SAINT BLANDINA TIMELINE
Date of birth unknown.
177: Year of Blandina’s death as given by Eusebius of Caesarea (263–339).
By the end of the second century, Christianity had made inroads into North Africa and had spread as far west as Gaul. The spread to Gaul was enabled by active trade that took place via a land route between Marseilles in the Rhone Valley and Smyrna in Asia Minor. An extensive water navigational system with a port at Arles from which ships could travel to Lyon made Lyon a river crossroad; establishing a significant connection between Gaul’s interior and exterior land navigational routes. While Celtic society had produced both land and river navigation routes prior to the Roman conquest of Gaul in the mid-first century B.C.E., it was Rome that improved, expanded and policed these routes, increasing their capacity for trade along with greater movement of people and ideas.
Lyon flourished as a result of Roman intervention. In 12 B.C.E., the imperial cult was secured there with the dedication of an altar to Roma and Augustus; and by the end of the second century, the city was well established as the capital of the Three Gauls, housing the tables of law for provincial procurators, the mint, and most likely the imperial treasury as well.
Nonetheless, by the time Christian communities were established at Lyon and Vienne in the mid-second century C.E., the empire was under significant strain due largely to constant threat of military invasion along the Danube. As emperor, Marcus Aurelius sought to defend Rome’s borders by increasing troops and resources in the area. Yet, no amount of resources could defend the populace against a plague of epidemic proportion that broke out in 167 C.E. According to one ancient source, this plague extended “From the frontiers of the Persians as far as to the Rhine and Gaul” polluting “everything with contagion and death” (Birley 1987:149). In order to deal with the threat, Marcus Aurelius called on all of the gods of Rome and entreated all people throughout the empire to do likewise. While the plague eventually ran its course, memories of it did not. Nor did suspicion and hatred of those who had refused to honor the gods during the time of such disaster. Such was the context in 177 C.E. when the Christians of Lyon and Vienne continued to refuse to honor the gods of the empire, and instead, continued to practice the exclusive worship of their own god. It is little wonder that they were viewed by authorities and common people alike as dissidents that the community as a whole needed to excise.
All that is known about Blandina of Lyon comes from the “Account of the Martyrs of Lyon and Vienne,” a letter that is included in Eusebius’ Church History (fourth century). The information given there is scant since Eusebius claims that more complete information can be found in his Collection of Ancient Martyrdoms, which, unfortunately, is no longer extant. Even so, the letter purports to offer an eyewitness account of the ordeal of a group of Christians rounded up, persecuted and killed at Lugdunum, in Gaul (modern-day Lyon, France). It focuses on the endurance and witness of ten persons, the most prominent of whom is Blandina. The author of the letter is unknown (Frend 1965:1). Although there is no certain evidence, some have suggested Irenaeus (130–202) as the most likely writer, since he was appointed Bishop of Lyon, following the death of the elderly bishop, Pothinus (87–177), who died during the ordeal (Nautin 1961:54–61; Grant 1980:118–19; Barnes 1968:517). It is also quite possible that even if penned by Irenaeus or some other person, the letter was a collective effort by the community, since Eusebius states that it is “an account of the witnesses to the Churches in Asia and Phrygia” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.2).
The destination of Asia for this letter being sent from Gaul offers insight into the make-up of the Lyon community and thereby also allows for cautious speculation as to the background of Blandina. While the distance separating these communities was more than a thousand miles, the Christian communities of Lyon and Vienne had strong ties to the churches in Asia Minor. Active trade routes existed between east and west and it was this transcontinental accessibility that had earlier enabled Polycarp (69–155), the famous martyred Bishop of Smyrna, to send Pothinus to Gaul as a missionary. Irenaeus soon joined Pothinus in Gaul where, gathering a few Christians around them, they began the communities at Lyon and Vienne. Thus, members of these communities relied heavily on the east for spiritual support and, like Pothinus and Irenaeus, many of them were likely transplants from the east. Indeed, of the ten persons named in the letter, seven are either said to have come from the east or bear Greek names, indicating the possibility that they or their parents had migrated to the west.
Regarding Blandina’s heritage, we cannot be sure. The only certain information given about her is that she was young, and that she was a slave whose mistress had also been arrested. Although her name is probably derived from the Latin word, “blandus/a/um,” meaning smooth-tongued, sweet, charming or winsome, the letter includes a few details that may indicate that she too came from the east. First, throughout the course of numerous tortures, Blandina utters only one sentence that is recorded by the author (“I am a Christian and there is nothing vile done by us”) and it is recorded in Greek (Eusebius 1982:5.1.19). Since the letter itself is written in Greek, that fact hardly proves that Blandina spoke in Greek. Still, when one of the others, Sanctus, utters the same phrase (“I am a Christian”) the author takes care to record that he spoke it in the language of the persecutors, which was probably also his own native tongue (Eusebius 1982:5.1.20). Had Blandina also done so, it seems probable that this would have been noted. Furthermore, the letter refers to Blandina as the “sister” of another of the ten, a young boy, seemingly also a slave, who bears the name Ponticus, from the Greek word often thought to refer to Northern Asia Minor, the region named Pontos (Eusebius 1982:5.1.54). Certainly, it is possible that the author intends to indicate a spiritual rather than a biological relationship between the two; yet, if so, one wonders why she is called “sister” in relation to Ponticus and “noble mother” in relation to others whom she also encouraged throughout their ordeals (Eusebius 1982:5.1.55; Thomas 1978:100–01). For these reasons, and in spite of the fact that she bore a Latin name, it is highly possible that Blandina had come to Lyon as an immigrant from the east, and that her mistress then gave her the name Blandina as a term of endearment.
Although her place of origin is uncertain, the letter makes clear that Blandina, the slave-woman, rose to prominent status in communal memory at Lyon since she occupies center stage in three separate scenes of this martyrology. [Image at right] Following opening remarks about the roundup and the group’s initial interactions with officials, Blandina is first mentioned as one of a small group of four who were said to be exceptional in the degree of hatred they aroused among the populace and officials. After enduring torture to the extent that her “entire body was mangled and broken,” her confession, “I am a Christian,” is recorded (Eusebius 1982:5.1.18-19). Yet, what really sets her apart, even from the other three, and provides a hint that she will be the most prominent figure throughout the rest of the account is the author’s statement that it was through her, Blandina, that “Christ showed that things which appear mean and obscure and despicable to men are with God of great glory” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.17).
Blandina’s second appearance in the martyrology is at mid-narrative where she is dragged into the arena in order to “give to the heathen public a spectacle of cruelty…” (Eusebius, 1982:5.1.37). Here, the reader is provided with a clear picture of this slave-woman’s ability to endure torture as she is forced to run the gauntlet, face wild beasts, suffer through roasting in an iron chair, and finally, is suspended on a stake while wild beasts mill around her. [Image at right] Yet, it is not all this torture that sets the scene apart and makes it the pinnacle of the martyrology. Rather, it is the author’s assertion that Blandina appeared to the crowd as if “hanging on a cross;” and as she hung, she inspired and gave courage to her fellow Christians who looked on her and saw not a slave-woman but instead, their Christ, “him who had been crucified for them” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.41). This confluence between the woman and Christ is the focal point of the entire narrative. It sets Blandina apart not only from her fellow combatants but also from other martyrs in other martyrologies. Every Christian martyr is portrayed as enduring extreme torture and many are referred to as “noble athletes” for Christ; but Blandina is unique in the extent to which her imitation of Christ blurs the line between the martyr and Christ. For believers at Lyon, she becomes Christ, and, in so doing, is able to persuade them that their sufferings are not in vain, and that “every one who suffers for the glory of Christ has fellowship always with the living God” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.41).
It is fitting, following this divine manifestation of Christ in Blandina, that her opponents are not actually able to yet kill her; and so, we are informed that she was taken down from the stake and “preserved thus for another contest” (Eusebius 1982:5.142). It is in that final contest, Blandina’s third appearance in the narrative, wherein she is returned to the arena, this time with the young boy, Ponticus. In this poignant scene, it is clear that tensions have reached a high point. The reader is informed that the accusers have “no compassion for the youth of the boy nor respect for the sex of the woman” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.53). Therefore, it is Blandina alone who offers comfort and encouragement to Ponticus in his final hour. Her own death, following quickly on his, is rather anti-climactic: “after the scourging, after the wild beasts, after the roasting seat, she was finally enclosed in a net, and thrown before a bull” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.56). Even so, through all of this, and in her final moments, Blandina held firm in her faith, continuing to commune with Christ until “she also was sacrificed” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.56).
Specific attributes of this community at Lyon indicate that these Christians were descendants of a history and tradition passed on by communities from which came the gospel of John and the Johannine epistles; particularly the attributes of apocalyptic dualism and an emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit. The author of the letter clearly divides persons into dual camps of good (the Christians) and evil (the pagans). This is a strategy that resembles the duality of light/dark, truth/deceit that is prevalent in Johannine literature. Indeed, the Christians at Lyon appear to comprehend completely that their persecutors love the darkness rather than the light, and that these have been “ensnared by Satan” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.14). As such, the wicked servants of Satan are pitted against the “firm pillars,” that is, the noble and faithful followers of Christ (Eusebius 1982:5.1.6). The battle is understood as already under way and the end is near. The wrath of the oppressor is like that of a wild beast in order that “the Scripture might be fulfilled: Let the lawless still be lawless, and the righteous still be righteous” (Eusebius 1982:5.1. 58. Italicized portion draws on Rev 22:11).
Infusing the whole of the letter from Lyon is a spiritual zeal that is depicted as the very presence of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (Advocate, Intercessor, Comforter), in the community. The word is used only five times in the New Testament: four times in the Gospel of John and once in the First Epistle of John, wherein Jesus himself is designated as the Paraclete: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). For the writer of John’s gospel, the most essential concept is “the living presence of Jesus in the Christian through the Paraclete” (Raymond Brown 1979:88). It is that very concept, that Jesus abides in individual Christians through the Spirit, that is so prominent in this martyrology. This Paraclete, the very living presence of Jesus, is understood as descending repeatedly at Lyon, empowering individual believers and manifesting his glory in them even, and especially, in the midst of their suffering. Sanctus, the deacon at Vienne, is said to have endured “torture beyond all measure and beyond any human” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.20). Likewise, Alexander proceeded to his death with dignity; he uttered no sound but only “communed with God in his heart” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.51). Such dispensation of the Spirit is recounted repeatedly throughout the text and was by no means limited to persons of high status. At one point, the author relates that several newly arrested Christians had been imprisoned along with others who had recanted their faith. It was feared that the newcomers would lose heart and would also recant but this was not to be. Instead, the Spirit began to work through their bodily senses, empowering them with strength and grace to the extent that even their bodies “exuded the sweet scent of Christ” and they were enabled to make bold confession and to endure to the end (Eusebius 1982:5.1.34–36).
Over and over again, this short letter relates the workings of the Spirit. Yet, nowhere is this fact more evident than in the person of Blandina. Although described as weak and small, she is given power to endure, even to the extent that her tormentors are astonished. Filled with the power of Jesus, the Paraclete/Spirit, Blandina, the weak becomes Blandina, the “noble athlete,” the one “through whom Christ showed that things which appear mean and obscure and despicable to men are with God of great glory” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.19 and 17 respectively).
The strong emphasis on the activity of the Paraclete/Spirit that is exhibited in this martyrology has led to speculation that the Lyon community may have been strongly influenced by the New Prophecy (Montanism, later deemed a heresy), which emphasized the power of the Spirit to descend on and dispense authority on individual Christians. The text’s portrayal of the Spirit’s descent on so many individuals and especially on so unlikely a candidate as Blandina, the slave-woman, provides some support for such speculation, since during this time proto-orthodox groups were moving toward a centralized authority that was becoming hierarchical and male centered. Even so, scholars have also noted that although prophecy with strong manifestations of the Spirit became the hallmark of Montanism, it was not something on which Montanist groups held a monopoly. In fact, it was quite prevalent throughout the second century in proto-orthodox as well as other Christian communities (Frend 1984:254; Trevett 1996:128). Eusebius himself, in an apparent attempt to shield these martyrs from accusations of heresy during his own day, claims that the martyrs from Gaul were indeed aware of the upset caused by the teachings of Montanus. For this reason, the community had, in response, “set forth their own prudent and most orthodox judgment in the matter,” and had even sent a letter regarding it to Bishop Eleutherus of Rome (Eusebius 1982:5.3.4). Ultimately, these Lyon Christians cannot be labeled as either orthodox or heterodox. Living and dying as they did in a time when these categories were not completely set, they operated on a fault-line of tension between those forces (Goodine 2008:52–60).
For our modern world, the issue of the Lyon community’s orthodoxy (or lack thereof) is perhaps of less concern than challenges raised by the text’s portrayal of Blandina herself whose death is depicted as both gruesome and glorious. For Eusebius, the story is “worthy of perpetual remembrance” and Blandina is clearly the greatest of the heroes: the one “through whom Christ showed that things that appear mean, and obscure and despicable to men are with God of great glory” (Eusebius 1982:5.Introd.1 and 5.1.17). As noted, among those killed in this persecution, she is the most superb re-presentation, or imitation, of Christ possible. The text relates:
Blandina was hung there on wood as fodder while wild beasts were thrown at her, and because she hung as one seen in the form of a cross, and because during the contest they were seeing with outward eyes, through their sister, the one who had been crucified for them, she aroused, through her vigorous prayer, very great zeal in those contending for the prize; in order that she would persuade those who have faith in him that everyone who has suffered for the glory of Christ has communion forever with the living God (Eusebius:5. 5.1.41, in Goodine 2008:99; Goodine and Mitchell 2005; Goodine 2008:148–53).
In Blandina, witnesses received a visual reminder of Christ, their crucified Lord; that is, they saw a cross, the Christ, and Blandina,who had effectively become Christ for them. Just as Jesus, in the midst of his death, interceded with God for others, so Blandina did likewise. Through her prayer (of which we know nothing other than that it was offered with great zeal) she became the conduit, the christ/intercessor, who was able to open the way for communion forever with the living God to all of those who have faith.
It is difficult to understand how such a powerful Christ-figure has been so little known through subsequent years of Christian history. While Blandina has a feast day (June 2 in the Roman Catholic calendar), her story is not well known in Christian circles and has only been brought up out of the dustbins of church history through the work of feminist scholars, who have sought to recover stories about women in the church. Eusebius recognized Blandina’s potential (as such a conspicuous icon of Christ) to inspire Christians, and particularly to bring hope to persons in any age who see themselves as lowly or unworthy of God and of their fellow human beings. For Christian feminists, the text is useful for emphasizing that in her never wavering stance for Christ, Blandina demonstrated that she had the power to make choices and that her choice did make a difference, not just for the next world but also for our world today. Blandina was a slave, a woman, and a captive; nonetheless, she exercised agency, she was not without power. As the text relates, it is through her, and her choice to stand firm, that Christ is connected to believers on earth who themselves are then renewed with zeal, and with the power to continue the struggle for justice in their own lives. Thus, it can be said that the power of one individual, even one so seemingly powerless as Blandina, can make a difference (Goodine 2008:107–20).
Even so, Blandina’s story as related in this letter from Lyon is also open to a different type of interpretation, one that suggests not power wielded in the midst of martyrdom but rather, the justification and glorification of extreme violence sanctioned and enacted against a helpless female victim. In recent years, a number of feminist thinkers have asserted that the genre of Christian martyrology serves to perpetuate violence rather than empowerment; that it encourages attitudes and actions that victimize and abuse the least powerful in our world, especially women (Brown and Parker 1989). As such, they argue that martyrologies in general are better left forgotten, and that stories, such as the ordeal of Blandina, do not represent the triumph of an individual, but rather create potential for the glorification of suffering.
This interpretive framework leads to questions of agency in regard to female martyrs, questions that arise sharply in an account such as that of Blandina. After all, in each of the three scenes in which she appears, one can see that her female status is highlighted, even as she is glorified for her actions. In scene one, she is “the blessed woman;” the one who appears “mean and obscure and despicable to men” even as she is used for God’s glory (Eusebius 1982: 5.1.19 and 17). In scene two, her body is lifted up on a stake; out there as spectacle, an object upon which to be gazed, and either mocked or glorified. And in scene three, she is the female whose sex did not evoke any sympathy from the furious crowd but also the “noble mother [who] encouraged her children and sent them before her victorious to the King…” (Eusebius 1982:5.1.55). It is quite clear, then, that in this martyrology, as in others, the female martyr bears the double burden of exhibiting both the strength and virtues of the most powerful Greco-Roman male while at the same time not losing her status as a female; and in particular while retaining the feminine virtue of subservience, albeit in this case to Christ alone. (On masculine and feminine characterization of female martyrs, see Cobb 2008, especially chapter 4.) It is, then, in light of this double burden, that the question of agency arises: Can any woman such as Blandina (so brutalized and utilized) actually be said to exert any degree of agency at all? Or, is she merely a pliable object; easily molded to fit the agenda at hand?
In reading the story of Blandina, the modern reader is confronted with a conundrum. Is Blandina a victim or a victor? In the view of Eusebius and of the Lyon community that sent this letter to their fellow Christians in the east, she was victim transformed to victor through her relationship with Christ. In the modern world, others have also refused to situate her as only one or the other. In her study on martyrdom and memory, Elizabeth Castelli echoes the ancient notion of Blandina’s transformation, asserting that through her act of prayer, a deployment of agency, however small, Blandina herself created a “remarkable form of counter spectacle.” It is not, she suggests, “that the faithful turn their eyes away in horror: it is that they keep looking, but what they see is transformed—no longer a suffering slave girl, but now Christ crucified” (Castelli 2004:126).
Ultimately, this possibility for transformation, the idea, and ideal, that even the lowliest of victims has potential for victory in Christ, is the essence of Blandina’s story. Though a lowly slave and a seemingly weak woman, she made her choice for Christ, and in so doing, rose to the level of Christ wherein she hung, one with him, interceding with God on behalf of others. In that re-presentation, she offered hope in the midst of hopelessness. Thus, for many Christians today, as in the ancient world, her story continues to offer hope; it raises the possibility that boundaries can be crossed, that walls might come down; and that today, as in both the past and the future, there is hope of justice and liberation for all people.
Image # 1: Icon of Blandina of Lyon.
Image # 2: Martyrdom of Blandina of Lyon.
Image # 3: Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls in Lyon; a stake marks the place of Blandina’s martyrdom.
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4 September 2017