Monday, August 15, 2016

Saint Tarsicius – Guardian of the Eucharist

Alexandre Falguiere, St. Tarsicius
French, 1868
Paris, Musée d'Orsay
(Another version of the same statue is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.  See below.)
On August 15th the universal Church celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  However, there is another feast on that same day that is little known.  It is the feast day of St. Tarsicius, one of the Roman martyrs from the third or early fourth century.   We know of him from two sources, his tomb in the Catacomb of St. Callixtus and a short epigram written by Pope St. Damasus I (born ca. 304, died 384).1  In his epigram Pope Damasus compared the martyrdoms of St. Stephen, the first martyr, and Tarsicius, both murdered by hostile crowds, using stones and clubs.2  For this reason, it is believed that Tarsicius was a deacon, a helper to the clergy, as Stephen had been a helper to the Apostles (Acts, Chapters 6 and 7). 

It is believed that Tarsicius was a young man, perhaps as young as 12, who was charged with bringing the Eucharist to Christians unable to attend the liturgy (Mass).  As he was carrying the Eucharist through the streets of Rome he was spotted by a crowd who stopped him and demanded that he surrender what he was carrying.  Tarsicius refused and was accosted.  In spite of the brutal beating he received he refused to give up what he was carrying and was beaten until he died.  His body was placed in the catacomb and his story was remembered by the community.  Repeated by Pope Damasus and compared with St. Stephen, there is no doubt that the Christian community numbered him among the martyr saints.  That he is an early saint there is no doubt because of the dating of his feast day, August 15th.  This date did not become the fixed date of the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary until about 500.3   That Tarsicius’ feast day is set on the same date is a strong argument for its existence in the Roman calendar before 500.

Martyrdom of St. Tarsicius
from Legendier
French, ca. 1250
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition française 23686,
fol.107v (detail)
Tarsicius is the patron saint of altar servers (based on a later interpretation of his office as that of an acolyte, instead of a deacon), first communicants and of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.   He is a reminder that those who accept the role of assisting at Mass, and of bringing the Eucharist to those unable to attend in person, have a responsibility to protect and defend that Eucharist with their lives if the need arises. 

Visually, the overshadowing of his feast by the feast of the Assumption has resulted in a scarcity of pictorial representations of Tarsicius.   Diligent searching of numerous internet art collections brought only a few examples, and only one from the middle ages.  The medieval image I found shows the saint, dressed as an altar server, but full grown, carrying a veiled ciborium (vessel in which consecrated Hosts are stored) and being set upon by a group of men.  Other examples may exist, but may be misclassified, making them hard to find.  Tarsicius does not seem to have been a well-known saint in the middle ages, as is shown by his absence from Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, the popular medieval collection of lives of the saints.

However, interest in Tarsicius seems to have grown considerably during the nineteenth century.  Reasons for this may be two-fold.  The first is that a period that had witnessed a revival of Catholicism after the experience of seeing it driven underground in England and Ireland under the Penal Laws or in parts of France during the Terror was more likely to appreciate the sacrifice of Tarsicius.  Further, archeological investigations into the catacombs by pioneer archeologists, such as Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894), had begun to uncover the story of the early days of Roman Christianity, including discovering the ancient catacombs, after their long burial in the ruins of ancient Rome. 4

In the English speaking world some of Saint Tarsicius’ increase in recognition during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century may have been due to the publication in 1854 of a novel by Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman of Westminster called Fabiola, Or the Church of the Catacombs.  Written to encourage the Catholics of England who were just coming out of the period of outright and semi-persecution that had lasted since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, by telling of early Christian bravery, it popularized for English speakers many of the early Roman martyrs, previously little known outside of Italy. 

One interesting example of nineteenth-century images of St. Tarsicius is on display at the Metropolitan Museum as part of the permanent collection.  This is an 1868 statue by Alexandre Falguiere.  It shows the young Tarsicius, prayerfully clutching a large Host to his chest as he is about to expire.5  

Alexandre Falguiere, St. Tarsicius
French, ca. 1868
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
It is obviously derived from a famous work by Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Barat”.  David’s painting was something of a sensation in its time.  David’s painting records the death of a young Republican drummer boy, shot down by Royalist forces for having responded “Long Live the Republic” to their shout of “Long Live the King”.  Barat was seen by revolutionaries such as David as a secular martyr for the cause of the French Republic.  In his painting, David has stripped the body of the boy in reference to classical antiquity (one of the artistic themes of the French Revolution) and has shown him clasping his hands as he dies.  Falguiere has made conscious reference to this pose in presenting Tarsicius, although his boy is modestly clothed and more actively shown in prayer.  He has, therefore, turned the pose of David’s revolutionary, secular martyr, back toward the Christian roots of the concept of martyrdom, willingly giving your life for the sake of the faith. 
Jacques-Louis David, Death of Barat
French, 1794
Avignon, Musée Calvet

Another, early twentieth-century, image of the saint is found in one of the stained glass windows of the church of St. Jean Baptiste in New York by the Charles Lorin Studio of Chartres, France. The window fills a lunette window over the doors of one of the shallow transepts of the church.  It shows Tarsicius as a young man, kneeling at the door of a building that seems to be set into the earth, probably implying a catacomb.  He is holding a vessel to receive the Host which the priest is shown holding in front of him. 

Unfortunately, after about the time in which the Lorin window was installed in the church (1920) images of Tarsicius of good quality seem to have ceased altogether, being replaced by sentimental “holy card” images.
 © M. Duffy, 2016
  1.  Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Tarsicius." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 14 Aug. 2016 <>.
  2.  Shahan, Thomas. "Pope St. Damasus I." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 14 Aug. 2016 <>.  See also Damasus I, Pope. Ed. Maximilian Ihm, Damasi epigrammata; accedunt Pseudodamasiana aliaque ad Damasiana inlustranda idonea. Recensuit et adnotauit Macimilianus Ihm. Adjecta tabula, Leipzig, B.G. Teubner, 1895, p. 21 (notes and comments 21-24).  Retrieved:  Accessed 8/14/2016 
  3. Holweck, Frederick. "The Feast of the Assumption." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 14 Aug. 2016  <>.
  5. Another, slightly earlier, version of the same statue is also in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

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