When the Saints Go Arting In: Dymphna

Jo Thornely
3 min readAug 14, 2020

Today I learned about Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness. Her nickname is ‘Demon Slayer’ because before mental illness was recognised as an actual thing, everybody believed that anyone who didn’t have a psychological profile in the fat bit of the bell curve was chock-full of demons. It was a really fun time.

Anyway, as a result of this fallacy, Dymphna is often portrayed in art as an absolute boss bitch, either having recently slain the devil, or leading him around on a leash like he’s her whiny little Bichon Frise.

Mostly it’s quite subtle, like in this one where Dymphna is just catching up on some light reading while she skewers Satan to the grass. She’s pretty calm for someone standing a few metres in front of what looks for all the world like a mass killing.

To be honest, even the devil looks pretty relaxed for someone being completely dominated by a sassy book nerd. Like here, where the Lord of Darkness looks like he’s poking his head out of a pillow fort to ask his mum for a sandwich.

The more I look at artistic depictions of Dymphna and the devil, the more convinced I am that the artists are hinting at some kind of… consensual arrangement. I mean am I on drugs, or is Beelzebub definitely flexing here?

I guess the only thing scarier than Satan on a chain is an empty chain where Satan used to be. Dymphna honey, we need a better reaction than a he-was-here-a-second-ago facial expression, this is a legitimate problem.

My favourite by far is Goswijn van der Weyden’s completely incredible version of events, in which Dymphna is trying to complain that her demon pet looks like it came from the puppet shelf at a two-dollar shop, but St Lucy is NOT having a bar of it because, frankly, she has a minimum of one fairly pressing issue she has to attend to first.

So there. That’s Saint Dymphna, who has a way cooler pet than you, but nowhere near enough artworks depicting her. We’ll just have to settle for little ceramic statuettes made by people who think they can just sculpt an angry teddy bear’s head at the edge of a skirt even though they’re not even sure what size hands are supposed to be.