Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Saint Raymond Nonnatus – The Saint Who Really Exists

Juan de Mesa, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, 1626
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla
Anyone who has watched the long-running BBC television series, “Call the Midwife”, knows that it is about the memories of the young women who worked as nurse-midwifes in the East End of London during the late 1950s and into the  1960s.  They also know that these young women live together in the convent of a group of Anglican nuns.  

We are told in the very first episode that the nuns belong to a nursing order of sisters “the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus, midwives and district nurses”.1 However, the actual name of the sisters with whom Jennifer Worth, the author on whose memoirs the series is based, lived is the still existing order of the Sisters of St. John the Divine.  Though greatly shrunken in numbers, they are currently based in Birmingham, West Midlands, UK.

When I originally saw “Call the Midwife” I assumed that the producers had decided to make up a name for the order, using a completely fictitious saint name.  I had never heard of a St. Raymond Nonnatus who was the patron saint of childbirth and midwives.  I was completely wrong.  St. Raymond Nonnatus may be overshadowed by other saints also named Raymond, but he is very, very real indeed.  In fact, I already knew more about his life than I thought, in spite of the fact of not having ever heard of him.

In spite of his name, which means “not born” (non natus), Raymond Nonnatus was born in Portello, in Catalonia, in the kingdom of Aragon in northeastern Spain, around the year 1200.  Like Julius Caesar he was born through an incision in his mother, that is by caesarian section, when she died during childbirth.  Hence his odd descriptive name, for he was not born in the usual manner.  Presumably this indicates that he may have been of noble birth, but this is not certain.  

As a young man he joined the newly founded Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives, known as the  Mercedarians.  It is through this connection that I was aware of at least some parts of his story, for the Mercedarians have a long history in Spain and, consequently, in the New World.  Indeed, the town of Merced in California is named for them, for they were a well-known order with a past filled with martyrdom by the time the Americas became part of Spain’s empire. 

Francisco Pacheco, Mercedarians Ransoming Christian Captives
Spanish, 1600-1611
Barcelona, Museo de arte de Catalunya

Founded sometime between 1218 and 1230 2 by Saint Peter Nolasco, this new order had as its aim the ransom of poor Christians sold into slavery by the Moors who had occupied much of Spain since the 8th century.   

Spain was divided between the Christian (Catholic) northern kingdoms and the Moorish (Muslim) emirates of the south.  There was frequent raiding along the borders between the two as well as raiding along the coasts by North African Moors.  The main aim of the order was to raise money to ransom the captives seized in these raids.  

As with kidnappings today, captives would be held for ransom for some time after seizure and then, if unable to pay, sold on into slavery in North Africa.  The principal aim of the Mercedarians was to ransom the poorer Christians, those whose families could not raise enough money to free them.  Their entire purpose was to free the captives, so they could return to their families in Christian Spain.

Mercedarian friars were sent to deliver the ransoms both inside Spain and across the Mediterranean in North Africa, as required.  If they did not have enough money to ransom every captive, they were to offer their own person as a substitute.  All friars had to take a fourth vow (in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience) "to visit and to free Christians who are in captivity and in power of the Saracens or of other enemies of our Law… By this work of mercy… all the brothers of this Order, as sons of true obedience, must always be gladly disposed to give up their lives, if it is necessary, as Jesus Christ gave up his for us."3  This left them open to mistreatment, torture and even death as the pirates and slave traders reacted to the loss of their "stock".  

Jose Risueňo y Alconchel, Mercedarian Martyrs
Spanish, 1693-1712
Granada, Museo de Bellas Artes

This was the Order into which young Raymond Nonnatus entered as one of its earliest novices.  Because its original concept derived from the orders of Crusader knights (Hospitallers or Templars) most of the Mercedarians were lay brothers, not priests.  However, some men were chosen to study for ordination in order to enable the order to have its own priests.  Raymond Nonnatus was one such, being ordained in 1222.    He was also one of the men chosen for the hazardous position of Redeemer.  This is the title for those brothers sent across the borders to personally redeem groups of captives (individual redemptions appear to have been handled mostly by intermediaries).   

Raymond appears to have gone on several such trips in 1224, 1229 and 1232.  However, on his final trip, in 1236 to Algiers, he was cruelly tortured.  On this occasion, he did not have enough funds to finance all the necessary redemptions so, in order to ransom at least one more person, he gave himself up in place of another.

While in captivity, he offered support to his fellow captives and attempted to preach Christianity to the Muslim guards.  In retaliation for his preaching, his captors pierced his upper and lower lips and inserted a padlock to stop him from speaking.   The padlock was removed each day only for as long as it took him to eat.  He remained in this condition for eight months, until he himself was redeemed from captivity.
Francisco Pacheco, Martyrdom of Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, 1600-1611
Private Collection

Following his return to Spain, he was elevated to the status of Cardinal by Pope Gregory IX, who also called him to come to Rome. On his way to Rome, Raymond fell ill in the Aragonese town of Cardona and died there on August 31, 1240, which became his feast day.  He was beatified in 1627 and canonized in 1657 by Pope Alexander VII.  He is the patron saint of childbirth, of pregnant women and newborn babies, as well as of professions that require secrecy.5

Iconography of St. Raymond Nonnatus

The iconography of St. Raymond Nonnatus ranges from the historical to the imaginative.  Primarily, it begins to appear in the seventeenth century, when he was first beatified.  It is historical or at least historical as much as the seventeenth-century was historical in its art.  Some fabulous elements did appear, such as the miraculous feeding of the infant St. Raymond by angels, but in the main his iconography remained primarily in the historical dimension. 

Follower of Eugenio Cajes, Saint Raymond Nonnatus Fed by Angels
Spanish, c. 1630
Private Collection

Many of the paintings of St. Raymond Nonnatus come from two important building projects undertaken by the two branches of the Mercedarian order during the first half of the seventeenth century in Spain.

In the beginning of the century the Mercedarians of Seville constructed a monastery (today the Museo de Bellas-Artes de Sevilla) and dedicated the decorations to the memory of their founder and his early disciple.  Most of the images reference the life of St. Peter Nolasco, but many also record the stories of St. Raymond Nonnatus.  The paintings are primarily the work of Francisco Pacheco, who is chiefly remembered today as the teacher of his far greater pupil (and son-in-law), Diego Velazquez.  These pictures focus primarily on his life, although occasionally imaginative touches are included.

Francisco Pacheco, Apparition of the Virgin Mary to the Young Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, c. 1600-1611
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes

Francisco Pacheco, Last Communion of Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, 1611
Barnard Castle, Co. Durham, UK, Bowes Museum

Closer to the middle of the century, the Discalced (sandal wearing) Mercedarians, also in Seville, commissioned the great artist, Francisco Zurbaran, to decorate their new monastery.  His breathtaking paintings of St. Peter Nolasco, now in the Prado, are well known, but those of St. Raymond Nonnatus are not, partly because they are now in private collections and are represented by very indifferent old photographs.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, c. 1636-1641
Private Collection

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Raymond Nonnatus Crowned by Christ
Spanish, c. 1636-1541
Private Collection

Other painters also contributed to the formation of an iconography of St. Raymond, by reflection on the life and sanctity of the man, so that by the end of the eighteenth century his attributes were pretty well fixed.  Among them are the martyr’s palm encircled by three crowns which represent the Apostolic Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience which he had vowed as a religious, his white Mercedarian habit, with the red and white shield shaped pendant that is the symbol of the order, and sometimes partial application of the red clothing of a Cardinal.

Vicente Carducho, Martyrdom of Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, c. 1600-1630
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Carlo Saraceni, Sermon of Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Italian, c. 1612-1614
Rome, Curia Generalizia of the Mercedarians

Antonio del Castillo, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, c. 1640-1650
Zaragoza, Museo Goya

Anonymous, Saint Raymond Nonnatus Preaching
Spanish, c.1650
Real Monasterio de El Puig de Santa Maria

Pablo Pontons, Last Communion of Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, c.1650
Real Monasterio de El Puig de Santa Maria

Pablo Pontons, Presentation of the Mercedarian Habit to Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, c. 1650
Valencia, Museo de Bellas Artes

Diego Gonzalez de la Vega, Saint Raymond Nonnatus Crowned by Christ
Spanish, 1673
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Jeronimo Jacinto Espinosa, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, 17th century
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Jose Vergara Gimeno, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish, c.1750

Because of the circumstances of his birth, Saint Raymond Nonnatus has long been considered a patron saint of childbirth and protector of both expectant mothers and newborn children,

Francisco de Zurbarán, A Young Mother Praying to Saint Raymond Nonnatus for Her Newborn
Spanish, c. 1636-1641
Private Collection

He remains better known in the Spanish speaking world, including the Americas, than among English speakers, which is probably not surprising, and his veneration is very much alive today.

Spanish Colonial School, The Virgin Mary with Saints Peter Nolasco and Raymond Nonnatus
Colonial Spanish, 18th Century
Private Collection
In this image the Virgin Mary, as Mother of Mercy, holds the attributes of the two saints.  Above the head of Saint Peter Nalasco, she holds the Mercedarian shield, and above Saint Raymong Nonnatus she holds the shackles he wore as a slave.

Anonymous, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
Spanish Colonial (Guatemala), c. 1800
Guatemala City, Church of Santa Rosa

Felipe de la Espada, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
American (Puerto Rico), c. 1800
Washington, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Jose Aragon, Saint Raymond Nonnatus
American (New Mexico), c.1820-1835
Philadelphia, Museum of Arts

One of the most interesting aspects of this are the offerings to him at the Municipal Cathedral in Mexico City, where his martyrdom has not been forgotten.  A collection of padlocks honors his suffering and represents the hope of the faithful that he will help them with whatever secrets they are carrying.

Offerings of Padlocks, Altar of SaintRaymond Nonnatus
Mexican, 2010
Mexico City, Metropolitan Cathedral

© M. Duffy, 2016, additional material added 20022


  1.        Call the Midwife, Series 1, Episode 1.
  2.        The difference in dates is the spread between the traditional date of the foundation by Peter Nolasco and the first appearance of documentary evidence for it. The true date is likely to be somewhere between. In any event, Raymond Nonnatus would appear to have been and very early member of the order. See Brodman, James William. Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain: The Order of Merced on the Christian-Islamic Frontier, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. Also available online ©1998 by James William Brodman on The Library of Iberian Resources Online at
  3.     . This fourth vow has given the order a large number of martyrs over time, including 19 Spanish Mercedarians who were beatified on October 13, 2013 in Tarragona, Spain. They were killed in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, which unleashed savage attacks on the Church. The attacks not only killed priests and laity, but included the destruction of a great deal of the art kept in churches. See reference on this blog at and at
  4.       Devesa, Fr. Juan, O de M. Saint Raymond Nonnatus, trans. Colette Joly Dees, Mercedarian Press, LeRoy, NY, 1997, available at   See also, Brodman, James William. Ransoming Captives in Crusader Spain: The Order of Merced on the Christian-Islamic Frontier, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. Also available online ©1998 by James William Brodman on The Library of Iberian Resources Online at
  5.       Olson-Rudenko, Jennifer. Francisco de Zurbaran’s Paintings for the Calced and Discalced Mercedarians of Seville, Doctoral Dissertation in Art History in the Pennsylvania State University Graduate School College of Arts and Architecture, May 2011.  Available at

2 comments: said...

Excuse my ignorance; but why all the references to martyrdom? Raymond Nonnatus died on the way to Rome; no mention that this was at the hands of anyone who challenged his faith / the faith. Is any bodily torture (such as the boring of his lips) considered martyrdom? Martyrdom=Purple Heart? I didn't think so.

Margaret Duffy said...

So sorry that I missed this comment when it was made. I have only seen it now. Here's the answer.

I do not say in the article that Saint Raymond Nonnatus is a martyr. However, there were Mercedarians who were martyred and the entire ethos of the order at the time was that the men should be ready to accept martyrdom, if required in the situation. There were many Mercedarians who were killed as martyrs, i.e., in hatred of the faith.

The Mercedarians themselves class Saint Peter Nonnatus among their martyrs, even while acknowledging that he survived his ordeal (See the PDF document "Historical Synthesis" that is linked from the order's history page on the website of the US branch ( . And, a few more points. Saint John the Evangelist is sometimes classed as a martyr for having been tortured but surviving. He died peacefully, so far as we know. Also, there are long recognized differing types of martyrdom: red, which is the one we think of first, that is shedding ones blood for the sake of the faith, death is not necessarily required. There is also white martyrdom, which is the kind that hermits exercise, abandoning the world and possessions totally; green (or sometimes blue), which is a self-imposed regime of extreme fasting and penance as well as evangelization. Missionaries often count among the green/blue group.