St. Birgitta's Cross
Prehistoric archaeological evidence indicates there was a strong system of religious beliefs in Sweden before they adopted Christianity in the 11th century.
In the ensuing 500 years, before Lutheranism replaced Roman Catholicism in the 16th century, one of the most celebrated people was Saint Bridget, who founded the Bridgettine Order.
Uppland, just north of Stockholm, was the site of the Temple at Uppsala, a religious centre in Norse paganism. It was here, in 1303, that Birgitta Birgersdotter was born into a wealthy and influential family. Her father was Uppland's governor, her mother had family connections with the Swedish monarch, and Birgitta married the Lord of Närke. As the Swedish idiom goes, "Att glida in på en räkmacka." (Lit: "She slid into the world on a shrimp sandwich." English: "She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth".)
In the 14th century, power of the Church and State overlapped and was shared to a large extent. People were obliged to pay tithes to the Church, and clergy were not under secular jurisdiction. Neither did clergy pay any taxes.
It was advantageous for super-rich families, such as Birgitta's, not to fall out with the Church. So as a good Christian, Birgitta and her husband embarked on a lengthy pilgrimage (1341–1343) to Santiago de Compostela. We do not know if this was just something people of her status were expected to do. Her husband died a few months after they returned so the journey may have been an attempt to cure to some illness he might have had. Or maybe they went simply because Spain is somewhat warmer than Sweden. What we do know, however, is that she was a very pious woman when she returned.
For the next 30 years until she died, Birgitta devoted herself to Christianity and charitable work.
In 1350 she went to Rome to obtain the pope's blessing on the Order of the Most Holy Saviour (O.Ss.S: Ordo Sanctissimi Salvatoris) she founded at Vadstena.
She remained in Rome until her death in 1373 and became well known for her visions, which have inspired several artists since. Visions included those pertaining to the birth of Jesus and also of his Crucifixion.
Birgitta was canonized by Pope Boniface IX eighteen years after her death.
The Order also survives, commonly known as the Bridgettine Order, and has spread throughout the world. The largest branch of the Bridgettines is still in Sweden; other branches are based in England, Germany, Netherlands and Spain, with monasteries dotted around the globe: Asia, Europe, Central America and the US.
Bridgettine nuns at the 2009 March For Life in Washington, DC. January 2009
photo by John Stephen Dwyer
(Click image to enlarge)
"There should also be a crown on your head, which means that you should be chaste in your desires. So much so, that you would rather endure a beating and pain than to be further stained."
The Bidgettine sisters of Vadstena's website (www.sanctabirgitta.com) says of the nun's attire:
"Habits are grey, while heads are coifed in black with a white linen crown and five ruby-red spots. These are to remind us of Christ's crown of thorns and his five wounds, which Birgitta witnessed as a child."
- birgitta.vadstena.se : Website created by the municipality of Vadstena in Sweden, with information about Birgitta, the convent and the church in Vadstena.
- www.sanctabirgitta.com : Website created by the Bridgettine sisters of Vadstena
- www.pilgrimscentrum.com/se and www.pilgrim.nu (click their 'Pilgrimssymboler' tab), the logo of an organization for pilgrimage routes in Sweden, where an Aiguisé St. Birgitta Cross is united with a blue St. Hans Cross, which in Northern Europe is a road sign to places of cultural importance.
Full page miniature from a 1476 Bridgettine breviary (a book containing all the daily psalms, hymns, prayers, lessons, etc., necessary for reciting the office), depicting the saint with her attributes: a book and staff.
five wounds, the passion of Jesus Christ