Centuries of Solace and the Sainthood of Apollonia

Possible gold foil prayer card
Decorative cut-outs are laid over a backing of green, red, blue and gold foil in this small but elegant piece that may have been used as a prayer card. Unknown date.
Dimensions: 3 1/2″ x 2 1/4″
(8.9 x 5.7 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Unknown

Apollonia, born circa 200 AD, is reputed to have been of Greek descent and the virgin daughter of a heathen magistrate of Alexandria, Egypt. Held in high esteem and admired by local Christians for her “chastity, religious devotion, and charitable deeds,” she was martyred in the year 249 AD. The details of her torture and suffering were remembered vividly and recounted by those who witnessed the horrific event. Some fifty years later, in 300 AD, prior to Christianity becoming the Roman Empire’s official religion, she was canonized as St. Apollonia. Subsequently, she became the patron saint of toothache sufferers and of the dental profession.

According to historical accounts, in 248 AD the citizens of the Roman Empire were particularly anxious. That year marked Rome’s millennium, with 1,000 years having passed since the city’s fabled founding in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus. Although the Empire’s inhabitants appreciated its splendor and longevity, a feeling of doubt existed about its future. Would the next millennium bring continued stability, or would political unrest within, and barbarian incursions at the borders, bring chaos and uncertainty? During the millenary celebrations, a Roman poet is said to have foreseen catastrophe caused by the Christians. Despite the Roman Emperor’s efforts in 247 AD to appease the ancestral pagan gods with sacrifices and ensure peaceful succession by ruling jointly with his son, the two were killed in battle in 249 AD, and instability began to spread. A sense of foreboding must have been pervasive among the Empire’s citizens.
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In that same year, 249 AD, persecution of Christians by the “heathen populace” of Alexandria, Egypt reached heightened intensity, as noted in an historic letter exchanged between two clergymen. The letter describes a mob attacking and torturing five Christians, Apollonia being one among them, who either refused to glorify the pagan Roman idols or to denounce God. “Apollonia, an aged deaconess, was seized. With blows in the face they knocked out all her teeth, and then, kindling a great fire outside the city, they threatened to cast her into it unless she uttered certain impious words. She begged for a moment’s delay, as if to consider the proposal; then, to convince her persecutors that her sacrifice was perfectly voluntary, she no sooner found herself free than she leaped into the flames of her own accord.”

For many centuries following her death not much was written about St. Apollonia, but in the 14th century, as dental ills among people of Western Europe increased, her glorification, retold in at least six differently embellished accounts of the original incident, began to spread. No sophisticated means of dental treatment or extraction were available then, and home remedies offered little relief. Desperate to alleviate their intense pain, toothache sufferers began to beseech the benevolent spirit of St. Apollonia for divine intercession. In recognition of her importance as a sacred benefactor bringing solace to the dentally afflicted, many churches, chapels, convents and shrines were dedicated in her name. She has been depicted in artistic paintings, statues and woodcarvings, and revered in cathedral stained glass images, religious dramas and literature since the Middle Ages. In various areas of Europe, fasting and uttering an appropriate prayer on the day of her celebration (Feb 9) is believed to guarantee a toothache-free year.

Today, St. Apollonia is considered the patron of dentistry, and many dental societies, magazines and practices have been named in her honor. Her association with dentistry is often attributed to the 18th century, but may have occurred much earlier. During medieval times, various European trades embraced Christian martyrs to protect and symbolize their occupations, and she would have been an obvious choice for those specializing in toothache relief. Early evidence includes an engraving of her in Franciscus Martinez’s 1557 work De Dentione, considered one of the oldest monographs in the history of the dental profession.

As “an admirable virgin in advanced age” made an unappealing subject to painters, writers and the distressed, St. Apollonia’s image grew youthful and more beautiful, and her story increasingly romanticized, through the ages. This exhibit of Saint Apollonia is by no means exhaustive but includes historically representative works of art donated to the Ward Museum, as well as other available images among many artistic renditions of her.

Modern prayer card. Courtesy of Cromo N.B. S.R.L. Milan, Italy

References

De Meester, J 2006 The millenary anniversary of the city of Rome. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. (nbbmuseum.be/en/2006/05/anniversary-of-rome); Donnelly, R 2005 St. Apollonia: the patron saint of dentistry. J Hist Dent 53(3):97-100; Eramo, S et al 2017 A “Sacra Rappresentazione” of Saint Apollonia’s martyrdom. J Hist Dent 65(2):63-72; Foley, GPH 1972 Foley’s Footnotes: A Treasury of Dentistry, Wallingford, PA: Washington Square East Publishers; Kanterman, CB 1985 Dentistry’s most famous lady: a definitive report on Saint Apollonia in legend and art. Tic (Ticonium Company magazine) 44(1):1-4; Kelly, HA 1919 Saint Apollonia — the patron saint of dentistry. J Natl Dent Assoc 6(5):400-412; Lantz, A 2016 Saint Apollonia, patron saint of odontology. Hektoen Intl J (hekint.org) 8(3), Chicago, IL: Hektoen Institute of Medicine; “Medical Heritage Society” 1971 Saint Apollonia (d. 249 AD) patroness of dentistry. Chicago, IL: Medical Heritage Society; Peyraud, AP 1975 St. Apollonia: dentistry’s spiritual benefactress. CAL (Certified Akers Labs magazine), 38:5-9, Feb; Rezai, FR 1979 More on Saint Apollonia: correcting an earlier error. Bull Hist Dent 27(1):36-38; Thurston, HJ and Attwater, D (eds) 1990 Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics.

Explore the collection in the slideshow below:

Oldest known painting, fourteenth century

Oldest known painting, fourteenth century

This late 14th-century miniature portrait, thought to be the oldest known painting of St. Apollonia (unknown artist), was elaborately executed on a parchment sheet and enhanced with gold highlights.8 It is found in a book of prayers that had belonged to a Dominican cloister in Flanders, but was discovered in London in 1914 by John Wessler.7
Dimensions: 2" x 2" (5 x 5 cm)
Courtesy of the John Wessler Collection, Hagströmer Library, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden (hagstromerlibrary.ki.se)
Jean Fouquet miniature, fifteenth century

Jean Fouquet miniature, fifteenth century

French miniature painter and illuminator Jean Fouquet created this elaborate illustration on vellum of the martyrdom of St. Apollonia for an illuminated book of hours (Les Heures d’Étienne Chevalier, c1452).11,13 In this scene, onlookers are seated as though attending a medieval miracle play.12
Dimensions: 7 7/8" x 5 3/4" (20 x 15 cm)
Public Domain, WikiArt.org
Piero della Francesca panel, fifteenth century

Piero della Francesca panel, fifteenth century

St. Apollonia is unadorned but colorful in this oil and tempera with gold on poplar panel attributed to Italian artist Piero della Francesca, c1455/1460.5 This piece originally hung on the main alter of the church of Sant'Agostino in Italy but now resides in the National Gallery of Art.10 Some may recognize it as the model for Andy Warhol’s 20th-century St. Apollonia silk screens.14
Dimensions: 15 1/4" x 11" (38.8 x 28 cm)
Courtesy of the Samuel H. Kress Collection, NGA (nga.gov)
Compassion for toothache sufferer, fifteenth century

Compassion for toothache sufferer, fifteenth century

In this 15th-century illustration, reproduced from an enlargement of a woodcut (unknown artist), St. Apollonia expresses compassion for the toothache sufferer, soothing his swollen cheek with one hand while grasping her symbolic forceps-with-tooth in the other. Sister Wendy Beckett describes St. Apollonia as “a tough old Egyptian lady,”2 and, appropriately, this setting may suggest a North African scene, with a Moorish tower and tropical tree in the background, and a local beseecher with Nilotic hairstyle and attire.
Dimensions: 6" x 4 1/2" (15.2 x 11.4 cm)
Courtesy of the John Wessler Collection, Hagströmer Library, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden (hagstromerlibrary.ki.se)
Oil on slate portrait, fifteenth century

Oil on slate portrait, fifteenth century

This original 15th-century oil on slate painting of St. Apollonia (unknown artist) came from a church in Ascoli Piceno, Italy that was desecrated in 1925 under dictator Mussolini’s National Fascist Party government. Monsignor Sciocchetti and his brother, artist Father Luigi Sciocchetti, who brought the painting with them when they moved to the Bay Area, had been banished from Italy by Mussolini. Born in Ascoli Piceno in 1878, Luigi Sciocchetti was ordained as a priest by the Pope and allowed to study art at the Vatican Gallery.3 After five years as pastor of the Holy Cross Church in San Jose, he retired in 1930 and dedicated himself to religious art that can be found in several churches around the Bay Area.6
Dimensions: 8 1/4" x 6 1/2" (20.1 x 16.5 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donors: Frederick S. Warford, DDS, Father Guido Cocetti
Cornelius van Merlen woodcut, seventeenth century

Cornelius van Merlen woodcut, seventeenth century

This original c1660 hand-colored woodcut on vellum by Cornelius van Merlin of Antwerp shows St. Apollonia holding her insignia forceps in one hand and a martyr’s palm frond, likely symbolizing the triumph of her spirit over adversity, in the other.4 She radiates within an elaborate border as a basket of apples, possibly symbolizing salvation, hovers above. 4
Dimensions: 3 1/2" x 2 5/8" (8.9 x 6.7 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Maurice J. Owens, DDS
Carlo Dolci painting, seventeenth century

Carlo Dolci painting, seventeenth century

St. Apollonia, oil on canvas, as imagined in 1670 by pious Italian Baroque period painter Carlo Dolci of Florence.
Dimensions: 25 1/8" x 21 1/4" (63.9 x 53.9 cm)
Courtesy of Robilant+Voena (commons.wikimedia.org)
Dutch woodcut, seventeenth century

Dutch woodcut, seventeenth century

This original 17th-century Dutch woodcut (unknown artist) of the saint finds her seated in a formal setting, elegantly dressed and wearing a tiara with matching necklace.
Dimensions: 5 1/8" x 3 7/8" (13 x 9.8 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Maurice J. Owens, DDS
Francesco de Zurbarán painting, seventeenth century

Francesco de Zurbarán painting, seventeenth century

A reproduction of Francesco de Zurbarán’s 1626 oil on canvas painting was used to create this 2008 St. Apollonia Cabernet Sauvignon wine bottle label for two of our notable grads, Drs. Gary & Gabrielle Thodas. Sister Wendy Beckett evaluates Zurbarán’s portrayal: “This, he seems to say, is the real saint, this gracious and charming lady, dressed to the nines and yet moving purposely towards a terrible death at the call of fidelity. Her neat little mouth gives no indication that she is toothless, and though she accepted the instrument of her torment she does not brandish it with any personal interest. What Zurbarán depicts is a saint’s interest in the end, never in the means.”1
Dimensions of Zurbarán original: 44 1/2" x 26" (113 x 66 cm)
Zurbarán inset: Public Domain, WikiArt.org
Label courtesy of the designer, Gloria Chirichillo
Dutch woodcut, eighteenth century

Dutch woodcut, eighteenth century

In this 18th-century Dutch woodcut (unknown artist), St. Apollonia appears severe, with little hair on the crown of her head, yet serene. Holding her insignia forceps-with-tooth in one hand, she carries isolated teeth in the folds of her robe.
Dimensions: 4 1/8" x 2 3/4" (10.5 x 7 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Maurice J. Owens, DDS
Prayer book illustration, eighteenth century

Prayer book illustration, eighteenth century

St. Apollonia strikes an aristocratic pose, wearing contemporary, fashionable clothing and a small crown, signifying royalty, in this 18th-century aquarelle on parchment image (unknown artist) taken from a prayer book. Early accounts indicate she held prominent status in Alexandria’s Christian community, but a regal heritage was not implied until late in the Middle Ages. In this portrait, her elegance and stylishness suggest a French artist’s influence.
Dimensions: 4 1/2" x 3" (11.4 x 7.6 cm)
Courtesy of the John Wessler Collection, Hagströmer Library, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden (hagstromerlibrary.ki.se)
German woodcut, eighteenth century

German woodcut, eighteenth century

Four angels accompany St. Apollonia in this mid-18th-century colored woodcut (unknown artist), hand-printed in Nuremburg. Angels are plentiful in early accounts of her martyrdom. One account suggests, “When she was eventually thrown into prison, where her teeth were stoned out, she was visited by angels, who sought to comfort her. In her prayers to God, Apollonia pleaded that all those who suffered from toothache would be granted freedom from pain upon invoking her name. Another angel then appeared to tell her that this appeal had been granted.”
Dimensions: 4" x 5" (10.2 x 12.7 cm)
Courtesy of the John Wessler Collection, Hagströmer Library, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden (hagstromerlibrary.ki.se)
F. Huberti woodcut, eighteenth century

F. Huberti woodcut, eighteenth century

F. Huberti, possibly a local artist, created this 18th-century water color-washed woodcut of St. Apollonia sitting against a lush background and dressed in a colorful costume. She grasps a delicate forceps and martyr’s palm in either hand. Written in Dutch on the back of this small painting, which may have served as a birth certificate, are a boy’s name and his date of baptism: June 24, 1789.
Dimensions: 4 1/2" x 3 1/4" (11.4 x 8.3 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Maurice J. Owens, DDS
Book engraving, nineteenth century

Book engraving, nineteenth century

This 19th-century black & white original engraving (unknown artist) shows St. Apollonia standing in a field of stylized corn, grains and buttercups holding her symbolic forceps-with-tooth and a platter of isolated teeth. She gazes upward at a radiant sky. “V. M.” signifies her virgin-martyr status.
Dimensions: 12 7/8" x 9 1/8" (32.7 x 23.2 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Maurice J. Owens, DDS
Dental catalog ad, twentieth century

Dental catalog ad, twentieth century

In this 20th-century printed advertisement (unknown artist), a pensive St. Apollonia prominently displays her distinctive forceps-with-tooth. She is surrounded by interwoven Calla Lilies whose stems are intertwined with other dental instruments possibly available for purchase from the Interstate Drug Exchange Inc. Dental Catalog.
Dimensions: 8 3/4" x 7 1/4" (22.2 x 18.4 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Unknown
Courtesy of Interstate Drug Exchange Inc., Plainview, NY
Moe Turner poster, twentieth century

Moe Turner poster, twentieth century

St. Apollonia gracefully holds a candle to mark the 150th year of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, the oldest dental school in the world,9 in this celebratory poster commissioned from artist Moe Turner by the University of Maryland.
Dimensions: 38"x 25" (96.5 x 63.5 cm)
University of the Pacific Permanent Collection, Donor: Dr. Arthur A. Dugoni
Courtesy of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, Baltimore, MD
Fadi Mikhail painting, twenty-first century

Fadi Mikhail painting, twenty-first century

In this 21st-century Neo-Coptic painting, derived from the artistic style of ancient Egypt, artist Fadi Mikhail adorns St. Apollonia in simple white cloth with matching headscarf. Bordered by the fronds of martyr palms and with angels hovering above, she kneels, encircled by flames.
Dimensions: 15 3/4" x 11 3/4" (40 x 30 cm)
Courtesy of artist Fadi Mikhail, UK Coptic Icons (ukcopticicons.com)
View Caption References

Caption References

  • 1Beckett, W 1996 The Mystery of Love: Saints in art through the centuries. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • 2Beckett, W 1998 Sister Wendy’s Book of Saints. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press.
  • 3“Busacca Gallery” 2013 Ceramic Terra Cotta Boy Sculpture Marker & Epitaph by L. Sciocchetti (busaccagallery@sbcglobal.net).
  • 4Ferguson, G 1961 Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • 5Frick Collection, The” 2017 Saint Apollonia painting description (frick.org).
  • 6Hughes, EM 1986. Artists in California, 1786-1940. San Francisco, CA: Hughes Publishing Company.
  • 7Kirk, EC and Anthony, LP (eds) 1918 St. Apollonia and her picture in the Nidaros Breviary, by John Wessler. Review of Current Dental Literature, The Dental Cosmos 25(1):87.
  • 8Lantz, A 2016 Saint Apollonia, patron saint of odontology. Hektoen Intl J (hekint.org) 8(3), Chicago, IL: Hektoen Institute of Medicine.
  • 9McCauley, HB 2003 The first dental college: emergence of dentistry as an autonomous profession. J Hist Dent 51(1):41-45.
  • 10National Gallery of Art” 2017 Saint Apollonia, provenance (nga.gov).
  • 11Reynaud, N 2006 Jean Fouquet: Les Heures d’Étienne Chevalier. Dijon: Éditions Faton.
  • 12Ring, ME 1985 Dentistry: An Illustrated History, New York, NY: Abradale Press.
  • 13Web Gallery of Art” 2017 Miniatures from the Book of Hours of Étienne Chevalier (1452-60) (wga.hu).
  • 14Wynbrandt, J 1998 The Excruciating History of Dentistry. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.