Friday, September 01, 2023

The Life of St Giles

On the Roman calendar, today is the feast of the abbot Aegidius, known as Giles in English, one of the most popular Saints of the Middle Ages. All hagiographical scholars recognize that the traditional account of his life is full of incongruities, and cannot be treated as historically reliable. For example, it begins by saying that he was an Athenian of royal descent; Athens had had no king for over a millennium by the time Our Lord was born. Having been raised as a Christian, he performed several miracles in his youth, curing a sick beggar by giving him his cloak, and healing one man of snakebite and another of demonic possession. Fearing the consequences of his growing fame, he fled westward, settling in southern France, and after spending two years with St Caesarius, the bishop of Arles (470 ca. – 542), went to live as a hermit in a remote spot near the mouth of the Rhone.

St Giles and the Hind, by an anonymous Franco-Flemish painter active around the turn of the 16th century, known as the Master of St Giles. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0.
He is usually depicted in the company of a hind, which often came to him in his solitude to feed him with her milk. His legend tells that a king of the Goths named Flavius (otherwise unknown to history) fell upon the hind during a hunt, but when she fled into Giles’ cave, the king’s hunting dogs simply gave up the chase. This happened three days in a row, but on the third day, one of the huntsman shot an arrow into the cave, which wounded the hermit. The king and his retinue then entered the cave and found him with the hind sitting at his feet, and after learning who he was and what he was doing, withdrew from any further pursuit. The king offered the services of a physician and a very large monetary donation; Giles refused the former, and told the king to use the latter to found a monastery. This he did, and eventually prevailed upon the Saint to become the abbot.
The Mass of St Giles, by the same painter. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0
At this point, another king enters the story, named Charles. (The first king of the Franks to bear this name was Charlemagne, who was born a bit more than 200 years after the death Caesarius of Arles.) Moved by tales of Giles’ sanctity and miracles, he summoned him to court, and told him that he had committed some great sin, unspecified, but so terrible that he dared not confess it. On the following Sunday, as Giles celebrated Mass in the royal presence, an angel appeared and laid on the altar a scroll on which the king’s sin was written down, along with an assurance that by Giles’ prayers and intercession he was forgiven, IF he sincerely repented and made a firm purpose of amendment of his life. After the Mass, the abbot gave the scroll to the king to read, and the latter did indeed confess and repent.
Not long before his death, Giles paid a visit to Rome, and received as a present from the Pope two doors made of cypress wood, carved with images of the twelve Apostles. These he threw into the Tiber, trusting in divine providence to get them back to Provence, and on returning home, found them at the local port, and was thus able to bring them back to his monastery. When he died not long thereafter, his soul was seen carried into heaven by the choirs of angels.
St Giles is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, the only one of them who was not a martyr. The legends of these Saints all have in common that they received a promise from God that their intercession would be particularly effective on behalf of those who honor them. This promise was made to the other thirteen at the hour of their martyrdom, but in Giles’ case, it was added to the scroll mentioned above, that “whoever should call upon St Giles, for whatever he had committed, provided that he desist from that sin, he should not doubt that it was forgiven him by the Saint’s merits.”
A statue of St Giles on the high altar of the basilica of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Bad Staffelstein, Bavaria, and beneath it, a view of the whole altar. Both images from Wikimedia Commons by Holger Uwe Schmitt, CC BY-SA 4.0. 
The two panels shown above by the Master of St Giles were originally part of the same altarpiece, which has long since been dismantled, and the pieces scattered. They are both in the National Gallery in London; two others are in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. One of the Washington panels show the Baptism of Clovis, the first Christian king of the Franks.
The other shows an unidentified bishop on the steps of his cathedral, blessing a crowd of the poor as an exorcism takes place in the background.
The place where the altarpiece was originally displayed is also unknown, but the presence of kings in three of the surviving scenes suggests that the commission was made for a church connected with the French royal family. The Mass of St Giles is set in the royal abbey of Saint-Denis, and The Baptism of Clovis in the Sainte-Chapelle. The unidentified bishop is standing outside Saint-Jean-le-Rond, a small church attached to the north side of the façade of Notre-Dame de Paris which was used as a baptistry. In the background is the old Hôtel-Dieu, a large pilgrim hospice which formerly stood right next to Notre-Dame. This images are precious records of these buildings as they looked before the devastation of the Revolution.

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