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Posts Tagged ‘virgins’

Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Way before a dude named Prince was making Purple Rain, there was a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt, named Apollonia.

Nothing, apparently, is known of her life, besides the fact that she was a Christian virgin who lived in Alexandria. Some sources say she was an older lady, but other sources say that’s a mistranslation, and what the letter it’s from actually says is that she was a deaconess. Either way, she was doing her thing in 248 or 249 CE, right after Rome’s first millenial celebration (it was founded in 753 BCE), and during one of the most intense persecutions.

The Emperor Decius, who ruled for all of two years (which was an admirable stretch at the time), decided that Christians were a big threat to the empire because a) they had weird customs, b) they weren’t worshiping the proper gods, and c) they were more loyal to the Christian god than the Emperor. Seeing an opportunity to unite the rest of the Roman people by joining together to beat up the Christians, they all got rounded up and told to convert or die. That’s the point I tried (and failed) to make last week: this is how most organized religious persecutions go, more or less.

A whole lot converted. You don’t hear about this much, because instead of getting sainthood they got to live out their lives, but it’s true. Here and here are some certificates saying former Christians had sacrificed to the Roman gods. Many went back to the church a little later asking to rejoin, which caused a big fuss, but that’s for another day.

That’s the deal they offered Apollonia. She refused, so they beat her, and either punched her and knocked out her teeth, or extracted her teeth as a torture method. When she wasn’t deterred, the mob (remember, it was a family activity) made a fire and told her to change her mind or she’d be burned alive. By pretending to consider, she got the crowd to unhand her, and then jumped in the fire herself.

You may think that this counts as suicide, which is totally a sin. St. Augustine, early father of the church, says it wasn’t, though. Clearly, as a holy person, she was told by the holy spirit to jump in the fire. Since she was just obeying God, it wasn’t suicide, so she was a martyr and therefore holy. It’s a little circuitous.

Apollonia became a saint, and Decius dealt with a huge smallpox pandemic (5,000 people PER DAY died in the city of Rome) right before being the first Roman Emperor to die in battle with barbarians.

Unsettlingly, Apollonia is the patron saint of dentistry, usually pictured with a tooth and sometimes pliers. She has relics all over the place, but her head is in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is totally near where I lived when I did a semester in Rome, and I went there a couple of times because I was just as crazy then.

Her saint day is February 9, but I recommend the nitrous oxide.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Wikipedia

Butler’s Lives of the Saints

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