Home Dentistry Articles Saint Apollonia
Saint Apollonia was one of the group of virgin
martyrs who suffered in Alexandria during a local uprising against
the Christians previous to the persecution of Decius. She was
martyred by having all her teeth violently extracted and thus,
by an uneasy logic, is the patroness of dentistry.
Christian historians have claimed that in the
last years of Emperor Philip the Arab (reigned 244-249), during
otherwise undocumented festivities to commemorate the millennium
of the founding of Rome (traditionally in 753 BC, putting the
date about AD 248), the fury of the Alexandrian mob rose to
a great height, and when one of their poets prophesied a calamity,
they committed bloody outrages on the Christians, whom the authorities
made no effort to protect.
Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria (247-265),
relates the sufferings of his people in a letter addressed to
Fabius, Bishop of Antioch, of which long extracts have been
preserved in Eusebius' Historia Ecclesiae (I:vi: 41). After
describing how a Christian man and woman, Metras and Quinta,
were seized and killed by the mob, and how the houses of several
other Christians were pillaged, Dionysius continues:
"At that time Apollonia, parthénos presbytis
(virgo presbytera, by which he very probably means not a virgin
advanced in years as is generally reported, but a deaconess)
was held in high esteem. These men seized her also and by repeated
blows broke all her teeth. They then erected outside the city
gates a pile of fagots and threatened to burn her alive if she
refused to repeat after them impious words (either a blasphemy
against Christ, or an invocation of the heathen gods). Given,
at her own request, a little freedom, she sprang quickly into
the fire and was burned to death."
This brief tale was extended and moralized in Jacobus de Voragine's
Golden Legend (c. 1260).
Apollonia and a whole group of early martyrs
did not await the death they were threatened with, but either
to preserve their chastity or because they were confronted with
the alternative of renouncing their faith or suffering death,
voluntarily embraced the death prepared for them, an action
that runs perilously close to suicide, some thought. Augustine
of Hippo touches on this question in the first book of The City
of God, apropos suicide (I:26):
"But, they say, during the time of persecution
certain holy women plunged into the water with the intention
of being swept away by the waves and drowned, and thus preserve
their threatened chastity. Although they quitted life in this
wise, nevertheless they receive high honour as martyrs in the
Catholic Church and their feasts are observed with great ceremony.
This is a matter on which I dare not pass judgment lightly.
For I know not but that the Church was divinely authorized through
trustworthy revelations to honour thus the memory of these Christians.
It may be that such is the case. May it not be, too, that these
acted in such a manner, not through human caprice but on the
command of God, not erroneously but through obedience, as we
must believe in the case of Samson? When, however, God gives
a command and makes it clearly known, who would account obedience
thereto a crime or condemn such pious devotion and ready service?"
The narrative of Dionysius does not suggest the slightest reproach
as to this act of St. Apollonia; in his eyes she was as much
a martyr as the others, and as such she was revered in the Alexandrian
Church. In time, her feast was also popular in the West. A later
legend mistakenly duplicated Apollonia, making her a Christian
virgin of Rome in the reign of Julian the Apostate, suffering
the same dental fate.
The Roman Catholic Church celebrates Apollonia
on February 9, and she is popularly invoked against the toothache
because of the torments she had to endure. She is represented
in art with pincers in which a tooth is held. In a late 14th
century illumination from a French manuscript, widely distributed
as a poster that is considered suitable for dentists' offices
in the U.S., the sacred tooth in her pincers glows from within,
like a lightbulb.
Saint Apollonia is one of the two patron saints
of Catania. In Germany, where the fourteen saints (vierzehn
heiligen) or Nothelfer are singled out as the patron saints
of daily life, Apollonia, protectress against toothache, is
one of them.
William S. Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs
And of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities
1897, noted that, though the major part of her relics were preserved
in the former church of St. Apollonia at Rome, her head at the
Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, her arms at the Basilica
di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, parts of her jaw in St. Basil's,
and other relics are in the Jesuit church at Antwerp, in St.
Augustine's at Brussels, in the Jesuit church at Mechlin, in
St. Cross at Liege and in several churches at Cologne. These
relics consist in some cases of a tooth only or a splinter of
There was a church dedicated to her in Rome,
near the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, but it no longer
exists. Only its little square, the Piazza Sant'Apollonia remains.