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Saint Blaise Group, Dom Sankt Blasien (Cathedral of Saint Blaise), Sankt Blasien, Germany.  This statute group, which depicts Saint Blaise's most famous miracle, dates to circa 1740.  It originally stood in an Ursuline monastery in Vienna.

Saint Blaise Group, Dom St. Blasien (Cathedral of Saint Blaise), St. Blasien, Germany. This statute group, which depicts Saint Blaise performing his most famous miracle, dates to circa 1740. It originally stood in an Ursuline monastery in Vienna.

Saint Blaise and the City of Dubrovnik

For over a thousand years, the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia has celebrated the feast day of Saint Blaise by staging one of the grandest and most impressive annual festivals in the world: the Festivity of Saint Blaise (Festa svetoga Vlaha).[1] The festival commemorates Saint Blaise’s salvation of the city on the eve of a surprise attack in 971. According to tradition, Saint Blaise’s miraculous intervention thwarted a planned invasion of the city, and in gratitude, the people of Dubrovnik enthusiastically embraced the saint’s cult, proclaiming him their patron and protector. Over the centuries, the relationship between city and saint flourished, and the identities of both became virtually inextricable. The annual Festivity of Saint Blaise, which has been celebrated in some form since at least 1190, only reinforced this association.[2] Meanwhile, succeeding generations have adapted the festival to their own needs, which has kept it vibrant and relevant in changing times.[3] Today, Saint Blaise’s likeness can be found virtually everywhere in Dubrovnik, and his spirit continues to imbue the city with a touch of mystery and a sense of the sublime.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia.  View of the rooftops with the Church of Saint Blaise in the foreground.

Acknowledging its great historical and cultural significance not only to the people of Dubrovnik, but also to the people of the world, UNESCO formally recognized the Festivity of Saint Blaise as an example of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.[4] Who, though, was Saint Blaise? And how did he come to save Dubrovnik from disaster?

The Origin of the Festivity of Saint Blaise

The night of February 2, 971, began quietly enough in city of Dubrovnik. It was Candelmas, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. A fleet of Venetian ships lay at anchor beyond the city walls, taking on provisions before continuing east. And the city’s pastor, a man named Stojko, was out for a walk.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

As Stojko approached the church of Saint Stephen that night, he noticed something odd: the doors to the church had been left wide open. Stojko entered the darkened church and discovered an old, gray-haired man who introduced himself as Saint Blaise, the 4th-century bishop and martyr of Sebaste.[5] Saint Blaise gravely explained the reason for his visit. “I come to warn you of great danger for the city,” he said. The Venetians anchored outside the city walls had arrived under pretext, and they intended to take the unsuspecting city, a flourishing commercial power and potential rival to Venice, by surprise.[6] Alarmed by Saint Blaise’s message, Stojko rushed to the city council and warned them of the impending attack. The gates to the city were quickly secured, and the mighty walls of the town were manned for the city’s defense.[7] Seeing these preparations, the Venetians abandoned their plans and departed, leaving Dubrovnik – then known as Ragusa – in peace.[8] Significantly, the next day, February 3rd, was the feast day of Saint Blaise.

The Festivity of Saint Blaise in Modern Times

Today, the Festivity of Saint Blaise is celebrated over the course of several days, although preparations for the festival begin many weeks in advance.[9] The Festivity officially opens with much fanfare on Candlemas, February 2nd, when the banner of Saint Blaise is raised atop Orlando’s Column in front of the Church of Saint Blaise. (Orlando’s Column, also known as Roland’s Column, commemorates the knight and hero of the famous medieval poem The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland), who died in the service of the emperor Charlemagne at the Battle of Roncevaux in 778.) The raising of the banner – a white standard embroidered with an image of Saint Blaise as a gray-haired bishop – is accompanied by the ringing of church bells, the discharging of historic firearms, and the release of white doves.[10] Joyous shouts of “Long live Saint Blaise!” follow from the cheering crowd.[11] In the evening, Vespers to honor Saint Blaise are sung in the cathedral.

Church of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Church of Saint Blaise, Dubrovnik, Croatia

The festival resumes early the next morning, the official feast day of Saint Blaise, with the ringing of church bells, the clamor of brass bands, and more volleys from thecity’s historic musketeers, the trombunjeri.[12] About mid-morning, a public mass is held outside Dubrovnik Cathedral (Cathedral of the Assumption). At its conclusion, a grand procession of celebrants – including trombunjeri, banner-bearers, priests, nuns, musicians, First Communicants, pilgrims, residents in national costumes, and specially appointed festanjuls (celebrators) – wends its way from the cathedral down the Stradun, the city’s main thoroughfare, and through the heart of the Old City.[13] The procession is one of the most colorful and most striking elements of the festival. In the words of one book on Saint Blaise, “the Stadun becomes a magnificent cathedral under the open skies” during the procession.[14]

Stradun, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Stradun, Dubrovnik, Croatia

One of the highlights of the parade includes the procession and display of Dubrovnik’s most prized relics, including the head, right hand, foot, and throat of Saint Blaise.[15] Housed in glittering reliquaries of gold and silver, the relics have been described as the “greatest cultural and artistic treasure” of Dubrovnik Cathedral[16]. The Reliquary of the Head of Saint Blaise is shaped like a Byzantine crown and likely dates to the 11th century.[17] The Reliquary of the Right Hand of Saint Blaise is slightly more modern. Crafted in the 12th century by Dubrovnik goldsmiths, the reliquary is shaped like a hand and features a large blue stone surrounded by filigree, pearls, and precious stones embedded on the back of the hand. The Reliquary of the Foot of Saint Blaise, like the hand reliquary, is a “speaking reliquary.” Crafted by Byzantine goldsmiths in the 11th century, the reliquary is shaped like a leg and foot and is covered in intricate gold filigree.[18] The Reliquary of the Throat of Saint Blaise contains the saint’s larynx, which is visible through a crystal window. Shaped like a monstrance, the reliquary is made of embossed silver decorated with enamel and dates to the 15th century.[19] Lastly, the Diapers or Swaddling Clothes of Jesus, housed in an ornate silver chest, are given a place of honor in the parade.[20]

Who Was Saint Blaise?

According to tradition, Saint Blaise was a 4th-century bishop of Sebaste in Armenia who was martyred in approximately 316.[21] He was born to a wealthy Greek or Armenian family in about 280, and he studied medicine, which he practiced with great skill and gentleness.[22] After treating his patients, he often added a sign of the cross.[23]

During a persecution of Christians in the region, Saint Blaise withdrew to a cave on Mount Argeus.[24] The cave was frequented by wild beasts, which Saint Blaise healed when they were sick or wounded. Hunters sent to the mountain to obtain wild animals for the amphitheater eventually discovered Saint Blaise, surrounded by the animals, and “though greatly amazed, they seized him and took him to Agricola,” the Roman governor of Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia.[25] En route, Saint Blaise performed a number of miracles in the presence of the hunters.

Fountain Statute of Saint Blaise, Domplatz (Cathedral Square), Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany.  The statue was carved by Josef Schupp in 1714.  The fountain was designed by Walter Schelenz in 1966.

Fountain Statute of Saint Blaise, Domplatz (Cathedral Square), Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany. The statue was carved by Josef Schupp in 1714. The fountain was designed by Walter Schelenz in 1966.

First, the group encountered a poor woman whose pig had been seized by a wolf. Saint Blaise commanded the wolf to return the pig, and the wolf immediately complied, returning the unfortunate animal unhurt. For this act, Saint Blaise gained a reputation as a protector of pigs and of animals more generally.[26]

Second, Saint Blaise healed a sick boy who was choking on a fishbone. The boy was at the point of death when his mother brought him to Saint Blaise. Saint Blaise placed his hands on the boy’s throat, prayed to God, and healed him. On account of this miracle, Saint Blaise has since been invoked as a protector against throat illnesses, including sore throats, and other associated maladies, such as tonsillitis (also known in Spain as the curse of Saint Blaise) and respiratory problems.[27]

The Martyrdom of Saint Blaise

When Saint Blaise was finally presented before Agricola, Saint Blaise refused to deny his faith. Consequently, he was imprisoned without food and was scourged. During his imprisonment, the woman whose pig Saint Blaise had saved brought him food and gave him candles to lighten his gloomy cell. Candles would later become a common attribute of Saint Blaise.[28] Crossed in an X either against the throat or over the head of an applicant, two candles are used to deliver the traditional Blessing of the Throat and are said to recall the tapers brought to the saint by the grateful woman.[29] The prayer that accompanies the Blessing of the Throat is Per intercessionem Sancti Blasii liberet te Deus a malo gutturis et a quovis alio malo (“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, may God deliver you from illness of the throat and every other illness”).[30]

Relic of Saint Blaise, Dom Sankt Blasien, Sankt Blasien, Germany

Relic of Saint Blaise, Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany

Eventually, Agricola had Blaise tortured and scourged with iron carding combs, which scraped and tore his flesh. Because carding combs are also used to card wool, Saint Blaise’s association with these instruments of torture oddly led to his adoption as the patron saint of wool combers. Additionally, because the iron combs viciously shredded his skin, Saint Blaise also became a protector against skin ailments, such as blisters, pimples, and leprosy, which was much feared during the Middle Ages.[31]

St Blaise on Gate

Saint Blaise depicted above a city gate, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

After these tortures, Saint Blaise was beheaded and was buried near the walls of Sebaste.[32] He is commonly portrayed as a bishop with a gray or white beard, and he is often shown holding a crosier, an iron comb, or candles. In Dubrovnik, he frequently holds a miniature version of the city in his hands.

Fourteen Holy Helpers

Saint Blaise is also a member of the Fourteen Holy Helpers or Vierzehn Nothelfer (“fourteen helpers in need”), which has been described as “a potent group of saints invoked collectively in times of near death or dire calamity.”[33] Veneration of the Fourteen Holy Helpers originated in Germany in approximately the 13th century, though the cult did not gain a wide following until the 15th century, when a shepherd declared seeing the Christ Child accompanied by fourteen older children near the Benedictine Abbey at Banz.[34] According to the shepherd, the Christ Child described his companions as the Nothelfer and stated that they wished to work miracles from the site.[35] A small chapel was built on the spot, though it was later replaced by a much grander pilgrimage church, the Wallfahrkirche Vierzehnheilgen, designed by Balthasar Neuman.

Cathedral of Saint Blaise in the Black Forest (Sankt Blasien), Germany

Dom St. Blasien (Cathedral of Saint Blaise), St. Blasien, Germany

Meanwhile, Saint Blaise (Sankt Blasien) continues to be revered throughout Germany, both individually and as an auxiliary saint of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Many of the traditions associated with the saint’s feast day, however, have begun to fade or have disappeared entirely in Germany. For example, notched breadsticks (Blasiusbrot) and trachea-shaped loaves of bread (Bubenschenkel) used to be common offerings during the saint’s feast day but have become increasingly difficult to find.[36] Meanwhile, in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Blasiustag used to involve the blessing of horses.[37] Blessed horses were given bronze combs of Saint Blaise, which were attached to their ears.[38] In more modern times, a few farmers even had their tractors blessed before the custom died out completely.[39]  Germany still has a number of churches dedicated to Saint Blaise, including the imposing Dom St. Blasien, or Cathedral of Saint Blaise, located in the Black Forest town of St. Blasien.  (Dom St. Blasien is pictured above.)

Živio sveti Vlaho! Long live Saint Blaise!

In his last poem, The Bells of San Blas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes of a past when religion and faith still held power and when church bells served as the “voice of the church.”[40] The Bells of San Blas, Mexico, “[h]ave a strange, wild melody, / and are something more than a name,” he writes.[41] They have “tones that touch and search / The hearts of young and old,” yet they are “a voice of the Past, / Of an age that is fading fast.”[42] The chapel that “once looked down / On the little seaport town” has “crumbled into the dust” and the oaken beams that support the bells have become “green with mould and rust.”[43] “Is, then, the old faith dead?” he asks.[44] And the saints: “Ah, have they grown / Forgetful of their own? Are they asleep, or dead . . . ?”[45]

In Dubrovnik, at least, tradition and faith endure. The Festivity of Saint Blaise is proof that Saint Blaise has not been forgotten and remains integral to the life and culture of the city.  Živio sveti Vlaho!

Interior Dome of the Cathedral of St. Blasien in the Black Forest, St. Blasien, Germany.  The   ceiling frescoes are by Walter Georgi.

Interior Dome of the Dom St. Blasien, St. Blasien, Germany. The ceiling frescoes are by Walter Georgi.

[1] See, e.g., Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009: The Festivity of Saint Blaise, the Patron of Dubrovnik, Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2 Oct. 2009; Thousand Year Old Celebration of the Dubrovnik Patron, St Blaise, Dubrovnik Tourist Board Website, Feb. 3, 2012, http://visitdubrovnik.hr/en-GB/Events/Event/Town/Dubrovnik/Thousand-Year-Old-Celebration-of-the-Dubrovnik-Patron-St-Blaise?ZXZcNjUz; Saint Blasius Church–Dubrovnik, DubrovnikCity.com, http://www.dubrovnikcity.com/dubrovnik/attractions/st_blaise_church.htm.

[2] See The Festivity of Saint Blaise, the Patron of Dubrovnik, UNESCO.org, http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?RL=00232. Other sources claim the festival is much older.

[3] See id.

[4] Id.

[5] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries 105 (Adriana Kremenjaš-Daničić ed., Biserka Simatović trans., 2012).

[6] Id.

[7] Saint Blasius Church–Dubrovnik, supra note 1. Fans of the television show “Game of Thrones” may recognize the stout defensive walls of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik has doubled as King’s Landing and Qarth in various episodes of the popular show. See Natasha Geiling, On the Ultimate “Game of Thones” Tour, Apr. 10, 2014, Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/iceland-croatia-go-ultimate-game-thrones-tour-180950450/?no-ist.

[8] The Venetians would eventually conquer Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, centuries later.

[9] A lectures series called “In Expectation of Saint Blaise” held in January marks the beginning of the preparations for the festival. Europski Dom Dubrovnik, Saint Blaise:  Veneration Without Boundaries 107 (2012).

[10] Musketeers known as trombunjeri are responsible for firing the volleys that accompany the raising of Saint Blaise’s banner. See, e.g., id.; Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009, supra note 1.

[11] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 107.

[12] See, e.g., Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 107; Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009, supra note 1.

[13] See Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 108.

[14] Id.

[15] See, e.g., Nomination for Inscription on the Representative List 2009, supra note 1 (“Priests in the procession carry many saintly powers in reliquaries, an exceptional cultural and historical treasure, which mostly contains the relics of Blaise and the holy martyrs from the first centuries of Christianity.”).

[16] The Dubrovnik Cathedral (Don Stanko Lasić ed., n.d.) (pamphlet describing Dubrovnik Cathedral).

[17] Id.

[18] Id. Additional decoration was added to the reliquary in subsequent centuries. For example, an enamel medallion featuring the coat of arms of the Republic of Ragusa was apparently added to the reliquary in the 17th century. An inscription around the medallion reads “SANCTUS 1684 BLASIUS.”

[19] Id.

[20] See, e.g., Tom Kelly, A Party for the Patron Saint of Sore Throats, Telegraph (UK), Jan. 27, 2007, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/croatia/739995/A-party-for-the-patron-saint-of-sore-throats.html. The author mistakenly identifies the relic as “a fragment of Jesus’s loincloth.” In fact, the silver reliquary is said to contain the diapers or swaddling cloths of the baby Jesus.

[21] See, e.g., 1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 239 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956); Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 10–16.

[22] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 13.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 21, at 239.

[26] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 13; see also Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 21, at 239.

[27] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 14, 17.

[28] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 21, at 239.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Saint Blaise: Veneration Without Boundaries, supra note 9, at 17.

[32] Id. at 15.

[33] Id. at 19.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id. at 54.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Henry Wadworth Longfellow, Complete Poetical Works (1893).

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.