In a chapel of the great Romanesque cathedral of Autun in Burgundy hangs a monumental painting depicting a curious and compelling scene from antiquity. An eclectic and agitated crowd has gathered in the shadow of an imposing stone gate. At the head of this assembly, a fair-skinned young man stands draped in a white toga, arms raised. His upturned gaze is met by a woman leaning perilously from atop a nearby rampart, barely restrained by companions, her mouth frozen in mid-exclamation. With one outstretched arm the woman strains impossibly toward the youth; with the other she gestures skyward to a sudden cloud-break. Meanwhile, a stern figure on horseback towers above the throng, the scarlet paludamentum of a Roman officer fastened to his shoulder, one dramatically foreshortened arm gravely pointing ahead.
This enigmatic tableau is The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian, completed by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1834, some sixteen and a half centuries after the event it memorializes. While the painting itself is not without historical interest—its fiercely divided critical reception caused Ingres to renounce the Paris Salon and future public commissions—its subject is of greater interest still. We know little of St. Symphorian but what is preserved by pious tradition; the oldest surviving Acta date from nearly three centuries after his death. Once called the “first Christian martyr of Gaul” (an honorific technically, if only slightly, inaccurate), Symphorian’s cultattained prominence in the fifth century and flourished in France for well over a thousand years. In the Merovingian era, Symphorian came to be viewed as a national saint in the manner of St. Denis. In our time, however, the name of St. Symphorian is remembered outside Autun mainly through the French villages, streets and parishes to which it is bequeathed. Nevertheless, the saint is still commemorated each year by the universal Church in the Martyrologium Romanum on August 22.
Today a sleepy, picturesque provincial town nestled against the wooded Morvan hills, Autun was in the second century a bustling regional center called Augustodunum, and an important projection of Roman power in Gaul. It was the largest city in the domain of the Aedui, a tribe of Roman-allied Celts inhabiting the lands between the present-day Saône and Loire rivers. Here Symphorian was born into relative privilege around A.D. 158 or 160. His father, Faustus, was the paterfamilias of a noble family and likely held a government office. Unusually for that time and place—the religious beliefs of the Aedui being chiefly a mélange of native Celtic and imported Greco-Roman polytheism—both Faustus and his wife Augusta were Christians. Legend has it that the couple warmly received three disciples dispatched to Gaul by Polycarp of Smyrna, and that it was these missionaries who baptized the boy Symphorian.
In those days, Autun was one of the greatest centers of learning in all of Gaul, boasting noted schools of philosophy and rhetoric founded by Rome to impart her culture to the provincial populace. As an aristocratic scion, Symphorian probably received a good education, first through private tutors and then in a local academy. He would have been exposed to the poets, historians and orators of Greece and Rome. His mother Augusta, whom tradition records as a model of Christian piety, naturally saw to his religious upbringing. Symphorian grew into a youth said to possess an old man’s grave demeanor and the innocence of an angel.
As Symphorian approached manhood, however, a storm was gathering beyond Gaul’s borders. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161–180), the Roman Empire entered a period of intensified persecution of Christians. Although the nascent Gallic Church was spared for a time, news of the shedding of Christian blood in Rome, Asia Minor and other parts of the Empire would have reached Autun and caused great foreboding among its small Christian population. Then, in A.D. 177, as grimly related by Eusebius, 48 Christians were tortured and massacred in Lugdunum (present-day Lyon)—perhaps three or four days’ journey from Autun by horse. The violence had reached Autun’s doorstep.
At that time, Autun was overseen by a proconsul named Heraclius. According to the Acta, Heraclius (like his Lyonnais counterpart in Eusebius’s account) promulgated policies restricting the freedom of Christians and forbidding their ceremonies. It became necessary for Autun’s Christians to gather in secret and in shadow; by some accounts, a pagan cemetery outside the city walls became their refuge. Symphorian, by then approaching his twentieth year, would have participated in these clandestine rituals together with his parents.
It was under these circumstances that Symphorian, in A.D. 178 or 180 (depending on the source), is said to have encountered one fateful day on the streets of Autun a lavish procession in honor of the goddess Cybele, in which a statue in her image was ritually paraded on a cart.
Cybele was a pagan nature and fertility goddess, originally a wild Phrygian deity whose cult had been imported by Rome well before the Empire. She was also known to Romans of Symphorian’s day as Berecynthia and as Magna Mater—“great mother”—or “mother of the gods.” She was particularly revered in Roman Gaul, possibly having been further assimilated with a native Celtic protectress of crops. As vividly evoked by the Epicurian poet Lucretius, Cybele was portrayed as attended by lions, and wearing an unusual crown in the form of a rampart; this description is borne out by surviving statuary. We may suppose that the statue Symphorian saw that day was similar.
We cannot know what word or gesture betrayed Symphorian’s scorn for this pagan spectacle, but it did not pass unnoticed by the crowd, which turned accusatorily on him. Symphorian was arrested and brought before the proconsul Heraclius, who questioned, “Who are you, and why did you not give adoration to the mother of the gods?”
Symphorian identified himself—Christianus sum!—and retorted, “I worship the true God who is in Heaven, not statues of demons.” Symphorian, it’s said, then boldly asked Heraclius for a hammer with which to destroy the idol.
Advised by his officers that Symphorian was a Roman citizen and from a family of high standing, Heraclius was skeptical of the young man’s seriousness of purpose. The proconsul had the law read aloud to Symphorian, who was unmoved. Heraclius charged Symphorian with the high crimes of sacrilege and sedition, for the cult of Cybele was viewed as an embodiment of both the religious and the civil authority of the Empire. Warning Symphorian that both offenses were capital, Heraclius ordered the youth scourged and jailed.
Two days later, Symphorian, considerably weakened by his injuries and confinement, was haled once more before the proconsul for further interrogation. Cognizant of Symphorian’s noble birth, Heraclius offered him another chance at rehabilitation. This time, Heraclius tempted the youth with the promise of an Imperial commission to secure his fortune and station, if he would only make sacrifice to Cybele. Neither bribe nor threat weakened Symphorian’s resolve; he again denounced the idolatry as a monstrous superstition and rebuked Heraclius, saying “You have power over my body; you shall not have my soul.” Furious, Heraclius ordered Symphorian beheaded immediately.
The execution party wound its way through the streets of Autun, supposedly directed by Heraclius himself on horseback. The procession likely passed through the massive Roman gate whose ruin still stands—and that Ingres’s imagination painstakingly (and accurately) reconstructed—since, by law, executions were not carried out within the city walls. Distraught, Symphorian’s mother Augusta hastened to the top of the wall. The earliest sources relate simply that she cried out in her native Gaulish: “Son, son, o Symphorian, remember your God!”
At last we reach the moment that Ingres chose to immortalize. It is said that Symphorian, recognizing his mother’s voice, turned toward her. In wordless yet eloquent witness, he lifted up his hands to Heaven, then lowered one to place it over his heart. The hagiographic sources preserve the tradition that, in that moment, Augusta perceived the halo of the martyrs shining around her son’s head. The gathered throng fell momentarily silent. Buoyed by his mother’s courage, the saint knelt to receive the sword blow that delivered him to his true home. His fellow Christians bore the martyr’s body away and laid it to rest beside a nearby spring.
Little more than a century later, Rome itself would embrace Christianity, and by at least the early fifth century, Symphorian’s cult had commenced a remarkable ascendancy (according to pious tradition, Symphorian’s parents were also honored as blesseds). St. Euphronius (d. A.D. 475), Bishop of Autun, constructed a basilica and abbey (now gone) on the site of Symphorian’s martyrdom. St. Gregory of Tours (A.D. c.538–594),who visited Symphorian’s sepulcher, marveled that it had been severely eroded by the touch of countless pilgrims; its dust was credited with curative powers. Some of Symphorian’s relics were translated to major religious sites elsewhere in France.
Though his cult has since regrettably receded into relative obscurity, the story of the sacrifice of St. Symphorian offers a radical lesson of enduring relevance. Ours is a culture that tends, as Heraclius did, to regard martyrdom with a skeptical and not quite comprehending eye. Yet we have it on the highest authority that, as Christians, we are “as sheep among wolves”:
For they will deliver you up in councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues. And you shall be brought before governors, and before kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles: But when they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what to speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what to speak. For it is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you (Mt 10:17–20).
Reflecting on this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Hans Urs von Balthasar observes in The Moment of Christian Witness:
[P]ersecution constitutes the normal condition of the Church in her relation to the world, and martyrdom is the normal condition of the professed Christian. This does not mean that the Church will necessarily be persecuted at all times and in all places, but if it does happen at certain times and in certain places, it should be remembered that this is a sign of that special grace promised to her: “But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them” (Jn 16:4). The truth of such words cannot be outdated or superseded by any development in the state of the world. Again, this does not mean that every single Christian must suffer bloody martyrdom, but he must consider the entire case as the external representation of the inner reality out of which he lives.
It is this “inner reality” to which the persecuted Christians of todayin Iraq, China and elsewhere bear witness (martyria in Greek). Among other things, their example reminds us that the wolves will never be comfortably far from the gate. Moreover, wolves have many guises and wiles; as Peter Leithart has argued, “Western Christians do not face such threats. But if we should not exaggerate the threats, we should not minimize them either. In many areas, we non-martyrs have opportunities to stand in the name of Jesus against the petty tyrannies of the state and the far more subtle and dangerous toxins in the cultural air we all breathe.”
On this feast day, let us pray for persecuted Christians and for their persecutors. May we take heart from the exhortation of Augusta to remember the living God, and choose—in whatever way it is given us to choose—with Symphorian.
Sancte Symphoriane, ora pro nobis!