Saint Pancras: The Iconography

On the Aurelian Way in Rome, St. Pancras, Martyr. During the reign of Diocletian he achieved martyrdom by decapitation. – Roman Martyrology for May 1

In the Golden Legend, after Pancras was orphaned his uncle took him to Rome. There both were baptized by Pope Cornelius (image), but then the uncle died and the Emperor Diocletian offered to adopt the boy – if he would renounce his faith. Pancras, who was only 14, replied with a bold speech against idolatry (image), for which he was beheaded (image).

The most basic type of St. Pancras image is like the one at right: a beardless youth holding a palm branch and wearing a tunic under something like a toga. Usually he also has boots.

In the second type of image St. Pancras will also have a sword, the implement of his martyrdom, as in the second picture at right. That picture also exemplifies a practice in the Renaissance of putting him in sumptuous contemporary dress.

In the third type the saint is erroneously portrayed as a soldier, with the sword serving as an emblem of his profession, as in the third picture. This error may be due to a misreading of earlier images with the sword, especially as his feast day is shared with the military saints Nereus and Achilleus.

St. Pancras is beardless in all his images, but as the second and third pictures show, there is a tendency to make him look rather more than 14 years of age.

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

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20th-century statue in Barcelona (See description page)


St. Pancras as Wealthy Youth with Sword (See description page)


As a young soldier (See description page)

DATES

  • The Golden Legend and its source make St. Pancras 14 years old when he was martyred. The former puts that death in the year 287; the latter, in the 9th year of Diocletian and 8th of Maximian (i.e., 293).
  • The Acta Sanctorum's commentary on the Latin life suggests the martrydom may have occurred as late as 304 (May vol. 3, 17).

NAMES

  • Also known by his Latin name, Pancratius

HAGIOGRAPHY