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Statue of St. Sebaldus, Church of Saint Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

This winter has been unusually cold, dark, and damp in Germany.  A recent article in Spiegel Online proclaimed it the “darkest winter in 43 years,”[1] and the German weather service (Deutscher Wetterdienst) reported that this past March was the 6th coldest since 1881, when official records began to be kept.[2]  One headline expressed what many Germans have been thinking.  It read, “Just Kill Us Now: German Spring Kicks Off With More Snow.”[3]

In past centuries, unrelenting winter weather like this might have elicited prayers and entreaties to a saint.  In Germany, that saint might have been Saint Sebaldus, a protector against cold weather, who is also the patron saint of Nuremberg.

Patron Saint of Nuremberg

St. Sebaldus KircheSaint Sebaldus (or Sebald), was a hermit who lived in the Reichswald around the 8th century.[4]  Little is definitively known about Saint Sebaldus, although by 1072, he was already recognized as the patron saint of Nuremberg.[5]  Sigismund Meisterlin’s Life of Saint Sebald, completed in 1484, provides some background on the saint, although even Meisterlin acknowledged that his vita was imperfect.[6]  David Collins, in his book Reforming Saints:  Saints’ Lives and Their Authors in Germany 1470-1530, notes that Meisterlin “fixed certain inaccuracies and contradictions in the older legends” about Saint Sebaldus, although Meisterlin realized his corrections “might offend popular sensibilities.”[7]  According to Collins, “Meisterlin’s concern about the changes he had made indicates his familiarity with Sebald’s rich hagiographical tradition.”[8]

Meisterlin wrote the Life of Saint Sebald at the request of the Nuremburg city council.[9]  Collins states, “The city fathers sought a new life of Sebald apparently because the earlier ones were not inspiring the reverence for Sebald outside of Nuremberg in the diocese of Bamberg . . . that the city fathers believed he (and, derivatively, they themselves) deserved.”[10]  At the time, Bamberg was a rival of Nuremberg, and jokes about Saint Sebaldus, especially ones that characterized the saint as rustic and simpleminded, offended the people of Nuremberg, who imagined the jokes implicated them by extension.[11]  Meisterlin’s new vita, it was hoped, would restore the dignity and prestige of Saint Sebaldus, as well as of the city of Nuremberg.

The Life of Saint Sebaldus

St Sebaldus - Reformation of NurembergAccording to Meisterlin’s account, Sebaldus was a Danish prince who felt called to serve God from an early age.  Upon reaching adulthood, he left Denmark and joined three children of the king of Brittany:  Willibald, Wunibald, and Walpurgis.  The group dedicated itself to religious asceticism and elected Willibald, the eldest, as their leader.  The four chose to serve God as itinerants, and they vowed to travel to Rome as pilgrims.  When they arrived in Rome, the pope appointed Willibald a bishop and eventually sent the group back to Germany.  Sebaldus made his way to Regensburg and then to the forests of Franconia, where he lived in solitude, praying and fasting, until his death.  When the locals discovered his body, they placed it on a bier and yoked it to several untamed oxen, which brought the body to a deserted place in the woods, the future site of Nuremberg.[12]

Miracle of the Icicles

Saint Sebaldus is credited with having performed several miracles during his lifetime.  One of his more famous miracles involved the transformation of icicles into fuel for a warm fire.  The story, as recounted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, goes like this:  “[O]ne snowy night [Saint Sebald] took shelter in a peasant’s cottage, but found it was almost as cold within as without, for the fire was low and small.  Sebald suggested that more fuel might be put on, but the man answered that he was too poor to keep up a decent fire, so Sebald turned to the housewife and asked her to bring in a bundle of long icicles hanging from the eaves; this she did, Sebald threw them on the fire, and they blazed up merrily.”[13]  The miracle of the icicles is depicted in relief on the base of Saint Sebaldus’s shrine at the church of Saint Sebaldus in Nuremberg.  The bronze shrine (below), which was made between 1508 and 1519, is one of the best-known works of Peter Vischer the Elder.

Shrine of Saint Sebaldus by Peter Vischer the Elder, Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

Shrine of Saint Sebaldus by Peter Vischer the Elder, Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

Another miracle, included in earlier hagiographies but omitted from Meisterlin’s 1484 vita, describes the experience of an unfortunate Scottish monk who, for some unexplained reason, was plucking the beard of Saint Sebaldus’s corpse.  Apparently annoyed by this, the dead saint’s right hand shot up and poked out the monk’s eye.  This story is not depicted on the saint’s tomb.

Attributes in Art

Depictions of Saint Sebaldus are not as ubiquitous as depictions of more popular saints, such as Saint Christopher or the four Evangelists, even in Germany.  In the few representations I have seen, the saint is frequently depicted as a pilgrim, replete with a pilgrim’s hat, cloak, and staff.  Albrecht Dürer, a native of Nuremburg, executed a number of woodcuts of Saint Sebaldus dressed as a pilgrim, including Saint Sebald on the Column (c. 1501) in the collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna.  Another woodcut by Dürer, entitled Saint Sebald in the Niche (c. 1518), similarly shows Saint Sebaldus as a pilgrim holding his namesake church in his right hand.

St. Sebald in the Niche (1518) by Albrecht Durer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

St. Sebald in the Niche (1518) by Albrecht Durer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When depicted as a pilgrim, it is easy to confuse Saint Sebaldus for Saint James, the patron saint of pilgrims.  For example, the statue shown at the beginning of this post, located inside the church of Saint Sebaldus in Nuremberg, could be mistaken for Saint James, although the miniature church in the figure’s hand – and, importantly, the location of the statue itself – would suggest it is actually Saint Sebaldus.

IMG_3631Interestingly, Peter Vischer the Elder’s shrine of Saint Sebaldus is supported by several plump snails, which I was not aware were associated with Saint Sebaldus.  Whether the snails are symbolic or whether they were included for purely aesthetic reasons, I am not sure.  In Christian art, snails do not have the best of reputations.[14]  Snails were believed to have been born from mud and were thought to feed on mud.[15]  Consequently, they were seen as symbols of laziness because they did not seek food but merely ate what was available.[16]

On the other hand, the snail is an apt symbol for this long German winter, which has passed at a snail’s pace and threatens to linger while Saint Sebaldus takes a sabbatical.

Exterior of the Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

Exterior of the Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

[1] Overly Overcast: Germany Weathers Darkest Winter in 43 Years, Spiegel Online, Feb. 26, 2013, available at http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-weathers-darkest-winter-in-43-years-a-885608.html.  According to Spiegel Online, Germany receives an “already measly” average of 160 hours of sunshine each winter.  As of late February, Germany had received less than 100 hours of sunshine over the course of the meteorological winter, which begins in December and ends in February.  Id.

[2] Press Release, Deutscher Wetterdienst, “Deutschlandwetter im März 2013,” March 28, 2013

[3] Just Kill Us Now:  German Spring Kicks Off With More Snow, Spiegel Online, Mar. 21, 2013, available at http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/winter-weather-plagues-germany-as-spring-begins-a-890166.html.  The article remarks, “The calendar says spring started Wednesday, but a look outside tells sun-starved Germans otherwise. Snow has blanketed large parts of the country in recent days, and forecasts predict yet more wintry weather to come. Super.”

[4] See 3 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 357 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[5] Id.

[6] See David J. Collins, Reforming Saints: Saints’ Lives and Their Authors in Germany 1470-1530 at 56-64 (2008).

[7] Id. at 57.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 57-58.

[10] Id. at 57.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 59.

[13] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 4, at 357.

[14] See Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 25 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.