Pope Saint Marcellus: The Iconography

In Rome on the Via Salaria, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Marcellus I, Pope and Martyr. Because he professed the Catholic faith, the tyrant Maxentius ordered that he be beaten with cudgels and then made to serve the animals in a public stable. He died there, dressed in a shirt of hair. – Roman Martyrology for January 16

Marcellus was a Pope, so the statue at right properly gives him a triple tiara and a cross with three crossbars. But he has no individualizing attribute, and without a label or context of some sort he will be hard to identify. Sometimes he even wears a simple mitre rather than the papal tiara.

The historical Pope Marcellus served during the period following the persecution of Diocletian. Not only had the church of Rome lost many martrys and church buildings, but it faced a surge in conversions. Marcellus established a number of new churches and re-organized the clergy. Then an apostate from among the new converts denounced him to the emperor Maxentius (ruled 306-312), who sent the pope into exile in about the year 308 (Duchesne, II, cxix-c, 165-66.)

The 6th-century Liber Pontificalis suppresses the exile story in favor of one taken from a 5th-century Acta. In the new story the Emperor is Maximian, who ruled from 286 to 305. He has one of the new churches converted into a stable and condemns Marcellus to work there as a stable hand until his death (Duchesne, ibid., 164).

The Golden Legend has a brief notice on St. Marcellus that repeats the stable story and dates the saint's death as 287.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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St. Marcellus in a church in Aveyron, France (See description page)

DATES

  • Feast day: January 16

NAMES

  • In France, St. Marcel
  • In Italy, San Marcello

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Golden Legend #20
  • De Sancto Marcello Papa, Martyre, Acta Sanctorum, January vol. II, 3-14. (Prints the 5th-century Acta and other sources.)
  • In the introduction and notes to his edition of the Liber Pontificalis Duquesne teases out the historical realities of Marcellus's pontificate. Part of his evidence is a later 4th-century epitaph written by Pope Damasus. See pp. xcix-c and 165-66.
  • Roman Breviary, I, 685-86 (1632 Latin text: 792-93).