Green Alternative: When Saint Patrick Wore Blue


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Stained glass window depicting Saint Patrick, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

Saint Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated each year on 17 March, the traditional feast day of Saint Patrick. Today, Saint Patrick is widely recognized as a patron saint of Ireland and is commonly associated with the color green. Saint Patrick, however, was not always identified with green in art. Historically, Saint Patrick was more commonly shown wearing blue, a color that continues to be affiliated with the saint. How, then, did green come to be associated with Saint Patrick?  And what is the origin of “Saint Patrick’s blue”?

Captivity and Conversion

According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Saint Patrick was born about 389 CE to a Romano-British family.[1] When he was about 16, he was kidnapped by raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland.[2] He spent nearly 6 years in captivity there, during which time he found solace in prayer.[3] In his Confessio, Saint Patrick wrote, “In a single day I said as many as a hundred prayers and at night nearly as many.”[4]

Choir of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

Eventually, Saint Patrick escaped from his master. After hearing a voice in his sleep, he fled nearly 200 miles to the coast where a ship carried him back across the sea to his family.[5]  

Upon returning home, however, Saint Patrick received fresh visions and again heard voices, this time beseeching him to “come and walk among us once more.”[6] He resolved to return to Ireland to convert the people to Christianity, but before setting out, he undertook extensive study and preparation for the mission.  Some sources suggest he spent several years studying in France (on the island of Lerins, off Cannes), while others suggest he also journeyed to Rome.[7]

Stained glass window depicting Saint Patrick (detail), Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

Banishment of Snakes

When Saint Patrick finally did return to Ireland, he traveled extensively, converting the people from paganism to Christianity. Several legends describe how he banished all snakes from Ireland and how he used a shamrock to explain the Trinity, though there is scant evidence to support these stories. Still, the popularity of these stories persists. At Trinity College Dublin, for example, the school’s famous Campanile features four figures, sculpted by Thomas Kirk, representing the faculties of Law, Medicine, Science, and Divinity. Medicine is represented by a figure bearing a simple staff rather than a caduceus—a staff entwined by two serpents, which is now a common symbol of the medical profession. The snakes are missing from Medicine’s staff, we were told by our student guide, because Saint Patrick banished snakes from Ireland in the fifth century![8]  

Trinity College Campanile (detail) depicting Medicine, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.  Note the figure of Medicine his holding a bare staff rather than a caduceus — apparently because Saint Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

Shamrocks and the Trinity

The legend of Saint Patrick’s use of the shamrock to convert the Irish also remains popular. According to the story, upon returning to Ireland in 433 CE, Saint Patrick first confronted the Druids on the Hill of Slane in what is now County Meath.[9] Saint Patrick had resolved to celebrate his first Easter back in Ireland by lighting the Paschal fire on Easter eve.[10] Unbeknownst to Patrick, Loigaire (or Lóegaire), the High King of Ireland, had decreed that no other fire should be lit while a festival fire burned at his own palace on the Hill of Tara nearly 10 miles away.[11] The story suggests Easter and the pagan festival of Beltane happened to coincide in 433 CE, though as J.B. Bury points out, the day of Beltane was celebrated on the first day of summer, not the vernal equinox as indicated in the story.[12] “The calendar is disregarded,” Bury concludes dryly.[13]

Spying the fire burning on the Hill of Slane, Loigaire and his court were surprised and alarmed. The king consulted his magicians, who replied, “O king, unless this fire which you see be quenched this same night, it will never be quenched; and the kindler of it will overcome us all and seduce all the folk of your realm.”[14] The king then traveled by chariot to the Hill of Slane with the queen, his two chief sorcerers, and several others to confront the man responsible for lighting the fire. After an altercation, the king ordered that Saint Patrick be seized. According to J.B. Bury’s account, Patrick then cried out, “Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered.”[15] Then, “a great darkness fell and the earth quaked, and in the tumult the heathen fell upon each other, and the horses fled over the plain.”[16]

Saint Patrick’s Window (detail), Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Ireland. This panel depicts Saint Patrick at Tara. Photo by Reliquarian.

Bury remains skeptical of the ancient account, though he admires the cleverness of the storytelling. “The framers of this legend had an instinct for scenic effect,” he notes.[17] Butler’s Lives of the Saints expresses a similar dubiousness while admitting the story might hold a kernel of truth. The Lives of the Saints states, “There is doubtless much that is purely mythical in the legend of the encounter of Patrick with the magicians or Druids, but it is clear that something momentous was decided on that occasion, and that the saint, either by force of character or by the miracles he wrought, gained a victory over his opponents which secured a certain amount of toleration for the preaching of Christianity.”[18]  

Statue of Saint Patrick (detail), Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland. Saint Patrick is shown holding a shamrock in his right hand. According to legend, the saint used a shamrock to explain the Trinity to the people of Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian

Other legends, probably of more recent vintage, suggest Saint Patrick used the shamrock to explain the nature of the Trinity during his evangelization of Ireland. If he did, the shamrock likely would have made a convenient pedagogic device. The triskele or triskelion—a triple spiral symbol sometimes contained within a circle—was a common motif in Celtic art, and it continued to be used in Christian art of Ireland from at least the seventh century onward.[19] Roger Homan observes, “We can perhaps see St Patrick drawing upon the visual concept of the triskele when he uses the shamrock to explain the Trinity, being both one leaf and having three lobes.”[20]

Saint Patrick’s Window (detail), Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Ireland. Note the shamrocks in Saint Patrick’s left hand. Photo by Reliquarian.

Blue Period

Today, green is the color most commonly associated with Saint Patrick, but this was not always the case. Kassia St. Clair indicates in her book The Secret Lives of Color, “Strangely, . . . the color he was most associated with until the middle of the eighteenth century was a shade of blue.”[21] St. Clair explains that in response to the perceived anti-Catholic bias of William of Orange and orange-wearing Protestants, Catholics craved their own symbolic color.[22]    

Entrance Passage to Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland. Built around 3,200 BCE, the passage tomb at Newgrange is older than pyramids at Giza in Egypt. The large entrance stone in front of the passage features megalithic designs, including triskele-like spirals on the left side of the stone. Photo by Reliquarian.

Blue had long signified authority in Ireland. In the 13th century Armorial Wijnbergen, for example, Le Roi d’Irlande (King of Ireland) is identified with a blue shield bearing a gold harp.[23] Early depictions of Saint Patrick, including in various medieval manuscripts, also presented the saint in blue. Centuries later, in 1783, when King George III created the Order of Saint Patrick, a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, a shade of sky blue known as Saint Patrick’s blue was chosen to identify the order.[24] By then, however, Saint Patrick’s association with blue had begun to lose its allure. An article in Smithsonian Magazine explains, “From the late 18th to the 20th century, as the divide between the Irish population and the British crown deepened, the color green and St. Patrick’s shamrock became a symbol of identity and rebellion for the Irish.”[25]

Today, shades of blue continue to be used to identify Saint Patrick and Ireland in some contexts. The standard of the President of Ireland, for example, is a deep azure, while the robes of the choir of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin are a lighter shade of Saint Patrick’s blue. Still, green has undoubtedly replaced blue as Saint Patrick’s color in modern times.

Relics of Saint Patrick

Relics of Saint Patrick can be found throughout Ireland.  One of the most important, the Bell of Saint Patrick, is currently on permanent display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.  According to the museum, the bell is a “powerful relic” which is “frequently mentioned in written sources as one of the principal relics of Ireland.”[26] The museum further notes that “[i]t was also used as a political tool, to legitimise Armagh as the most important Christian site in Ireland through its association with St. Patrick.”[27] Saint Patrick served as the first Bishop of Armagh.

Bell of Saint Patrick, National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

A shrine that once contained the bell is also on display in the museum’s treasury.  The shrine, which dates to approximately 1100 CE, is trapezoidal, matching the shape of the bell, and is formed from plates of bronze.[28] At one time, the shrine was once covered with thirty panels of decorative gold filigree.[29]  

Shrine of the Bell of Saint Patrick, National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

Another shrine that once belonged to Saint Patrick is also kept at the museum.  The Domhnach Airgid Shrine, or “silver church” shrine, was given by Saint Patrick to Saint Macartan, the founder of a church in Clogher in County Tyrone. Part of an ancient manuscript of the Gospels was discovered inside the shrine when it was opened in the 19th century. Originally fashioned in the 8th century, the shrine was subsequently reworked in the mid-1300s. Today, a panel of the shrine (the one on the lower left) depicts Saint Patrick delivering the shrine to Saint Macartan.

Domhnach Airgid Shrine, National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

In 1901, a stone slab decorated with a Celtic cross was recovered near Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. A sign beneath the stone indicates it may once have covered Saint Patrick’s Well, the well at which Saint Patrick baptized his converts. Some believe the well itself can be found near Trinity College.[30] Nassau Street, which runs along the college, was once known as “Sráid Thobar Phádraig” or “Street of Saint Patrick’s Well.”[31]

Discovered in 1901, this stone slab bearing a Celtic cross is believed to have once covered Saint Patrick’s Well, the well used by Saint Patrick to baptize converts. Today it is on display at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Photo by Reliquarian.


Today, images and references to Saint Patrick can be found throughout Ireland and the world. Whether clad in green, blue, or some other color, his significance to the Irish people has been enduring.

Statue of Saint Patrick, Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland. Photo by Reliquarian.

[1]  1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 612-13 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956.

[2]  Id. at 613.

[3]  Id.

[4]  Id.

[5]  Id. 613-14.

[6]  Id. at 614.

[7]  Id.

[8]  We’ve noticed that some sources identify the figure with the staff as Science rather than Medicine and claim the figure with a book is Medicine instead.  As noted, our tour guide specifically identified the figure with a staff as Medicine.  We further note that the figure with the book is also holding a telescope and a compass, making her a more likely candidate to represent Science rather than Medicine.

[9]  See J.B. Bury, The Life of Saint Patrick and His Place in History (1905).

[10]  Id. at 104.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Id. at 107.

[13]  Id.

[14]  Id.

[15]  Id. at 106.

[16]  Id.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Butler, supra note 1, at 614.

[19]  See Roger Homan, The Art of the Sublime (2017).

[20]  Id.

[21]  Kassia St. Clair, The Secret Lives of Color 223 (2016).

[22]  Id.

[23]  See Ewan Morris, Our Own Devices (2005).

[24]  See Shaylyn Esposito, “Should We Be Wearing Blue on St. Patrick’s Day?,” Smithsonian Magazine (Mar. 17, 2015),

[25]  Id.

[26] “Bell of St Patrick and Its Shrine,” National Museum of Ireland,

[27]  Id.

[28]  Id.

[29]  Id.

[30]  “Trinity’s Little Secret: Saint Patrick’s Well (Sráid Thobar Phádraig),” Trinity College Dublin (Mar. 16, 2018),

[31]  Id.

The Great Heart Heist: The Stunning Theft of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s Preserved Heart


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Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O'Toole 3

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Christ Church Cathedral opened as usual at 9:30 AM on 4 March 2012.[1]  Visitors trickled in to view the cathedral’s many sights, including the tomb-effigy of Strongbow (Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke) on the south side of the nave, and the mummified bodies of “The Cat and the Rat,” recovered from the church’s organ frozen mid-chase, on display in the crypt.  (James Joyce mentioned both these unfortunate animals in Finnegans Wake.)[2]  One sight apparently not on view that morning was a curious relic of Saint Laurence O’Toole, a 12th century Archbishop and Patron Saint of Dublin.  The saint’s heart, preserved in a heart-shaped reliquary, had been kept in the cathedral since the 13th century.  Around lunchtime, however, cathedral officials made a startling discovery:  The reliquary was gone, along with the heart of Saint Laurence.[3]

The Cat and the Rat - Christ Church Cathedral

“The Cat and the Rat,” Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  The mummified remains of a cat and a mouse were recovered from Christ Church’s organ in the 1860s.  James Joyce mentioned both these unfortunate animals in Finnegans Wake when he described a man as being “as stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that christchurch organ.”  Photo by Reliquarian.

Losing Heart

No one is quite sure when the heart went missing.  Evidence suggested the thieves acted deliberately and that they had stolen the reliquary overnight after hiding in the church before it closed.[4]  At the time, a spokeswoman for the cathedral noted that other valuable objects, including gold chalices and gold candlesticks, had been left untouched by the intruders.[5]  “It’s completely bizarre,” she proclaimed.  “They didn’t touch anything else.  They specifically targeted this, they wanted the heart of St Laurence O’Toole.”[6]  The dean of Christ Church Cathedral lamented that while the heart had “no economic value,” it was nevertheless a “priceless treasure” linking the church to its founding father, Saint Laurence O’Toole.[7]

Christ Church Cathedral - Exterior 2

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Open Heart Procedure

Purloining the heart from Christ Church would have taken some effort and advanced planning.  At the time, the heart was kept in a small chapel known as the Peace Chapel of Saint Laud.[8]  The heart itself was housed in a heart-shaped reliquary, which was secured to the wall inside an iron cage.  The reliquary was further attached to the wall by a chain, though the chain may have been more aesthetic than functional.[9]  To extract the heart, the thieves surgically cut through the iron bars of the cage and detached the chain before making their getaway.  According to investigators, there were no other immediate signs of damage indicating a break-in.[10]

Christ Church Cathedral - High Altar 2 (low)

High Altar, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The Heart of the Matter

As noted above, Saint Laurence O’Toole (Lorcán Ua Tuathail) was not only an Archbishop of Dublin but also patron saint of the city.  Born in 1128 probably near Castledermot in County Kildare, Saint Laurence was appointed abbot of Glendalough at the age of 25.[11]  In 1162, he was elected Archbishop of Dublin upon the death of the city’s first archbishop, Gregory.  As archbishop, he was known for his discipline, generosity to the poor, and skill at negotiations.  As a negotiator, for example, he had been called upon to negotiate with a group of Norman knights, including Strongbow, who had marched on Dublin in an attempt to restore the deposed King of Leinster, Dermot McMurrogh.[12]  During the negotiations, however, “Dermot’s Anglo-Norman allies seized the city and gave themselves over to massacre and rapine.  Laurence returned to succour the sufferers and defend the survivors, and to be a centre of strength in the new danger.”[13]  Incidentally, in 1171, King Henry II of England, who had supported the Norman knights, arrived in Ireland.  That year, Henry II attended Christmas service at Christ Church and took communion for the first time since Thomas Becket was killed by his knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.[14]

Saint Laurence O'Toole - Christ Church

Saint Laurence O’Toole (detail), stained glass window, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Heart to ♥

The heart shape (♥) we recognize as an ideogram for the heart or a symbolic representation of love or affection did not bear those associations at the time of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s death.  Geometrically the heart shape is a cardiodid, and it is a shape that occurs commonly in nature.[15]  It is, for example, evident in leaves and flowers and can be expressed in certain animal behaviors—imagine a pair of swans facing each other with necks bent and beaks touching.[16]  In art, the ♥ has been depicted since ancient times, but it was initially used to represent objects and ideas other than the human heart and romantic love.  Iain Gately notes, “The ♥ entered Western iconography via the Greeks, who used it to depict ivy or vine-leaves, respectively the symbols of constancy and regeneration.”[17]  Gradually the ♥’s association with constancy inspired a further association with courtly or romantic love.  In the medieval period, Gately explains, “[t]he ♥, indicating steadfast love for a damsel, and derived from the ivy leaf of Classical Grace,” became the emblem of romantic love and affection.[18]

Yellow Woodsorrel (Oxalis Stricta)

Yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta).  The cardiodid or heart shape occurs commonly in nature.  The leaves of yellow woodsorrel appear as three connected ♥s.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Incidentally, the first depiction of someone offering his heart to another in a show of love can be traced to a 13th-century illustration in a manuscript known as the Roman de la poire (Romance of the pear).[19]  Significantly, the heart depicted in the manuscript does not bear the cardiodid form but, rather, is shaped like a pinecone.  The Greek physician Galen had described the human heart as appearing like a pinecone, and that misconception persisted for centuries.[20]  Still, the illustration in the Roman de la poire may be, in some roundabout way, the inspiration for the modern Valentine’s Day card.

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O'Toole 2

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  The reliquary bears the cardiodid shape we associate today with the heart and emotions such as love and affection.  Photo by Reliquarian.

By the 15th century, however, the use of the ♥ as a symbol of love and a representation of the human heart had become well-established.[21].  For example, the iconography of the Sacred Heart, which developed during the Counter-Reformation, prominently featured the ♥ as a symbol of Jesus’ divine love.[22].  In these depictions, the Sacred Heart could be shown independently or emanating from Christ’s breast as a flaming heart, encircled with a crown of thorns, pierced and bleeding from a lance wound.  The ♥, however, also began appearing in non-secular contexts.  In 1480, for example, commercial playing cards in France began using the ♥, rather than more traditional cups representing the Holy Grail, to symbolize the clergy for a deck of card’s second suite.[23]

Sacred Heart Card - Univ of Dayton Libraries

Card Depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus (c. 1880).  Auguste Martin Collection, University of Dayton Libraries, Dayton, Ohio.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Leaden Heart

Media reports have described the reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s heart as being a “wooden box” or a “wooden heart-shaped container.”[24]  We note that a similar vessel, discovered at a different Christ Church—this one, located in Cork City, Ireland—which also contained a human heart, was made of lead.[25]  Both heart-shaped containers were discovered in the 19th century, though nearly 160 miles apart.  (The Cork City heart case, now in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, can be seen here.  The embalmed heart it contained looks like an old, wadded up leather glove.)  According to the Journal of the Co. Kildare Archeological Society and Surrounding Districts, Saint Laurence’s heart was not rediscovered until the 19th century.[26]  The Journal states, “Some few years ago there was found among rubbish in vaults of Christ Church, Dublin, a sort of vessel in the shape of a heart.  It has been surmised that the heart of Saint Laurence is or was contained therein.”[27].

Chapel of Saint Laurence - Christ Church

Portrait of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  This depiction is located not far from the heart reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Tool.  Photo by Reliquarian.

So, who created Saint Laurence O’Toole’s heart reliquary, and when was it created?  Those answers remain unclear, though given the art historical evolution of the ♥ symbol, the reliquary was likely made hundreds of years after the saint’s death and the translation of his heart to Dublin.  Today, the heart reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole is displayed in an arrangement designed by Eoin Turner, a Cork-based artist.[28]

Curse of Saint Laurence O’Toole?

Nearly six years after it was stolen from Christ Church, the heart reliquary of Saint Laurence was recovered and returned to its home in the cathedral.[29]  Some reports suggested the Gardaí were tipped off by the thieves themselves.  The Irish Examiner, for example reported that the thieves had come to believe Saint Laurence’s heart was cursed after several people close to them died of apparent heart attacks.[30]  At the time of this writing, no other cardiac arrests have occurred in connection with the Great Heart Heist of Saint Laurence O’Toole’s Preserved Heart.  The thieves remain at large.

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O'Toole

Heart Reliquary of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland.  The reliquary was restored to Christ Church Cathedral in 2018.  It is currently housed in this glass display case resting on a soft, white pillow.  Photo by Reliquarian.

[1] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedral, Mar. 4, 2012, BBC,

[2] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake.

[3] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedralsupra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Sarah Burns, Heart of St Laurnce O’Toole To Be Returned Six Years After It Was Stolen, Apr. 26, 2018, Irish Times,

[7] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedralsupra note 1.

[8] Burns, supra note 6.

[9] Id.

[10] Dublin Patron Saint’s Heart Stolen from Christ Church Cathedralsupra note 1.

[11] 4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 341 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Maurice Curtis, The Liberties:  A History (2013).

[15] Iain Gately, A Heart-Shaped History, Feb. 14, 2010, Lapham’s Quarterly, also Pierre Vinken, The Shape of the Heart (1999).

[16] Gately, supra note 15.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Ben Davis, How Did the Heart Become a Symbol of Love?  The Clues Lie in This Medieval French Illustration, Feb. 14, 2019, Slate, (describing the illustration as “the first artistic depiction of someone giving their heart to their beloved as a symbol of love”).

[20] See,; Davis, supra note 19.

[21] Davis, supra note 19.

[22] Gately, supra note 15.

[23] Id.

[24] See, e.g., Saint Laurence O’Tooles Heart Found Six Years After Theft, Apr. 26, 2018, BBC, (“wooden box”); Burns, supra note 6 (“wooden heart-shaped container”).

[25] Irish Archeology, A Medieval Heart-Shaped Reliquary from Cork City, Feb. 14, 2019, (“This heart-shaped lead casket containing an embalmed human heart was discovered inside the medieval crypt of Christ Church, Cork city (now the Triskel Arts Centre) during the 19th century.  An unusual find, it is not without parallel in Ireland, as a similar example is also known from Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.”); see also Human Heart in a Lead Heart-Shaped Case, Pitt Rivers Museum,

[26] 2 Journal of the Co. Kildare Archeological Society and Surrounding Districts 165 (1899).

[27] Id. The Journal continues, “There is a tradition among the people of Eu that Saint Laurence’s heart, immediately after his death, was taken to his native country.  We know that it was not uncommon for people to leave in their wills, or when dying to ask their friends to take their heart and deposit it in some church or shrine to which they had a special devotion.”  Id.  The Journal then notes that many of Christ Church’s holy relics were lost when a portion of the cathedral’s roof collapsed in the 15th century or as a result of the Reformation.  “Whether this one survived by being hidden away, and then forgotten, to again come to light accidentally in the nineteenth century, is a matter of conjecture.”  Id.

[28] Gregg Ryan, “Heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole Returned to Dublin, Church Times, Nov. 16, 2018,

[29] Burns, supra note 6.

[30]  Saint’s Heart Returned to Dublin Cathedral As Thieves Thought It Cursed, Irish Examiner, Apr. 17, 2018, also Jesse Harrington, The Curse of Saint Laurence O’Toole, History Ireland (July/August 2018),

The Column of the Flagellation: Relic of the Scourging of Jesus


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The Flagellation, Girolamo Romanino, distemper and oil (?) on canvas (circa 1540).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of the many relics associated with the Passion of Jesus, the Column of the Flagellation (or the Scourging Post) is one of the more physically imposing.  Certainly, the significance of the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Lance, Holy Nails, pieces of the True Cross, and other first-class relics of the Passion cannot be understated.  However, the sheer size of the Column of the Flagellation lends it a physical presence unmatched by other relics of the Passion.

Three of the four gospels of the New Testament—those of Matthew, Mark, and John—refer to the Flagellation of Christ. In those tellings, Jesus is flogged by order of Pontius Pilate shortly before he is crucified.  Saint Mark‘s gospel, for example, states, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barab’bas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.”[1]

Flagellation of Christ - Borgia (Met Museum)

Pax: Flagellation of Christ, Giovanni Borgia, partly enameled gold and gilt-silver frame (Milan, circa 1492-1503).  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo by Reliquarian.

In art, the Flagellation of Christ, sometimes referred to as the Scourging at the Pillar, commonly depicts Jesus either tied or bound to a stone column being violently beaten, usually by two to four men.  Rainer Kahsnitz observes that “[a]s a whipping post, the Flagellation column was also one of the most important instruments of the Passion and regularly appears among the arma Christi,” literally the “weapons of Christ” or the instruments of the Passion.[2]  

Mass of Saint Gregory - Nuremburg

Mass of Saint Gregory (Die Messe des hl. Gregor) (detail), Master of the Saint Augustine Altarpiece (workshop) (circa 1500).  Germanische Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.  According to legend, Christ appeared to Pope Gregory as the Man of Sorrows while he was celebrating Mass.  In this depiction of the Mass of Saint Gregory, the arma Christi, or instruments of the Passion, are clearly evident.  The Column of the Flagellation can be seen directly to the right of Jesus.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Whipping or scourging was not an uncommon form of punishment under Roman Law at the time—nor, indeed, was crucifixion.[3]  James Jeffers explains that crucifixion as a form of execution was intended to deliver a slow and excruciatingly painful death.[4]  He writes, “The condemned person’s weight was supported for the most part by his arms.  Muscle spasms, cramps and insects added to the pain, and death usually came through gradual suffocation.”[5]  Jeffers further notes that “Christians did not use the cross as a symbol in their artwork for the first two centuries, perhaps because of the shame people associated with death by crucifixion.”[6]

Interestingly, the Column of the Flagellation is sometimes also included in depictions of the Nativity.  Its presence in these scenes foreshadows the Passion and serves as a reminder of Jesus’ eventual crucifixion.[7]  Kahsnitz notes that the connection to the Passion “is particularly obvious when the column appears above a grate, an allusion to the cellar in Pilate’s house where the Flagellation took place.”[8]

Nativity - Rogier van der Weyden

Bladelin Altarpiece (Middelburg Altarpiece), central panel, Rogier van der Weyden.  Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.  The Column of the Flagellation sometimes appears incongruously in depictions of the Nativity.  Its presence is meant to foreshadow the Passion.  The grate below the column alludes to Pontius Pilate’s cellar where the Flagellation occurred.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Column of the Flagellation is said to have been discovered by Saint Helena during a visit to Jerusalem in the 4th century.  The relic was eventually transported to Italy, and in the early 13th century, the column was installed in the Church of Saint Praxedes (Santa Prassede) in Rome by the appropriately named Cardinal Giovanni Colonna.  Colonna had served as Pope Innocent III’s papal legate in the Holy Land during the Sixth Crusade and later served as a priest at Santa Prassede.[9]  Today, the Column of the Flagellation is kept in a small side chapel in the Church of Saint Praxedes, displayed in a glass reliquary.  Saint Charles Borromeo was said to have been fond of the church and was known to have celebrated Mass in the Chapel of the Column on visits to Rome.[10]

Column of the Flagellation - Santa Prassede

Column of the Flagellation, Church of Saint Praxedes (Santa Prassede), Rome, Italy.  Photo (cropped from original) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

[1]  Mark 15:15

[2]  Rainer Kahsnitz, Carved Splendor 405 (2006).

[3]  See James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era 158 (1999).

[4]  Id.  The term “excruciating” is quite appropriate here.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word derives from the Latin excruciare, meaning “to torment” or more literally “from the cross.”

[5]  Id.

[6]  Id.

[7]  Kahsnitz, supra note 2, at 405.

[8]  Id.

[9]  Catholic News Agency, “Pilgrims Venerate Pillar Where Christ Was Scourged,” Apr. 3, 2015, Nat’l Catholic Reg.,; Kathryn Blair Moore, The Architecture of the Christian Holy Land 110 (2017).

[10]  Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics 34 (1984).