Erasmus of Formia

Saint Erasmus of Formia

St. Erasmus by the Master of Meßkirch, c. 1530.
Born 3rd century
Died c. 303
Illyricum (modern day Croatia)
Venerated in Eastern Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church
Feast June 2[1]
Attributes represented with his entrails wound on a windlass or as a vested bishop holding a winch or windlass[2][3]
Patronage sailors, Gaeta, Formia, colic in children, intestinal ailments and diseases, cramps and the pain of women in labor, cattle pest, Fort St. Elmo, (Malta)
A 15th-century fresco painting held to be the torturing of Erasmus, in the Maria Church in Båstad, Sweden

Saint Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo, was a Christian saint and martyr, according to Christian tradition, who died c. 303. He is venerated as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. St Erasmus or Elmo is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, saintly figures of Christian tradition who were venerated especially as intercessors.

Documentation of his life

The Acts of Saint Elmo were partly compiled from legends that confuse him with a Syrian bishop Erasmus of Antioch. Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend credited him as a bishop at Formia over all the Italian Campania, as a hermit on Mount Lebanon, and a martyr in the persecutions under Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian. There appears to be no historical basis for his passio.[4]

Account of life and martyrdom

Erasmus was Bishop of Formium, Italy. During the persecution against Christians under the emperors Diocletian (284-305) and Maximian Hercules (284-305), he left his diocese and went to Mount Libanus, where he hid for seven years. However, an angel is said to have appeared to him, and counseled him to return to his city.[5]

On the way, he encountered some soldiers who questioned him. Erasmus admitted that he was a Christian and they brought him to trial at Antioch before the emperor Diocletian. After suffering terrible tortures, he was bound with chains and thrown into prison, but an angel appeared and helped him escape.[5]

He passed through Lycia, where he raised up the son of an illustrious citizen. This resulted in a number of baptisms, which drew the attention of the Western Roman Emperor Maximian who, according to Voragine, was "much worse than was Diocletian." Maximian ordered his arrest and Erasmus continued to confess his faith. They forced him to go to a temple of the idol, but along the saint’s route all the idols fell and were destroyed, and from the temple there came fire which fell upon many of the pagans.[5]

That made the emperor so angry he had Erasmus enclosed in a barrel full of protruding spikes, and the barrel was rolled down a hill. But an angel healed him. Further tortures ensued.

When he was recaptured, he was brought before the emperor and beaten and whipped, then coated with pitch and set alight (as Christians had been in Nero's games), and still he survived. Thrown into prison with the intention of letting him die of starvation, St Erasmus managed to escape.

He was recaptured and tortured some more in the Roman province of Illyricum, after boldly preaching and converting numerous pagans to Christianity. Finally, according to this version of his death, his stomach was slit open and his intestines wound around a windlass. This version may have developed from interpreting an icon that showed him with a windlass, signifying his patronage of sailors.[6]

Martyrdom of St Erasmus, Poussin

Veneration and patronage

Saint Erasmus may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to claim his prayers. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called "Saint Elmo's Fire".[7][8]

Pope St Gregory the Great recorded in the 6th century that the relics of Erasmus were preserved in the cathedral of Formia. When the old Formiae was razed by the Saracens in 842, the cult of Erasmus was moved to Gaeta. He is currently the patron of Gaeta, Santeramo in Colle and Formia.

There is an altar to St Erasmus in the north transept of St Peter's Basilica.[9] A copy of Nicolas Poussin's Martyrdom of St Erasmus serves as the altarpiece.[6]

Besides his patronage of mariners, Erasmus is invoked against colic in children, abdominal pain, intestinal ailments and diseases, cramps and the pain of women in labour, as well as cattle pests.

See also


  1. Martyrologium Romanum, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (2001) ISBN 88-209-7210-7
  2. Saint of the Day, June 2: Erasmus of Formia Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  3. "Saint Erasmus" Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  4. Lanzi, Fernando and Lanzi, Gioia, "Erasmus of Gaeta", Saints and Their Symbols, Liturgical Press, 2004 ISBN 9780814629703
  5. 1 2 3 "Hieromartyr Erasmus the Bishop of Formia in Campania", Orthodox Church in America
  6. 1 2 "Poussin, the martyrdom of St. Erasmus", Department of Art History and Architecture, Columbia University
  7. Eyers, Jonathan (2011). Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. A&C Black, London, UK. ISBN 978-1-4081-3131-2.
  8. St. Erasmus (St. Elmo) Catholic Online. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  9. Altar of St. Erasmus - St. Peter's Basilica
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