(d. c. 300)

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(d. c.300),

bishop of Formiae in the Campagna, martyr. His name occurs in the Martyrology of Jerome, in early Irish and Anglo-Saxon ones also. Gregory the Great referred to his relics being venerated at Formiae, but when this town was sacked by Saracens in 842, Erasmus' body was translated to Gaeta whose patron he became. Although he existed, almost nothing is known about him. Hagiographers and artists attempted to supply this deficiency with such effect that his cult spread through most of the Western world until in the 15th century he was invoked as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

His Legend makes him a Syrian bishop (based on an Erasmus of Antioch) who fled the persecution of Diocletian to be a hermit on Mount Lebanon, where he was discovered, beaten, and rolled in pitch which was then set alight. Cast into prison, he was released by an angel to Illyricum, where he was again tortured until an angel took him to Formiae, where he died. Curiously this gives no clue to his usual emblem of a windlass. This association apparently arose because his Legend described him preaching during a thunderstorm, undeterred by a thunderbolt near by, whence he became the patron of sailors, who had good reason to fear the effect of sudden storms. The lights sometimes seen at mastheads after storms called St Elmo's Fire (or, less correctly, St Helen's Fire) were believed to be a sign of his protection. The windlass, it is thought, was chosen for his emblem as the sailors' patron. Later this was misunderstood as being an instrument of torture, and it was thought that he was martyred through having his intestines removed. Hence his secondary patronage of all, especially children, who suffer from colic or similar diseases. The parish church of Faversham (Kent) used to have an altar of St Erasmus, where lights were provided by frequent legacies in the later Middle Ages. Paintings of Erasmus by Grünewald, Cranach, and Dirk Bouts survive; so also does a sculpture in the chapel of Henry VII, Westminster Abbey, and several medieval English alabasters. Feast: 2 June.

AA.SS. Iun. I (1695), 211–19;R. Flahault, S. Erasme (1895); Réau, i. 437–40; B.L.S., vi. 16–17; Bibl. SS., iv. 1288–93.

Subjects: Christianity.

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