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Mother-Daughter Saints: Role Models in May

Mother and daughter saints are rare in the calendar of the Catholic Church. Yet three pairs of such women of heroic virtue are hallowed by tradition and in art, and they are role models worthy to be specially remembered in this month of Mary and Mother's Day. They acted to do the will of God during three periods of great challenge in Christian history: the Incarnation, the Patristic Age, and the early Renaissance.

The first mother-daughter saints are, of course, St. Anne and the Blessed Virgin Mary. We know nothing for certain about the parents of our Lady, even their names. According to legend and tradition, after years of childlessness, God sent an angel to tell Anne and Joachim that they would have a child. St. Anne is depicted by artists meeting St. Joachim at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem, where the couple embraced to share the good news of her pregnancy. We celebrate this event as the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8.

Anne appears as a matron in pictures of the birth of the Virgin, celebrated on Sept. 8, and the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, celebrated on Nov. 21, in keeping with a belief that Anne promised to dedicate the child to God. A different tradition is hallowed, however, in the numerous touching pictures of St. Anne teaching St. Mary to read at home, which became popular in the 17th century in Catholic countries. What a sorrow it must have been for Anne to not be present at the birth of her divine Grandson in Bethlehem. Artists have filled in the gap by showing the extended family reunited after the return from Egypt.

As the belief in the Immaculate Conception spread during the 15th century, St. Anne was more and more honored, because obviously, the mother of the only sinless human being ever born had to be very special. An earthly trinity made up of the Christ Child, the Blessed Virgin and the grandmother, St. Anne, was widely represented in art, especially in Germany, where it was known as the "Anna Selbdritt." Sometimes in paintings, the "Anna Selbdritt" would be juxtaposed to images of the Father and the Holy Spirit showering golden rays on the Christ Child, showing that He belonged both to the human kinship of Anne, Mary and Jesus; and to the divine kinship of the most holy Trinity. Even without knowing their names or the details of their lives for certain, the Church honors Anne and Joachim because they nurtured Mary and taught her to be a worthy Mother of God. Thanks to their teaching and example, she could respond to God’s request with faith, "Let it be done according to Thy will." Mary must have followed their example when she brought up her own Son, Jesus. Their faith laid the foundation of courage that allowed her to stand by the cross as her Son was crucified and still believe. Such parents are examples for all parents.

Paula and Eustochium, Saints of the Patristic Age In 385, St. Paula, a Roman widow and mother of five from the topmost ruling class, went to the Holy Land with her daughter Eustochium, eventually settling in Bethlehem under the spiritual direction of St. Jerome. We call this period the Patristic Age because during the century after Christianity was made legal by the Roman Empire, the Church Fathers such as Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory worked out the doctrine of the holy Trinity and fought dangerous heresies like Pelagianism and Arianism. Most Catholics have heard of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into Latin, the language of Western Europe spoken by the common people — the so-called Vulgate. This became the basis for the Latin liturgy.

Jerome is also known for having founded the Jeronymite order of monks, a forerunner of the Benedictines in the West. Without the advice and help of Paula and Eustochium, St. Jerome could not have done it all. We learn about these mother-daughter saints from St. Jerome's letters. During the fourth century, many Roman aristocrats persisted in pagan practices and resisted Christianity. Paula and Eustochium set an example for highborn women to abjure the luxurious, decadent life of pagan Rome and to embrace a life of sacrifice in the Holy Land, where the mother and daughter built a hospice, a monastery and a convent. In a long letter to Eustochium, Jerome wrote a glowing account of Paul's virtuous life, recounting how the rich woman became poor through her alms. Jerome addressed the most famous of all his letters to Eustochium, giving the reasons for a life of consecrated virginity. The letter to Eustochium gave the model for religious life for centuries to come.

A painting by the Spanish painter Zurbaran in our own National Gallery in Washington portrays the two women clothed as nuns seated near St. Jerome. The large canvas is from a cycle of paintings of St. Jerome’s life in the Jeronymite monastery in Guadalupe, Spain. Another panel in this cycle portrays Jerome being tempted by visions of gorgeously dressed women dancing and making music, in obvious contrast to the spiritual companionship of Paula and Eustochium, his closest confidantes and assistants. Paula died in 404 and Eustochium, in 419.

Bridget and Catherine of Sweden St. Bridget of Sweden and her daughter St. Catherine of Sweden lived during the calamitous 14th century, punctuated by the Avignon Captivity (when the popes were captives of the French monarchy in southern France), the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and ultimately, the Great Schism of the West which saw rival contenders to the papacy, and was not resolved until 1415. St. Bridget (1302-73), a Swedish noblewoman, was trained by her pious father to love the passion of our Lord. She was happily married to Prince Ulf, with whom she had eight children.

Ulf died following a pilgrimage by the holy couple to Campostela in Spain, and Bridget then decided to live the religious life, although she never took vows as a nun. She did found the order of the Holy Savior, or Brigittines. She threw herself into a crusade to bring the pope back from Avignon to Rome. From 1348 until her death in 1373 she used Rome as the base for pilgrimages to a variety of places. Of her eight children only one followed her into the religious life, Catherine, herself a widow. Indeed, underscoring that holiness is a matter of freely choosing to accept God's gift of grace, one of Bridget's sons was exceptionally wicked.

St. Catherine returned to Sweden in 1373 to govern the abbey founded by her mother at Vadstena. It is thanks to the work of these two holy women that Catholicism survived in a vibrant form in Sweden, which became an officially Protestant nation less than two centuries after Catherine died in 1381.

St. Bridget began having visions of the Redeemer and His sufferings at the age of eight, and these continued throughout her life. She was particularly devoted to the five wounds of Christ; these appear as five red dots on the headdress of the Brigittines' Franciscan habit. Her "Revelations" were widely influential during her lifetime and spread even more after her canonization in 1391. They had a revolutionary impact on the religious art of the European Renaissance of the 1400s.

St. Bridget made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1372. This journey brought her close to the other mother-daughter saints, including St. Anne (patroness of Christian mothers, to whom Bridget of Sweden was devoted, and St. Paula patroness of widows) whose tomb was carved in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Before Bridget's "Revelations," the Nativity was always depicted showing the Blessed Mother reclining in the grotto as if exhausted from childbirth, and the swaddled Child in the manger. But in Bridget's vision, Mary gave birth to the child while on her knees in prayer, miraculously without pain. The child appeared unclothed on the ground before the Blessed Mother. The supernatural light of the holy Babe radiates into the surrounding darkness of the nocturnal scene. In early pictures of this vision, a tiny portrait of St. Bridget appears; but as time went on, the vision itself, with variations, became the standard way of painting the Nativity, familiar today in Christmas cards.

Perhaps the most beautiful of all Brigittine pictures is "Christ After the Scourging" of around 1629, a painting now in the National Gallery of London. It is by Velazquez, the supreme master of the Spanish Golden Age. Velazquez paints Jesus collapsed in agony at the column to which he has been lashed, gazing with love at a Soul in the form of a child presented to Christ by a Guardian Angel. While Bridget herself is not present, the image is a verbatim transcription of one of her Revelations.

Hamerman is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia.

Copyright 2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001