History on ice

lidwinaJune 3, or Wednesday if you please, marked the beginning of a sacred holiday. No, not the birthday of Anderson Cooper. June 3 saw the first game in the ritual-rich battle for a thyroidal Canadian tsotchke called the Stanley Cup. Hockey teams from Chicago and Tampa Bay stormed onto the ice, determined to apply a maximum of human effort toward putting a vulcanized rubber disk into a net. On their feet: a boot held tight by many laces with a sharp metal blade on the bottom.

Before hockey came the artistic pastime of figure skating. Europeans, having glided around icy ponds on the sharp edges of bones and other substances for centuries, began carving out shapes on the ice, and soon added stunts that most people couldn’t do on their Darwin-given feet, let alone narrow blades.

In the UIP book Figure Skating in the Formative Years, acclaimed sports historian James R. Hines tells the captivating story of how a leisure activity popularized by Europeans with cabin fever became the figure skating colossus that dominates every edition of the Winter Olympic Games. Norse goddesses figured mightily in the murky origins of skating, as did the Catholic saints who in many locales took their place. Hines reports on the tragic story of a Dutch holy woman and icon (skating and otherwise) named Lidwina:

Born on Palm Sunday in 1380, she was the only daughter in a poor family that included nine children. At age fifteen, while skating with friends on a pond in Schiedam, the Netherlands, Lidwina collided with a fellow skater, breaking a rib as she fell to the ice. She never recovered, growing steadily worse throughout the remainder of her life. She died on Holy Tuesday in 1433, twenty-three days after her fifty-third birthday.

Lidwina suffered unexpected reactions following her accident. Spasms of pain convulsed and contorted her body, and she eventually lost almost all muscular control of her limbs. Symptoms of various known diseases appeared, and she became permanently bedridden. None of her former beauty remained. She was administered to by a priest from the local church, Father John Pot, who urged her to think always of the suffering of the Lord and to relate her suffering to his. Constantly meditating on the Passion, Lidwina believed that God had called her to be a victim for the sins of others. About 1407, she began to have mystical visions, communing with God, various saints, and her guardian angel. After her death, a hospital was built on the site of the home where she had spent her years of suffering.

Lidwina was buried in Schiedam, but in 1615 her relics were moved to Brussels, where they remained for 256 years before being returned in 1871 to the Church of Our Lady of Visitation in Schiedam. In 1931, it was rededicated as the Church of Lidwina. The building was demolished in 1969, and her remains were moved to the Singelkirk, which then became known as the Church of Holy Lidwina and Our Lady of the Rosary. It has since been elevated to the status of a basilica minor and is now called the Basilica of Lidwina. Although she is referred to as Saint Lidwina, she has never been officially canonized by the church, but on March 4, 1890, her cult was formally confirmed by Pope Leo XIII. Her feast day is celebrated in Schiedam on April 14, the date on which she died.

One of the best-known skating pictures from throughout the sport’s history is the famous woodcut printed in Johannes Brugman’s 1498 book Vita of Lidwina. Historically, it provides valuable iconographic evidence about skating at that early date. It shows Lidwina being cared for by two friends; in addition, a woman is seen approaching them on skates, as is a man farther back. He appears to be skating on an inside edge, which is probable. Preference for the more sophisticated and more difficult outside edge is a product of the eighteenth century. Both skaters are holding their arms crossed together in front, which remained common through the eighteenth century. A couple appear to be socializing at the back right, demonstrating the recreational aspect of skating in the fifteenth century.