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St Herculanus (1st March; 7th November)

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Panel (ca. 1330) from a dossal from the Abbazia di Santa Maria di Valdiponte 

This autograph work by the Maestro dei Dossali di Montelabate

is now in the Galleria Nazionale

The Roman Martyrology has two records of St Herculanus:

  1. under 7th November: “At Perugia, St Herculanus, bishop and martyr”.

  2. under 1st March: “At Perugia, the transferral of the body of St Herculanus, bishop and martyr, who was beheaded by order of Totila, king of the Goths.  Forty days after the decapitation, Pope St Gregory relates that the head had been rejoined to the body as if it had never been touched by the sword”.

St Herculanus was included under 7th November in the Martyrology of Florus (825-40) with the annotation “ut scribit beatus Gregorius papa” (an acknowledgement that the source of the information was the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I - see below).  St Herculanus also appears under the same date in the Martyrologies of Adon and Usuard

St Herculanus and the Dialogues

According to the Dialogues, Pope Gregory I heard from St Floridus of Città di Castello of the life of  “the great holy man ... Herculanus, Bishop of Perusia, who brought me up”.  According to this account, St Herculanus had been a monk, but he had become Bishop of Perugia by the time of the seven-year siege of the city by Totila.  [In fact, the siege lasted for some four years, from 545 until late 548 or early 549].  When the city fell, Totila’s general sent to ask him what he should do with St Herculanus.  Totila replied that  “he should cut off a thong of his skin from the top of the Bishop's head to his very foot, and that he should then strike off his head”.  The soldiers duly carried out the order, “after which barbarous act they threw his dead corpse over the [city] wall”.

Some noble citizens retrieved the remains of St Herculanus, together with those of a child that lay nearby, and buried them hastily under the city walls.  When Totila allowed the people to return to the city after 40 days, they looked for the body of St Herculanus, so that it could be properly buried  in “Ecclesia beati Petri apostoli” [traditionally assumed to be a church on the later site of the Abbazia di San Pietro, Perugia].  When they found it, it was sound and there was no sign of St Herculanus having been partially skinned and decapitated.  However, the body of the child beside him had putrefied. 

St Herculanus and the Legend of the Twelve Syrians

St Herculanus appears in the legend “Sanctii Anastasii et 11 fratrum, qui cum eo de Syriae partibus” (St Anastasius and 11 brothers who came from Syria - BHL 1620), which is otherwise known as the Legend of the Twelve Syrians.  According to this legend, the Christian St Anastasius travelled to Italy with his extended family, which numbered St Herculanus among his “nepotes” (nephews, grandchildren, or more generally, young relations).  While in Rome, the family embarked on a programme of evangelisation that led to their imprisonment.  When St Anastasius was subsequently beheaded, his son, St Brictius led most of the rest of the family (including his nephew, St Herculanus) to Spoleto.

This legend is famous for its chronological inconsistencies.  For example,

  1. the family arrive in Rome in the time of: 

  2. the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who was emperor in the west from 355 and sole emperor in the period 360-3; and  

  3. ss. episcopo Urbano” or variants thereof, which is usually taken to be an anachronistic reference to Pope Urban I (died 230);

  4. St Brictius is imprisoned in the Diocletian persecution (303) and dies some 45 years later; and

  5. his nephew, St Herculanus, whom he appoints as bishop of Perugia, is martyred by Totila after the siege of Perugia (in ca. 548).

The paragraph in this legend that describes the events following the martyrdom of St Herculanus contains some differences from the account in the Dialogues:

  1. The restored and uncorrupt body of St Herculanus was discovered when his original tomb was opened after “a full year” (rather than after 40 days). 

  2. A lady who then buried her recently deceased young son beside the bishop returned the next day to find him outside the tomb, restored to life.  (This boy seems to replace the boy in the Dialogues who was buried with St Herculanus).

This account has St Herculanus martyred on 7th November.   This account also mentions that an instrument of his torture “in Calvariæ loco” (at Calvary) was later placed on a coffin, presumably as part of another miracle (although the text is difficult to understand here).  From the 11th century, the location of the Abbazia di San Pietro was sometimes described as “mons Calvarius”, but this was the place of the burial of St Herculanus, not the place of his torture.  

Passio Sancti Herculani

A number of legends derived from the material above (BHL 3822-5) contain accounts of a subsequent translation of the relics of St Herculanus and of his posthumous miracles.   Emore Paoli (referenced below) suggests that these cover different aspects of a single tradition that was developed in line with the development of the civic government of Perugia in the 12th and 13th centuries.  A number of them ( including BHL 3822b in the Leggendari del Duomo di Spoleto) appear under 1st March (the presumed date of the translation of the relics to the Duomo - see below).

Emore Paoli (reference below, at pp 70-4) published a 15th century copy of one of these legends (BHL 3823) in the Biblioteca Augusta, Perugia.  The summary of the information from the Legend of the Twelve Syrians with which it begins contains two details of particular interest:

  1. St Anastasius is beheaded explicitly at “Aquas Salvias”; and

  2. the consecration of St Herculanus as bishop of Perugia was carried out by St Brictius in the capacity of  “Metropolitanus Spolitane” (Archbishop of Spoleto).

The legend continues with an account of the material given to Gregory I by “Floridus ... Tudertine civitatis episcopus” (St Floridus, bishop of Todi (sic)).  However, it combines the two earlier accounts of the young boy who was brought to life through contact with the body of St Herculanus:

  1. he is initially buried with St Herculanus outside the city walls;

  2. he is then reburied with St Herculanus at San Pietro after 40 days, by which time his body (unlike that of St Herculanus) is corrupt; but

  3. he is miraculously restored to life immediately after this reburial, and lives for another seven years before his death and final burial at San Pietro.

Relics of St Herculanus

Sarcophagus containing the relics of St Herculanus,

which now forms the high altar of the church dedicated to him

BHL 3823 ends with an account of the translation of the relics of St Herculanus in the time of Bishop Rogerio (who was apparently documented in 936).  It says that the date of this translation had subsequently been forgotten, but that St Herculanus revealed it by subsequently performing many miracles on 1st March.  The 15th century copy mentioned above fills in a gap in the surviving versions of the original.  This makes it clear that the translation by Bishop Rogerio was to “ecclesesia beati Laurencij” (the Duomo of San Lorenzo).   (Thus, accounts in which the relics were first translated by Bishop Roger to Santo Stefano del Castellare can be discounted.)

Local historians record the discovery in 1378 of the relics of the head and an arm of St Herculanus in the ancient crypt of what is now the church of Sant’ Agata, Antognolla (some 20 km north of Perugia).  They were translated to the Duomo to join the relics already preserved there.  This resurgence in the cult of St Herculanus was probably a response to the expulsion of the hated papal legate Gérard du Puy, Abbot of Marmoutier, (known to the Italians as “Monmaggiore”): he had heavily circumscribed the celebrations on the feast of St Herculanus during his occupation of the city in the previous three years.

When the original relics were examined in 1487, prior to their translation to the new high altar of the Duomo, they were found to be in tact.  It was thus suggested that the head and arm from Antognolla had belonged to a second St Herculanus, who was claimed as the first bishop of the city.  The subsequent translation marked the end of the prolonged reconstruction of the church  

In 1609, Bishop Napoleone Comitoli arranged for the simultaneous translation of the relics of three saints:
  1. those of St Herculanus from the Duomo to Sant’ Ercolano;

  2. those of “St” Bevignate from San Bevignate to the Duomo; and

  3. those of St Peter Abbot from the sacristy to the high altar of San Pietro.

The translation of the relics of St Herculanus is depicted in this panel (ca. 1627) by Matteuccio Salvucci in the apse of Sant’ Ercolano.  The Roman sarcophagus in which the relics were placed still forms the high altar of that church (as illustrated above).

St Herculanus, Patron of Perugia

In 1216, Pope Innocent III consecrated an altar in the Duomo that was dedicated to St Herculanus.  When he died shortly afterwards, he was buried in a monument beside this altar.  (Some scholars believe that this altar was in the red and white chapel to the right of the campanile of the Duomo that is portrayed in this detail from the illustration at the top of the page, but others believe it was in the Duomo or in a crypt under its apse).  The civic status of St Herculanus is clear from the fact that, from at least 1214, the subject cities of Perugia did homage at the foot of the campanile of the Duomo on the feast of St Herculanus.   

In 1297, the Commune began the construction of the present church of Sant’ Ercolano, which stands on the site of the initial hasty burial of the saint.  The fresco in the Cappella dei Priori depicted below shows the discovery of this grave some 40 days later, set anachronistically in front of this church.

Lion and Griffin (1274)


The Commune probably commissioned these magnificent bronze statues in 1274 for use in the annual procession on the feast of St Herculanus: this procession from the Duomo to San Domenico and back was first documented in 1276, when they were in “eglesia Sancti Laurenzii et Sancti Herculani” (the Duomo).  An artist known as the Maestro del 1274 cast each of them in a single piece.   The griffin's wings were added in 1281, at which point both figures were gilded. 

The figures were placed on detachable mounts on the Fontana Minore from 1281 until 1301, and presumably continued to be used in the processions throughout this period.  They were removed from the fountain and  placed above the external portal of what is now known as the Sala dei Notai, Palazzo dei Priori in 1301. 

The figures were removed for restoration in 1951 and returned to their original locations in 1973.

  1. They were replaced by copies (illustrated at the centre above) in 1985.  

  2. The originals (illustrated to the sides above) were exhibited in the Galleria Nazionale.  However, at the time of my visit in 2013, they were temporarily located in the enclosed courtyard through the Portale dei Santi Patroni of Palazzo dei Priori.

Later Development of the Legend


St Herculanus                         Traitor cleric

Figures (1274) on Fontana Maggiore

A statue next to that of St Herculanus on the Fontana Maggiore (1274) is described by an inscription as “clericus proditur sancti herculanus” (the leric who betrayed St Herculanus).  This traitor also appears again in the “Eulistea”, an account (1293) of the history of Perugia from its mythic foundation by the Trojan Euliste, in which a deacon was the “perfidious actor” who caused the death of St Herculanus.  

The earliest surviving detailed description of this treachery is in a publication (1586) by the Dominican scholar, Giovanni Battista Bracceschi (referenced below).  In his account (whose source is unknown), as the siege threatened to result in starvation, St Herculanus threw a fattened goat from the walls in order to convince the Goths that the city still had provisions.  However, a young cleric told Totila that this was a ruse, and that the city was close to surrender.  The siege was therefore pressed to its conclusion, and St Herculanus was executed.  The traitorous deacon, who also died during the fighting, was buried with St Herculanus and subsequently moved with him to San Pietro.  He it was who was miraculously restored to life immediately after this reburial, and who lived for another seven years before his death and final burial at San Pietro.

An earlier pictorial source of this account appears in one of the scenes from the legend of St Herculanus in the Cappella dei Priori (now part of the Galleria Nazionale), which the Priors commissioned from Benedetto Bonfigli in 1461.  This scene (illustrated above) is in two parts: 

  1. On the left, Totila's soldiers are camped in the ruins of the amphitheatre outside Porta Marzia, towards the end of the siege of Perugia.  They gather around a fattened ox (rather than a goat) that St Herculanus has thrown from the walls in order to convince them that the city still has provisions.  However, the young cleric testifies on oath before Totila that this is a ruse, and that the city is close to surrender.

  2. On the right, the scene is set after the city has fallen and St Herculanus has been beheaded.  A few brave souls recover his body (with the head miraculously in place), together with that of the young boy (not the traitorous cleric) with whom he had been buried. 

In the second scene, the uncorrupt body of St Herculanus is carried on a bier to San Pietro.  Behind it and to the left, the boy who had been buried with him comes back to life. 

The final scene, of which only fragments survive, depicts the translation of the relics from San Pietro to the Duomo in ca. 936.

Feast of St Herculanus

In the earliest records of Perugia, the feast of St Herculanus was celebrated in the city on 1st March.  From the time of the identification of two separate sets of relics (i.e. from 1487 - see above), the Perugians celebrated:

  1. the feast of St Herculanus I on 1st March; and

  2. that of St Herculanus II on 7th November.

In 1586,Giovanni Battista Bracceschi (referenced below) confronted the problem of the chronology of the legend of St Herculanus, and came to the conclusion that there must have been two waves of Syrian emigration, one in the 3rd and one in the 6th century, as well as two saints named Herculanus.  He drew on an extract (1583) of an account (c. 1474) by Pietro Antonio Nardi of the life of St Proculus of Terni to date the second wave of immigration to 516.  This placed the St Herculanus II (the figure in the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I) in the Legend of the 300 Syrians.  

Ludovico Jacobilli (referenced below) took these arguments to their logical conclusion, suggesting the existence of:

  1. St Herculanus I, the first bishop of Perugia, martyred under the Emperor Domitian on 7th November;

  2. St Herculanus II, one of the twelve Syrians, martyred at Spoleto under the Emperor Diocletian on 20th July; and

  3. St Herculanus III, one of the 300 Syrians, martyred by Totila on 1st March.

The Bollandists were among the first scholars to refute the case for more than one St Herculanus. 

  1. Their arguments were finally accepted by the Perugian church in 1940, when the feast was designated to be 7th November, the date in the oldest known sources. 

  2. However, the feast was moved to 1st March in 1963, in view of the strength of local tradition surrounding this date.

  3. The feast of 7th November (the anniversary of the martyrdom) was reinstated in 2006, at which point the feast of 1st March was once more declared to be a celebration of the translation.

Read more:

E. Paoli, “Agiografia e Culto dei Santi a Perugia fra Alto e Basso Medioevo”, in

  1. A. Bartoli Langeli and E Menestò (Eds), “La Chiesa di Perugia nel Primo Millennio: Atti del Convegno di Studi (Perugia, 1-3 April 2004)”, Spoleto (2005) pp. 41-84 

Section 5 on St Herculanus begins on page 59 and the transcriptions mentioned in the text are at p64 and pp 70-4

F. Scorza Barcellona, “I Santi della Fontana Maggiore di Perugia”, in

  1. C. Santini (Ed.), “Il Linguaggio Figurativo della Fontana Maggiore di Perugia”, Perugia (1996) pp. 271-289, particularly pp 280-9

L. Jacobilli, “Vite de' Santi e Beati dell' Umbria, e di Quelli , i Corpi dei quali Riposano in essa Provincia” (1647-61) 

  1. Republished in Foligno in 2009

G. B. Bracceschi, “Discorsi ...  Ne' quali si Dimostra che due Santi Hercolani Martiri sieno stati Vescovi di Perugia: & si Descrivono le Vite loro & di alcuni Santi di Spoleti: & Appresso le Antichità et Laudi di detta Città”, Camerino (1586)

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