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Drilling down into a world of medieval saints

PUBLISHED: 17:13 14 June 2018 | UPDATED: 17:13 14 June 2018

St Apollonia (on the left) at Barton Turf Church.  PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

St Apollonia (on the left) at Barton Turf Church. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Archant Norfolk

Dentist and historian John Beal is an expert on medieval, as well as modern, ways of dealing with toothache

Anyone who has ever whispered a prayer before lying back and opening wide in the dentist’s chair needs to know about Apollonia.

She might have died more than 1,750 years ago, but she is still the patron saint of dentists and people suffering from toothache, and is especially popular in Norfolk.

John Beal is a dentist and dental historian and has been fascinated by St Apollonia for decades.

This month he will be talking about the particular place she held in the hearts, or mouths, of medieval Norfolk people, at a workshop in which he also explores some of the county’s pilgrimage shrines and offers his own A-Z of saints.

St Apollonia’s life might have been tragic, and her death horribly violent, (she refused to renounce her Christian faith and had her teeth broken before being murdered by a mob) but her influence spread around the world from third century Egypt.

One of the most beautiful pictures of Apollonia is in Barton Turf church, in the heart of the northern Broads.

She gazes out of her portrait, holding the pincers that identify her, part of a glorious medieval line-up of saints and angels in rich red robes or feathered bodysuits and wings, their golden hair, crowns and halos shimmering above calm faces.

John was recently out of dental school and a lecturer in dental public health when he first came across St Apollonia. With an interest in church history too, he began researching devotion to her in England. “Norfolk and Devon are the two counties with the most medieval depictions of St Apollonia,” said John. “Norfolk has 18 medieval St Apollonias, 10 on rood screens, six in stained glass and two in stone – as well as one 21st century stained glass panel commemorating a young dentist sadly killed in an accident.”

John particularly loves the picture of St Apollonia on the rood screen at Barton Turf but is also fascinated by an image which is gradually reappearing at Binham. “At the time of the Reformation the villagers must have got wind that Cromwell’s Commissioners were on their way to destroy such superstitious images, so quickly got out their white paint, with which they covered the paintings and then painted biblical texts on the panels. The whitewash is wearing thin now and the images can again be made out,” he said.

The saint also displays her pain-relieving pincers to the prayerful in Docking Horsham St Faith, Ludham and St Stephen’s in Norwich city centre, and gazes from stained glass in Sandringham church. “So the Queen sees her every time she goes to church there,” said John.

He has been coming to Norfolk since he was a child. His parents lived in West Runton and Cromer and John and his wife are still regular visitors.

And although John is particularly drawn to St Apollonia because of her links with dentists, he has other favourite saints, with local and dental links.

“William of Norwich was a young boy who grew up in Haveringland, Norfolk and was murdered in 1144 when he was 12 years of age. His body was found in Thorpe Wood, Norwich, where he was initially buried,” said John. “There were claims of miracles occurring at his burial site so the monks at Norwich Cathedral, which was fairly new at the time, had his body moved to the Cathedral as they did not have a shrine time which would attract pilgrims and bring money.” Records of the miracles said to have occurred at the shrine still exist – and three involved the cure of toothache.

Another of John’s favourite dental-related miracle workers with a strong Norfolk following was John Schorne, a rector in 14th century Buckinghamshire who was famed for forcing the devil into a boot - and curing gout and toothache. He is pictured with a small devil peering from a long black boot on rood screens in Gately, near Fakenham, and Suffield, near Aylsham.

So does John call on his favourite saints for toothache related help? “I have not had toothache for very many years - since I had my wisdom teeth removed - so have not had recourse to her aid,” he said. “However, I have published a paper which presents evidence which suggests that Richard III prayed to St Apollonia for the relief of his toothache.”

Saints, shrines and toothache

St Apollonia features in a day of saints, shrines and pilgrimages, with a special focus on toothache cures, led by dentist and church historian John Beal at the Centre for Parish Church Studies in the ancient church of St Martin at Palace Plain, Norwich, on Saturday June 23.

His A to Z of saints, and how to identify them in church art, begins with Apollonia.“I have cheated a bit for the letter X by using St Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits),” said John.

The two half-day sessions are £15 each with the A-Z of saints in the morning and the afternoon devoted to shrines, pilgrims, and toothache-related miracles in the afternoon. Book at nhct-norwich.org or by calling 01603 611530.

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