Divine “vaccines” - Wonderful memories of 18th-century folk religiousness

For several months, the focus has been on what new vaccines are being developed nationally and globally, which of them have received official approval, and what types of vaccines have just arrived in Hungary. The virtual exhibition of the Piarist Museum, would like to give a taste of an age, when people could not yet trust in modern medicine or the professional pharmaceutical industry, where vaccinations did not yet exist, through the special memorabilia preserved in its collection.

There were, however, relic-holder amulets, trouble averting, healing, magically endowed letters of protection, and sacred images that were favoured by 18th-century folk medicine when they faced illnesses, epidemics, or even death.

Falra akasztható, polion díszítésű reliquiarium pergamenre festett szentképekkel

Wall reliquary with sacred images painted on parchment with decorative frames spun from metal fibres – Piarista Múzeum CC BY-NC-ND

02_777922_20124981P2.JPGThe worldview of the Baroque era attributed various troubles and diseases to the harmful effects of demons, or divine punishment. Because contemporary medicine often proved helpless during a major illness or epidemic, people could only trust in the divine mercy that they wanted to experience as directly as possible. During the Catholic renewal after the Reformation, the reverence for relics and sacred images flared up: the images and relics of the Virgin Mary and the saints were credited with miraculous, healing, mediating, and often almost magical power. In connection with this, they spread reliquaries combined with hand-painted sacred images with decorative frames spun from metal fibres and velvet or silk, made by nuns or monks in monasteries. Wealthier people hung them on the walls of their homes or wore them as amulets on necklaces in order to avert troubles, protect, and help.ls of their homes or wore them as amulets on necklaces in order to avert troubles, protect, and help.

11_777686_20201311P2.JPGWidespread Breverls (or declaration of protection) available to the general public in the 18th century were letter-shaped sacred images, usually held in metal, leather or silk bags, worn around the neck, combined with relics, which were believed to protect their wearers from various ailments and diseases, especially from the plague. Engraved images, amulet tags, protective prints, Zechariah blessing pasted on a thicker sheet of paper surrounded the relic complex, consisting of nugs of soil from the holy places, pressed plants, medals, miniature copies of sacred statues, the Caravaca cross, Sebastian’s arrow, Nepomuk’s tongue , on which they folded the usually small engravings divided into nine parts, depicting helping saints and idols.

14_745052_20200191P2.jpgWith the spread of reproduced graphic procedures, it became possible for ordinary people to carry and keep in their homes engraving copies of helping relics, sacred images and statues with mediating functions, which they often touched to the original sacred objects in order to receive their miraculous power. The image of St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, was also used to relieve childbirth pains, and it was hung around the neck of the bearing mother after it had previously been touched to the relics of the Saint. The engraving of the severed head of the Persian martyr St. Anastasia was believed to have been effective in helping against headaches, while the St. Agatha’s card provided protection against fire, and the Three Kings' Card helped travellers and provided the wearer with the grace of good death.


Representations of St. Rosalia, St. Roch and St. Sebastian were widespread among the sacred images protecting against the plague, and the funeral image of St. John of Nepomuk was also included among the images protecting against the pestilence. They considered the most effective aid in the plague epidemic the double cross with the letters of the Zechariah’s blessing, the Caravaca cross, on which the initials of biblical prayers appeared. At the time of the great plague in Szeged in 1738, the local Piarist friars performed the pastoral work among the infected. After the Piarist pastor of the epidemic hospital Sándor Sárközi became a victim of the plague, his fellow friar Jeromos Lédai took over his duties. The monk was alerted on 23 November to 17-year-old Ilona Szőcs, who was already fighting her death-struggle. Unable to confess the dying girl, Father Jerome took out an engraving copy image of the blessed Piarist Father Peter Casani with his protecting prayers, and placed it on the sufferer's mouth, who unexpectedly said, "Thank God, I feel better!". He then placed the holy image on the patient's chest, who recovered so quickly that she could go to mass next morning. A diocesan investigation and a lengthy report were prepared on the case known as the “miracle of Szeged”.

The more extreme manifestation of folk medicine and folk religiousness was the so-called Schluckbild or Esszettel meaning swallowable pictures that was specifically brought to life by the healing, thaumaturgical function. The stamp-sized prints available in sheets usually contained copies of miraculous images of the Virgin Mary. The collection of the Piarist Museum preserves Schluckbilds from Mariazell, on which engraving copies of the statue and the image of the treasury appear. In case of an illness, a stamp-sized copy of the devotional image was cut or torn from the printed sheet and swallowed dissolved in water in the hope of recovery. But it also happened that tiny sacred images were mixed into the fodder of diseased cattle.

23_780224_20201341P2.JPGThe “frász” cap (Hungarian distortion of the German “Frais”) was a special headwear with icons used in folk medicine in Austria and western Hungary, sewn from four pieces of silk sheets with the representations of auxiliary saints and devotional images. The cap with engraving copies was used for treating a childhood disease called “Frais” with high fever and seizures, which may have been the equivalent of epilepsy. The cap also exerted its blessing effect through direct contact: it alleviated the wearer’s seizures. By analogy, St. John of Nepomuk’s “good reputation” caps also emerged, which were similar headwear with engraved representations defending their wearers from defamation and protecting their reputation.

27_745154_20200631P2.jpgThe 18th-century engravings offered relief to the dying and even to souls suffering in the Purgatory. The veil and dress of the Virgin Mary have always been attributed a special mediating and protective power. Important shelters for the dying were the images and engravings of the scapularies, the Blessed Lady of Mount Carmel and the Sheltering-cloak Madonna (or Mother of Mercy). A scapulary is a pair of cloth pendants worn under the clothes, shaped on the basis of a monk's shirt. According to the gracious tradition, its wearers cannot be damned, because the Virgin Mary descends to the Purgatory on the Saturday after their death and takes their soul to heaven. In the depictions of the Mother of Mercy, Our Lady wraps her suppliants in her sheltering-cloak, and offers relief not only from earthly troubles but also from the Purgatory. Engravings depicting the dying with the Virgin Mary and auxiliary saints or depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, to which an indulgence was attached, were also common. For example, the inscription on one of the sacred images of the Piarist Museum from Mariazell is “Those who kiss this cross with reverence for 1 year and 40 days and prays 5 Lord’s prayers and Hail Mary prayers in front of it, will receive a hundred years of indulgence with the permission of Pope Benedict XIII.” - which means they have to suffer so much less time in the Purgatory.

Péter Borbás
Leader of the Piarist Museum

Translated by Zita Aknai


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