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Religious Subjects > Apollonia

St Apollonia 1


St Apollonia was martyred when she was an elderly deaconess in Alexandria in the third century.  During anti-Christian riots she was amongst the many who were abducted from their homes, robbed and killed.  Her captors broke her jaw, smashed out her teeth and told her to recite blasphemous phrases or be burned alive on a pyre they had already prepared.  Asking for a little time to think she managed to free herself and jump into the fire voluntarily. St Augustine maintained that this was an act of heroism rather than suicide, which would have been unsaintly.


St Apollonia’s legend later became romanticized, so that in art she was often shown as a young woman having her teeth forcibly extracted with pincers; in woodcarving she sometimes holds up the pincers herself, a large molar in their grip.  According to legend, just before her death, she promised to help all those suffering from toothache.  Her cult has led to the publication of a dentists’ quarterly in Boston (Mass.) called The Apollonian.  She is the patron saint of dentists.


This late 15th-century polychrome walnut group shows St Apollonia being kicked by one of her assailants while the other prepares to extract a tooth. She looks stoically out towards us.  Small groups of this size were made for private devotional use in small side chapels or private chapels.  Candles were placed before them, at times darkening and even burning the images, some of which have been touched so often that their features have worn away.


Details of dress can be helpful in dating woodcarving.  In this example Apollonia’s dress laced up at the front and the armour covering only half the foot of the assailant on the right both indicate a date of c.1490 and a probable attribution to Northern France.



St Apollonia 2


In this panel the saint stands between two pillars, beneath a shield held by two putti.  She holds in her left hand the symbol of her martyrdom, an enormous pair of forceps that are gripping a huge molar.  In her left hand she holds a holy book which she seems to read serenely.