Denis, Bishop of Alexandria, described Apollonia’s martyrdom in 249 thus, “They seized the aged deaconess, broke out all her teeth with blows to the jaw, and lighting a bonfire outside the city, threatened to burn her alive unless she joined them in reciting blasphemous phrases. She asked for a brief delay, and without flinching leapt into the fire and died.’
Theologians were interested in her as an example of a voluntary death that was not suicide. Devotees reflected on the cruel irony that her virginal mouth was shattered by those who then demanded of her vile speech.
Her popularity in the art of illuminated books of prayer and devotion shows how the faithful developed and modified historical figures so as to act as a focus of their own needs and desires. It is unsurprising that
Apollonia turns from an old woman inside the church to a much younger and more beautiful virgin outside in the world. She becomes a young woman tortured by having her teeth extracted with pincers. In one legend, pictured here, it is her father, a king, who orders the torture.
What comes across in this late fifteenth century miniature is the calm impotence of the victim set against the casual efficiency of the three men, all in a scene of rural peace, where the sun shines and the trees blossom. Not only is the poor woman bound to the tree, but her persecutors remain armed, and show not the slightest awareness of her suffering.
The faithful Christian at prayer, struggling against the cruel pains of this world gains strength from her simple courage. Patron saint of dentists, her feast is 9 February.