Finding Saint Apollonia

When in Rome, you will find saints — or bits of them — everywhere. Many of them met a grisly demise, such as those depicted at Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Zurburan’s exquisite painting of Saint Apollonia

One of the art exhibits that’s left the greatest impact on me over my life was one in 1987 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It was about the Spanish artist, Francisco de Zurburan, including a series of his paintings of Christian saints. Each saint was accompanied by an attribute.

Saint Apollonia was accompanied by a set of pliers holding a tooth, symbolizing that her teeth were pulled out (or broken out) before she ended her life by jumping into a fire rather than curse her god.  A gory end, indeed.  Today, she’s the patron saint of people suffering toothaches

All these years later, the memory of that exhibit remains very much with me.

Because there are bits of saints all over Rome, I assumed there was a good chance of finding something of Apollonia here. Thirty seconds of research backed me up.

Not exactly a part her, but there is Piazza di Sant’Apollonia in Trastevere.

The sign at Piazza di Sant’Apollonia.

There used to be an entire church dedicated to Saint Apollonia here, but it no longer exists. So, I had to look elsewhere for her.

She is personified by a statue at St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the 140 such statues you can see from a distance when standing in St. Peter’s Square. I was looking for a closer encounter with the saint though, because I had a favor to ask.

Saint Apollonia, one of the statues on the top of St. Peter’s Basilica

Her arms are said to be in San Lorenzo Beyond the Walls, near the University of La Sapienza, where we sometimes go for concerts, exhibits, or one of the little free museums there. When we arrived at the church, however, it was closed. I had to go elsewhere to find Apollonia.

Her head, once in the Trastevere church that was torn down, is said to have been moved to the beautiful church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, so that’s where I went.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

We slipped into the back of the church. As we did that, we discovered a funeral was going on, so we sat in silence, feeling the heavy emotions in this magnificent church.

Inside Santa Maria in Trastevere
People talking amongst themselves after the funeral service

After the service ended and its attendees left, I went looking for the reliquary of Saint Apollonia. I couldn’t find it, so I asked a church official. Turns out the reliquary isn’t on display, but he did point out her portrait, high up on the wall (a close up is at the top of this post).

The portrait of Saint Apollonia
Yep, it’s her!

So, I lit a candle to Saint Apollonia, just across from her gilded portrait.

Why was I looking for the patron saint of people with toothaches, you may wonder? A year earlier, I had to have a root canal. And then, a few days before a trip to Rome, the doctor opined that I needed a second root canal.  He detailed the horrible agony I would suffer if I went on a plane.

I was not happy about this. But then, I remembered my art history and Saint Apollonia. I took a chance. I assumed that the saint would listen to the appeal of anyone who truly meant it. Heck, it couldn’t hurt. So, I promised the saint I would light a candle to her in Rome if she would help with my tooth. To my surprise, it worked.

February 9 is her feast day. So, I am keeping up my end of the deal, and celebrating Saint Apollonia — who is still keeping up her end and keeping me away from the horrible dentist.

I still owe her a visit to San Lorenzo, a visit I am happy to make. So, I hereby vow to find Saint Apollonia, again. Anything to keep the dentist away!

The Virgin and Child with Saints Apollonia and Sebastian by Ghirlandaio