Saint Odile of Alsace: The Iconography
December 13
St. Odile is the patron saint of Alsace. Her 10th-century vita says she was born blind and her father ordered her killed, but the mother had a servant take her to a faraway place. She ended up in the care of a convent of nuns in Burgundy. Later God came in a vision to St. Erhard of Regensburg and told him to travel to the convent, baptize a blind girl there, and give her the name Odile. When Erhard chrismated the girl's eyes as part of the baptismal service, she was at last able to see. She then managed a reconciliation with her family, which endowed a convent for her. The convent became known as Odilienberg and was a pilgrimage destination in the middle ages, with relics of both Odile and John the Baptist.

Images of this saint reference the baptismal miracle with a book open to a pair of eyes. No book is mentioned in her vita, but the book in the images could possibly symbolize the Gospel of John, which Odile's mother quotes at the time of her birth: "And his disciples asked him: Rabbi, who hath sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind? Jesus answered: Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (9:2-3).

Sometimes the eyes in the images seem to be closed or blank, in reference to the blindness of Odile's early years.

The images also usually feature a cross on St. Odile's breast. Also unmentioned in the vita, the cross is perhaps a part of the habit worn by the nuns of her convent. As its foundress, she is also usually pictured with a crozier.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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St. Odile as a nun with blind eyes, a cross on her breast, and a book open to a pair of eyes (See the description page)


St. Odile as a sighted abbess with the cross and the book open to a pair of eyes (See the description page)

DATES

  • St. Odile lived circa 662-720

NAMES

  • In the 10th-century Latin vita she is Otilia. In the first picture above the inscription calls her Odilia.
  • The convent where St. Erhard found the blind girl was in a town the vita identifies as "Palma." It is now known as Baume-les-Dames, in Franche-Comté.
  • Before St. Odile's convent was established the location was known as Hohenberg.

HAGIOGRAPHY