Bridget of Sweden
Bridget of Sweden
Saint Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303–1373), also known as Birgitta of Sweden, is one of the few Roman Catholic saints of Scandinavia. Sometimes referred to as the "Mystic of the North," Bridget was a wealthy, pious woman who experienced religious visions from her early childhood. After her husband died, she founded a religious order, the Brigittines, and worked to heal a breach in the church that had resulted in the removal of the papacy to Avignon, France. In 1999 Pope John Paul II named her one of the patron saints of Europe, along with St. Therese Benedicta of the Cross and St. Catherine of Siena, two other holy women who devoted their careers to ending religious and political strife in Europe.
Hailed from Prominent Family
Bridget was born into a wealthy, landowning family in the earliest years of the fourteenth century. Her father, Birger Persson, came from the prominent Finsta family, and served as both governor and lagman ("law-speaker"), or provincial judge, in the province of Uppland. Situated north of Stockholm on the Baltic Sea coast, Uppland had a rich history in Swedish lore even in Bridget's day, for its main city of Uppsala was the site of a legendary pagan temple destroyed in some of Sweden's final pagan-Christian battles in the 1080s. During that century, Swedes had converted from their pagan belief system to Christianity, but Uppland was the final holdout for the Norse god worshippers.
Bridget's mother was Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, who came from a prominent family with links to the house of Bjälbo. Many from this line would serve as the Swedish king's jarl, or second in command, during Bridget's lifetime. Another ancestor of hers was Birger Magnusson of Bjälbo, the founder of the city of Stockholm. Both Bridget's parents were devoutly religious, and she adopted their pious ways quite early in her own life. At the age of seven she began to experience mystical revelations; in one vision, she claimed, the Virgin Mary came to her and placed a crown on her head.
Ingeborg Bengstdotter died when Bridget was about 12 years old, and as she entered her teens she hoped to enter a religious order. This was one of two stark choices for wellborn women of her time: the first option, marriage, meant a woman would likely spent the next 30 or so years either pregnant or nursing a child—if she survived all the deliveries, that is; for childbirth had an extremely high risk of death before the era of modern medicine. Or a woman could choose to enter a religious order, which necessitated a vow of chastity and cloistering behind the walls of a nunnery for life. But many religious communities in the medieval era were also oases of scholarship, even ones exclusively for women.
Married at 13
But Bridget's father opposed the idea of her entering a convent, and in 1316, when she was 13, she was wed to Ulf Gudmarsson, who was five years her senior and hailed from a similarly well-connected aristocratic family. Gudmarsson was lord of the province of Närke, and came into possession of a castle at Ulvâsa in Östergötland, where Bridget would spend much of her adult life. Fortunately, her new husband was similarly devout in his faith, and it was a solid match that produced eight children. Known as a devoted mother to four sons and four daughters, she refused to use physical discipline on them. Outside the castle, she became known for her works of charity, particularly toward Östergötland's unwed mothers and their children.
Word of Bridget's piety and charitable works spread throughout Sweden, and she befriended prominent theologians and clerics. In this era, Swedes adhered to the same form of Christianity practiced in the rest of Western Europe, before the Reformation caused the split that resulted in separate Roman Catholic and Protestant creeds. Nicolaus Hermanni was one of her close friends; he later became Bishop of Linköping, a famed cathedral city in Sweden. Her confessor, or personal priest, was Peter, also known as Prior of Alvastra, a renowned monastery in Östergötland.
In the early 1340s Bridget and her husband made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This was a lengthy journey by sea and over land, and made by devout Christians with the financial resources that allowed them to leave home for such a long period of time. Located in Galicia in northwest Spain, Santiago de Compostela was a famous medieval pilgrimage destination bearing a name that in translation means "St. James in the Field of the Star." Legend asserted that James, one of Christ's twelve apostles, had preached there. He was known to have died a martyr's death in Jerusalem in 44 ce, but the legend held that his bones were buried in Spain some years later. Nearly 700 years after his death, a star appeared in the sky that showed Spain's Christians the resting place of James's bones, and a church was erected on the spot in 868. It was sacked by the Muslim Moors who ruled over much of Spain a century later, but a more elaborate cathedral was built when religious tensions subsided, and the church became one of Europe's first major pilgrimage sites.
Bridget's husband fell ill on the way home from Galicia, but recovered enough to return to Östergötland. He died soon afterward, in 1344, at the Alvastra monastery. By now in her early 40s, Bridget devoted herself to religious work in earnest. She became a practicing ascetic, a form of religious devotion that entailed voluntary abstinence or hardship such as restricting food intake or wearing uncomfortable garments. Not surprisingly, a drastically curtailed diet could lead to hallucinations, and the mystical visions of her childhood returned. She claimed to have experienced some 600 in all, and wrote down the later ones. They were eventually published by her second confessor, Matthias Magister, who translated them into Latin after Bridget's death. Known as Revelationes coelestes ("Celestial revelations"), they circulated in Europe for several generations and were widely read by the small number of men and women who were able to read the official language of the Church.
Founded Religious Order
It was not uncommon for wealthy women to join a religious order when they became widows, but Bridget took this a step further and founded her own order, probably in the year 1346. Originally known as the Order of St. Saviour but later called the Brigittines, the religious community was open to both monks and nuns. She claimed that Christ had told her in a vision that its mission was to plant a "a new vineyard." Its chief monastery was at Vadstena, in Östergötland, which was a gift from King Magnus II of Sweden, at whose court Bridget and her husband had spent time.
A religious order needed official Church approval, however, and so after writing its Rule (bylaws that governed its daily life and spiritual focus), she traveled to Rome in 1349 to seek papal confirmation for it. Pope Urban V (1310–1370) approved the Brigittine Rule in August of 1370. She never returned to Sweden, and she spent some of these years attempting to reconcile the division that had resulted earlier that century when the French city of Avignon was designated the papal residence. She appealed to Urban V to return to Holy See back to Rome, Christianity's historical epicenter. That did not take place until 1377, four years after her death.
Bridget had first traveled to Italy with her daughter, Katarina, and her son, Birger, joined the two of them on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1372. Bridget died in Rome on July 23, 1373. A year later, her remains arrived at the Vadstena monastery, and several miracles were attributed to their journey north—some who touched her coffin, it was said, had been suddenly healed of their illness or disability. The process toward sainthood was swift in this era, and Pope Boniface IX canonized her as St. Bridget of Sweden on October 7, 1391. She is Sweden's only true saint in the Roman Catholic canon, though others such as the twelfth-century King Erik IX are venerated as holy but were never formally declared saints in the church. Her feast day is July 23.
Katarina, Bridget's daughter, also became one of the few Scandinavian-born saints, known as St. Catherine of Sweden (c. 1332–1381). This daughter returned to the Vadstena monastery and took over the order, which flourished both there and elsewhere in Europe over the next two centuries. Bridget's granddaughter, Ingeborg Knutsdotter, served as the Brigittines' abbess from 1385 to 1403; when she died in 1412 she was the last of Bridget's descendants. The family line ended because so many of her descendants had taken religious vows and never married.
Brigittine Mission Flourished
In the years following Bridget's death, her order established houses across Sweden and Norway and even as far away as Belarus. Before England's Reformation, the Brigittine outpost in Middlesex, called Syon Abbey, had been founded by King Henry V (1387–1422) and grew into a famous center of scholarship over the next century, particularly renowned for one of the most impressive libraries in the British Isles. Syon Abbey was sacked in 1539 during the violence that accompanied the English monarchy's break with Rome.
Many of the Brigittine monasteries in Scandinavia were also destroyed during the Protestant Reformation when it spread there later in the sixteenth century. In Catholic Hapsburg Austria, however, a chapel was built in Vienna to honor St. Bridget in 1651; the surrounding municipal district around this is officially known as Brigittenau. Her religious order died out entirely during the Reformation, but was revived in 1940 by a Swedish woman, Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was a convert to Roman Catholicism. Its center remains in Vadstena, but the order is restricted to women. The contemporary Brigittine convents function as guesthouses, fulfilling a new mission to promote Christianity through hospitality as well as charitable works. In Rome their convent is housed at the Piazza Farnese, also known as the Casa di Santa Brigida. The residence, near Campo de' Fiori, is where Bridget lived during most of her years in Rome. Brigittine sisters also have missions in India, Estonia, the Middle East, and even Darien, Connecticut.
Traditional Roman Catholic iconography of Bridget includes the pen, the ink bottle, and her revelations. She was also portrayed inside Florence's famed Santa Maria Novella church by the artist Andrea da Firenze in a fresco commissioned for its Spanish Chapel by Italian nobles she had befriended. Titled Via Veritatis, the fresco depicts her as an older woman alongside her daughter, Katarina, who is young but dressed in the humble clothes of a religious pil-grim. Both are placed near the Pope and Emperor in a painting that commemorates the historic 1368 meeting that restored the Holy See to Rome—a meeting that Bridget had prophesied a few years earlier.
The Life of Saint Birgitta, http://www.birgitta.vadstena.se/ (November 14, 2006).
St. Bridget of Sweden, Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02782a.htm (November 13, 2006).