Saint Apollonia – The Patron Saint of Dentistry

[]Ever since I have known that dentistry had a patron saint I have been interested in her and have from time to time gathered material germane to the subject.

On a recent excursion to Quebec I made a visit to Sainte Anne and you may be sure that one of the things that drew me thither was to see this portion of the jaw of Saint Apollonia. I made a brave effort to locate this piece of jaw but not being a French scholar and French being the “official” language at Saint Anne, I was unable to find it. I am very much afraid it either is not there or else is not accounted among the valued possessions of the church.

Upon my return home, I concluded to gather together the material I have and present it to the dental profession. In my search for material I have been aided by my friend, Mr. Charles G. Marrett, and the pictures I show I have obtained mostly from friends who have traveled abroad and have been on the outlook for pictures of Saint Apollonia for me, knowing I am interested in the subject.

An article on Saint Apollonia appeared in the July, 1913, number of the Dental Brief. This article, however, has many inaccuracies and I also believe I can add much to the subject. Dr. Koch, in his History of Dental Surgery, refers to this Saint and a painting of Saint Apollonia was presented to the Philadelphia Academy of Stomatology by Dr. C. N. Pierce in 1900. So far as I know these are the only references to Saint Apollonia in our dental literature.

For centuries before there was any dental profession, men and women suffering from toothache had been accustomed to call upon Saint Apollonia to come to their assistance. Poor mortals, that was about all they could do, for a medieval toothache was a pretty hopeless affair. If Apollonia declined to help you, you might try a charm, or go upon a little pilgrimage, but in the end you would probably be quite speedily reduced to the drastic remedy of extraction, and be forced to hunt up some one with a pair of forceps or tweezers – the barber, surgeon or the blacksmith. Extraction could have been no laughing matter in those rough days. Wise and wealthy people saved up their toothaches till the day came round for one of the great annual fairs or markets, and then had their decayed stumps harvested, amid a blare of trumpets, by artists in gorgeous costumes. On such occasions the victim would be further enheartened by a large and interested concourse of spectators.

But perhaps the best thing to do, if Saint Apollonia refused her aid was to seek some monastery and ask the good brothers to take your tooth out. They were usually willing to do so, if approached in the proper spirit. They kept up this tooth pulling practice, too, into quite recent times. Not so very many years ago, if we happened to be on the Capitoline Hill at Rome on one of the proper days, we should have seen a gloomy band of men, women, and children toiling up the long, steep stairs to the portals of the church of Santa Marie in Araceli, not barefooted or on their knees, but with swollen, aching cheeks, done up in cloths or handkerchiefs, which would be tied in large disconsolate bow knots in a way no longer the fashion for pedestrian toothaches. On the upper step a squad of Franciscan friars, forceps in hand, awaited the sufferers, and there on the crest of Araceli’s marble staircase, the populace of Rome, amid much unrestrained and hearty screeching, were wont to have their teeth out at the expense of the church.

On the whole, Apollonia does not seem to have done her duty very well. Teeth are tolerably scarce in Christian history. Even such an exquisite as King Henry III of France at the height of his fascinations did not possess a tooth to his name.

We find there are two Saint Apollonias; a real one, as historic as Queen Elizabeth or Julius Caesar, and no handsomer; and a legendary one, all youth and grace and loveliness. And it is the latter the artists painted, and the toothache patients invoked. Although so far as she goes the real Apollonia is extremely authentic, we have only a few details concerning her. We know that she lived in Alexandria, and that on February 9th of the year 250, during the persecution of the Christians ordered by the Emperor Decius, she was cruelly tortured by having her teeth knocked out, and then was burned to death. As everybody knows, one of the chief authorities for the history of the early Christian Church is the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century. If we turn to book VI, chapter 41, of this work we shall find there a letter from Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, written to Fabius, Bishop of Antioch, which gives an account of the Decian persecution at Alexandria, and also tells us all we really know of Saint Apollonia. Since it is her only historical document, we will quote the portions which relate to her:

“The persecution with us did not begin with the imperial edict, but preceded it a whole year. And a certain prophet and poet excited the mass of the heathen against us, stirring them up to their native superstition. Stimulated by him, and taking full liberty to exercise any kind of wickedness, they considered this the only way of showing their piety – to slay us. First, then, seizing a certain aged man, named Metras, they called on him to utter impious expressions, and as he did not obey, they beat his body with clubs, and pricked his face and eyes; after which they led him away to the suburbs, where they stoned him.”

The letter then relates how they also maltreated and stoned a woman named Quinta and continues:

“Then with one accord, all rushed upon the houses of the pious, and whomsoever of their neighbors they knew, they drove thither in all haste, and despoiled and plundered them, setting apart the more valuable of the articles for themselves; but the more common and wooden furniture they threw about and burnt in the roads, presenting a sight like a city taken by the enemy. They also seized that admirable virgin Apollonia, then in advanced age, and beating her jaws, they broke out all her teeth, and kindling a fire before the city, threatened to burn her alive, unless she would repeat their impious expressions. She appeared at first to shrink a little, but when suffered to go, she suddenly sprang into the fire and was consumed.”

That is all our actual knowledge of Saint Apollonia and it is surely sufficiently pathetic and deplorable.

She was promptly canonized, and took her place among the noble army of martyrs, but one can readily guess that “an admirable virgin in advanced age” would not be so popular with painters and writers of religious poetry and afflicted devotees as something younger and more romantic. Therefore, it is not surprising that “the admirable virgin in advanced age” grew steadily younger and more beautiful in church tradition and ecclesiastical art, and as she grew more attractive, her story became more elaborate. Here it is in its revised and accepted form:

There lived in Alexandria during the first half of the third century a very opulent magistrate, of unknown name. He had married a wife whom he loved devotedly, and who loved him fondly in return. The only blot on the happiness of this pair was the fact that they had no children. They addressed earnest and unceasing prayers to Juno, Ceres, Jupiter, all the gods, to grant unto them a son or daughter to inherit their vast wealth, but all without avail. Three pious pilgrims arrived in Alexandria, and went from house to house asking alms in the name of the Redeemer and the Blessed Virgin, his mother, for they were tired and hungry. The magistrate’s wife, seated at her window one day saw them, and heard their petition at a house across the way. Her interest was aroused by their strange words, and she called to them saying: “What sort of begging is that of yours, and who are the gods in whose name you ask?” Wherefore the pilgrims told her of Christ, His life and teaching. And she asked them if the Virgin Mar}’ would hear her if she prayed that a child might be given her, and the pilgrims replied that the Virgin would be gracious to her without any doubt. Then the wife of the magistrate fell on her knees and prayed long and fervently to the Holy Virgin, and her request was granted and a daughter was born to her, to whom she gave the name of Apollonia.

The child grew into a maiden as lovely and graceful as a flower, and as good and pure as she was beautiful. The family of a Roman magistrate quite naturally conformed to the established religion of the state, but the mother never ceased to talk to her daughter about the wonderful circumstances of her birth, and about Christ and the Holy Virgin to whom she had addressed her prayers. Apollonia drank in all the details, and as she got older there sprang up in her heart a strong desire to be baptized and become a Christian. And Heaven did not leave her helpless. An angel came to her one day and led her out of Alexandria into the desert to the cell of Leonine, a disciple of Saint Anthony. Apollonia told him her story and her wish to be a Christian, and Leonine baptized her forthwith. Hardly had he done so than another angel swooped down from Heaven, and throwing a garment of shining white about Apollonia cried: “This is Apollonia, the servant of Jesus; Go, now, to Alexandria and preach the faith of Christ.”

Apollonia returned home filled with ecstasy and zeal. She went among the people and preached to them with wonderful eloquence, making many converts. Before long complaints concerning her and her doings began to pour in on her father. Why did he, a Roman magistrate, allow his daughter to break so flagrantly the laws of the Empire?

He, much disturbed, called Apollonia to him to explain her conduct. She defended herself with dignity and fervor, and still kept on with her preaching and conversions, until her father, beside himself with anger, gave her up to the Roman governor to be dealt with as a criminal. The governor ordered her to be taken into the temple of one of the pagan gods, Serapis, most likely, and bade her fall on her knees before the statue of the deity and adore it. Apollonia flatly refused to comply. She advanced haughtily to the statue, made the sign of the cross, and commanded the demon inside to depart. There was an awful rumble, a crash, a shriek, and from the broken image the demon fled, crying: “The holy virgin, Apollonia, drives me forth.”

This proceeding served to send the governor into a fit of violent wrath. At his bidding the girl was bound to a column, and one by one her beautiful teeth were all pulled out with a pair of pincers. Then a big fire was kindled, and, as Apollonia persisted in her faith, she was flung headlong into the blaze, and there gave up her soul to God, being borne to Heaven by His angels.

Even in the guise of a lovely and romantic maiden Saint Apollonia never attained great vogue. When one compares her to some other female saints – Cecilia, Catherine, Agnes, Lucia, Agatha, Barbara, Margaret – and thinks of all the multitude of churches and chapels which have been reared to them in many lands, and the hundreds of paintings of them which fill the galleries and ornament the altars of the world, Saint Apollonia’s light seems but a dim one indeed. Apparently, the only people who have cherished her and her memory to any extent, have been those with toothaches. They were told or read of her sufferings, with her teeth, and relied on her sympathy for theirs. The following prayer is published in F. Martinez’s book on dentistry published in Valladolid, Spain, in 1557:

Illustrious virgin martyr, Apollonia,
Pray to the Lord for us
Lest for our offenses and sins we be punished
By diseases of the teeth.

Another ancient prayer is the following: “Eternally omnipotent God, for whose honor blessed Apollonia, virgin and martyr, steadfastly suffered the horrible crushing-out of her teeth, grant Thou as we desire, that we may be made happy in commemoration of her, thru whose most pious intercession we were freed from toothache and all imminent evils. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” There is also an amusing dialogue in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (published in 1615) as follows:

“Be in no pain then,” replied the bachelor, “but go home, in Heaven’s name, and get something warm for breakfast, and on your way repeat the prayer of Saint Apollonia – if you know it.”

“Bless me!” replied the housekeeper, “the prayer of Saint Apollonia, say you? That might do something if my master’s distemper laid in his gums, but alas! it is all in his brains.”

There must have been millions of these toothache devotees thru the long centuries, but they seem on the whole to have teen an ungrateful lot, for once their pain stopped or their teeth were out, they evidently quite quickly forgot their patroness.

There was once in Florence a convent dedicated to Apollonia, but it was long ago secularized and is now devoted to some military purpose. Only its refectory remains intact. There one can see a small gallery of paintings, but Saint Apollonia does not figure on any of the canvases.

The pictures of this saint are few anywhere. Mrs Jameson in her Sacred and Legendary Art names those that were known to her, and few things escaped the keen eyes of that indefatigable English lady, but strangely enough the Saint Apollonias we know best and think most of, she does not mention, while most of the paintings on her list, which is a short one, have since her time by reason of sales and many relocations hidden themselves irretrievably from the gaze of the ordinary tourist. Mrs. Jameson saw a Saint Apollonia by Hemlinck – where she does not say – one by Furini in the Rinuccini Palace at Florence, one by Granacci in Munich, others by the same artist in the Academy at Florence, and lastly the saint’s martyrdom by Procaccini in Milan Cathedral. But pictures have been of late years much bandied about by art critics, shuffled and dealt about so extensively among artists, that what was called a Furini or a Granacci in Mrs. Jameson’s time, may nowadays circulate as an Allori or a Bugiardini. Palaces and their contents have been so bought and sold that the migrations of paintings have been many and extensive. There are, nevertheless, two or three Saint Apollonias which can be easily found and enjoyed.

[Saint Apollonia]Go to Rome, cross the Tiber, and in the Trastevere quarter visit the big Corsini Palace which stands just across the street from the Farnesina where Raphael painted some immortal frescoes. This Corsini Palace was in other centuries the home of various lordly papal nephews, Riarii, Corsini, etc. Within its walls in 1689 died that most curious and unpleasant female, Queen Christina of Sweden, the Roman Catholic daughter of the great Protestant champion, Gustavus Adolphus, the Christina who preferred men’s clothes to her ordinary female attire, who found being queen a dull business and so gave up her throne, who murdered her lover Monaldeschi at Fontainebleau, who refused to comb her hair oftener than once a month and at last would not comb it at all, and clapped upon her head a moth-y brown wig like Dr. Johnson’s. Now, on the walls of the rooms in which this eccentric lady lived and-died, hang the pictures of the Galleria Nazionale of Rome, and among them is Saint Apollonia by Carlo Dolce in the artist’s customary over sentimental manner. Carlo’s saint is a very pretty girl, but is not impressive or convincing as a Christian martyr. Dionysius of Alexandria would surely never recognize in her “the admirable virgin of advanced age,” who, for her faith leaped into flames of fire. Her head is thrown back, her eyes are raised with languishing glances to Heaven; one hand is pressed against her. bosom, in the other she holds tight, in a pair of forceps, a very perfect tooth. But we refuse to believe for a minute that this tooth is hers. Look at her! she has not lost a single one.

One artist has painted Saint Apollonia to perfection; that is Bernardino Luini, who lived a hundred and fifty years before Carlo Dolce, and did his best work during the first quarter of the Sixteenth century. Bernardino Luini was the most celebrated master of the Lombard school. He was born at Luino about 1465. He is one of the five great painters whose “supremacy” Ruskin names. Upon this always graceful, always tender, always lovely painter fell some shreds from the mantle of his great master, Leonardo. Saint Apollonia may well rejoice that she found such an artist to portray her, for having once be held her as Luini has depicted her at Milan and Saronno, you feel an affectionate interest in her, though you may not be a dentist, or even have a toothache.

Most beautiful of all Saint Apollonias is she of San Maurizio on the Corso Magenta at Milan. There is a bit of history connected with her and her charming sister saints. Early in the Sixteenth century a family of the name of Bentivoglio were lords of Bologna. Bologna belonged by right to the Popes, as did Ravenna, Forli, Rimini, Perugia, and many other cities of Central Italy, for several hundred years before, Pepin, King of the Franks, had conquered the Lombards and handed their cities over to Rome. But the hand of the Papacy had often been weak, its temporal authority defied with impunity, so that in the course of time, ambitious wealthy families had gained the control of affairs in most of these cities and ruled them as their own. Such were the Polentani in Ravenna, the Malatesta in Rimini, the Baglioni in Perugia, and the Bentivogli in Bologna. Toward the close of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the Sixteenth, there came to the Papal throne a series of strong, able, warlike Pontiffs bent upon wresting these cities from the hands of the usurping lords. Such were Sixtus IV, Alexander VI, and Julius II. The last, a fierce old warrior priest succeeded in ousting Giovanni Bentivoglio from Bologna, and sending him in full flight to a place of safety. Giovanni found a secure refuge in Milan, then at the height of its glory under the Sforza dukes. Florence itself, under her munificent Medici, could hardly vie for magnificence and culture with the Milan of Duke Ludovico II Moro, to bask in whose sympathetic patronage, architects, artists, sculptors, and men of letters hurried from all Italy.

Giovanni Bentivoglio turned quite naturally to Duke Ludovico for help and a haven, since his wife was of the Sforza family, and his son, Alessandro, had married another of the house. Giovanni was now well on in years and in declining health. Nevertheless, he was reluctant to surrender Bologna to the Pope, and sent his son, Alessandro, to France to try to win Louis XII to the Bentivoglio cause. Alessandro was entirely unsuccessful in this attempt, and while absent in France, his father Giovanni died. They buried him in the church of San Maurizio quite close to his habitation, a church often called the church of the Great Monastery, because attached to it was a big convent for nuns with many buildings and extensive gardens. Some years later the beautiful daughter of Alessandro Bentivoglio took the veil and entered the convent of San Maurizio as Sister Alessandra. Of course the interest of the Bentivogli in this establishment was now great. The church had become ruinous; an architect named Giovanni Dolcebuono was commissioned by the convent to rebuild it, and Alessandro Bentivoglio, the deprived Duke of Bologna took upon himself the burden of decorating the interior of the edifice where his father lay in his tomb, and where his daughter was to worship every day as a nun. He summoned to him a painter whose name just then was golden in Milan – Bernardino Luini – and bade him cover the walls of the new building with frescoes, and Luini painted on the walls of San Maurizio some of his most delightful works.

Every stone of the Great Convent has been swept away; streets of close set buildings now cross and re-cross the site of the gardens where Sister Alessandra used to walk, but the church still remains intact, a thing of beauty. It is rather like a large hall than a church, for it has no side aisles, only a series of flanking chapels. Every inch of the church is covered with frescoes; walls, ceiling, galleries, chapels; and most of them are from the hand of Luini. But we are not in search of Luinis. We are after Saint Apollonia, and we shall not have much difficulty in finding her. This is a nun’s church. Therefore, midway of it, a partition wall rises almost to the vaulting, separating that part of the building open to the general public from the portion reserved exclusively for the worship of the nuns and the convent. It is on this partition wall against which stands the High Altar, that we discover the great Luinis in all their gay, clear colors, and their serene beauty. The altar piece is not by Luini, but everything above it and on either side is his.

Look to the left, first. We see let into the wall the tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. On either side of it stands a saint. Such saints as would grace any paradise. Saint Cecilia has her head crowned with roses, Saint Ursula is crowned with a golden diadem, for she was a royal Breton princess; a sword is thrust into her breast. Above the tabernacle, within a semi-circular lunette kneels Alessandro Bentivoglio, the donor of the frescoes, magnificently arrayed in his ducal robes. He holds his missal reverently in his hand, and about him stand three saints; Saint Benedict with long white beard – for this great convent is a Benedictine foundation; and the two Saint Johns, the Baptist and Evangelist, perhaps placed here in compliment to Alessandro’s father, Giovanni. The Baptist has his little white lamb along with him.

Now turn to the right side of the altar. In the place corresponding to that occupied by the tabernacle on the opposite wall, is a figure of the Risen Christ. Beside him stand two other saints, sisters in sweet sanctity to Cecilia and Ursula. One of them is Lucia, with her two tortured eyes stuck into a sort of sharp bodkin; the other is Apollonia with her forceps and tooth, and a book, – for she was a teacher – and also her martyr’s palm. This Apollonia is certainly a figure of dignity and beauty worth going far to see. In the lunette above, a lady kneels, plainly a great lady, for look at her sumptuous robe of white brocade that sweeps and billows about her, and swells into more than ample sleeves. This is Alessandro’s wife, Ippolita Sforza. A Benedictine nun stands hovering over her, a white dove perched on her shoulder. This nun pretends to be Saint Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedicti, but she is young and pretty, and is in reality none other than Sister Alessandra Bentivoglio, daughter of the kneeling Ippolita. These two ladies are supported by Saint Catherine with her wheel, and Saint Agnes with her white lamb, which balances very neatly the lamb of the Baptist across the altar.

If you pass through this partition wall into the nun’s church, back of it you will find preserved on that side, about the nun’s High Altar, other life size figures of saints, and among them another fine Saint Apollonia.

In the year 1525, Luini while in Milan accidentally killed a man. The details of the affair are not known, but the artist fled from the city pursued by the officers of the law. Some thirteen miles north of Milan on the road to Como is a small town called Saronno, nowadays famous for a certain sort of gingerbread called Amaretti. In Saronno was a pilgrimage church dedicated to the Virgin, and known as the Sanctuary of the Holy Virgin. It possessed the right of sanctuary for criminals; once inside the sacred bounds no constable or bailiff could touch them. Here Luini not only found a safe refuge, but employment as well, for the monks set him to work to decorate their choir walls, paying him thirty cents a day, together with a daily portion of food and wine. This seems to us niggardly remuneration for a Luini, but he was apparently amply satisfied, for he not only covered the choir and its chapels with scenes from the life of Mary, but before he left this asylum he painted for the monks as a gift, a Nativity, which was so beautiful that the good brothers exclaimed it was a pity Luini did not murder more men. This Nativity has vanished from Saronno, but we can still see Luini’s scenes from the Virgin’s story on the choir wall, and, besides these, “In the choir apse are two charming life size figures of saints, one of them Saint Catherine, the other Saint Apollonia.

[]If we had not already been to San Maurizio we should think no Apollonia could be more sweetly beautiful than this one who stands here gently contemplating us, the forceps and tooth in one hand, the palm of martyrdom in the other. Her golden hair ripples down from beneath a sort of turban, appropriate to an oriental saint. She is quite as lovely as the Milan Apollonia but lacks her majesty.

Saint Apollonia did not wholly perish from the earth when the fires of Alexandria consumed her body in the year 250. Fragments of her head and teeth were rescued from the ashes by devout disciples, and today her relics are scattered throughout Europe; stray bits of her have even reached America. Her head is in the ancient Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere at Rome, Cardinal Gibbon’s parish church or titular, for every Cardinal has his own church in the Eternal City. Her arms are in another old Roman church, Saint Lawrence, outside the walk; and part of her jaw is preserved in San Basilio also in Rome. There are teeth or pieces of them in churches at Naples, Volterra, Bologna. Antwerp, Brussels, Malines, Liege, and in five different churches in Cologne; and on this side of the Atlantic, as I have said, the celebrated pilgrimage church of Saint Anne de Beaupre, near Quelle, is said to possess a portion of her jaw.

She is not needed now, this saint of Egypt, as in those hard old days of yore, but let us hope her relics are not entirely unvisited. Doubtless many a remote or pious toothache she still helps to cure. Surely it should not be difficult for any man or woman, with or without a toothache, to offer up a prayer or two to a saint of such gracious, gentle, charm as the Apollonia of Bernardino Luini.

– Henry A Kelley, DMD, Portland, Maine; from The Journal of the National Dental Association, 1919