Reliquary bust of Saint Servatius (c. 1580)
|Died||prob. 384 AD
|Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
|Major shrine||Basilica of Saint Servatius, Maastricht|
|Attributes||So-called 'Servatius key'|
|Patronage||Invoked against: foot troubles, lameness, rheumatism, rats and mice|
Saint Servatius (Dutch: Sint Servaas; French: Saint Servais) (born in Armenia, died in Maastricht, traditionally in 384) was bishop of Tongeren —Latin: Atuatuca Tungrorum, the capital of the Tungri—. Servatius is patron saint of the city of Maastricht and the towns of Schijndel and Grimbergen. He is one of the Ice Saints. His feast day is May 13.
A widely travelled diplomat and a determined prosecutor of Arianism, the presence of Servatius is recorded at several synods and church councils. In 343, Sarbatios - Greek texts rendering v as b - was present at the Council of Sardica (modern Sofia). In the debates, Servatius represented the Trinitarian view, which clashed with the Arian view of most Eastern bishops. When Athanasius, leader of the anti-Arian party, was in exile in Trier, he may have met with Servatius in Trier or Tongeren, because both men campaigned against Arian bishops and priests in the region. In 346, at the Council of Cologne, Servatius testified against the bishop of Cologne, saying that "he denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, this even happened in the presence of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria", adding to this "our churches are adjacent".
After co-emperor Constans had been assassinated in 350, Servatius was sent to the Roman emperor Constantius II in Edessa, the capital of Armenian Mesopotamia, as an envoy of the usurper Magnentius to represent the late Constans as an unworthy tyrant and oppressor, in the hope of obtaining Constantius' recognition of Magnentius as co-ruler. The mission failed and the resulting civil war ended with the death of Magnentius in 353. The mission can be seen as a sign of the high standing of Servatius. In 359, at the Council of Rimini, Sulpicius Severus reports that Servatius again eloquently denounced Arianism.
An important source about the life of Saint Servatius, albeit not a contemporary source, is Gregory of Tours' Glory of the Confessors and History of the Franks. In his late 6th-century account, Gregory writes about Aravatius (identified by most scholars as Servatius), who was a bishop of Tongeren and died in Maastricht. According to the Frankish bishop and historian, Aravatius lived at the time when the Huns threatened Tongeren (5th century), which does not match the 4th-century dates of the synods mentioned above. It is not always clear how much of Gregory's account is history and how much is (pious) fiction. Gregory describes how Servatius, during a vigil at Saint Peter's tomb in Rome, had a vision in which the destruction of Tongeren was forecast (because of their sinfulness). Peter then handed the Keys of Heaven to Servatius, transferring to him the power to forgive sins. According to Gregory, Servatius returned to Tongeren, brought the relics of his predecessors to Maastricht, where he died and was buried alongside the Roman road, near the bridge.
As a bishop, Servatius may have been the founder of several early Christian churches in the diocese of Tongeren. Two likely candidates are the Basilica of Our Lady in Tongeren and the Basilica of Our Lady in Maastricht. In the case of Tongeren, this traditional claim was supported by excavations in the 1980s, which revealed under the medieval church remains of a 4th-century church, possibly the original cathedral of the diocese. The origins of the Maastricht church of Our Lady remain uncertain, since no excavations have ever been carried out inside this church. In another Maastricht church however, the Basilica of Saint Servatius, excavations in the 1990s have revealed the remains of a 6th-century church (built by bishop Monulph and described by Gregory of Tours as a magnum templum), with at its center a late Roman structure, possibly the tomb of Servatius.
Over the centuries legends accumulated around the historical figure of the bishop of Tongeren. Two early vitae (biographies) place Servatius' birth in Armenia and make him a cousin of John the Baptist, and thus a distant relative of Jesus (neither were mentioned by Gregory of Tours).
Around 1075, the French priest Jocundus was commissioned by the chapter of Saint Servatius to write another Vita sancti Servatii. Jocundus is also the author of the Miracula sancti Servatii, a sequel to the vita, describing all the miracles that happened after Servatius' death. According to some historians, both works were composed to quell doubts about the genealogy of Servatius and his Armenian descent. These doubts had been raised at the Council of Mainz in 1049. When envoys from the Byzantine emperor arrived at the Council of Mainz, confirming accounts by a certain Alagrecus who had testified that Servatius was Armenian, and asserting that his birthplace was Fenuste, southeast of Damascus, this helped to erase some doubts but Servatius' kinship to Jesus was never confirmed by an official council.
At the end of the 12th century the poet Henric van Veldeke wrote a new legend of Saint Servatius, based on the earlier accounts by Gregory of Tours and Jocundus, to which he added several more miracles, thus emphasizing Saint Servatius' saintliness. The work is considered one of the earliest works of Dutch literature, even though it was written in a Mosan dialect, closely related to Middle Dutch.
In the 17th century, the Bollandists tried to separate some of the facts and myths surrounding Servatius. They managed to calculate the exact date of his death (13 May 384), which for a long time was accepted as a historical fact.
Saint Servatius baptizes Attila the Hun
According to tradition the saint's remains are buried in the Basilica of Saint Servatius in Maastricht, where they lie in a crypt dating from the 6th century. His tomb has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Famous visitors include Charlemagne, Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor), Philip II of Spain and Pope John Paul II. In Maastricht, the Orthodox Church belonging to the Russian Exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is also dedicated to Saint Servatius. The Sint Servaasbrug, the oldest bridge over the river Meuse in Maastricht, was named after Saint Servatius. The name 'Servaas' was a popular given name in Maastricht and surroundings for many centuries.
The 12th-century gilded reliquary chest in the Basilica of Saint Servatius, containing the saint's relics, is a major work of Mosan art and became known as the Chest of Distress ("Noodkist") as it was carried around town in times of distress. A procession with the reliquary shrine still takes place every seven years (Heiligdomsvaart). The Noodkist is normally kept in the Treasury of the Basilica of Saint Servatius, along with the so-called servatiana (objects that are associated with the saint, such as his crozier, his pectoral cross, his chalice, and a symbolic key to heaven).
Statue of the saint on Sint Servaasbrug
Other historic churches in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany were dedicated to the saint, e.g. the collegiate churches of Grimbergen Abbey and Quedlinburg Abbey. In the Quedlinburg Treasury important relics of Saint Servatius are kept. In many churches around the world, reliquaries, statues, stained glass windows, altar pieces and paintings of Servatius are revered. A mid-15th-century wooden sculpture of Memelia (the ancestor linking Servatius to Jesus) with the infant Servatius in her arms (identifiable by the infant wearing a bishop's mitre) in the Vendsyssel Historiske Museum in Hjørring, Denmark, is iconographically so similar to sculptures of the Madonna and Child, that it was long misattributed.
- (Greek) Ὁ Ἅγιος Σαρβάτος Ἐπίσκοπος Τονγκρὲ Βελγίου. 13 Μαΐου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
- Aravatius in Gregory of Tours.
- Historia Francorum, II.5
- P.C. Boeren (see above: Sources) reconstructed Jocundus' Vita sancti Servatii from surviving fragments; his dates are followed.
- Lichtenberger, Frédéric, ed. (1881). Encyclopédie des sciences religieuses 11. Sandoz et Fischbacher. p. 570.
- See: 'Den hellige Memelia' on website Vendsyssel Historiske Museum.
Sources and references
- P.C. Boeren, Jocundus, biographe de saint Servais. Nijhoff, The Hague, 1972
- L. Jongen Heinrich (ed.), and Kim Vivian, Richard H. Lawson and Ludo Jongen (transl.)The Life of Saint Servatius: A Dual-language Edition of the Middle Dutch 'legend of Saint Servatius' by Heinrich Von Veldeke and the Anonymous Upper German 'life of Saint Servatius'. Mellen Press, 2005, ISBN 0-7734-6063-2
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