SAINT NOTBURGA

Los Angeles, 26 September 2022

Just before my wife and I hurried over to Los Angeles to help our daughter, we spent a very pleasant long weekend in Innsbruck, celebrating our wedding anniversary. We actually weren’t visiting Innsbruck itself but rather using it as a base to do some hiking. As the city’s name indicates, it is situated on the river Inn. The valley down which the river flows is flanked on both sides by mountains, and it was these that we were there to hike, up, down and along.

Nevertheless, on the way to and from our hikes we found ourselves enjoying various parts of the old town through which we strode (on the way out) or shuffled (on the way back), and on the last morning we had time enough before our train left for Vienna to visit one museum. Being a fanatic believer in the Green Michelin Guide, I quickly looked up what museums it suggested to visit in Innsbruck, and discovered that this august publication bestowed its maximum encomium, three stars, on only one museum in the city: the Museum of Tyrolean Arts and Handicrafts. So the Museum of Tyrolean Arts and Handicrafts it was!

As usual, the Michelin Green Guide was spot on. I earnestly recommend any of my readers who are spending some time in Innsbruck to visit this museum. But this post is not really about the museum. It is about one particular painting which I chanced upon, of St. Notburga.

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Well! As any faithful reader of my posts will know, I have a very soft spot for obscure saints, the obscurer the better. In my time, I have written posts about Saints Radegund, Pancras, Blaise (who is also, incidentally, the subject of a small painting in the museum), John of Nepomuk, Hubert, Peter of Verona, Fructuosus, and a few other odds and ends in the Saints’ Department. So it was clear from the moment I clapped eyes on the painting that I would have to write a post about her. The train journey back to Vienna gave me all the time I needed to do the background research.

St. Notburga’s story is quickly told, and hinges around three miracles. If she existed at all, and I for one have my doubts about that, she was born in 1265 or thereabouts, into a humble family living in the small town of Rattenberg situated on the river Inn some 50 kilometres downstream from Innsbruck. So she was a Tyrolean girl.

Some time in her teens, she went to work as a servant in the household of the local aristocrats, the Count and Countess of Rottenburg. She was – of course – a very good girl and was scandalized by the fact that the leftover food from the Count’s meals was fed to the pigs when there were lots of townsfolk who went hungry. So with the Count and Countess’s blessing, she collected the leftovers and distributed them to the poor. (From here on, I show, very blown-up, some of the scenes which circle the painting above. They are somewhat dark and fuzzy; if I had known about Notburga beforehand, I would have taken close-ups from the painting itself. Ah well …)

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Alas! the Count died, and his son inherited his father’s title, lands, and servants. The new Count and his lady wife didn’t approve of Notburga’s good works at all. They wanted all the leftovers to go to their pigs. So the Countess, who was in charge of running the household, told Notburga to stop.

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Being – of course – a very obedient girl, Notburga did as she was commanded. But how she suffered! So she decided to put aside some of her own food instead, especially on Fridays – being not only good but pious, she fasted on Fridays – and  gave this to the poor. The nasty Count and Countess didn’t like that either. As far as they were concerned, she was giving away their food, not hers, and saw this as theft. The Count decided to catch her in the act of leaving the castle with the food.

FIRST MIRACLE: So one Friday, Notburga was as usual carrying the food she had put aside for the poor in her apron and a jug of wine in her hand, when she encountered the Count and his entourage in the castle’s courtyard. He demanded to know what she was carrying. Notburga replied, “wood shavings and lye, Master”. The Count scoffed and commanded her to open her apron. Notburga obeyed, but in place of food, the Count saw only wood shavings and sawdust! Then he tried the wine, but tasted only lye!

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Of course, the Count being a nasty man, he suspected that Notburga had played a trick on him and fired her. She accepted her fate with forbearance, and left the castle and moved to a small village of Eben on Lake Achen, some 20 kilometres from Ratenberg. Here we have her (I think) walking to Eben.

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There, she was employed as a farm worker by a local farmer. She looked after the cattle and helped with the field work. Being, as I say, a very pious girl, Notburga only asked that the farmer let her stop work to pray when the bell first rang in the evening and let her go to Mass on Sunday and holy days, to which he graciously agreed.

SECOND MIRACLE: One afternoon, as always, Notburga stopped work when the first bell rang. But the weather was threatening to change, so the farmer demanded that no one stop until all the grain had been collected. Seeking divine assistance to make her case, Notburga raised up her sickle and said: “Let my sickle be judge between me and you.” She let go – and the sickle remained suspended in mid-air, caught on a ray of sunshine!

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Frightened half out of his wits, the farmer let her stop working, and he never tried that one again!

In the meantime, things were going very badly for Count Rottenburg. His pigs – the ones to whom the leftover food was given – were ravaged by some mysterious disease. His wife’s half-brother set the castle on fire after a bitter quarrel. Here, we have the half-brother attacking the castle.

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Finally, his wife sickened and died. Many residents decided that the Count had been cursed and left. The Count began to ascribe all his misfortunes to his dismissal of Notburga. He sought her out, together with his new wife, and implored her to return to work for him.

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She accepted, but only on condition that he let her resume her care for the poor. The Count immediately agreed, and of course his fortunes took a great turn for the better when Notburga came back. For 18 years, she served in the castle as nanny for the Count’s children, then cook, all the while continuing her charitable good works. She also succeeded in reconciling the Count with his first wife’s half-brother, the one who had very nearly burned the castle to the ground.

THIRD MIRACLE: In September of 1313, sensing that death was approaching, Notburga requested her master to place her corpse on a wagon drawn by two oxen and to bury her wherever the oxen would stand still. The Count did as she had asked. So off went the oxen, followed by the funeral procession.

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When the cart reached the Inn, the river parted and all the mourners were able to cross to the other shore without harm!

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The oxen continued on their way, covering at a leisurely pace the 20 kilometres to Eben (the mourners must have all had sore feet by now). There, just outside a wayside chapel on the outskirts of Eben they finally stopped. With much pomp and ceremony, she was laid to rest in the chapel; it is even said that angels carried her coffin into the chapel.

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And that’s Notburga’s life wrapped up. Readers will have noted by now the importance of the sickle in Notburga’s life. Hence her being represented in the painting above prominently waving a sickle around. I insert here a statue of her which I also came across in the museum, again waving that sickle around.

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I have told her story somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Quite honestly, it’s difficult for me to see what was so saintly about her life. I find the miracles ascribed to almost akin to conjurors’ tricks. But somethings about her definitely captured the imagination of the rural folk of the Tyrol and contiguous areas. Pilgrimages to that little chapel in Eben started up and became big enough for Maximilian I (whose own mausoleum sits in the church next to the museum) to decide to have a bigger church built in the village at the beginning of the 16th Century. It got a late Baroque makeover a few centuries later. Here is an aerial view of the church, set in the beautiful Tyrolean landscape (it really is a beautiful part of the world).

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And here is a view of the church’s interior.

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Her skeleton (or someone’s skeleton) was unearthed from the original chapel and, dressed in rich clothing, now rather macabrely presides over the church’s interior.

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Notburga was until recently one of the most revered saints in Tyrol and South Bavaria, as well as in East Styria and Slovenia (I would imagine that the general dechristianization of Europe has put paid to this, although a quick search on LinkedIn and Facebook show that there are still quite a lot of people called Notburga). Rural folk would ask for her intervention in many situations of distress, from human or animal sickness to threatening storms. Apart from her representation on religious furniture and furnishings (paintings, votive images, statues, stained glass windows, church bells, even offering boxes and holy water basins) her image could be found on all sorts of objects of everyday use like salt shakers, stove tiles, and cupboards. There are even tiny, 2 by 2.8 cm., pictures of her to be swallowed or “inhaled” from; they were used as part of religious folk medicine and belonged in the home apothecary. It was believed that consuming or breathing in from these little images would release Notburga’s healing powers. Little silver Notburga sickles were worn on watch chains and rosaries as amulets. Many songs, prayers and litanies were dedicated to her.

There are those who say that Notburga was a Christian personification of much older goddesses who were prayed to in the mountains. Her sickle, for instance, is considered as pointing to a connection with a moon goddess, a common goddess throughout Europe and indeed the world; we have here the Roman goddess Luna.

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Notburga’s association with fields, crops, grain and bread recalls the “grain mothers” like the Greek fertility goddess Demeter and the Roman Ceres.

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This could well all be true. But I see another thread in her story, the constant struggle of rural folk with hunger, linked at least in part to their exploitation by landowners, both big (aristocrats) and small (rich farmers). Those rich folk were wasting food? Ha! She took it all and redistributed it to us poor folk! The Count fired her? Ha! He sure suffered for having done that! The farmer insisted that his workers work long hours? Ha! She sure put the fear of God in him for doing that, and after that he behaved himself! It’s no coincidence that she is the patron saint of the downtrodden in rural areas: servants, female agricultural workers, and the peasantry in general. I can understand that people would pray to her to deal with the richer folk making their life miserable. Personally, though, I think unionization is the better way to go.

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Just saying …