February 9: Memory of Saint Apollonia. Guido Reni (Calvezzano 1575 – Bologna 1642), The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia, 1600-03, oil on copperplate, 28 cm x 20 cm, Madrid, Museo del Prado
The life of the virgin Apollonia, who lived in the third century in Alexandria, Egypt, is practically unknown to us, but Eusebius, in his Church History, reported a passage from the letter of the bishop Saint Dionysius of Alexandria, addressed to Fabio of Antioch, in which he recounted some episodes he had witnessed during the persecution that broke out in the last years of the empire of Philip (244-249): a popular uprising, incited by an evil soothsayer, caused the massacre of many Christians, whose homes were devastated and plundered. The pagans took Apollonia, an unmarried woman, already advanced in age, to whom they struck the jaws making her teeth come out, and threatened to burn her at the stake if she had not spoken impious words with them. "She," Dionysius wrote in his letter, "asked that she be freed for a moment: after this she quickly jumped into the fire and was consumed by it." This event is said to be happened in 249.
In Dionysius' account, as we have it, there is not the slightest reproach for the voluntary end of Apollonia's life, which may seem suicidal, perhaps because her life had been blameless and worthy of admiration. The cult of Apollonia soon spread to the East, and later also to the West. There are also many places in Europe where churches and chapels were built in honour of the Alexandrian martyr. Particularly rich is her iconography.
The small painting by the Italian painter was certainly commissioned for private devotion by an anonymous person who wanted to honour the martyr Apollonia. The Saint is depicted in the tragic moment in which she is tortured by two gaolers who, with enormous pincers, have begun to pull her teeth out. In the same museum there is another painting - identical in size and pictorial technique - representing Apollonia in ecstatic prayer in front of an angel showing her the palm tree, symbol of martyrdom, with the burning stake nearby.
We are struck by the serenity of the Egyptian saint, who does not reveal any pain for the torture she is suffering nor despair for the fate that awaits her. That is somehow confirmed by the symmetry of the composition: in the centre of the painting, her eyes turned to the sky, she seems to be detached from this life, already projected to life beyond the death, which she now feels so close.