And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 11. mai 2016

The Legend of Gordianus and Epimachus

Yesterday, May 10, was the feast of Gordianus and Epimachus.  According to tradition, both saints are believed to have suffered at the same period. As for the the time of this period, sources differ. David Farmer sets the time of their martyrdoms at around 250, which corresponds to the persecutions during the reign of Decius. In Legenda Aurea, however, sets the time to c.360, and their deaths are linked to the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363).

Although they are usually venerated together, at least in the later medieval period, it is clear from legend that they did not suffer together, and the veneration probably comes from the fact that they were both buried in the same church, although Epimachus was buried first. In the Old English Martyrology, however, only Gordianus is mentioned in the entry for May 10:

On the tenth day of the month is the feast of the martyr St Gordianus, whose body rests in Rome, and his commemoration is to be celebrated with masses in all churches.
- The Old English Martyrology, translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer, 2013: 103

As suggested by the entry from the Martyrology, very little was known about these saints even in the Middle Ages. A more expansive, but also more unreliable, account can be found in Legenda Aurea.

Gordianus and Epimachus
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.239v, Roman Missal, c.1370
Courtesy of

Gordianus comes from geos, which means dogma or house, and dyan, which maens bright; hence a bright house in which God dwelt. Thus Augustine says in the book The City of God: "A good house is one in which the parts fit well together, and which is spacious and full of light." So Saint Gordianus was well disposed by maintaining harmony, spacious through charity, and filled with the light of truth. Epimachus comes from epi, above, and machin, king, so a high king; or from epi, above, and machos, fight, so a fighter for the things above.

Gordianus was a commissioner of Emperor Julian. Once he was trying to compel a Christian named Januarius to sacrifice to the gods, but listened to his preaching and, with his wife Mariria and fifty-three tohers, was converted to the faith. When Julian learned of this, he sent Januarius into exile and condemned Gordianus to be beheaded if he refused to offer sacrifice. So blessed Gordianus was beheaded and his body thrown to the dogs, but when it lay untouched for a week, his retainers took it away and buried it with the body of Saint Epimachius, whom the aforestaid Julian had had put to death a short time earlier. They were buried about a mile from the city about A. D. 360.

- Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012: 308-09

Gordianus and Epimachus
Limoges - BM - ms. 0002, f. 138, Gradual, Use of Notre-Dame de Fontevrault, c.1250-1260
Courtesy of

The account by Jacobus de Voragine contains a number of motifs and topoi typical of the early martyr stories. The conversion of an antagonistic pagan and his family, the refusal to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, the martyrdom of a largely unnamed crowd of Christians, and the saint's body thrown to animals but not devoured, and then buried in secret by other Christians. When these motifs are peeled away, it is evident that little which bears the resemblance of facts remains.


Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004
Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Rauer, Christine (ed. and transl.) The Old English Martyrology, D. S. Brewer, 2013

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