint shortly after her death in 659. At her shrine in Cologne, Germany, gold and silver mice were given as offerings as late as 1822.

In northern Italy, Gertrude of Nivelles may have been slightly confused with Santa Gertrude il Grande (St. Gertrude the Great), who is the patron of Naples, Italy, as both saints named "Gertrude" were associated with concern for the souls of the dead. Though Gertrude of Nivelles may not have had a strong devotion in Italy, I have included her here, because I found her areas of patronage saint iconography intriguing.

Saint iconography involves symbols related to the teachings, events in the hagiography, or patronage of the specific saint depicted in the picture. In artwork, St. Gertrude of Nivelles is depicted as one of the following: a woman holding a large mouse, an abbess with mice at her feet, an abbess with mice running up her cloak, an abbess with mice running up her crosier or pastoral staff, a woman holding a distaff, a woman spinning, or a woman with a cat or cats nearby.

Gertrude of Nivelles' iconic symbol is the mouse, and she is the patron saint of sick people (those who have fevers, or those afflicted by pestilence), mentally ill people (especially suriphobics), cat lovers, cat owners and their cats, gardeners, herbalists, farmlands, good lodgings, travellers, pilgrims (particularly pilgrims in search of lodging), recently dead people, graves, poor people, widows and Nivelles, Belgium.

As a protective saint, she is invoked against rodents, vermin, rats, mice, pestilence, fever, fear of mice or rats (suriphobia), against mental illness and disorders (especilally suriphobia), and insanity. She is particularly invoked against field-mice.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles was abbess of the Benedictine monastery of Nivelles, in present-day Belgium. The water from the well at her convent and the cakes baked in her oven were said to have the miraculous effect of repelling vermin, thus her association with cats.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles (626 – March 17, 659) was born in Belgium. Her father, Pepin I of Landen, died when she was fourteen. Her mother, Itta, built double Benedictine monasteries for women and men at Nivelles, which both she and Gertrude joined. St. Gertrude became abbess when she was about age 20. Her charity to widows and the poor was well known. She became renowned for her hospitality to strangers and travellers.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles is the patron of pilgrims and travelers, especially those in search of accomodations or good lodging, because of the many hospices she established for travelers.

In modern Belgium, supposedly a drink-for-the-road is called a “St. Gertrude's Cup.” There is also a legend relating to the “St. Gertrude's Cup.” One day she sent some of her people to a distant country, promising that no misfortune would befall them on the journey. When they were on the waters, a large sea monster threatened to capsize their ship, but disappeared upon the invocation of St. Gertrude. Because of this legend, medieval travelers drank a toast known in German as the "Gertrudenminte" or "Sinte Geerts Minne" in the saint's honor before setting out on their journey.

It is believed that good souls spend their first night of death enjoying the hospitality of St. Gertrude of Nivelles as their hostess.

This belief may have had something to do with the minor confusion of Gertrude of Nivelles, 7th century abbess, with St. Gertrude the Great, a 13th century mystic. St. Gertrude the Great showed "tender sympathy" towards deceased souls--particularly those in purgatory. A prayer is attributed to Gertrude the Great, which is supposed to release a thousand souls from purgatory each time it is recited. St Gertrude the Great is therefore invoked for the well being of souls of the recently dead--which was also one of the things St. Gertrude of Nivelles had long been associated with. Interestingly, St. Gertrude the Great, a German Benedictine nun, has frequently been depicted holding a crosier or pastoral staff in religious art, which is incorrect as St. Gertrude the Great was never an abbess.

Sometime Gertrude of Nivelles' symbol, the mouse, is said related to the souls in purgatory or symbolic as her protection of the recently dead people--citing the Teutonic tradition of mice being the emblem of souls. Yet others insist that mice and rats are symbolic of St Gertrude's ablility to avert epidemics and protect crops.

St. Gertrude is patron saint of gardeners and herbalists, because there is a tradition that fine weather on her feast day (March 17) boads that it is time for spring planting. Of course, cats like gardens, thus some link her patronage of gardens, farmlands, and herbalists back to her patronage of cats and cat owners. The cats under St. Gertrude's protection will help keep the mice and other vermin from the plants.

In the Philippines on her feast day in March, St. Gertrude is given a floral offering by the community of Cagayan de Oro City, and a prayer is offered to her for the gardeners.

In Berlin, Germany, there is a statue of St Gertrude which has stood in the centre of St Gertrude's Bridge (Gertraudenbrucke). The 9ft high bronze statue of Gertrude of Nivelles, with a lily and distaff, depicted the saint giving a poor child a drink from a cup of wine, as she lightly touched his arm. The cup full of wine was symbolic of love, and relates to the German "Gertrudenminte." The distaff was supposedly symbolic of caring for the poor. The lily on the statue was symbolic of virginity and purity. There are field mice at the base of the lily. This statue's mice have shiny heads due to a local tradtion. It is thought that if you rub the heads of the mice your petition to St Gertrude shall come true. However, you must keep this prayer a secret, or the saint will not grant it.

Following an old tradition, people still pray to St. Gertrude to rid themselves of mice or protect themselves from an infestation of mice. Modern cat lovers also pray to St. Gertrude for protection of their cats, particularly as they prowl about in outdoor gardens or hunt mice in the house.

I think St. Gertrude may be welcomed by some modern American practioners of Stregheria and Benedicaria who use Catholic saints in their practices. It has been observed by David Williams' entry "Cults of the Saints" in Carl Lindhl, John McNamara, John Lindow, Medieval Folklore, A Guide to Myth, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, 2000, 2002, "The saint's cult is not, therefore, something created by an elite for passive consumption by the people--a text produced by an author for reception by an audience; rather, it is an organic reality coming to life through the mutual activity of a faith community." (p.356)

2010 Myth Woodling

Useful Prayers: Prayer for a Night-Prowling Cat
Useful Prayers: Prayer to St Gertrude, Patron Saint of Cat Owners

St. Gertrude in the Garden at
Shakespear's "Hamlet, Be All My Sins Remembered" at

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