Saint Balbina (Santa Balbina) – patroness of the stuttering and… not only

Apse of the Church of Santa Balbina, Christ among saints

Apse of the Church of Santa Balbina, Christ among saints

She is one of a number of young, saint Roman female martyrs, although she is probably less known than Agnes, Cecilia or even Bibiana. Her cult is connected with a church located on Small Aventine (Santa Balbina) which is first mentioned at the end of the VI century. Then, the titulus Balbinae which had existed here a century earlier changed its name to titulus Sanctae Balbinae. This means a changing of the patron of the church from a rather unknown founder or owner of a property to a saint of the same name.

Apse of the Church of Santa Balbina, Christ among saints
Church of Santa Balbina, apse
Saint Balbina, apse of the Church of Santa Balbina, Christ among saints
Façade of the Church of Santa Balbina
Church of Santa Balbina, exterior body and church apse

She is one of a number of young, saint Roman female martyrs, although she is probably less known than Agnes, Cecilia or even Bibiana. Her cult is connected with a church located on Small Aventine (Santa Balbina) which is first mentioned at the end of the VI century. Then, the titulus Balbinae which had existed here a century earlier changed its name to titulus Sanctae Balbinae. This means a changing of the patron of the church from a rather unknown founder or owner of a property to a saint of the same name.

 

The procedure of a change of the name of the founder to a saint was a rather popular way to broaden the amount of saints – intercessors and supporters in overcoming the difficulties of everyday life. The next step was creating a convincing story. Generally, as was the case here as well, it contained several characteristic elements. The saint was to be very young, beautiful, exhibit strong character, deep faith, while her life should be accompanied by a miracle. And thus hagiographic stories about saint Balbina started springing up, that differed in details. They were written in the VI century in Passio Alexandri   and Passio SS. Balbinae et Hermetis. According to them, Balbina was supposed to be the daughter of the Roman tribune Quirinus, who lived at the beginning of the II century. When he heard of the healing abilities  of the then bishop of Rome Alexander I, as well as of miracles happening thanks to his intercession,   he decided to turn to him to ask for help for his daughter. An unnatural growth appeared on the girl’s neck (?), which is interpreted today as scrofula or goiter and in face of which the then medics were powerless. Some versions of the legend about St. Balbina even go so far as to inform, that she used to stutter, which would be testified to by her name, stemming from the Latin word balbus, meaning stutterer. Nevertheless, the daughter of Quirinus was led to the imprisoned and chained Alexander I, who placed his chains upon her neck. At that moment an angel appeared in the prison cell, calling on Balbina to maintain chastity (virginity), and then her problems disappeared without a trace. This miracle was the reason for the conversion of the whole family of the Roman tribune. In exchange for curing Balbina, Alexander entrusted her with a mission to recover the chains of St. Peter, the ones with which the apostle was shackled in a Roman prison. Another version says that, even seeing the girl’s ailments Alexander ordered her to find St. Peter’s chains, knowing full well that Quirinus is familiar with Mamertine Prison, where the apostle was kept in the past. After finding them, and thanks to them the miracle of healing was to have taken place. However, let us look at what happened to the tribune and his daughter next. Quirinus’s conversion to Christianity was seen as treason by the then Emperor Hadrian (or Marcus Aurelius (?), especially since the tribune was not willing to renounce his new faith. Reportedly an indirect cause of sentencing the father and the daughter to death was Balbina’s suitors whom – devoting herself to serving Christ – she simply turned away. Quirinus was sentenced to death by beheading, then the following day this fate was shared by his tortured (previously drowned and buried alive) daughter. According to still another story, only Quirinus was killed, while Balbina faithful to hear oath of chastity, lived out her life in a monastery. She was buried next to her father in the Catacombs of Praetextatus at via Appia, while in the VI century – as tradition would have it – her remains were transferred to the church on Small Aventine, which from that time bore the name Santa Balbina.

 

Both she and her father achieved sainthood. Balbina became the intercessor of those suffering from throat conditions and stutterers. She is venerated on 30 March, while her attributes are chains or an angel with a lit torch.

Her cult – similarly to other tortured and killed martyrs – is a testimony to the incredible need to identify with unblemished female figures, whose basic virtues were unwavering faith and virginity, while attributes – youthfulness and beauty. Here we come across the widespread in early Middle Ages cult of virgins and the conviction connected with it that sexual abstinence is a condition sine qua non   a fully Christian life. We must remember that the lives attributed to these women fall in a period, when Christianity was officially forbidden in the empire. In face of the expected Parousia, virginity was then something that the Church unconditionally recommended. The virtue of remaining faithful to one’s religion was treated in similar fashion In those times apostasy was common – terrified Christians cut themselves off from their faith in face of punishment and often the perspective of loss of life.

On the other hand, the multiplication of young saint virgins can be a testimony to an almost pagan need of adoring saints, helpful in specific cases and conditions, similarly to that, which had previously for many centuries been exhibited by ancient Romans. After all, pagan gods and deities were responsible for all aspects of life of the average Roman. When Christianity became a state religion and wanted to encompass all social classes, identification of certain spheres of life with a particular saint was recommended. They aided in everyday life, in overcoming difficulties and illnesses, while also helping those who prayed to them on their way to afterlife. And such a function is in an excellent way fulfilled by Balbina.