Gertrude of Helfta Brief life of a female visionary: 1256-c. 1302

An Article by Caroline Bynum in Harvard Magazine:

Saint Gertrude of helfta, known as “The Great,” was given to the German convent of Helfta as a child of five to be reared as a nun, received her first vision of Christ’s “divine sweetness” in 1281 when she was 25, and became a spiritual counselor to whom people flocked for advice. But she was little remembered after her death until the Latin edition of her work was published in 1536 and she began to gain the extraordinary fame in Catholic religious circles that she enjoys to this day. Isidoro Arredondo’s late seventeenth-century painting (opposite) faithfully represents the widely diffused stereotype of Gertrude as an isolated figure pleading in eroticized ecstasy before the flaming heart of Jesus offered to her by a male mediator (possibly Saint Augustine).

This image of Gertrude the swooning mystic has been both propagated and criticized for centuries. To early twentieth-century students of the psychology of religion, Gertrude’s “absurd and puerile” visions were an example of what William James called “theopathic saintliness.” Protestant historians and some recent feminists have either condemned her for the implausibility of such visionary experiences as her alleged exchange of hearts with Jesus, or lauded her for an individualism that claimed direct access to divine grace, bypassing the clergy. Catholic writers have regularly seen in Gertrude and her sister nun Mechtild of Hackeborn the origins of the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that became a popular Catholic devotion only in the seventeenth century.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.