Metal, paper, glass: the devotional object and the challenges of interpretation

August 25, 2020
Kathleen M Smith
Image of St. Hubertus as a stained glass panel, divided into sections

Welcome to Part 2 of our blog post series, Metal, paper, glass. As Elizabeth Ryan noted in her blog post, subtitled Perspectives on a stained glass panel and other objects in Stanford Libraries Special Collections, we were inspired by this striking stained-glass object to explore how we each interact with a variety of unusual materials in our collections, and to share our different perspectives.

Originally this stained-glass panel was believed to depict St. Hubertus since it displays his symbol: the stag’s head underneath a crucifix. However, the model for this image was actually an alterpiece depicting St. Eustace, who is also depicted with a stag or the stag’s head. Often when we are faced with unique and unusual materials, we must also consider their connotations, meanings, connections, and positions within cultural frameworks--particularly those that require interpretation for the modern user. Medieval and early modern Catholic saints offer a rich history for exploration, but, as we have seen with St. Hubertus and St. Eustace, they also present significant challenges. 

Untangling the web of meaning behind the depiction of a saint

First of all, some background: Both St. Hubertus and St. Eustace are represented by the symbol of a stag’s head under a crucifix, and both saints represent the triumph of holy virtue over the temptations of high social status and worldly honor. Before his conversion, the 7th-century Belgian who became St. Hubertus was a nobleman out hunting when he encountered a glowing stag, which caused him to take up the holy life. Similarly, St. Eustace is said to have been a 2nd-century Roman general named Placidus who encountered a stag with a crucifix between its antlers, thus inspiring his conversion and that of his wife and children.  

In addition to sharing a symbol, St. Eustace and St. Hubert are both important saints in Germany and Austria, long associated with hunting because they were both converted during hunting trips. St. Eustace is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers or Auxiliary Saints who are venerated for their protection; this group of saints was first called the “Nothelfer” (“emergency helpers”) in Germany during the worldwide plague pandemic in the 14th century. St. Eustace was unfortunately “demoted” from the official Catholic liturgical calendar in the 1970s and his feast day (September 20th) is now only celebrated in local observance, while the feast day of St. Hubertus (November 3rd) is still celebrated as part of the new calendar.

Perhaps, the most familiar example of the imagery associated with St. Eustace/St. Hubert, at least for North American university audiences, is found on the label of the German liquor Jägermeister, or “master of the hunt.” The Jägermeister liquor company was founded in the 1930s in the town of Wolfenbüttel, Germany, and the bottle’s label features a stag’s head under a cross, which the Jägermeister company attributes to St. Hubertus

Photo of a bottle of the German liquor Jaegermeister, with four promotional magnets

Caption: A bottle of Jägermeister and several promotional magnets, circa 2016. The Jägermeister company definitely knows a great deal about the value of brand recognition and marketing: they were a pioneer in corporate sport sponsorship in the 1970s, and, starting in the 1980s, successfully reinvented their traditional herbal liquor as a college party drink through clever advertising campaigns. Bonus points if you can understand the German phrases on the magnets. 

How do you solve a problem like St. Eustace/St. Hubertus?

As demonstrated above, keeping track of the Catholic saints and their histories is no easy task, especially since St. Eustace was among over 70 saints who were removed from the Roman calendar in 1970.

If you would like to learn more about the saints in the context of the medieval era, and their impact on all aspects of everyday life, you can start with one of the most well-known resources for the medieval era, the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine (ca. 1229-1298). This master work was compiled as a handbook for preachers but quickly became one of the most popular and widely disseminated books in Western Europe. Many manuscript copies of this work survive, with printed translations in multiple languages soon appearing after the development of moveable-type printing in 1450. The title Golden Legend, or Legenda aurea, refers to the public perception of its value. Stanford Libraries has several manuscript and print editions of this important work that can be viewed online, including this 14th-century manuscript, possibly from Germany; this 1498 manuscript attributed to Lyon, France; and this sumptuous 1892 printed volume from the Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith, England.

The history of St. Eustace is related in glorious detail in the Golden Legend: after they all convert to Christianity and are baptized by the bishop of Rome, St. Eustace, his wife, and their two sons are separated and endure many misfortunes. Eventually they are joyfully reunited in Rome, after which the entire family is martyred by Emperor Hadrian. Since the means of their martyrdom is to be enclosed in a metal bull and heated by a fire, St. Eustace is one of several saints who are invoked against fire.

St. Hubertus does not appear in the Golden Legend. At all. (Sorry, Jägermeister!)

If you are interested in learning more about the saints in the context of the twentieth century--a century of enormous change within the Catholic Church--it's best to look elsewhere. A modern-day successor to the Golden Legend, if not quite as culturally ubiquitous, is John Delaney's Dictionary of Saints, which first appeared in 1980. According to the 2005 edition of the Dictionary of Saints, St. Eustace is an "untrustworthy legend": "[i]t is not certain if he ever lived, and the whole story is probably a fictitious pious tale." 

The Dictionary of Saints strongly approves of St. Hubertus.

So, who is the real patron saint of hunting? St. Hubertus or St. Eustace? And, more importantly, who decides?

And the answers are...

Both. And it depends on where and when you're asking! 

There are many excellent scholarly reference sources addressing the history of the saints, the Roman Catholic liturgical year, and the larger historical context of religious practice. Herman Grotefend's Taschenbuch der Zeitrechnung des Deutschen Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (German-language only) and the On-line Calendar of Saints Days by Glenn Gunnhouse are both excellent research tools for exploring the local practice of venerating saints.

But if you're looking for a fun read during this difficult year, or if you are curious about which saints to invoke against plague, fire, and other misfortunes, a good and concise summary of how the tradition of venerating the saints evolved over time (offered up with a hearty helping of humor) can be found in two books by the Catholic theologian Michael Foley: Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour (2015) and Drinking with Your Patron Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to Honoring Namesakes and Protectors (2020). 

Two books, a small bottle of Jaegermeister, and a Jaegermeister shot glass.

Caption: The books Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour (2015) and Drinking with Your Patron Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to Honoring Namesakes and Protectors (2020), shown here with a tiny bottle of Jägermeister and a Jägermeister-branded shot glass in preparation for St. Hubert's feast day on November 3rd.

As Foley explains, the process by which saints are associated with particular functions is highly fluid and changes over time: “How does a saint become a patron of a particular type of person, place, or thing? Sometimes by official fiat on the highest levels, as when in 2000 Pope St. John Paul II declared St. Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. More often than not, however, saintly patronages are the result of folk piety, hallowed by time and sanctioned by custom. [...] Because of this sometime slaphappy development, there is no definitive or tidy list of patron saints; indeed, one often finds several different saints being invoked as patrons for the same cause, or one saint for different causes” (Foley 2020, “Introduction,” xii-xiii). 

Thus it is understandable that St. Eustace, while wildly popular during the Middle Ages, became less prominent in the modern era, and St. Hubert is today the more well-known saint. 

For ease of differentiating the two, here is a quick guide to both saints: 

St. Hubert/Hubertus

Feast Day: November 3rd 

Patron Saint of hunters, mathematicians, machinists, metalworkers, and Liege; invoked against dog bites and rabies

Appears in: Hubertus is not listed in the Golden Legend, but Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints approves of him. Foley (2015) suggests several appropriate drinks for celebrating this saint: St. Hubertus, a Hungarian herbal liquor by the distiller Zwack []; Jägermeister, of course; Glenfiddich single-malt scotch (since it has a stag on the label); a “Hart” (equal parts gin, red Dubonnet, and dry vermouth); or a “Hunter” (2 parts rye whiskey to 1 part cherry brandy, with a Maraschino cherry garnish). Foley (2020) adds to this list wine from Argentina’s Bodegas San Huberto and Hunter Rye, a Canadian whiskey imported and blended in Kentucky. 


St. Eustache/Eustace/Eustathius (formerly known as Placida, a Roman general), d. 118

Feast Day: September 20th 

Patron Saint of hunters, firefighters, victims of torture, and Madrid; invoked against family troubles

Appears in: The Golden Legend of Jacob de Voraigne; however, according to Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints he is an "untrustworthy legend" and "[i]t is not certain if he ever lived, and the whole story is probably a fictitious pious tale." Sadly, Foley (2015) refers his readers to the entry for St. Hubertus and the drinks found therein. Foley (2020) omits St. Eustace entirely.


Pilgrims' progress: Terracotta flasks featuring St. Menas

As we have seen, investigating the meaning behind one image can be lead to a web of meaning and interconnected symbols to decipher. Part of my job is to seek out and acquire new materials for the collections, especially those that offer fertile ground for scholarly exploration. All of this research would be for nothing, however, if conservation experts such as Elizabeth Ryan and Sarah Newton didn't bring all of their expertise to bear in conserving and maintaining these items safely so that they can be examined and enjoyed by present-day and future audiences. 

And St. Eustace's stained glass panel isn’t the only item with devotional connotations in Stanford Libraries’ collections that has tested (or will test) the saintly patience of the Conservation Department.

For example, there are three clay pilgrims’ flasks and one clay oil lamp that date from 6th/7th-century Syria. Stanford Libraries acquired this collection in 2017 to support medieval instruction and course development, as well as to provide examples of early mass production and the international circulation of objects.

Fortunately, there is no ambiguity about the saint depicted on these objects and identification is straightforward. Several of the flasks depict St. Menas, a warrior saint who was martyred in 296 CE, surrounded by two camels and two crosses. The feast day of St. Menas is November 11th, and he is the patron saint of caravans and merchants. One flask has the word "blessing" and a cross on one side and ευλογiα του αγiου Μηνa (or, in Latin script, EULOGIA TOU AGIOU MENA) - "[Receive the] blessing of Saint Menas" on the other. 

 3 Byzantine terracotta pilgrim flasks, circa 6th-7th century, and one clay lamp.

Caption: 3 Byzantine terracotta pilgrim flasks, circa 6th/7th century, and one clay lamp, in an enclosure custom-built for them by Sarah Newton. This enclosure protects the flasks when they are not in use and allows them to be safely stored on library shelving.

These kinds of mass-produced flasks or ampullae contained holy oil or holy water from the shrine of Saint Menas. The site of his shrine, known as Abu Mena, remained the most important pilgrimage site in Egypt until it was destroyed in the mid-7th century. Rediscovered many centuries later, Abu Mena was excavated in 1905-1907. Since unstable soil put it at risk of collapsing, the ancient site was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list in 2001.

Pilgrim flasks depicting Saint Menas have been discovered in hundreds of archaeological sites throughout Europe and the Near East, testifying to the popularity of pilgrimages to Abu Mena and to the wide circulation of these medieval devotional objects. Pilgrim flasks and other clay objects celebrating St. Menas are found in the British Museum, the Louvre, the Harvard Art Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and many other cultural institutions around the world.

The pilgrimage tradition associated with Saint Menas continues, however, in the present day: the new Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mina was established in 1959 near the ruins of Abu Mena, and pilgrims today receive a modern form of mass-produced container—plastic cylinder-shaped ampullae—to carry home the holy oil they receive at the new site.

An everyday mystery: Breverl or devotional amulet featuring St. Jerome and St. Andreas Bobola

And then there is this new acquisition, a Breverl or devotional amulet, which is currently headed to the Conservation Department. It is another example of everyday devotional objects that were meant to be used constantly and continuously. Such objects usually deteriorate or are discarded, rather than ending up in a library or museum, so we were pleased to acquire this item for study. 

 Image of a devotional amulet or Breverl, with various substances that were inside it.

Caption: Devotional amulet, with contents. Photo by David Rueger.

The Breverl was popular in 17th and 18th-century Germany as a type of talisman that was not to be opened (otherwise, it would lose its protective qualities). This blue silk brocade fabric covers a cardboard frame, with a central circular white wax relief depicting St. Jerome. Its exact origins are a matter of speculation (Rome/Southern Germany/Austria, but possibly Lithuania, ca. 1820).

The feast day of St. Jerome is September 30th and he is the patron saint of librarians and students. Foley (2015) suggests that an appropriate drink to toast this “acerbic ascetic” would be a Whiskey Sour (2 parts whiskey, 1 part lemon juice, with simple syrup to taste). 

Once we acquired this amulet, we decided to open it to see what was inside. The contents of this devotional packet turned out to be a large quantity of blond hair, straw, or wool; a pious handwritten letter in German to a young woman; and a small late 18th-century engraving of the Jesuit missionary Andreas Bobola (1591-1657). The engraving was folded into thirds and sealed with adhesive to make a small pouch, probably containing small relics or blessed beads.     

The feast day of St. Andreas Bobola falls on May 16th, and he is known as a patron saint of Poland (along with St. Florian, who is also a patron saint of firefighters).

Devotion takes many forms

As we actively collect more research materials, it is these types of fragile, unusual items that lead to new perspectives on eras past. Through them, we can learn about how Catholic saints were integrated into daily life and the variety of forms that devotional practices could take. Without the Department of Conservation and Preservation, and their devotion to ensuring that these materials survive in the best way possible, however, we would lack important clues to untangling these intriguing mysteries. In part 3 of the blog post series Metal, paper, glassSarah Newton will discuss how she preserves as much as possible of the object's original experience for those who interact with it within the library setting.

Sources on the lives of the saints

Delaney, John J. Dictionary of Saints. New York: Image/Doubleday, 2005.

Foley, Michael P. Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2015.

Foley, Michael P. Drinking with Your Patron Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to Honoring Namesakes and Protectors. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2020. 

Grotefend, Hermann. Taschenbuch der Zeitrechnung des Deutschen Mittelalters und der Neuzeit. Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1960.

Gunhouse, Glenn. On-line Calendar of Saints Days.

Gunhouse, Glenn. Hypertext Book of Hours. Last updated 12 August 2019.

de Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. Transl. William G. Ryan, with an introduction by Eamon Duffy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012.  

Wieck, Roger S. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: G. Braziller in association with the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1988.