By Livia Lupi
The 9th of February is the feast day of St Apollonia of Alexandria. Apollonia is the protectress of teeth, her cult becoming so popular that relics thought to be her teeth multiplied from the middle ages onwards.
Apollonia died during a revolt against Christians in Alexandria in the third century CE, during emperor Decius’s reign. Primary sources like Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica (3rd century CE) and Jacobus da Varagine’s Golden Legend (13th century) describe her as an admirable, elderly virgin whose teeth either fell out as the pagans beat her, or were extracted as part of torture. Afterwards, Apollonia was forced to renounce God or she would have been burned alive, but the saint managed to break free from her captors, diving into the burning pyre anyway.
Although she was an elderly woman at the time of her death, she is represented as a youthful virgin holding tongs as her attribute with reference to the loss of her teeth.
References: Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend. Readings on the Saints, ed. William Granger Ryan and Eamon Duffy (2nd ed. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton university Press, 2012); Sant’Apollonia, Santi e Beati
Piero della Francesca, Sant’Apollonia, c. 1455-c.1460, National gallery of Art, Washington DC. Tempera on panel.
Bernardo or Antonio Marioni, Sant’Apollonia, late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, Museo Bernareggi, Bergamo. Tempera on panel.
Giovanni Battista Salvi, Sant’Apollonia, c.1630-c.1685, Basilica of St Peter, Perugia. Oil on canvas.
Jean Fouquet, Torture of St Apollonia, Heures d’Étienne Chevalier, c.1452-60, Musée Condé, Chantilly. Tempera on parchment.