Once upon a time there were these 9,000 Roman soldiers.
(Bear with me, it’s not a maths error)
The soldiers were led by a chap called Saint Acacius.
(Probably just Acacius back then).
Who was the primicerius under the emperor Hadrian.
He and his men were sent to battle with some rebels.
Before said battle, an angel popped up out of nowhere and promised them victory if they converted to Christianity.
So they converted to Christianity.
This all went very well, and, as promised, they killed lots of the rebels and won.
(Old Testament story vibe going on here).
Shortly after this glorious victory, they all waddled up to the nearby top of Mount Ararat and boogied with some more angels to celebrate.
not all was well…
The Roman emperor (who ran away like a cowardy custard before the actual action started) heard about the conversion, and was super pissed off.
(You’d think he’d let it go under the circs).
And so he rounded up some more soldiers from the nearby seven kingdoms (it’s getting very GOT) and ordered them to have a go at Acacius’s men.
The two sides didn’t actually end up fighting. It was more of a torture-against-Christians kind of shindig. Our poor sods were flogged and stoned and forced to walk barefoot over caltrops.
The stones rebounded off of the new converts, the whips refused to whip, and some angels flew in to swoosh away the spikes.
Understandably one of the non-Christian military leaders, Theodorus, found himself sufficiently convinced by these events to convert himself, and his 1,000 men, to the new faith.
(Hence the 10,000).
Why such miracles weren’t enough to turn the other six kingdoms’ armies is beyond me.
Anyway, this new conversion didn’t much help, so the torture continued, alas a little more successfully as time went on.
Some genius had the bright idea of doing the obvious, and crowning the Christians with thorns. Then, I guess, to continue with a theme, a Mr. Sapor, one of the kings from the seven kingdoms, ordered a mass crucifixion.
And so the 10,000 were crucified.
Some people and wikipedia have pointed out that this event is made up.
(No merde guys).
By which what I think they mean is that it isn’t found in the Bible.
The story was likely first conceived by the ninth-century Catholic archivist and antipope Anastasius Bibliothecarius, and was later written down by Petrus de Natalibus (1330 – 1406) in his Catalogus Sanctorum, aka, The Legends of the Saints. This became a bit of a bestseller throughout the sixteenth century, having first been printed in 1493 in Vicenza.
The subject of the 10,000 martyrs was thus widely circulated in printed format, and very likely through word of mouth, by the time of the early modern period. And it seems that a number of artists were #inspired to transfer the tale onto canvas.
Or paper (as we shall see).
One of these was Carpaccio. He of name-donated-to-dish fame. He known for cramming lots of people into a picture fame. It seems fitting, therefore, that he thought, ‘ah, a difficult subject with lots of naked, contorting, bloody soldiers…
Hold my beer’.
This work was originally housed in the church of Sant’ Antonio in Venice (alas demolished), and now lives in the Accademia.
Go see it. It’s quite something.
Perino del’ Vaga also treated the subject. Although a related painting doesn’t survive, the drawing which is now in Harvard was clearly made in preparation for one.
Pontormo too gave the theme a go, for which both the preparatory drawing still exists (Hamburg) as does the final painting (Florence). But I don’t like the composition so you can look it up yourselves.
Lastly, and equally famously to that of Carp, is Dürer’s own painted rendition (Vienna, top of page). The figures are a touch more clothed than those of his Venetian contemporary’s, but it’s still filled with some very entertaining and complex contortions. I’m keen on the funny little man who’s about to wallop someone with a boulder. Dürer, true to his schtick, also issued a woodcut (image here from the Met Collection in New York), which itself is very close to his paining.
Right. I’m done for now. If you want to read more about the artistic adoption of the story, then there’s an article suggestion below. And most good catalogues on the artists mentioned ought to have a relevant entry.
H.S. Merritt, ‘The Legend of St. Achatius: Bachiacca, Perino, Pontormo’, The Art Bulletin 45/3 (1963), pp. 258 – 263.