Thursday, May 24, 2012

Saint of the Month: Saint Donatian of Nantes!

St. Donatian

AKA: St. Donatian of Nantes
Feast Day: May 24.

Really Existed? Hard to say.
Timeframe: Late Third Century. Died, depending on who you ask, in 287, 288, 289, 299, or 304.
Place: Nantes, in Brittany.

Credentials: Recognized by Tradition in the Catholic Church.
Martyrdom: The rack, lancing, beheading.

Patron Saint of: No known tradition of patronage.
Symbolism: May lack symbolic tradition.

I got all excited when I saw that St. Donation was one of the couple dozen saints whose day falls on May 24, because he appears in a killer van Eyck painting. Lamentably, it turns out the the guy I was thinking of, the patron saint of Bruges, is Saint Donatian of Rheims. His saint's day is October 14! Nor is today the day for Saint Donatian of Châlons-sur-Marne, nor for Saint Donatian of Africa. No, today, May 24, is the saint's day for St. Donation of "Saints Donation and Rogatian" fame, sometimes called "St. Donatian of Nantes."

The story of St. Donatian was originally written in perhaps the fifth century. He was the son of a prominent local family in Roman Brittany who took to Christianity when it was new in the region and became an avid evangelist. All went well until one of the famous persecutions of Christians swept through the Empire. Donatian was arrested for refusing to worship the gods. His elder brother Rogatian was so moved and inspired that he converted to Christianity, but wasn't able to be properly Baptised because the Bishop had gone into hiding.

The Chapel of Saints Donatian and
Rogatian at Nantes Cathedral was
gutted during the French Revolution.
But let's break for a second so I can tell you why the internet record does not make a convincing case for the actual existence of these worthy brothers. First of all, there seems to be a great deal of difficulty in trying to get their dates to line up with known persecutions of Christians, which certainly happened in the pre-Constantine Roman Empire, but not nearly to the extent that we were once led to believe. Also, the Catholic Encyclopedia points out that the first historically certain Bishop at Nantes appears in 453, so the idea that there was a Bishop in hiding already in 287 can only, as it were, be taken on faith. The best argument for the story of Donatian and Rogatian, as far as I can tell, is the archaelogist's dictum that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Martyrdom and Legacy

Well. Donatian and Rogatian were tried and found guilty of practicing Christianity. They spent a last night praying together in their cell; some accounts go into remarkable specifics about the details of their prayers. In the morning, after refusing to renounce their faith, they were put through a three-part execution, rendered identically by all sources. They were, first, put to the rack, the legendary torture machine designed to tear a person's joints apart. It would be an agonizing and terrifying way to have one's body destroyed. It strikes me, however, that a rack seems like an esoteric and rather capital-intensive piece of hardware to have been on hand in third-century Nantes. I could be wrong.

Secondly, their "heads were pierced with lances" -- all sources use the same wording for this.  I'm confused about exactly what the phrase means, but I'll hold off on the details of my confusion in case you are trying to finish your breakfast. Thirdly, they were beheaded. The punchline to this grisly tale is that Rogatian received his hoped-for baptism in the end, in the blood of his martyrdom.

Saints Donatian and Rogatian are commemorated in Nantes Cathedral. If you make your way about a mile to the northeast, where Rue St. Donatian meets Rue St. Rogatian, there is the Basilica of Saint Donation, an imposing church in its own right; it is thought to the fourth church built over the tomb where the brothers were buried.  [It has an excellent history of the Saints on its website, if you read French or have a web browser that can provide impeccable translation.] The neighborhood to the south of the Basilica is called the quartier Malakoff - Saint-Donatien. So, St. Donatian is pretty prominent today, at least in his home town.  That's not bad, even if he never got painted by van Ecyk.

St. Donatian's Basilica with its state of Joan of Arc (similar to, but not
the same as, the Joan of Arc statue near Castle5000)


mrs.5000 said...

I like the contrast in how the two saints are clothed in the fresco--sort of that "my brother the Roman consul came to visit me in the asylum" look.

You'd think a St. Donatian, or Donatien, or Donation (that spelling slips into your text in a couple of places), would be a shoo-in for the patron saint of charitable causes.

Michael5000 said...

: D

I just thought the image looked oddly Byzantine.