St. Blaise, Bishop and Martyr, Pray For Us

How did St. Blaise get associated with otolaryngology? While in prison, tradition holds that St. Blaise saved a boy from choking on a fishbone.

Unknown, “St. Blaise,” 1740

Those of us of a certain age remember that, beyond the days when attendance at Mass was obligatory (Sundays and holy days of obligation), there were also days when more Catholics than usual came to weekday Masses. Feb. 2, the “Presentation of the Lord,” popularly called “Candlemas,” was one of them: people brought blessed candles home for use when the priest came to bring Communion to shut-ins or for Last Rites and to ask protection during severe thunderstorms. Feb. 3 was another such day, because people lined up for the priest to place two blessed candles in a “V” shape around their necks and bless their throats, through the intercession of St. Blaise.

How did St. Blaise get associated with otolaryngology?

He lived in the early fourth century (300s). Not a lot is known about him. Tradition says he was a physician and then a bishop in Sebaste in Armenia. Although Armenia was Christian, there were still residual persecutions in the last days of the Roman Empire, before the conversion of Constantine. Blaise was arrested and imprisoned. It’s said he was eventually martyred. Some say he was tortured in iron wool combs — metal combs used to straighten out sheep wool for spinning and for scraping skin off victims — before being beheaded.

While in prison, tradition holds that St. Blaise saved a boy from choking on a fishbone. (Having once had a fine bone from a piece of salmon lodge in my throat that took a nurse to pull out, I can say we don’t appreciate the dangers). Because of that act, Blaise came to be associated with protection from throat problems. His cult grew in medieval Europe (which makes it harder to distinguish the documented from the undocumented in traditions about him): in Rhineland Germany, there arose the cult of the “Vierzehn Nothelfer” (the “14 Holy Helpers”), a group of saints associated with particular needs. They included St. Blaise and his association with the throat, along with St. Agatha (headache), St. Vitus (epilepsy — you’ve heard of “St. Vitus Dance?”), et al.

Today’s painting of our saint is from an Austrian church in Berg-bei-Rohrbach, in Upper Austria, where the Austrian, Czech and German borders come together. It dates from around 1740.

Blaise is depicted inside presumably a church, as a bishop. He wears a bishop’s miter and carries a bishop’s crozier (staff). What seems to be off is his stole: as I understood it, priests wore the stole crossed at the breast, while bishops wore it hanging straight down in parallel. He carries a candle in his hand, symbolic of the candles used during the blessing of throats with his invocation. His red cape and stole point to his martyrdom.

(References for the saint’s biography are here, here, here, and here.)

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