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St Blaise the throat blesser

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14/04/2016

By | From the Collections

With the opening of the This Is A Voice exhibition in Wellcome Collection, it is timely to take a look at voice-related curiosities within the Wellcome Library. The story of St Blaise offers a good starting point. Like many saints, he had more than one virtue to offer: not only was he the patron saint of wool merchants but he was also believed to intercede in cases of throat illnesses.

St Blaise. Colour lithograph after H Memlinc.

St Blaise. Colour lithograph after H Memlinc. Wellcome Library reference: 8572i.

According to the medieval Acts of St Blaise, he was originally a doctor who became Bishop of Sebaste in Armenia during the 4th century on the basis of his miraculous ability to cure the sick. When Agricola, the governor of Cappadocia, arrived on a mission to kill the Christians, St Blaise was arrested. En route to jail, St Blaise was confronted by the panicking mother of a small boy who was choking to death on a fish bone. Apparently, the child was immediately cured by St Blaise’s prayers.

St Blaise invoked against diseases of the throat. From a prayer leaflet, 304 AD

St Blaise invoked against diseases of the throat. From a prayer leaflet, 304 AD. Wellcome Images reference: M0005647.

On refusing to renounce his faith, St Blaise was promptly put to death. His flesh was ripped with iron combs and he was beheaded. After his martyrdom, his reputation grew for curing those afflicted with throat complaints.

Martyrdom of St Blaise

Martyrdom of Saint Blaise. Line engraving by F. Pilsen after G. de Crayer. Wellcome Library reference: 4510i.

His feast day is still celebrated on 3 February within the Roman Catholic Church and on 11 February in Eastern Catholic Churches with a ceremony called The Blessing of the Throats. A two-pronged candle, tied with red ribbon to signify his martyrdom, is used in this ritual. The candles are joined together in a cross and blessed on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2). The blessing is then delivered to the congregation by touching the throat of each person with the two candles. In some South American countries, a ribbon continues to be worn around the throat for nine days.

Blessing of Saint blaise at Saint Etheldreda, Ely Race, London. Wellcome Images M0005454

Blessing of St Blaise at St Etheldreda’s Church, London. Wellcome Images reference: M0005454.

Blaise was not the only spiritual figure to offer solace for ear, nose and throat complaints – an area of medicine known by the tongue-twister of a word otorhinolaryngology. St Godelina (or variants on that name) looked after throat troubles, St Ovidius (also known as Auditus) kept an eye on auditory complaints and St Quentin monitored those with coughs, sneezes and dropsy and St Bernardino of Siena was said to ease lung and respiratory problems.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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