Mention St Vitus today and one word alone comes to mind: dance. Living a life which came to a short and nasty end, however, the saint himself had little time for dancing, and that was left to his followers centuries later.
Not a great deal is recorded about this early saint other than legend. He is said to have been born in the late second century in Sicily around 291, the son of a pagan senator called Hylas.
According to different accounts, he was either seven or twelve when his tutor Modestus and nurse Crescentia converted him to Christianity – at a time when the emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians ruthlessly.
Vitus’ story is a classic one of father-and-son strife. Perhaps keen to appease the administration, his father sought to nip Vitus’ conversion in the bud, and resorted first to kindness and then to scourging the boy and his companions in an attempt to make them return to paganism – to no avail.
One story even says that the soldiers commanded to torture Vitus had their hands miraculously lamed. The trio fled by boat to Lucania (southern Italy) and from there, ironically, Vitus was taken to Rome to help drive out a demon from Diocletian’s son – suggesting he had some reputation for this skill.
At Rome, Vitus duly healed the emperor’s son, but because of his refusal to sacrifice to the pagan gods afterwards, he and his companions were again tortured.
The enraged Diocletian had them thrown to the lions, but the animals are said to have cowered at their feet. The emperor’s next move was to throw them into boiling oil – some accounts say this brought their death, but others say they prayed and remained unharmed, but ultimately died on the rack.
At the moment they died, a storm is said to have destroyed a number of pagan temples. The year was 303.
Another account says that Vitus and his friends survived Diocletian’s tortures and were take back to Lucania by an angel before they died, though this appears to be a conflation with the death of three other martyrs in that area.
Either way, veneration of them spread across the region, with miracles attributed to them. A shrine to him in Rome is known to have existed in the 5th century, one in France in the 8th, and his relics were taken to Germany in the 9th, where veneration spread through Westphalia.
It is in Germany that the tales of St Vitus dance began, too: in the 16th century, people danced before his statue on his feast day of 15 June so enthusiastically that for some it became a mania.
Today the name St Vitus’ dance is associated both with epilepsy and the nervous disorder chorea. It is also in Germany that Vitus became known as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers – see the previous article on this series about St Pantaleon.
Vitus’ symbol is the rooster, a poor creature apparently thrown into the boiling oil with him as a sacrifice; by extension, he has become the patron against oversleeping. Vitus is also patron of actors and comedians, against storms and dog bites, of the Czech Republic (St Vitus’ Cathedral is in Prague), and of course of dancing.
Other ‘V’ Saints
- St Valentine (d269) was a priest and physician in Rome who was beaten and beheaded – a far cry from the celebrations of love his name is remembered for, which are believed to stem from a Christianisation of a Roman fertility festival in February. As well as lovers, he is patron of beekeepers and against fainting.
- St Veronica is only known for one thing: wiping Christ’s face with a cloth as he fell on the way to Golgotha. The cloth was supposedly imprinted with his image, and many mediaeval cloths were claimed to be the original relic. Her feast is 12 July and she is patron of laundry workers and photographers.