Posted by: anna | May 28, 2010

St Dymphna of Gheel

Icon image from WSIP, by the hand of Mother Justina, St. Elizabeth Convent, Etna, California; another Orthodox icon by Nicholas Papas at Come & See Icons.

Today (15 May) we commemorate St Dymphna, Virgin Martyr, Patron of Gheel, and of mad and possessed persons [not my phrase – emotionally disturbed and mentally ill persons, and those with neurological disorders, also come under her special interest]. From Miss Dunbar:

According to Husenbeth, she is represented in four ways : (1) beheaded by a king her father (Callot) ; (2) sword in hand (Iconographie) ; (3) leading the devil bound (Die Attribute) ; (4) kneeling at mass, her father murdering the priest (Solitudo).

To escape from the guilty love of her father, she fled to Antwerp with Gerebern, a priest, and her father’s jester and his wife. They went to the village of Ghele, and settled near the church of St. Martin. Her father traced her to that region, and came to look for her. When he paid for his entertainment, the landlord said he had money like that, but did not know the value of it. ‘Where did you get that money ?’ asked the king. ‘A certain virgin, a stranger still living in the desert, sent that kind of coin to buy victuals.’ Her retreat was soon discovered. Her father killed Gerebern, and then cut off his daughter’s head with his own hands. Lunatics and persons possessed of devils were cured at her shrine. The town of Gheel is said to owe its origin to the crowds brought to her tomb to be healed.


If time hangs heavy on your hands, I can recommend a leisurely perusal of Father O’Hanlon’s gentle and even more than usually voluminous meanderings on the subject of St Dympna, her antecedents, manuscript evidence and lack of it, authorities and non-authorities, related geography, architecture, interesting local features, entomology… I’m getting carried away now but he’s a good read for the non-motorised age.

There is a surprising number of icons and icon-like images of St Dymphna (google ‘st dymphna’ and ‘st dymphna icon’). I must say, quite a few of them tell much more of her story in the image than this one above does. That is one of the iconographic differences I notice between western and eastern devotional images – the western ones more often have distinctive features and attributes. Many eastern icons are more or less impossible (at least for me) to identify if you are unable to read the legend, which often I can’t. I wonder why? It does imply a more personal relationship with the icon and the saint it represents – someone must have to tell you about the individual icon and thus about the saint in the eastern case, while with western depictions anyone who knows the stories of the saints should be able to tell who is shown in a given picture without being able to read or needing to be told. Different emphases? I don’t know to what extent they are deliberate. But it does occasionally feel awkward in an Orthodox church to venerate whichever icons have been put out for the day, their images often smoke-darkened and kiss-smudged, in dim light anyway, thinking, ‘Holy saint er er oh dear et cetera’. I feel it’s quite rude to ask for the prayers of ‘Saint whoever you are’ as though I couldn’t be bothered to find out. And quite often either there is nobody to ask or it would be rather disruptive to do so. But then, quite a few of the Orthodox pages I’ve looked up about ‘how to venerate icons’ only mention the outward motions and neither general nor specific prayers to accompany them. So perhaps in cases where it is the best we can do at that moment, it is enough. (but not really…)

Troparion of Saint Dympna tone 4 (I have tweaked the translation in a couple of places)
To escape the madness of sinners, /
You went on the rough seas /
Together with the priest Gerebern /
To find a shelter where you could praise Christ. /
And you didst crown by martyrdom/
A life completely devoted to Our Lord. /
Today we pray to thee, O maiden Dympna, /
That you intercede to Christ our God for the salvation of our souls.
Holy Saint Dymphna, pray to God for us.


  1. Beautiful. I have seen icons from this monastery before; they are really good…

    I think it is okay not to know who everyone is in Icons… one it comes with time… there are so many… and we can still ask thier prayers… I find that sometimes I have to ask their prayers first and then later I will learn more of who they are. … Icons are revelations in themselves; one of my friend's then two year old boy is close to one of the women saints (can't remember her name, time for me to go see this icon again at the Cathedral!) and would mention the Saint either at home or that he wanted to kiss that specific one. The Saints come to us more than we can ever properly come to them!! 🙂

    Thanks so much for this post and showing the icon as well…

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