Religion, Keeping up with the Times:
The Morphing of St. Appolonia


According to the well-known actor Bruce Willis, modern religion is out of date:

…religion is the end trail of modern mythology…organized religions…were important when we didn’t know why the sun moved, why weather changed, why hurricanes occurred or volcanoes happened.

It’s the old canard that science is incompatible with religion. It’s noteworthy that Willis, who was raised a Lutheran, doesn’t deny the existence of  a pantheistic God:

God is the snow…God is also the little buds that come out on the trees, little babies that get born…But organized religion you can set on fire.


One could argue that St. Apollonia fits Willis’ definition of an out-of-date organized religion figure to a “T.”

Her martydrom in Alexandria, Egypt during Roman rule (248 A.D.) is described  below in a letter from the Bishop of Alexandria to the Bishop of Antioch. The letter relates that five individuals were seized by a heathen mob and ordered to renounce their allegiance to Christ.  Among them was the Deaconess Apollonia, an aged virgin. Further, the letter says

Apollonia…with blows [to] the face…knocked out all her teeth, and then, kindling a great fire…[the mob] threatened to cast her into it unless [she renounced Christ]. She asked for a moments delay [to think about their demand but once free] she leaped into the flames of her accord.

It’s probable her suicide was likely her way of preserving her virginity which was being threatened by the mob. St. Augustine in his The City of God proclaimed women who killed themselves to protect their chastity were “martyrs in the Catholic church.


In 300 A. D., she was canonized a saint.For the next thousand years St. Apollonia was mostly forgotten. Then during the middle ages (between 1200 and 1400) she was named the patron saint of toothaches and gum disease (a natural designation since her own teeth had been bashed out by pagans).

In medieval times when anyone got a toothache, it was a painful, devastating event.  Until the advent of modern dentistry, sufferers from toothache and gum disease regularly invoked her intervention to ease their pain. There were neither pain-numbing drugs nor antibiotics to alleviate suffering. The only effective treatment was to pull the tooth. Gum and jaw bone diseases were largely untreatable.

Although the relief given by the  intervention of St. Apollonia was not documented during these early days, her presence among the pantheon of saints was important up through through the industrial revolution. Her skull, arms, jaw and some teeth were preserved as holy relics and several churches still exist with stained glass images of her.


As modern dentistry and oral surgery advanced at the dawn of the industrial age, St. Apollonia morphed into the patron saint of dentists and dentistry. X-rays, pain numbing drugs, powered drills, oral surgery, crowns, dentures, 3-D printers, fillings and dental hygiene have mitigated most painful tooth diseases.

It’s possible that within the next decade that artificial intelligence and robotics will augment human dental professionals to a point where human responsibility may be abrogated altogether. Whether or not St. Apollonia may have inspired any of these advances is unknown.

In agreement with Bruce Willis’s observation, scientific advances have largely supplanted the intervention of St. Apollonia.  She was designated a patron saint at a time when the causes of tooth decay, gum disease and the associated pain were not understood.


Over the past centuries artists by scores have rendered their images of St. Appolonia. Among those that still exist are the following:

The della Francesca painting is a taking-off point for a celebrated modern pop artist, Andy Warhol (see below).


Warhol’s did several silkscreens of St. Apollonia, copied from the original painting by Pierra Della Francesca.  These were  truly unique pieces of spiritual art, unusual in the sense that Warhol did not superimpose his trademark of an interpretive logos or pop art on the subject,

Other than his typical colored silk screen background, he copied St. Apollonia precisely as Francesca had painted her with some slight color variations. Dillinberger refers to it as

Warhol’s fidelity to the original painting…the saint is replicated with little marginal cropping…Even the cracks in the [aged] paint surface [were] replicated” in his prints. His version does flatten the original painting to the print [giving her the] assertiveness of a playing card queen. Jane Dillinberger, “The Religious Art of Andy Warhol

Today Warhol is considered the king of contemporary art. reported that in 2014 Warhol’s art sold at auction generated $569 million “accounting for more than a sixth of the global art market.” A four-pieces silkscreen of Warhol’s St. Apollonia sold in January 2019 for $46,875.


This all raises the question: do old patron saints just fade away and only their images survive? More importantly what happens to civilization if organized religion fades away? What kind of a world will emerge? Can anyone, devout or agnostic, really imagine a civilization without the pomp and ceremony of churches and the clergy; without Mass, Communion, the Last Rites and the other Sacraments; without denominations and congregations; without faith-based charities? Can humankind exist without religion-based hope? Probably not.

While science may have displaced St. Apollonia, she has endured in art—a lasting tribute to her devotion to Christ and to her intercession for millions of sufferers.  So, is the intercession of St. Apollonia no longer needed?  Even if so, she is in heaven, able to enjoy eternally the company of her Lord and the other saints.

When God created us in His image it included imagination (the faculty to have ideas)  and curiosity.(to explore and investigate).  After Adam and Eve fell from grace, humankind found itself suddenly on its own but with a God-inspired need to improve human development.

Between the fall and  development of scientific advances, God gave us ‘hope’–in the case of dental disease, St. Apollonia.  Hope eventually gave way to scientific advancement and  relief.  Looked at through this lens, science and religion are not incompatible.  They are both endeavors to understand our world.

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3 thoughts on “Religion, Keeping up with the Times:<br>The Morphing of St. Appolonia”

  1. Pingback: SATVRDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  2. Maybe I need to read the article again, but are you suggesting that science replaced the need for a Saint like Apollonia? Because of advances in dental science? How elitist of you. How about poor folks who can’t afford dental coverage to receive all of these great scientific benefits you and Willis talk about? Oh yes, if you have great insurance and money to cover deductibles I’m sure you and especially Bruce Willis have no need to ask prayers of intercession of St. Apollonia, or any other saint I imagine.

    This article angered me, because of your assumption that most folks have such great access and the means to take advantage of such access because of your state in life. I’m sure many poor or destitute or homeless souls are still praying for the help of St. Apollonia and other saints for other reasons. To suggest otherwise sir, is to dishonor their sacrifice and memory, and reduce them to some old out dated mythology. I hope you and Mr. Willis never need help in some desperation for any reason, from any great Saint of our church. No matter how outdated you may think they may be.

    Science did not displace St. Apollonia, and reduce her only to artistic images. To suggest this does her, the Church that raised her to the altar of sainthood, and Christ Himself.

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