Saint Pelagius of Cordoba: The Iconography

In Cordoba, Spain, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of the young St. Pelagius. Because he professed his faith the Saracen king Abdaramen ordered that he be cut into pieces with iron forceps and he achieved glorious martyrdom. – Roman Martyrology for June 26

In portraits St. Pelagius holds a palm branch and gazes to Heaven while a sword cuts through his neck, as in the first two images on the right. This is at odds with his entry in the Roman Martyrology, but it reflects the tradition exemplified in Hrotsvitha's verse account, where the Saracen king says the throats of "blasphemers" must be pierced with the sword." Several lines later, Pelagius is indeed put to the sword.

The saint is consistently portrayed as a young person, because he was martyred at the age of 13. His story was first told by a Cordoban priest named Raguel, who lived in the 10th century at approximately the same time as the boy. Later in the same century it was rendered into a poem by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim. The major difference between the two accounts is that Raguel has the boy cut into pieces, which are then thrown into the river, whereas Hrotsvitha says he was catapulted into the river from the city wall, his body then shattering into pieces. Artists consistently follow the former account, as in the third image at right.

In the art Pelagius is customarily presented as a beautiful youth, his beauty being an integral part of his story. He was in prison in Muslim Cordoba as hostage for his kinsman, a Galician bishop, when accounts of his youth and beauty reached the Caliph. This ruler already had a collection of catamites, and he ordered them to persuade Pelagius to deny Jesus and become one of them. But the boy steadfastly refused. When he recoiled from the Caliph's touch the latter flew into a rage and ordered his death.

In Raguel the boy continues to pray even while his limbs are being removed. At the end God calls to him, "Come, accept the crown which I have promised you from the beginning." The third image at right expresses the boy's prayerful attitude, and the angel arriving from above symbolizes God's words.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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St. Pelagius in the Church of San Paio, Santiago de Compostela (See description page)


In Galicia (See description page)


The Martyrdom (See description page)

DATES

  • Feast day: June 26
  • Pelagius was killed in 925 at the age of 13

NAMES

  • Known as San Pelayo in most of Spain
  • In Galicia, San Paio

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Raguel's vita in English translation is in Head, 227-35.
  • An English translation of Hrotsvitha's poem is in Wiegand, 129-57.
  • In Latin, the Acta Sanctorum (June vol. 5, 204-225) has Raguel's vita, Hrotsvitha's poem, and the Mozarabic Office for Pelagius's feast day.