St Apollonia & St Barbara

Hilary Bradt tells the story of these two unusual patron saints.

Written by Hilary Bradt


St Apollonia Doddiscombsleigh South Devon England UK by Hilary BradtIt’s not clear to me why a woman who had all her teeth smashed with giant tongs becomes the patron saint of dentists. However, she appears on so many Devon rood screens that it’s worth knowing something about her.

Apollonia lived in Alexandria in the 3rd century AD. She led an exemplary life, preaching the gospel during a time when this held considerable risks. Emperor Philip was none too keen on Christians, especially those like Apollonia who gave succour to his political prisoners. In AD249 she was arrested and, inevitably, tortured to persuade her to renounce her faith. All her teeth were smashed and then pulled out with iron pincers. When this had no effect her torturers piled up firewood, intending to burn her to death, but she leapt into the flames herself thus presenting the church with a dilemma: did she commit suicide (a crime) or was she a true martyr, dying for her faith? They chose the latter and sanctification. 

Devon has 14 depictions of St Apollonia holding her torturer’s pincers (the kind used by blacksmiths so not really suitable for dentistry). These are usually on painted rood screens or stained glass but one, in Stokeinteignhead, is carved into a stone capital.

If explosives are your thing, then St Barbara is your patron saint. Possessed of exceptional beauty and intelligence, she was kept locked in a tower by her father who had a rich suitor in mind. Here she converted to Christianity and managed to escape, only to fall into the hands of a shepherd. Before he could have his wicked way with her, divine punishment turned his sheep into beetles. Her father then contrived that she should be paraded naked throughout the region, but God supplied her with a robe. 

Frustrated, Dad then resorted to a variety of tortures before getting fed up and killing her with his sword, whereupon he was struck dead by a thunderbolt. So St Barbara is now the patron saint of artillerymen and their like.

(Photo: © Hilary Bradt)

Back to the top