my favorite martyr

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a favorite shrine (Sta. Cecelia, Rome)

Even if the veneration of Christian martyrs and their relics is not a part of their daily routines, art and architecture people still ought to pause from time to time and give thanks for them. Devotion to, and belief in, the intercessory powers of the saints motivated the creation of many of the works that constitute some of the greatest achievements in western art and architectural history. And, admit it: these figures add some great legendary drama, spice and fire–not to mention blood, sweat and tears–to the historical record. In honor of those saints who have not only paid the price for their faith, but whose life and death have also been the center of spectacular historical tradition that ultimately inspired fabulous art, I offer here my humble gratitude in the form of a guide to My Favorite Martyrs. Rankings have been determined by quantifying the following criteria: (1) awesomeness during life; (2) awesomeness in the act of dying; (3) awesome efficacy of body parts and related left-over memorabilia, a.k.a. relics; and (4) influence on awesome art and architecture.  With estimates of some 10,000 saints to consider, it’s a large field.  Immediately below are a number to whom we give a (dismembered) thumbs-up, followed by the final, best and favorite saints who stand (severed) heads and (wheel-broken) shoulders above the crowd.

Part I: Runners-Up

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St. James, in his ill-advised second career

St. James the Great

One of the twelve apostles, James had made his way far west to Iberia and was preaching there in the year 40 when a vision of the Virgin Mary ordered him back to Judea, where he went, and soon thereafter was beheaded—perhaps by Herod Agrippa himself.  His body was returned to Iberia miraculously, in a boat with neither rudder nor sails, then buried at the site where now stands the great church of Santiago de Compostela, the goal of 100,000s of pilgrims annually.  That’s all great, but his appearance at the ninth-century Battle of Clavijo to fight on the side of the Christians against the Muslims was not a good second-act career move; the People Of The Book should be able to get along better than that.  We’ll honor St. James the Great, but in that battlefield appearance, St. James the Moor-slayer disqualified himself from being a favorite.

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St. Sernin and the bull

St. Sernin

In the third century, Sernin was sent by the pope himself to Christianize Gaul.  When he refused to worship at a pagan altar he was condemned–and not just to your average stoning, crucifixion or beheading.  No; Sernin was tied by his feet to a bull that dragged him all over town.  That’s an unusual* way to die, but Sernin’s architectural legacy is not nearly as creative; his basilica in Toulouse, France is basically another version of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  The lack of originality by his later builders puts him out of the running.  (*The bull, on the other hand, gets props for his progeny’s recreation of this particular technique applied to one of Sernin’s followers at Pamplona, now the site of annual festivities featuring the descendants of Sernin’s bull.)

vitus window

one of Mucha's very pretty windows

St. Vitus

An early bloomer, Vitus developed some profound skills early on, attracting the attention of some very prestigious individuals within the Roman Empire.  He was brought to Rome to drive out a demon from the emperor Diocletian’s son.  Nothing like driving out a demon from the emperor’s son to get you noticed!  Diocletian showed a peculiar kind of gratitude for the healing of his son by ordering that Vitus be tortured to the point of death, at which point an angel took him back home to Sicily where he died and was buried.  In the eighth and ninth centuries his relics were moved around Germany and Bohemia; the bones of one hand finally made their way as the sacred relic of the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.  This cathedral features an unusually broad range of art from the brilliant medieval mosaics (the Golden Gate) to the Art Nouveau stained glass windows by Alphonse Mucha–but poor preteen Vitus fails to be prominently featured in either.


The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Caravaggio, 1600)

St. Peter

Leader of the early Christian church, rock upon which the church would be built, keeper of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven given to him by Christ, and source to which the popes trace their power, St. Peter bears a killer resume in the world of the saints.  Crucified upside-down in the year 64, he and his story have inspired great achievements from a significant list of patrons and artists, among them: Constantine, Bramante, Julius II, Bernini and Caravaggio.  Sad thing for Peter is that his own legend is really kind of boring next to the art created to celebrate him.  Peter suffers the fate of high school valedictorians who end up at really great colleges that don’t practice grade inflation.


golden girl


Foy (“faith”), a very young girl in Aquitaine, France, lived and died in the late third century.  She was burned to death for refusing to renounce her faith.  Her relics, which were moved to the town of Conques, France in 866, were housed in a reliquary that takes the unusual form of Foy herself, studded with gemstones presented by pilgrims, and around which a fine Romanesque church was built on one of the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela (albeit with similarities to St. Sernin and Santiago da Compostela, but to my eye, it’s the best of the bunch). Foy’s status is propelled by the power of her relics, which have been cause of miraculous events, from your garden-variety supernatural healing to some pretty clever practical jokes. For instance: a cad whose dying wife promised a valuable ring to Foy presented it to his new wife, who then suffered from painful swelling of her ring finger. Upon visiting Foy’s relics in Conques and praying for healing, the new wife was caused to blow a holy sneeze that sent the ring flying off her finger and, assumedly, into the treasury of the church. That is clever work by a young girl—and a dead one at that.

Part II: The Final Four

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Ascent of St. Andrew, S. Andrea al Quirinale, Rome

No. 4: St. Andrew (1st c.)

It must be daunting to be related to someone like Peter, to whom most of the city of Rome is dedicated.  Not one to suffer from ifonlyyoucouldbemorelikeyourbrotheritis, Andrew bests his sibling by sheer spread of his reliquary influence and the graphic quality of his choice of crucifixion tool: the crux decussata. Andrew met his end on this X-shaped cross in Patras, Greece; most of his remains (including his small finger, partial cranium and parts of his cross) were returned there in the 1960s where they rest in a special shrine; other parts can be found in Italy, Scotland, and Poland, making one wonder if he got around more in life or in death. Andrew’s legend received one of the great artistic treatments ever in a Baroque church by Bernini, which fuses painting, sculpture and architecture in such a way as to tell the story of Andrew’s martyrdom, ascension and heavenly reward in one dramatic three-dimensional tableau of gilded plaster and pink marble. For most that would be enough, but over-achieving Andrew has been adopted in the heraldry of a whole country. The town of St. Andrews, Scotland developed on the site where some of his remains were brought supernaturally after ca. 950. Around that time, Andrew was adopted as the patron saint of the country and his cross adopted to their national flag, one of the oldest continuously used flags in the world.  Take that, Peter!


Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

No. 3: St. Lawrence (ca. 225-258)

You’ve got to hand it to the Romans: they could figure out some pretty creative ways to kill people. Lawrence, one of the many the deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian, was sentenced to death on a gridiron under which a mighty fire was stoked. Yet the flames did not immolate him immediately; he had time to make one of the great (maybe the only) martyr jokes of all time, taunting has torturers: “I’m done on this side, turn me over!” The joke goes on, since Lawrence became the patron saint of both roasters and comedians. (An unverified legend also states that Lawrence is the originator of the phrase “bada bing, bada boom.”) Two of his relics are on display in Rome: his burnt head in St. Peter’s, and the gridiron in San Lorenzo in Lucina. Although his martyrdom has been treated in art through the ages, he appears no where as vigorous and brilliant than in the fifth-century Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, where the mosaics make everything bright and fiery.


St. Barbara, drawn by Jan van Eyck

No. 2: St. Barbara (mid-3rd c. – 306)

Barbara was the daughter of a crazy man named Dioscorus who locked his daughter in a tower with two high windows to keep her safe from the prying eyes of the world.   Somehow, in spite of her isolation, she became a Christian, which inspired her to undertake an Extreme Makeover: Christian Edition when her father was away from home.  Barbara had an extra window opened in the tower (another miraculous event, seeing how she was directing a renovation project while still ensconced in her tower). This symbol of the Trinity apparently gave her away and was the spiritual straw that broke Dioscorus’ pagan back, and he determined  to punish his wayward daughter in a reasonable way: by skewering her with his sword.

This is where it starts to get weird.

Barbara was saved from her sword-wielding father by a miraculous, fourth-century version of Star Trek’s transporter.  She ended up in a mountain gorge with two shepherds. The first one helped her hide, but the second one revealed the hiding place to her father. (Word to the wise: don’t get in the way of a future saint’s miraculous angelic escape from her oppressor; the bad shepherd was turned into a stone and his sheep turned into locusts.)  Dioscorus dragged Barbara to the provincial prefect who tortured her for days on end.  Becoming increasingly frustrated that every night the devout and faithful woman’s wounds were healed by the magic light that appeared in what should have been a dark prison cell, the imperial oppressors finally gave up and allowed Barbara’s dad to carry out his original intention to cut off her head.  Ignoring the lesson of the stone-shepherd, he killed his daughter and then went on his way, only to be struck by lightening and instantly consumed by fire.   To this day, any one who faces the sudden threat of death on a daily basis, or in particular, anyone who works with explosives (miners, military engineers) looks to Barbara as their patron saint.

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Cathedral of St. Barbara

Although her relics are maintained in Kiev, Barbara has lots of art and architecture dedicated to her, including a most extraordinary church in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic, built by silver miners starting in the late fourteenth century. People have long wondered about its unusual, three-part roof form. My guess: it is a reference to those three windows that got Barbara into trouble in the first place, or the medieval builders figured out that this kind of weird and curvy roof-form would resist lightening strikes. But I am pretty much just making that up.

Barbara’s story is fantastic, and her later artwork good, but the saint whose story is elegantly simple yet stunningly memorable, and who inspired not just a single building or even a series of arresting sculptures (which he did) but ultimately affected the history of a country and, and AND inspired an entire stylistic and technical revolution in architecture is . . . (drum roll. . . )


The Martyrdom of St. Denis (as seen in one part of his basilica)

No. 1: St. Denis (3rd c.)

Italian-born Denis was sent to convert the Gauls (with Sernin of the bull, see above); he became the bishop on a crummy little island in the Seine which would later be called Paris.  He effected enough conversions to alarm the locals who dragged him to the top of Paris’ highest hill, perhaps the site of a druidic shrine, and lopped off his head ca. 250. It’s possible that the event gave the hill its name, Montmartre (mons martyrium, “martyr’s mountain”).  (This area became famous later in the nineteenth century for a whole new kind of suffering when artists like Picaso, Van Gogh and Degas called it home.)  The best part about Denis’ life was the extent to which he was unwilling to give it up: most people, when their necks meet the wrong end of an axe, they’re done.  But not our Denis. After his beheading, the plucky bishop picked up his own noggin and carried it for two miles, preaching all the way. (I think of Denis every time I wonder if I should cancel my lectures due to a scratchy throat or fever and imagine he would shake his head—I guess with his hands?—and pronounce me très wimpy; pathétique.) Eventually he did get tired, or maybe he just finished his sermon, and after planting his gourd on the soil a few miles from the site where it was severed from his body, he died. On the spot a shrine grew up, and eventually the church of St. Denis was founded there.

The first basilica was begun by Pepin the Short, who is buried outside of the entrance as he wished, face down, to atone for the sins of his father Charles Martel; the building was completed by Charlemagne.  The participation of these figures in the building’s construction established its centrality in French history: Denis himself was named the patron saint of France, Joan of Arc blessed her weapons at the abbey, almost all of the kings of France are buried here, and many of the queens were crowned in the church.  Architecturally,  the building is hugely important; its expansion  and aggrandizement under Abbot Suger from 1137 to 1144 made it ground zero for the invention of Gothic architecture.

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St. Denis (Museum of the Middle Ages, Paris)

For the resounding impact his life and death have made on the history of France and for his inspiration to the person who can be credited for laying the intellectual-theoretical-theological foundation for Gothic architecture, Denis achieves high marks.  For those of us who earn our keep by lecturing he is of special significance.  Denis provides encouragement to keep going even when the going gets tough: no way would he reschedule a midterm just because of a little bout of H1N1.

St. Denis is also invoked for protection against frenzy, headaches, strife, rabies and possessed people.  Truly he is the guardian of all who have embraced the professorial life.  Merci beaucoup, Denis.