St. Pancras, Pray For Us!

Today’s painting is by Guercino (Giovanni Barbieri), an early 17th-century Italian Baroque painter.

Guercino (1591-1666), “St. Pancratius”
Guercino (1591-1666), “St. Pancratius” (photo: Public Domain)

St. Pancras might be better known to people today as a London train station than as a Catholic martyr saint. If you google “St. Pancras History” you are as apt to get a webpage about the building of that Victorian train station in 1868 as much as of the man who died in 304. 

Let’s be grateful, however, for the train station. Sts. Nereus and Achilleus, also honored today, are even less well-known. They never got a train station named for them. (Anybody want to rename Paddington?)

St. Pancras Station, by the way, took its name from the neighborhood, which includes St. Pancras Old Church on Pancras Road and St. Pancras New Church (a 19th-century structure) on Euston Road. St. Pancras Old Church was one of the oldest churches in England, but it eventually fell into disuse and disrepair. The parish’s origins may date from the fourth century, though it is certainly mentioned in the 11th-century Domesday Book. Both churches are Anglican.

Why this apparent British connection with St. Pancras? Pope St. Gregory the Great appointed clergy to tend the Church of St. Pancras in Rome, and sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize England. Augustine imitated Gregory by promoting the cult of Pancras in England. Later, Popes sent relics of St. Pancras to Britain.

The history of St. Pancratius (alternate to Pancras) is relatively scant. He was born around 290, he died in 304, aged 14, beheaded during the last major persecution of the Church under the Roman Emperors — Diocletian — in 304. Some say he may have died with his uncle. He was buried on the Via Aurelia, where a church was built on the site. It is believed he was a Roman citizen and was born in Phrygia in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey).

The usual attribute accompanying St. Pancratius is a sword, sometimes also a palm of victory. Sometimes he is depicted older than he is, which perhaps is striking to us today, with our extended childhood.

Today’s painting is by Guercino (Giovanni Barbieri), an early 17th-century Italian Baroque painter. The painting dates from 1616. What is confusing about it is why Guercino replaces a palm of victory with some sheaves of wheat, which does not seem to be associated with St. Pancratius. The bold, well-built form of St. Pancratius is typical of Baroque painting.

Once upon a time, the example of early teenager St. Pancratius was inspiring to people far beyond his age. Young people, full of idealism and a desire to make a mark, can look to St. Pancras as an example of religious idealism they can imitate. Pancras died about the age many young Catholics in the United States receive the sacrament of Confirmation. 

St. Pancras can be an inspiration of young people again … once they learn he’s not just a train station.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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“The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history. The sacred books powerfully affirm God's absolute sovereignty over the course of events …” (CCC 303)