St. Florian

St Florian

St Florian is venerated as the patron saint of fire brigades. This is particularly the case in Germany and Central Europe. In the Netherlands there are other patron saints as well who are associated with fire brigades but in the eastern part of the country Florian is also revered.

Look at this poem (in translation). It does not show a lot of Christian love for one’s neighbour. The poem can sometimes be found on the outer walls of farmhouses in Germany.

florian

 Dearlorian
 Spare our home
 And set light to another one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story goes that St Florian was a highly-placed military officer under governor Aquilinus in the Roman province of Ufernoricum – roughly what is now Austria. This was during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, between 284 and 305 AD.

Diocletian was responsible for the last and most extensive persecution of Christians north of the Alps. It started in 303.  Initially the people were supposed to sacrifice only to the Roman emperor and the officially-approved gods. Those who refused to do so could not hold any official position. Florian had converted to the Catholic Church and refused to worship the Roman gods. He was therefore dismissed from his post and retired to Cetium (the present Sankt Pölten).

After roughly a year a second decree was issued, stating that the entire population had to openly profess the Roman faith and that anyone who refused to do so would be put in prison and tortured. 

According to legend (the oldest known documents relating to the saint date back to approximately 450 years after the death of Florian) forty young men were arrested soon after the decree in order  to serve as an example. Florian heard of this and as he had previously held an important position he hoped that his status would allow him to save his fellow believers. He set out for Lauriacum, the present Lorch. When he had nearly reached the town he met on the bridge a group of soldiers who had been sent to track down Christians. He admitted to being a Christian and was immediately arrested and brought before the governor. The governor tried in vain to persuade him to renounce the Christian faith; Florian’s words were: ‘You have power over my body, but only God can touch my soul. I have always been obedient as a soldier, but I refuse to worship these fabrications.’ In a blind fury the governor ordered Florian to be subjected to repeated torture.

It did not work, however, and Florian only grew stronger in his faith. On 4 May 304 a heavy millstone was hung round his neck and he was thrown from the bridge into the River Enns. He was dead before he reached the water. As his body fell into the water, the river went wild and a huge wave threw Florian onto a rock.  An eagle flew up to him and protected his body with its wide wings.

A devout woman had a vision shortly afterwards in which Florian appeared before her and gave her instructions as to where to find his body and where he wished to be buried. Immediately the woman harnessed her oxen and set off. After some time the animals were so exhausted from the heat that they refused to go on. The woman prayed to God for help and at that moment a spring rose from the ground before them and  the animals were able to quench their thirst.

The woman found the place where Florian’s body lay. She brought him to the place where he wished to be laid to rest and  buried him with great haste, as she was frightened of possible reprisals from the authorities.

Historians are now disposed to accept that Florian did indeed exist. There is also proof that 40 men died in Lorch at roughly the same time, as a result of persecution of Christians. Among other findings, when the St. Laurence Basilica in Lorch was restored around 1900 a mass grave was found with the bones of 40 men.

Of course, oral tradition inevitably leads to elements being added in order to make the stories more colourful.

There is still uncertainty as to the whereabouts of St Florian’s remains. The town of Krakau in Poland claims to have a large number of relics of the saint, but the same also applies to the Sankt Florian Monastery in Linz,  where according to tradition the body of Florian was buried.

Other sources speak of Rome, where, subsequent to the barbarian invasions during the Migration Period, the bones were said to have been buried along with those of St Stephen and St Lawrence. They were later supposedly moved to Poland.

In the iconography St Florian is depicted as a Roman soldier, holding in one hand a banner (often with a cross on it) and in the other a small pail, from which he pours water over a burning castle, house, town or locality. Often these are castles or towns in the vicinity.

St Florian is venerated in particular in the eastern areas of Germany and in Austria, but also in Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, South Tirol and some regions of Italy. His portrait is often to be found on and in public buildings, farmhouses, churches and, of course, fire stations.

In many of these areas festivities take place every year on 4 May (the anniversary of Florian’s death). A mass is celebrated in his honour and there are special processions. These events, in which all the inhabitants take part, are usually initiated by the local fire brigade.

In Germany the radio-telephone designation of fire engines is frequently preceded by the name Florian; this required specific authorisation from the German telecommunications authorities in 1952. 

In almost every commemorative volume of the fire brigade there is a picture of St Florian and virtually every fireman in Germany has a statue of the saint in a conspicuous place in his home.

The philatelists among you can start an entire collection on the theme ‘St Florian’, with a number of stamps from Austria and Poland in particular and many special commemorative postmarks to mark particular occasions such as anniversaries etc.

One might well say: St Florian is alive and flourishing!