Saint Dymphna’s Church

The Church of Saint Dymphna is located in the Flemish town of Geel (Rijn 3-13). It is dedicated to the Christian Saint Dymphna, who was the daughter of the pagan king and Christian queen of an Irish kingdom. At the behest of her mother, Dymphna was secretly baptized by the priest Gerebernus.
When the queen died, the king decided to marry his daughter, but she refused and ran away with the priest Gerebernus and some companions. They landed to Anversa and settled in the nearby village of Geel. The king discovered the place where Dymphna was hiding and, to punish her for her refusal, he decided to decapitate her1.
In the Middle Ages Dymphna was venerated in relation to the theme of mental illnesses: she died because of her father in the throes of madness, her martyrdom was attributed to a saving and healing value precisely for people deemed mad or possessed. Several pilgrims affected by mental illnesses went to Geel seeking treatments2.
Between the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century, the main aristocratic family of Geel financed the building of a church, consecrated to Saint Dymphna to host a greater number of pilgrims. The existing church, in the Gothic style, was built later (starting from 1349)3. Also in the thirteen century, a hospital was built, not far from the church.
Between 1458 and 1483, an infirmary (“ziekenkamer”) was built in addition to the hospital to host pilgrims and sick people, located in the perimeter of the church4.
The patients were hosted and taken care of in the church and the infirmary for nine days (novena). In those days the sick people could confess, attend Mass, carry out processions, rest and take medicinal herbs5.
Starting from the fifteenth century, given that it was not always possible to welcome in the church/infirmary all the people who came to Geel requesting care, the patients were entrusted by priests to local families who lived near the church, waiting for the novena6.
After the French invasion (1797) the church became state ownership and the religious community lost the management of health care, which passed to secular administrative authorities. The church was again in operation in 18017.


Front facade of Saint Dymphna’s Church.


Lateral facade of the church. Looking at the church facing the front facade, on the right there is a park with a cemetery.


Posterior facade of the church.


The small quadrangular building next to the church's tower (that is the front facade) represents the infirmary ("ziekenkamer"), which was built to host the pilgrims/patients during the nine days.


Central inner nave of the church.


Terminal extremity of the central nave, in which there are the Jan III van Merode and Anna van Gistel's tomb and the Wooden Altarpiece.

  • Page layout and text by Jessica Casaccia moc.liamg|acissejaiccasac#| (December 2020)

Related items:


- Bersani F. S., Riboni J., Prevete E., Borghi L. 2020. "Geel e santa Dinfna, una secolare tradizione di assistenza psichiatrica. Giornale di storia" (ISSN 2036-4938), 32, pp. 1-19.
- Carstairs G. M. 1958. "The Patron Saint of the Insane", Mental Health, 17, pp. 133-136.
- Dresvina J. 2013. Hagiography and idealism: St. Dympna of Geel, an uncanny saint, in "Anchoritism in the Middle Ages: texts and contexts" (edited by C. Innes-Parker and N.K. Yoshikawa), University of Wales Press.
- Forthomme B. 2004. Sainte Dympna et l'inceste, Paris, L'Harmattan.
- Foucault M. 1963/1976. Storia della follia nell'età classica, Milano, Rizzoli.
- Haneca K., Buyle M. 2018. The reliquary of saint Dymphna: dating wood and bones, in "Relics @ the Lab: An Analytical Approach to the Study of Relics" (edited by M. Van Strydonck, J. Reyniers, and F. Van Cleven), Peeters.
- Kuyl P.D., 1863. Gheel vermaerd door den eerdienst der Heilige Dimphna: geschied- en oudheidskundige beschryving der kerken, gestichten en kapellen dier oude vryheid, Antwerpen, Buschmann. Bylagen.
- Rumbaut R.D. 1976. "Saints and psychiatry", Journal of Religion and Health, 15, pp. 54-61.
- Van Ravensteyn F. 1996. Literature on Saint Dympna and the treatment of the mentally ill in Geel, Geel, Gasthuismuseum.
- Van Ravensteyn F. 2005. History of the museum, Geel, Gasthuismuseum.
- Van Ravensteyn F., Vannuten G., Kennis D. 2009. De St.-Dimpnakerk Geel:een gids vol ontdekkingen, Geel, Toerisme Geel.
- Villa R. 2008. "Incesti irlandesi e apoteosi brabantine", Belfagor, 63, 2.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License