The Forgotten Saint

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

One of Saint Vincent’s many depictions. Detail of a painting (unknown source).

Today, as in every twenty-second day of January, is the Feast of Saint Vincent, the true patron saint of the city of Lisbon (and not Saint Anthony, as we shall see further down) and one of the oldest saints worshiped by the Portuguese . However, ask anyone on the streets of Portugal, and nobody knows who he is – let alone that today is his day.

Who is Saint Vincent, then, and why is it important for us – Portuguese in general, 15th century reenactors in particular – to remember him?

A Saint from Hispania

No contemporary sources survive about the saint’s life. The ones we have closest to him are the works of Prudentius, the greatest Christian poet of late antiquity, who tells about Vincent’s torments in his Liber Peristephanon; and some of St. Augustine’s sermons.

It is the third century of the Christian era. In Rome, Diocletian is emperor. The future saint Vincent is born at the end of the century in Hispania Tarraconensis, more precisely in Osca (nowadays Huesca), a city near Saragossa.

Most of Vicent’s life is spent in Saragossa, where he receives his education in religion and letters from Bishop Valerius – the same bishop who would later ordain him deacon. Valerius, somewhat impaired in his functions by a speech impediment, entrusts the young Vicent with being his personal spokesman, and sends him out preaching in the diocese.

Vicente 2.png
Detail of the painting Flagellation of Sait Vincent, by  the Master of Castelsardo (ca. 1500-1510).

But this is not yet Constantine’s Christian-friendly Roman Empire. This is still the era of widespread anti-Christian persecutions and purges. Diocletian orders one of these brutal persecutions throughout the Empire, including the Iberian Peninsula. In Hispania, the governor Dacian is charged with carrying out this task. What follows is a story as simple as it is cruel: Dacian arrives in Saragossa, Bishop Valerius and his spokesman are captured and sent to Valencia, where they are imprisoned and tortured. In order to persuade them to deny their Christian faith and accept the pagan gods, Dacian commands them to be brough to his presence. His attempt at persuasion, sharpened by threats of torture, fails: neither Valerius nor Vincent accept the governor’s proposal. Valerius, spared due his age, is banished. Vincent, whose defiant attitude angers Dacian, is condemned to torture – including having salt rubbed in his wounds, being tortured on the rack, and being burned alive on a gridiron – and death. Vincent dies, martyred, on January 22 of the year 304.

Waves and Crows

Vincent’s corpse was thrown to the wild, to be eaten by beasts. And here History turns into the intricacies of Legend. The story goes that the body, instead of being eaten, was saved and protected by a bird – a crow. Dacian then ordered the body be thrown into the sea, tied to a millstone. Even then he did not get rid of the young man, for Vincent’s body soon returned to shore. It is said that he was buried by a widow from Valencia, outside the city walls, and later transferred to the cathedral.

Not even then could Vincent, already famous as a saint (and known beyond the Iberian Peninsula), finally rest. With the end of the Roman Empire, the Peninsula is invaded by the Muslims, and the persecution of Christians is once again taken up [1]. The saint’s devotees decide to put Vincent’s body in a boat towards the West, that ends up wrecking next to the Promontorium Sacrum, thenceforth called the Cape of Saint Vincent. There a hermitage was erected, to safeguard the saint’s relics. But there was still one last journey in store for Vincent.

Vicente 3
The crows guarding Saint Vincent’s body. Illustration from the Book of Hours of King Dom Manuel.

Portugal, 12th century. King Afonso Henriques, in the midst of his affairs, will have been told the story of Saint Vincent and ordered the body of the saint, at that time held in Muslim territory, to be rescued and sent to Lisbon. According to legend, the boat with the martyr’s remains was always accompanied in its journey by two crows, one perched on the bow and another at the stern, protecting the saint until reaching Lisbon, where it arrived in 1176.

Saint Vincent in Lisbon and Portugal

With either more or less crows, what is certain that the relics were actually transferred from Sagres to a church outside the walls of Lisbon – São Vicente de Fora (lit. Saint Vincent Outside [The Walls], so called because it was placed outside the city walls). At the time, Saint Crispim was the patron saint of Lisbon [2]; but the city’s devotion to Saint Vincent grew to such heights that he was soon proclaimed patron saint of Lisbon. The boat and crows of legend were adopted as symbols of the city, and remain so to this day.

Martírio_de_São_Vicente_atado_à_coluna_(c._1470)_-_Nuno_Gonçalves (1)
Martyrdom of Saint Vincent, by Nuno Gonçalves (ca. 1470).

Despite the dispersal of some of his relics (there are fragments of his body in Spain, France, Italy …), it is believed that most of the saint finally settled for good in Lisbon. Some parcels were lost, when the tomb that housed them was crushed during the 1755 earthquake, but the rest of them remain in Lisbon’s Cathedral.

Saint Vincent’s importance in Portugal was felt particularly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as can be attested by: the paintings of Nuno Gonçalves (the Panels and the Martyrdom, on the right), during the reign of King Afonso V; the Tower of Belém, whose name in the fifteenth century is Baluarte de São Vicente alongside Belém (Saint Vincent’s Bulwark in Belém), designed in the reign of King João II and erected during the reign of King Manuel I; or the golden “Saint Vincent”, a commemorative coin of King João III with the value of a thousand réis, continued by King Sebastião [3]. As a saint, he was not only  cherished by royalty: there were churches to him all across in Portugal, particularly in Lisbon and the Algarve; every 22nd of January, huge festivals were held in honour of the saint, especially in Lisbon (for obvious reasons). It was not uncommon for people to go to the Algarve to visit the saint’s first place of arrivalin the country. Saint Vincent was patron to sailors, which, in a nation of seafarers, meant he enjoyed tremendous importance in daily prayers. Why, then, the complete oblivion in which he’s lingered since?

The Other Patron Saint

A particularly austered depiction of Saint Anthony, alluding to his preaching to fish. An excerpt of Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Francis of Assisi, by Friedrich Pacer (1477).

The answer fundamentally lies with another saint: Saint Anthony of Lisbon. Born in the city in 1195, died in Padua in 1232 and canonized by popular acclaim a mere short year after his death, Saint Anthony became, in a very short amount of time, a star in the medieval Catholic pantheon. Nowhere has he become as venerated as in Lisbon – ironic, when we consider that at the age of fifteen Anthony was educated at the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora.

Unlike Saint Vincent, whose celebration takes place in the middle of winter, Saint Anthony is a summer saint – always a more attractive date on which to hold a festival. Also unlike Vincent, Saint Anthony is held as a patron of a wide range of things. These two characteristics, together with his local origin, marked the decline of Saint Vincen’s fame in Lisbon and, little by little, in the rest of the country.

Today, Saint Vincent is an almost forgotten saint. The celebrations of January 22 still take place in Lisbon’s Cathedral, and the saint is still the diocese’s patron (but not the city’s – there Saint Anthony prevailed). As fifteenth-century reenactores, however, it is up to us, believers or not (I am definitely not), to maintain the memory of what was once one of the great figures of medieval Portuguese thought and belief.


[1] “According to the Portuguese narrative regarding the claim to the martyr’s relics, in order to avoid their desecration, in the context of the destruction of the Valencian churches perpetrated by Abd-er-rahman, they were transferred by devotees to a monastery on the promontory of Saint Vincent, in the Algarve, which would be destroyed with the arrival of the Almoravids from Morocco to the Algarve” [my translation] (“Segundo a narrativa portuguesa de reivindicação das relíquias do mártir, de forma a não haver profanação das mesmas, no contexto da destruição das igrejas valencianas perpetrada por Abd-er-rahman, foram trasladadas por devotos para um mosteiro no promontório de São Vicente, no Algarve. Este seria destruído com a vinda dos almorávidas de Marrocos para o Algarve”), in


[3] Regarding this, see an excellent entry on the “Saint Vincent” and the “Half Vincent” in


Oliveira Marques, A. (2010). A Sociedade Medieval Portuguesa – Aspectos do Quotidiano. Lisboa: Esfera dos Livros.


Gonçalves, N. (ca. 1470). Martyrdom of Saint Vincent [oils on wood]. Retrieved fromírio_de_São_Vicente_atado_à_coluna_%28c._1470%29_-_Nuno_Gonçalves.png

Book of Hours of King Dom Manuel (ca. 1517-1538). Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

Master of Castelsardo. (ca. 1470). Flagellation of Saint Vincent [tempera, stucco and gold leaf on wood]. Retrieved from

Pacher, F. (1477). Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Francis of Assisi [tempera on pine wood]. Retrieved from

Saint Vincent Martyr. Retrieved fromác_e_mártir.jpg


Butler, A. (1866). Saint Vincent, Martyr. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints. In CatholicSaints.Info. Retrieved 14 January, 2018 from

Dal-Gal, N. (1907). St. Anthony of Padua. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 16 January, 2018 from New Advent:

Mershman, F. (1912). St. Vincent. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 14 January, 2018 from New Advent:



One thought on “The Forgotten Saint

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s