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A Spoonful of Mary

By Eve Wolynes

“Just a spoonful of Mary makes the medicine go down” — or at least that was the case for the 18th- to 20th-century tradition of Schluckbildchen, meaning “swallow pictures.” These postage stamp-sized tokens, typically sheets of paper printed with miraculous images of saints, were popular in parts of central and southern Europe, and Mary was one of the most popular saints to appear on them. Whoever purchased the image would take it home and, instead of placing it somewhere around their house or using it as a meditative object, they would stick it into bread to eat; place it on their tongue; or soak it in water and drink it. This ritual was typically performed by those suffering from health ailments with the hope that the miracles affiliated with the original images of these saints would hold true in miniature.

Schluckbildchen were often popular pilgrimage souvenirs — a way for the pilgrim to take home a miraculous image they had visited and acquire some of its healing in a transitive element of imagery. This practice, while not expressly banned or condoned by the institutional Church, is typically considered “folk” or “popular” medicine and faith, combining the veneration of holy images — a common component of contemplation and meditation — with an act that imitated the consumption of the Eucharist. While the practice sometimes appears to border on  superstition and “magic” in the way it calls upon the power of the image itself rather than the intercession of the saint depicted, theologians such as Joseph Imbach, who wrote a 2008 book about faith and superstition, explain the distinction: It is not the object itself that brings about medical treatment, but rather the prayers associated with the consumption. It wasn’t until 1903, however, that the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recognized the practice as acceptable and not subversive superstition.

These particular Schluckbildchen feature two images of Marian iconography from the Mariazell Basilica in Austria: the first is the statue whose affiliated miracles made the Basilica a hotbed for pilgrimage in the 18th century. The basilica was founded in 1157 by the Benedictine monk Magnus, who brought with him to the monastery a statue of the Virgin carved from limewood. When a boulder blocked the monk’s path on his voyage to found the monastery, he petitioned Mary to help him, and the boulder split in two, clearing the way for him to continue. The statue came to be known for its connection to miraculous healings in the 13th century and remained one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Austria in the 18th and 19th centuries, precisely when Schluckbildchen were also at their most popular — so naturally, the two conflated, and Mariazell was one of the largest producers of Schluckbildchen as pilgrimage souvenirs. The edible images depict the Mariazell statue dressed in one of the 150 dresses still used today to adorn the statue .

The second image is a painting dated to 1360 and attributed to the Sienese painter Andrea Vanni, donated to Mariazell by King Ludwig of Hungary, given in thanks for his victory over a Turkish army. This victory spurred him to build the Gothic basilica next to the monastery.

Visitors in Austria can still see both the statue and the painting if they visit Mariazell, but the pilgrimage site no longer sells any Schluckbildchen, so it seems those hoping to try a taste of their holiness will be out of luck. However, visitors to the Marian Library can see an example of these bite-sized snacks in the seventh-floor portion of the exhibit Rituals of Healing: Mind, Body, and Spiritbut please don’t eat them!

— Eve Wolynes is a library assistant in the University of Dayton's Marian Library.

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