Saints Julian, Basilissa, Marcianilla, and Celsus: The Iconography

In Antioch during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian, the natal day Not their birthday but the day they died and were "born again" into Heaven of St. Julian, Martyr and of St. Basilissa, Julian's Virgin spouse. Basilissa and her husband had lived in chastity; her life ended peacefully. A large group of priests and ministers of the Church of Christ fled to the couple because of the monstrous persecutions of the time but were burned to death. Then the Prefect Marcianus had Julian tortured with many torments and condemned him to death. With him were the priest Antonius and Anastasius. Julian brought the latter back from the dead and brought him into the grace of Christ. The boy Celsus and his mother Marcianilla also suffered martyrdom, and seven brothers and many more. – Roman Martyrology for January 9

At right is a 5th-century fresco in what is now the bookstore of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. As the inscription at the bottom shows, the female saint on the left is St. Marcianilla and the one on the right is St. Basilissa. The boy with the halo is Marcianilla's son, St. Celsus. (His inscription reads, "S[ANCTUS] CELS[US] PVER" -- St. Celsus the Boy.) The legend of these four saints says that when Julian and the other Christians under arrest were summoned from prison for judgment, Celsus was chained to Julian and stayed by his side throughout the trial.1 In the wall painting, one can see the chains linking the boy to the person on his right, who thus is most likely St. Julian.

The legend has it that Julian and Basilissa were a married but celibate couple who maintained a double monastery in Alexandria (or Antioch, according to some versions). They practiced charity and attracted thousands to the monastic life. When the persecution of Diocletian was proclaimed in 303, they were arrested along with their followers. Basilissa was executed first, along with the women of the monastery. Later Julian and the men were put into barrels of burning pitch, but this did not harm them. Seeing this miracle, the governor's son Celsus converted to Christianity. When he and the others were sent back to prison he asked that his mother Marcianilla be sent in to see him. When she did, a miraculous vision convinced her to become a Christian as well. Later, at the Christians' prayers, the temple of the pagans sank into the earth, but even this did not sway the governor, who had them beheaded.2

The image at left uses labels rather than attributes to identify the saints, as does a 6th-century mosaic in Croatia. Although the four saints are well represented in breviaries and mass prayers,3 none of their adventures seem to have led to an iconographic tradition. In the 18th-century painting on the right the four merely hold palm branches while Julian and Basilissa share a single lily, a common symbol of virginity. In their church in Valladolid, Spain, their statues are also identified by nothing more than palm branches (last image on the right).

One might expect the barrels of pitch to attract artists' attention. There is a remote possibility that the statue of an otherwise unidentified saint in a burning barrel in Ocotlán, Mexico, could be Julian. A cult of this saint could have come over from Spain, where there are several churches dedicated to him and Basilissa; and some Mexican women have the name "Basilisa."

Butler's Lives of the Saints calls this St. Julian "Julian the Hospitaller" because he and Basilissa brought many people into their monastery and were solicitous of the needs of the poor.4 But the more familiar St. Julian the Hospitaller featured in the Golden Legend is someone else entirely.

Marcianilla's name is often spelled with an O: "Marcionilla."

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

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Fresco of the four saints (See description page)


Pompeo Battoni, 1736-38 (See description page)


SS. Julian and Basilissa in Valladolid (See description page)

DATES

  • Feast day: January 9

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • See note 1 below.

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 An edition of these saints' Acta is in Acta Sanctorum January vol. 1, 575-588. The chaining of Celsus to Julian is recounted on p. 583 ¶42.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 570-575.

4 Butler I, 56-57.