Tuesday, January 13, 2015

St Mungo: My Favourite Celtic Saint

An embroidery piece I'm working on of St Mungo

Even before I moved to Glasgow in September 2010, I had heard of that city's patron saint. My sister and I had discovered a charming mystery series set in Glasgow in the 15th century. I recommend it - the author is Pat McIntosh. However, as soon as one is in Glasgow, St Mungo is ever present - on the sides of buildings, on bridges, everywhere you turn the Glasgow city coat of arms is seen, and therefore, the symbols of St Mungo's miracles. 

In honour of his feast day, which is today, I thought I'd focus a post on the life of this saint. 

A figure of St Mungo in the Memorial Chapel on the University of Glasgow campus. 

According to his hagiography, Saint Mungo (or Kentigern, as he's officially known) was born to a noble woman who was raped by a man dressed up as a woman, as she did not want to marry. Her father banished her by throwing her down a hill (as they lived in a hill fort it is assumed). Some say it might be Traprain Law on the east coast of Scotland. After this she was put out to sea, in hopes that she would not survive. When she reached the shore, however, she was taken in by St Serf, and when Kentigern was born, Serf brought him up.

The plaques below the ladies bear the Glasgow city seal. 
While still a youth, he performed two of his best known miracles. St Serf had a pet robin which was killed by a group of boys. Mungo brought it back to life, much to the delight of St Serf. The other miracle happened when Mungo was set to guard the fires and keep them alight. The other boys, in a fit of jealousy, put out all the fires. Mungo lit a hazel branch and kept it burning through the night.
A beautiful statue of Mungo above the entrance to the Kelvingrove Museum.
My favourite of the miracles concerns the queen of the local king at that time who went to Mungo for help. She had been having an affair with one of the king's men, and had given her lover a ring. The king had taken this ring from the man and thrown it into the river. He then demanded the ring from his wife, else he would put her to death. She took this plight to the saint and he instructed that a salmon be fished out of the river and upon cutting it open, they would find the ring inside. And so it proved to be, and queen was spared. I've always found it intriguing that he assisted a woman in such circumstances.

St Mungo's tomb in the cathedral.
 Of course, many stories from a saint's hagiography are complete fiction. And Mungo's Life does not have the advantage that others have, of being penned shortly after his death. The two that we have (one of which is only a fragment) were penned during the time that Glasgow was being promoted as the religious centre in Strathclyde area of Scotland. 

On the side of a house inside the Botanic Gardens.
In an article by Alan MacQuarrie published in The Innes Review, these later accounts of Mungo's life are discussed, as well as earlier sources that were available to the authors, but which are lost to us. He also tries to pick out which elements of Mungo's life might actually be true. Though it is difficult to discover which is truth and which is fantasy, it is fascinating to see how the stories of St Mungo's life have inspired not only the people of Glasgow, but people all around the world. 

1 comment:

  1. How interesting! Your embroidery looks lovely already! I'm always inspired by your needlework. I can't wait to see it finished.