Today, i.e. 9 February, is celebrated as the feast day of Saint Apollonia of Alexandria. Resistant to abandon her faith in Christianity, Apollonia was martyred in 249 CE in Alexandria, Egypt. Apollonia is regarded as the protectress of teeth; her cult became so popular that relics thought to be her own teeth multiplied since the Middle Ages. She is recognized as the patron of dental conditions and is often prayed to by those suffering from toothaches.
Under Emperor Decius’ reign, Apollonia died during a revolt against Christians in Alexandria, in third century CE. Primary sources, such as Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica, from the third century, as well as Jacobus da Varagine’s Golden Legend, published during the thirteenth century, describe Apollonia as an admirable elderly virgin whose teeth either fell out as the Pagans beat her or were extracted as a part of her torture.
Apollonia’s persecutors forced her to renounce God; otherwise, she would be burned alive. She begged them to wait for a moment, acting as though she was considering their requests. Instead, she dove into the flames herself and so suffered her martyrdom. Although Apollonia was of an advanced age at the time of her death, she is often represented as a youthful virgin. Typically, she is depicted with pincers, holding a tooth as an attribute of her torment.
Italian art provides a plethora of examples of Saint Apollonia. She is depicted in manuscripts, frescos, panel paintings, and copper miniatures. For instance, Baroque artist Guido Reni produced two copper companion paintings depicting Apollonia, which are now kept in the Prado Museum, Madrid. The Martyrdom of Apollonia shows her tormentors in the process of removing her teeth. Reni presents a symmetrical composition with two of her tormentors on either side, while Apollonia is tied to a post in the middle. One of the henchmen holds a large pair of pliers, prepared to extract her teeth.
In his work Saint Apollonia in Prayer, Reni portrays the saint in a state of rapture. After her teeth have been violently removed, the saint is shown kneeling before a lighted bonfire. Her arms are gently crossed on her chest as she gazes heavenward. An angel depicted above her is shown to be bestowing a crown and palm frond on her, which are attributes that symbolize her salvation. In the foreground, Reni included a pair of pliers holding one of her teeth.
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
Mena Marqués, M., Albarrán, V., and Azúa, F. de, La belleza cautiva. Pequeños tesoros del Museo del Prado, Museo del Prado – Obra Social “La Caixa”, Barcelona, 2014, pp. 96-97.
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 Saint Apollonia, Heures d’Étienne Chevalier, c.1452-60, Musée Condé, Chantilly. Tempera on parchment.
Guido Reni, The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia, Museo del Prado, c.1600 – 1603. Oil on Copper.
Guido Reni, Saint Apollonia in Prayer, Museo del Prado, c.1600-1603. Oil on Copper.