Happy All Saints’ Day!

I’ll admit, I was tempted to put an image of underrated 90s pop group ‘All Saints’ for the card image, but figured I’m already an atheist discussing Christian shit, I should probably hold back some irreverence! This is a painting of ‘The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs’ by Fra Angelico, an early renaissance painter from Florence. His works, and those of his contempories, would go on to inspire the great works of renowned renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raphael but don’t sleep on the names you don’t know. Many of the greatest works of religious art I have ever seen have been on church walls in Italy with only a date and no name. (Credit: Fra Angelico, Public Domain)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains an image of a dead saint. Also some sacrilege and blasphemy, probably.

Yeah, unfortunately this is a case of the morning after the night before. The secularised celebration of Halloween (31st October) very much absorbed the Christian All Hallows’ Eve (31st October) the adjacent All Saints’ Day (1st November) and All Souls Day (2nd November).

What is All Saints’ Day? It’s a pretty self-explanatory thing. It is the official celebration of all saints. Many saints have their own festivals, days and celebrations but with a huge range of saints to choose from some people were bound to be excluded. As such celebrations of just about everyone holy have been going on since around the 4th century CE. All Souls’ Day is the equivalent for standard dead people. This time of year, then, is about remembrance of the dead.

Pokémon’s recognisable mascot, Pikachu, holding…a bunch of keys? Yup, that’s Klefki. A Pokémon, along with others like Trashy, an actual refuse sack, spoken of as being indicative of a loss of design direction by Pokémon’s creators. A similar thing sort of happened with saints. (Credit: A Pokémon Plushie Database, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

I can’t blame you for not really knowing about, or caring about, the saints. Those Christians did get a bit Pokémon after a while. They added too many and muddled up the designs. Did they have their Klefki moment? Well there’s Saint Zita, the patron saint of domestic servants and maids, and also lost keys! That’s not an association she has, it’s a role she has as recognised by the church. They gave her the role of being patron of lost keys.

What is a Saint? It is literally someone holier than thou. They are people the church considers to have had a particular closeness to God, often they are renowned for performing miracles, perhaps they were a martyr, or perhaps they just devoted themselves especially to worship. In some doctrines, indeed theologians correct me if I’m wrong but in most Christian doctrines, everyone who enters the Kingdom of Heaven is a ‘Saint’. So the saints we venerate on Earth are just especially holy people – of course according to the church that canonises (the official process of making a saint) them.

In many ways the saints mirror the multiple major, but especially minor, deities that trace their roots back to pantheism (beliefs in multiple gods) and animism (a belief in the spirit in all things). Many belief systems have their ‘spirits’ of various things; the forests, the rivers, the buildings, the – I dunno – cakes, etc. The saints sort of replicate that through their system of patronage. Saints aren’t just holy people who did some shit, they represent certain things and can be given official recognition, or patronage, of that link by the church.

As mentioned above with Saint Zita. She was herself a domestic servant to a wealthy family of silk merchants in Tuscany, so her being patron of domestic labourers and maids is appropriate. She is said to have been very pious, giving a third of her wages in alms to the poor, a third to her family and keeping only a third for herself. She lived a very holy life by all accounts, hence her canonisation.

Saint Zita in her resting place on display at the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. She lived between, roughly, 1212-1272. When her remains were first exhumed in 1580 she was deemed to be ‘incorrupt’ – where a person’s remains are found to be resistent to decomposition, presumed as being because of their holiness. Looking at her now I’d question that judgement, she just looks like a very well preserved dead lady. But such is faith. One thing is for sure she cuts a striking figure, and is a fascinating reminder that our time on earth is short. (Credit: Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Looked at through my atheist eyes it seems like she was just a nice person. But miracles are ascribed to her. For example she is said to have been in charge of baking the bread but one day abandoned her duty to attend to a poor person in need. When she returned to the kitchen, angels had prepared the bread for her. Nobody else could have done it because apparently nobody else knew how to make bread…Seems suss, but welcome to Saints! There’s a lot of suss in there!

If you wish to visit Saint Zita you can do so in the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. Lucca is a lovely town anyway and I’m sad I’m only just learning about Zita for a gag because I definitely would have paid her a visit when I was in Tuscany.

Patronages in Saints, then, are often based upon proximity or association of the person to a place, an activity or a characteristic. This is why we have patron saints of towns and cities, patron saints of jobs and social roles and patron saints of weird shit like unattractive people. I should carry around an icon of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes!

Karl the Great’s canonisation was declared invalid but Saint Charlemagne, the late Frankish King and Holy Roman Emperor, would definitely be the Patron Saint of Curious Idiots™. He already is in my eyes, which is why I wrote about it.

Karl the Great! “Talking about yourself again?” I hear you ask. No, Karl der Grosse, Karl the Great is what Charlemagne is referred to as in Germany. Charlemagne is, itself, a French version of the same epithet – ‘Charles Magne’ or Charles the Great. This stunning reliquary bust is available to view at the Aachen Cathedral Treasury (Credit: Me)

The many saints and their patronages are an affirmation that God is in everything.  The church keeps up with the pace, too. There are patron saints of explosives (Saint Barbara), motorcylists (Saint Columbanus) and the internet (Saint Isidore of Seville). This system means no town, no role, no job, and few phenomena remain untouched by holiness. All is holy and so all has a saint.

Following this I am going to write We Lack Discipline’s Top 5 Favourite Saints (So Far…). I say ‘so far’ because, as mentioned, there’s a saint for everything. There are over 10,000 saints in the Catholic canon, and other Christian groups have their own saints beyond just the Catholic bunch. There are also ‘folk saints’, people who have not been officially canonised but who have a special regard to certain countries, people or groups.

Saint Columbanus on the window of the crypt at Bobbio Abbey, Italy. Columbanus established the Abbey at Bobbio, despite being Irish. He was a wanderer, a travelling missionary who established abbeys across the Frankish empire. This wanderlust is probably the reason for his association with motorcyclists. Behind Saint Patrick he is considered one of Ireland’s most regarded saints. (Credit: Trebbia, By Wikimedia Commons)

I talk and write about Christianity a lot but I, myself, am an atheist. Why would I write about the subject when I am not a believer? The Christian faith provided the blueprint for western morality. The entire fabric of the societies of nations like Britain, France, Germany and the United States of America is a delicate weave of Christian values and secular ideals. Christianity is still dominant in many areas of the world, western Europe, Central and South America and Africa, for example. There are social conflicts, structures and rights in our times; marriage rights, reproductive rights, gender and sexuality, crime, leadership, governance etc. that all trace root aspects back to Christian values, morals, considerations or organisations – For good or for ill.

This still affects us. I think this makes it very important to study.

There is also another aspect. I may not like the God or the religion as an organisation, but the imagery in Christianity is some of the finest. I love religious architecture, religious art and religious iconography. The saints epitomise this. Their often remarkable lives, or deaths, make fascinating studies for artists who can, in their composition, use a saint or religious figure as an allegory for aspects of the human condition. It all takes on a lot of symbolism and I love looking into that sort of thing, studying its contexts and meanings and how they have changed over time.

So thanks for joining me in this little look at All Saints’ Day and what saints are. Now sit back piously, put on some ambient choral music and enjoy our top 5 saints.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

5 thoughts on “Happy All Saints’ Day!

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