Alexandre Falguière, Saint Tarcisius

Circa 1868
Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession # 2007.407

St. Tarcisius was a Roman who was martyred in the third century. His story was first written up by Pope Damasus in the 4th century in a grave inscription comparing his merit favorably with that of St. Stephen, the first martyr:

This was the basis of medieval retellings in which Tarcisius was an acolyte who was carrying the Eucharistic host to Christians hiding during the persecution of Galienus. A mob of pagans confronted him and demanded to see what he was holding in his cloak. When he refused they beat him to death with cudgels and stones. They then searched his clothing, but the host had miraculously disappeared.

An somewhat obscure saint for many centuries, Tarcisius captured the public imagination with the publication of Fabiola, or The Church of the Catacombs in 1854, a work that remains in print to this day. In the novel he is a young boy, sent by the Pope to take the host to imprisoned Christians. Along the way a pagan woman befriends him, and after he is beaten by a gang of boys he dies in her arms and she converts.2

The story is referenced in James Joyce's "Araby." Walking to the market with his aunt, a young boy desperately in love "imagined that he bore his chalice safely through a throng of foes."

Falguière's sculpture follows Wiseman in making Tarcisius a young boy and includes a few of the stones used to murder him. The stones do not appear in Damasus's poem, but they are implied by the comparison with St. Stephen and were added to the story in medieval retellings.3

There are brief studies of the Tarcisius story in the Acta Sanctorum (August vol. 3, 201) and in Butler (IV, 335). His feast day is on August 15.

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Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 My translation from the Acta Sanctorum, August vol. 3, 201. The Latin is as follows: Par meritum quicumque legis cognosce duorum, / Quis Damasus Rector titulos post praemia reddit. / Judaicus populus Stephanum meliora monentem / Martyrium primus rapuit Levita fidelis. / Tarsicium sanctum Christi Sacramenta ferentem / Cum malesana manus peteret vulgare profanis, / Ipse animam potius voluit dimittere caesus, Prodere quam canibus rabidis caelestia membra

2 Wiseman, 263-67. Google Books lists ten reprintings since 1844. The tenth was still available when I checked in August, 2021.

3 Acta Sanctorum, ibid.