Erasmus of Formia

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Saint Erasmus of Formia
Falkensteiner Retabel Drehflügel rechts außen.jpg
St. Erasmus by the Master of Meßkirch, c. 1530.
Born 3rd century
Died c. 303
Illyricum (modern day Croatia)
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church; Eastern Orthodoxy
Feast June 2[1]
Attributes represented with his entrails wound on a windlass or as a vested bishop holding a winch or windlass[2][3]
Patronage sailors, Gaeta, Formia, colic in children, intestinal ailments and diseases, cramps and the pain of women in labor, cattle pest, Fort St. Elmo, (Malta)
A 15th-century fresco painting held to be the torturing of Erasmus, in the Maria Church in Båstad, Sweden

Saint Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo, was a Christian saint and martyr, according to Christian tradition, who died c. 303. He is venerated as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. St Erasmus or Elmo is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, saintly figures of Christian tradition who were venerated especially as intercessors.

Documentation of his life[edit]

The Acts of Saint Elmo were partly compiled from legends that confuse him with a Syrian bishop Erasmus of Antioch. Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend credited him as a bishop at Formia over all the Italian Campania, as a hermit on Mount Lebanon, and a martyr in the persecutions under Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Account of life and martyrdom[edit]

When the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian began,

Erasmus was called before a judge, beaten around the head, spat upon and "besprinkled...with foulness." He was then beaten with leaden mauls until his veins broke and burst. Erasmus suffered all of these punishments with tremendous willingness. Erasmus was then thrown into a pit of snakes and worms, and boiling oil and sulfur were poured on him but "he lay therein as he had lain in cold water, thanking and loving God." Then thunder and lightning came and electrocuted everyone around save Erasmus. Thus the saint was protected from the lightning. Diocletian had him thrown in another pit, but an angel came and slew all the vipers and worms.

Then came the Western Roman Emperor Maximian who, according to Voragine, was "much worse than was Diocletian." Erasmus would not cease preaching the Gospel, even though he was "put into a pan seething with rosin, pitch, brimstone lead, and oil, [which were] pour[ed] ... into his mouth, [from] ... which he never shrank." A searing hot cloak and metal coat were both tried on him, to no effect, and an angel eventually carried him away to safety."

"And when this holy man came before the false gods" to which he was to be forced to sacrifice, they "fell down and broke all in pieces, and consumed into ashes or dust." That made the emperor so angry he had Erasmus enclosed in a barrel full of protruding spikes, and the barrel was rolled down a hill. But an angel healed him. Further tortures ensued:

His teeth were ... plucked out of his head with iron pincers. And after that they bound him to a pillar and carded his skin with iron cards, and then they roasted him upon a gridiron...and did smite sharp nails of iron in his fingers, and after, they put out his eyes of his head with their fingers, and after that they laid this holy bishop upon the ground naked and stretched him with strong withes bound to horses about his blessed neck, arms, and legs, so that all his veins and sinews that he had in his body burst."

The version of the Golden Legend did not relate how Erasmus fled to Mount Lebanon and survived on what ravens brought him to eat, an interesting pre-Christian mytheme. When he was recaptured, he was brought before the emperor and beaten and whipped, then coated with pitch and set alight (as Christians had been in Nero's games), and still he survived. Thrown into prison with the intention of letting him die of starvation, St Erasmus managed to escape.

He was recaptured and tortured some more in the Roman province of Illyricum, after boldly preaching and converting numerous pagans to Christianity. Finally, according to this version of his death, his stomach was slit open and his intestines wound around a windlass. This version may have developed from interpreting an icon that showed him with a windlass, signifying his patronage of sailors.[4]

Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, Poussin

Veneration and patronage[edit]

Saint Erasmus may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to claim his prayers. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called "Saint Elmo's Fire".[5][6]

Pope St Gregory the Great recorded in the 6th century that the relics of Erasmus were preserved in the cathedral of Formia. When the old Formiae was razed by the Saracens in 842, the cult of Erasmus was moved to Gaeta. He is currently the patron of Gaeta, Santeramo in Colle and Formia.

There is an altar to St Erasmus in the north transept of St. Peter's Basilica.[7] A copy of Nicolas Poussin's Martyrdom of St. Erasmus serves as the altarpiece.[4]

Besides his patronage of mariners, Erasmus is invoked against colic in children, abdominal pain, intestinal ailments and diseases, cramps and the pain of women in labor, as well as cattle pests.


See also[edit]

  • St. Elmo Hall, a name for some chapter houses of Delta Phi fraternity
  • St. Elmo's fire, a meteorological phenomenon named after the saint
  • Blessed Peter González, patron of Spanish and Portuguese mariners is also invoked as "San Telmo" or "San Elmo."


  1. ^ Martyrologium Romanum, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (2001) ISBN 88-209-7210-7
  2. ^ Saint of the Day, June 2: Erasmus of Formia Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  3. ^ "Saint Erasmus" Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  4. ^ a b "Poussin, the martyrdom of St. Erasmus", Department of Art History and Architecture, Columbia University
  5. ^ Eyers, Jonathan (2011). Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. A&C Black, London, UK. ISBN 978-1-4081-3131-2.
  6. ^ St. Erasmus (St. Elmo) Catholic Online. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  7. ^ Altar of St. Erasmus - St. Peter's Basilica

External links[edit]