I did a double-take upon spying a sharply dressed female skeleton raising a shiny sickle with her right hand. Positioned center stage on the altar of St. Rupert’s Church in Eben, Austria, the impeccably tailored skeletal saint appears to be Mexican folk saint Santa Muerte, but she is not. Saint Death’s Austrian doppleganger is St. Notburga, a peasant woman who lived in the Tyrolian region of Austria from 1265 to 1313 and because of her acts of charity with the poor was canonized in 1862 and is known as the matron saint of peasants and servants. Thus, it’s not only that she’s a female skeleton dressed to kill that approximates her to the Mexican death saint but also her special appeal to those who occupy the lowest rungs of societies plagued by acute socioeconomic inequalities, namely contemporary Mexico and feudal Europe.
For those of you surprised that the skeleton of the Tyrolian saint is the main attraction at the church in Eben, it should be pointed out that the sickle-wielding bony lady is but one, albeit one of the most impressive, of scores of skeletal saints housed at monasteries and churches throughout Catholic Germania, namely Austria, Switzerland, and most importantly Germany itself. While one might expect to encounter these beautiful bejeweled skeletal saints in more heavily Catholic nations such as Italy and Spain, it’s the Teutonic regions that were on the front lines of the Protestant Reformation, spearheaded by Martin Luther, and the subsequent Counter-Reformation in which the exquisitely adorned skeletal relics were manufactured. The Reformation, of course, led to violent campaigns in Germania against the cult of the saints and holy relics in which images and body parts of Catholic holy women and men were destroyed as symbols of “Roman idolatry.”
While significant swaths of Germania joined Luther’s religious revolution, the southern region became one of the epicenters of the Counter-Reformation in which the cult of the saints did not only continue but was revitalized with the importation of the skeletal remains of putative saints and martyrs from the Roman catacombs. The term putative applies here because during the Middle Ages there was a robust black market in bogus relics that were bought and sold by unscrupulous merchants who misrepresented the blood and bones of deceased commoners as those of certain saints. This is why, for example, the more prominent saints would appear to be miraculously endowed with extra body parts, such as the various heads of St. John the Baptist that can be found in different European countries.
So bones and skeletons of mostly unknown origin were traipsed from the Roman Catacombs across the Alps where nuns lovingly transformed them into regally bejeweled and attired “catacomb saints.” The opulence of these skeletal saints stood in stark contrast to the austerity of Lutheran churches where such eye-candy was considered a distraction from worshiping God. The regal opulence of the skeletal saints did double duty in the Counter-Reformation campaign to shore up the faith in the battle for souls with Lutheran “heretics.” The life-size skeletal memento mori reminded Catholics to lead a Christian life during an era in which life expectancy was about half of what it is today – in the 80s. And the reward for a life of Catholic piety could be the treasures of heaven symbolized by the bling and fine threads worn so regally by the catacomb saints.
But the story of skeletal Notburga is not only one of a “weaponized saint” (in the words of my colleague, the anthropologist Dr. Kate Kingsbury) in the battle with Lutherans over Germanic souls but also one of social justice. The hagiographical account of her life posits Notburga as a cook at the estate of Count Henry of Rattenberg who was in the habit of giving food from the noble kitchen to the poor. Upon discovery of this, the lady of the estate ordered Notburga to feed the leftovers to the pigs instead. Undeterred by the temporary setback, the saint-to-be continued her mission to the poor by donating some of her own rations to the needy in the area.
One day on her way to deliver a food donation Notburga was surprised by the count who demanded to see what she was carrying. Miraculously, he saw vinegar and shavings instead of the actual wine and victuals she had in her sack. The suspicious Lady Ottilia nonetheless had Notburga fired for insubordination. Shortly after dismissing the determined Notburga, the lady of the estate fell deathly ill, and despite having been sacked, Notburga stayed on as a death doula, caring for her mistress until she died.
The generous cook then found employment with a peasant in the town of Eben on the condition she be allowed to attend church Sunday evenings and participate in Catholic festivals. In violation of the terms of her employment, Notburga’s boss commanded her to keep working in the fields one Sunday evening to which she responded by tossing her farm tool in the air saying “let my sickle be judge between me and you.” The sharp blade miraculously remained suspended in the air.
Meanwhile Count Henry had suffered a serious reversal of fortune, which he attributed to Notburga’s departure. In an attempt to rectify the situation he rehired the angel of the poor, which naturally led to renewed prosperity on his estate. Shortly before her death, the humble friend of the poor requested that the count have her corpse placed in a wagon pulled by two oxen, and that wherever the beast of burden should stop was where she was to be buried. The oxen came to a stop at the Chapel of St. Rupert where her skeleton has apparently remained for the past seven centuries. It’s not clear at what point her skeleton was elegantly attired and displayed front and center at the magnificent Tyrolian church, but as an eye-catching memento mori St. Notburga is a compelling call to make the most of our brief time on earth remembering the plight of our less fortunate sisters and brothers.