A 12th-century fresco cycle in the crypt of Aquileia's basilica follows an 8th-century vita that had placed the martyrdom of these two saints in the apostolic period.1 As the story goes, St. Peter sends St. Mark to preach the gospel in Aquileia.
Arriving in Aquileia, Mark encounters a young leper named Ataulfus, whose father Ulfius is a leading noble of the city. He cures and baptizes the young man, and Ulfius thereupon presents himself and the rest of his family for baptism.
After he has gained a goodly number of conversions and served the community for several years, Mark decides to return to Peter in Rome. The Apuleians ask him to take Hermagoras with him to be ordained bishop by Peter.
Returning to Aquileia, Hermagoras is so successful in his missionary work that the growing number of Christians is reported to Nero, who sends the prefect Sevastus to quash the movement. Unsuccessful at persuading Hermagoras to recant, Sevastus has him sent to the local prison, where a miracle involving a great light and sweet odor leads the jailer Pontianus to convert and be baptized by a priest and deacon summoned by Hermagoras.
Enraged at this and other conversions, the pagan priests demand that Sevastus have Hermagoras and his archdeacon Fortunatus executed. Sevastus agrees, and the two are beheaded.
Images of the two saints do not include any unique attributes. The surest way to recognize Hermagoras in portraits is if he is paired with a deacon, as at right. Earlier images picture him in a chasuble and a pallium, the symbol of authority worn by archbishops. Later works such as the statue shown at right add the mitre and crozier that conventionally identify bishops.
Like all deacon saints, Fortunatus is shown in a dalmatic. In the crypt frescos and some other images he also carries a gospel book, a reference to the fact that in solemn Masses it is the deacon who reads the day's gospel selection to the congregation.
Prepared in 2017 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-12-04.
Shown above: Saint Hermagoras flanked by the deacon St. Fortunatus and St. Syrus of Pavia dressed as a subdeacon. (See the description page for more about St. Syrus.)