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The Patience of a Saint

The Un-Saint Patrick, Awaiting His Due

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page H01

On a day when we toast Ireland and its patron saint, Patrick, raise a glass to a lesser known Irish holy man who haunts our shrubberies, Saint Fiacre.

Fiacre, who is the patron of gardeners, needs a bit more recognition, after all. There will never be a Saint Fiacre's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. He is unlikely to get a cathedral named after him (though novelist Georges Simenon invented the village of Saint-Fiacre as the home town of his intrepid detective, Inspector Maigret). Even in the crassness of the modern marketplace, don't look for a Saint Fiacre's Day Blowout Sale ("Everything Must Grow!").

A 15th-century relief of Saint Fiacre shows the patron of gardeners serene in the face of weeds. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/The Cloisters)

Fiacre has a couple of things against him. The first is his name. No one seems to know quite how to pronounce it, even members of his fan club. (The closest to a consensus is fee-ACK-ree). The second difficulty is that as a healer, his ailment specialties are somewhat unmentionable and include hemorrhoids. By contrast, Saint Patrick seems much more a swashbuckler, casting out demonic serpents and spreading the word throughout the land by confronting the tribal chieftains in Ireland's ancient provinces.

Fiacre was a monk who fled Ireland in the seventh century in search of solitude and ended up in France, where the bishop of Meaux gave him a forested site at Breuil and said he could have as much land as he could encircle with a trench in one day, or so the story goes. His crook turned out to be a saintly version of a gas-powered mini-tiller, and turned the soil wherever it was placed. This was the start of a long career in the garden. Fiacre, like a lot of medieval monks, raised herbs for healing. He also established a shrine for pilgrims and, like Martha Stewart, a cell for himself.

His affinity for cultivation led to his patronage of gardeners, but he has been upstaged in recent centuries by Saint Francis. Better known and with a crossover gig into wildlife, the Italian saint is now the preferred benefactor to place among the rosemary and rue.

Terry Hershberger, the buyer of garden ornaments at Merrifield Garden Center in Fair Oaks, said the nursery typically sells 50 Saint Francis statues a year, compared with seven or eight Fiacres. "They look really nice hidden a little bit," he said, "not just out in the open."

There are surprising numbers of versions of Saint Fiacre, but because so little is known of the man, they all pretty much come down to this: "A monk with a spade," said Peter Cilio, creative director of Campania International, a maker of upscale garden ornaments in Quakertown, Pa. The company sells two versions in poured concrete, known in the trade as cast stone, one 12 inches high and another 29 inches. "I think most people assume he's a Saint Francis with a spade," said Cilio. "He's more of a saint for aficionados."

In Washington, at least, Saint Fiacre seems to have more of a following. Brandy Jones, general manager of the Greenhouse plant nursery at the Washington National Cathedral, said customers know of him "and want to know more." The nursery is down to two Fiacre statues, 36 inches high and costing $237.95, and Jones will be stocking up on more for the spring rush.

Surf the Web (Google "Saint Fiacre") and you will find a few garish examples, including one for $39.99 made of something called "polystone" and with a beard that appears to be writhing. Hey, the snakes had to end up somewhere.

Perhaps the most serene and beautiful example of Saint Fiacre is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which, in addition to its main museum on Fifth Avenue, runs the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in northwest Manhattan. The museum evokes the cloistered gardens of medieval France, the sort Saint Fiacre would have known, and it houses thousands of pieces of Gothic art. The Saint Fiacre in its collection is a relief figure in alabaster, made in and around Nottingham, England, in the 15th century. It would have been displayed indoors, perhaps as an altar panel in a church or part of a private devotional area in a home, said curator Peter Barnet. "A lot survive -- they were clearly very popular," he said.

Two aspects of the sculpture are striking: how little the form of the pointed spade or shovel has changed in 600 years and the stylized simplicity of the figure, recalling art deco. The piece was part of the collection of American sculptor and medievalist George Barnard, which was bought for the museum in 1925 by John D. Rockefeller Jr.

The Cloisters doesn't have the space to display all its artworks and the Nottingham alabaster is kept in storage. Barnet said when the museum installs a new gallery "we might be able to include this piece in it, but it could be a few years off."

Gothic artists tend to be anonymous. Not so the creator of Campania International's larger Saint Fiacre, sculpted by Mary Smith, an artist in Leesport, Pa. She has been a gardener for 40 years and tends two acres of vegetation. She wanted to form a younger Saint Fiacre, not the graybeard that is the usual interpretation. Hers looks to be about 30, she said, and is not modeled on anyone else.

"I thought, this was a lifelong passion of his, working the soil, and it would be refreshing to have a younger one," she said. And what would gardeners with the statue gain? "I hope they would feel the kind of peaceful, reflective mood one experiences in a garden, and this would add to this."

Smith doesn't believe you have to be religious to want a Saint Fiacre in your garden. "It's first and foremost a garden piece. Most people respond to it on that level," she said.

Cilio said that after the Sept. 11 attacks there was an increase "of devotional or religious pieces in the garden. It's leveled off a bit. Oddly, statuary is one of the difficult categories" compared with urns, planters and fountains. "People just don't seem as comfortable knowing where to place it."

In a gift shop in Gualala, Calif., named Celebrations, Nancy Spille sells a relief version of Saint Fiacre, looking as one might imagine Friar Tuck: plump, balding and avuncular, and not aloof and distant. "He reminds me of a teacher I had in eighth grade," she said. "Calming, gentle."

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