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Soldier Saints (Medieval Avengers #5)

The Medieval Avengers posts continue, this time with two badass soldier saints, one of whom continues to be famous throughout the Christian world, the other whose veneration didn’t long outlast the Middle Ages.

Acacius, A Forgotten One

St Acacius, or Agathius, is one of the lesser known saints. He was venerated from the crusades until the early 1500s in Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Hungary, so it makes sense that he was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (or Fourteen Intercessors), the late medieval supersaint team. He is perhaps best aligned with the Avenger Gilgamesh. Sure, he has cool powers, but he’s called ‘The Forgotten One’ for a reason.

gilgamesh

Acacius was born in Armenia in the 2nd century and was martyred c. 304 during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution. He was a Roman soldier and is typically depicted as such, or often he is a knight with a sword or crucifix in his hand. He chose martyrdom over renouncing his Christian faith and was whipped, crowned with thorns, and stoned. None of these methods were effective, however, and instead of striking him, the stones were propelled back into the throwers’ hands boomerang-style. Ultimately he had to die by beheading, although he is not depicted as a cephalophore (see Medieval Avengers #4).

Achatius

Not medieval but a nice illustration of Acacius’s attributes: a knight’s armour, a crucifix, a crown of thorns, and an acacia branch. From a Korean blog (source unknown since I can’t read the Korean).

Acacius often wears a crown of thorns or carries an acacia branch (the spiny plant with which he was whipped – also symbolic of the soul’s immortality). The similarity of the names of the plant and the saint can be no coincidence.

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Acacia greggii thorns, photo by Stan Shebs on Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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Morgan Library, MS M.917, p. 262 (Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Utrecht, c. 1440). From the Morgan Library: ‘In this grisly miniature ten men represent ten thousand soldiers martyred at Mt. Ararat for their mass conversion to the Christian faith before a battle. They are in a variety of pained poses, impaled on the spreading branches of an acacia tree and wearing only loincloths and crowns of thorns on their heads. Legend holds that they were crucified, and this depiction of impalement may stem from a misreading of, or a play on, the name of their leader, Acacius. The saint himself stands at the right of the miniature incongruously wearing bishop’s vestments despite his occupation of soldier (probably due to confusion with a different St. Acacius who was a bishop).’

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Acacius may not be the most popular member of the Medieval Avengers, but he does have 10,000 sidekicks (the martyrs who were executed with him). This soldier saint is patron of the terminally ill and can help you out of a headache.

George, Captain England/Lebanon/Germany/Greece/Lithuania/Portugal/et al.

St George is the Captain America of the Medieval Avengers (although America is one of the few countries that doesn’t name him their patron saint). While he is patron of the Boy Scouts of America, my reason for the comparison is not that but the fact that he’s so darn popular (according to an International Business Times article from 2015, Captain America is the most popular Avenger*). His iconography is found on the flags and coats of arms of numerous cities and countries. Like Captain America, George is the one everybody recognises.

[*This study is post-Age of Ultron and does not take into account the more recent Civil War film.]

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George lived in what is now Libya during the 3rd-4th centuries. He has been venerated since the 5th century, in England since the 7th-8th centuries (and now he’s England’s patron saint).

In Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?Robert Bartlett writes,

England […] had revered and long-established saints. What is rather remarkable is that a new and definitely non-native saint eclipsed them in the later Middle Ages and early modern period. An entirely fictional account of George, a martyr saint, was composed in the eastern Mediterranean region in the 5th century, the story of whose sufferings was so fantastical (he is executed and miraculously resurrected three times) that it was included in the earliest papal condemnation of apocryphal literature. Yet by the later Middle Ages he was widely regarded as ‘special protector and advocate of the kingdom of England’. Unlike many things attributed to the influence of the crusades, the rise of the cult of St. George really does seem to be explained by western crusaders encountering this very popular eastern saint and making him their own patron. It was Edward I, the last English king to go on crusade, who first decreed that his troops should wear the red cross of St. George as their uniform. (Bartlett, p. 230)

George

Detail of a miniature of George killing the dragon, with the princess kneeling, in the Legenda Aurea (Paris, 1382). British Library, MS Royal 19 B XVII, f. 109r.

England’s earlier national saints, Edmund and Edward the Confessor, just weren’t sexy enough. Edward the Confessor was revered for his perpetual virginity, and neither had a reputation for winning wars. Bartlett suggests that this may be the reason for late medieval England’s adoption of George as the new patron saint (p. 231). (A Clerk of Oxford has written a great post on the Anglo-Saxon story of St George.)

This saint rescued the king’s daughter from a dragon and led the dragon back to the city with the maiden’s girdle. The city, of course, converted to Christianity. Bartlett says, ‘St. George did not originally have a dragon but, certainly by the 11th century, had acquired one, and this eventually became an indispensable character in his tale, represented in hundreds of images from Nubia to Prussia, in frescoes, panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts and pub signs’ (p. 396).

Dragons, like Chris Evans, are sexy.

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The king’s daughter, offered as a sacrifice to the dragon, is rescued by George, who attacks the animal, rendering it harmless. Detail from Aberdeen University Library, Burnet Psalter, fol. 21v.

George wears the suit of armour or chainmail of a crusader, often bearing a lance tipped by a cross. He rides a white horse and is often shown slaying a dragon. The St George’s Cross (a red cross on a white background) is often emblazoned on his armour, shield, or banner. Like Acacius, he was eventually beheaded by a Roman emperor.

Next time – in the final episode of Medieval Avengers – stay tuned for the stories of a doctor, a miracle boy, and an exorcist.

 

Works Cited

Bartlett, Robert. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015

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One comment on “Soldier Saints (Medieval Avengers #5)

  1. Pingback: Meet the medieval Avengers – Getting Medieval with Comics

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