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Home  Dentistry Articles  Saint Apollonia

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 bone.

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.

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