The saint and her teeth

SAINT APOLLONIA WAS born in the 2nd century AD. She was one of a group of virgin martyrs who was killed in 249 AD during an uprising against the Christians in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Prior to being murdered, she was tortured by having her teeth pulled out and damaged. Since then she has been regarded as the patron saint of dentistry and those suffering from toothache and other dental problems.

St Apollonia by M Landy

When I was a dental student back in the early 1980s, I did some research with a view to writing an article about Apollonia for the dental school’s journal. While carrying out my investigations, I came across an article (I cannot remember where) which described a sacred relic, one of Saint Apollonia’s teeth, which is held in a church somewhere in northern France. I cannot recall where this tooth resides, but I have not forgotten something that was written about relics in general in that article. That is, according to the writer, one of the miraculous properties of sacred relics is that they can self-replicate.

Since working on that unfinished article, I have hardly given Saint Apollonia a moment’s consideration until today when we visited an exhibition based around the works of the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). This wonderful exhibition is being held at Compton Verney, a fine old house built 1714 in Warwickshire and set in gardens very capably designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (c1716-1783), until the 3rd of January 2021.

One of the rooms of the exhibition is devoted to works of art inspired by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Two such works by Pablo Picasso are on display alongside various other fabulous modern artworks by slightly less well-known artists. One of these pieces is a mechanised sculpture by Michael Landy (born 1963). This was inspired by the depiction of St Apollonia in a painting by Cranach which is held in London’s National Gallery. In Cranach’s work, Apollonia, dressed in a long, pleated dress coloured red, stands beside St Genevieve (martyred in what is now France), dressed in green.

Landy has created a wooden sculpture, a three-dimensional version of what appears in Cranach’s painting. In the latter, Apollonia is depicted with her hands clasped together around the long handles of a pair of pliers whose beaks are wrapped around an extracted tooth. Landy’s three-dimensional version, which is about twelve feet high, looks remarkably similar to Cranach’s. A foot pedal is attached to the sculpture by a cable. When a viewer presses the pedal, Apollonia’s hands move the pliers towards her mouth and then fall back again. It appears as if she has just pulled out her tooth. I wonder what Cranach would have thought about this rather gory adaptation of his original image.

You have now been warned. If you are a dental phobic and happen to visit this marvellous exhibition, do not, I repeat, do not press that pedal beside Landy’s sculpture. Also, try not to miss visiting this superbly curated show.

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