Alison More came to St. Mike’s from the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, where she designed and taught core courses on Latin and palaeography. She studied Latin in Rome with Reginald Foster, and has further developed her skills through teaching and research fellowships at Harvard, the University of Edinburgh, and Radboud Universiteit. A passionate Latinist, Alison is interested in alternative interpretations of absences and inconsistencies in the historical record. In particular, her research investigates the intersections between social and religious culture in Northern Europe from 1250 to 1450.
Sancta Corona, ora pro nobis
Medieval saints were often hailed as powerful intercessors in particular situations. Even today, St Anthony of Padua is a faithful helper for finding lost things; St Apollonia helps those in dental distress; and St Joseph of Cupertino is invoked by students taking exams. Recently, St Corona has re-entered popular religious consciousness as a protector against plague, pandemics, and infectious disease. After years of relative obscurity, Corona’s relics are now on display in a reliquary in Aachen Cathedral in Germany. Also, versions of her legend have been re-written for the Internet. While she is undoubtedly happy to intercede for the sufferings of the earthly Church, our health was not one of Corona’s traditional concerns. Her story is an interesting example of the ways in which saints’ cults adapt in accordance with the social needs of the day.
The tales of early Christian martyrs are generally formulaic. They contain little precise information and emphasize the gruesome deaths of their subjects. Corona’s tale is no exception, and we have little historical information about the saint. Her date of birth has been placed anywhere between 161 and 270 CE. She was married to a soldier named Victor at around the age of 15 and martyred one year and four months later. The Bollandist catalogues record more than 50 manuscripts of her vita, but all seem to be brief. Her short Passio in the Acta Sanctorum tells us that Corona’s profession of her illicit faith was an act of solidarity with Victor. After refusing to renounce Christ, Corona was tied to two trees, which her captors had bound together. When her tormentors cut the trees apart, Corona was ripped in two. Victor was then beheaded.
Until the current pandemic, there was little to connect Corona to viruses, plagues, or illness. Instead, her cult which existed primarily in Italy and the German regions appears to have been associated with the pursuit of fortune. Her name “Corona” is Latin for crown. In his work on treasure hunting, Johannes Dillinger points out that “corona” or “crown” was also the name given to a unit of currency in several countries. Whatever the reason, Corona found herself being invoked as the patron of treasure seekers. Dillinger points out that “Corona books,” texts midway between prayers and spells, circulated widely. Like prayers, they directed the supplicant to request Corona’s intercession. Like spells, the texts often seemed to depend on specific rituals and were even tailored to the amount of money in question. Later Corona texts even included methods of divining the lottery numbers. Not surprisingly, the lottery soon became another area of Corona’s patronage.
There does not appear to have been any association between Corona and plagues until 2020 when a virus that shared her name showed modern society to be less than invincible. Like our ancestors, our response was to seek divine aid and find a saintly intercessor as patron. Saints such as Roche and Sebastian were frequently invoked for protection against the plague in the 14th century. Their counterpart, the 12th-century St Rosalia of Palermo was called upon during an outbreak of illness in her native city during the 17th century. Notably, Rosalia has recently been featured in The New York Times as “The Saint Who Stopped an Epidemic on Lockdown in the Met.” In our current hour of need, those with an interest in saints discovered the existence of St Corona. As has been true of the cult of saints throughout Christian history, her devotees found a suitable association to declare her informally a patron of a crisis affecting the modern world. Her relics in Aachen, originally intended for a display on medieval metalwork, became a focal point for prayer and intercession. After several hundred years of relative quiet, she found herself being called upon as an intercessor.
Saints cannot exist in isolation. Instead, like all aspects of popular religion, their cults adapt to meet the needs of the society that venerates them. Throughout Christian history preachers and hagiographers have included imagery, allegory, and etymological devices based on saints’ names to communicate particular messages. The cult of saints has long illustrated the ways in which devotion could be incorporated into daily life. The case of Corona is no different: her name attracts attention and there is no reason to doubt her intercessory power. Perhaps this Easter Vigil, she will quietly be added to our litanies: Sancta Corona, ora pro nobis.
“De SS. Victore milite et Corona martyribus in Ægypto,” AASS, May, t. III, pp. 265-67.
Johannes Dillinger, Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
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