Saint Maurice (also Moritz, Morris, or Mauritius) was the leader of the legendary Roman Theban Legion in the 3rd century, and one of the favorite and most widely venerated saints of that group. He was the patron saint of several professions, locales, and kingdoms. He is also a highly revered saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox churches.
According to the hagiographical material, Maurice was an Egyptian, born in AD 250 in Thebes, an ancient city in Egypt near the site of the 20th-century Aswan Dam. He was brought up in the region of Thebes (Luxor—Egypt)
Maurice became a soldier in the Roman army. He was gradually promoted until he became the leader of the Theban legion, formed of 6600 soldiers. He was an acknowledged Christian at a time when the Church was considered to be a threat to the Roman Empire. Yet, he moved easily within the pagan society of his day.
The legion, entirely composed of Christians, had been called from Thebes in Egypt to Gaul to assist Emperor Maximian to defeat a revolt by the bagaudae. The Theban Legion was dispatched with orders to clear the St. Bernard Pass across Mt. Blanc. Before going into battle, they were instructed to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods and pay homage to the emperor. Maurice pledged his men’s military allegiance to Rome. He stated that service to God superseded all else. To engage in wanton slaughter was inconceivable to Christian soldiers he said. He and his men refused to worship Roman gods.
However, when Maximian ordered them to harass some local Christians, they refused. Ordering the unit to be punished, Maximian had every tenth soldier killed, a military punishment known as decimation. More orders followed, the men refused as encouraged by Maurice, and a second decimation was ordered. In response to the Theban Christians' refusal to attack fellow Christians, Maximian ordered all the remaining members of the 6,600 unit to be executed. The place in Switzerland where this occurred, known as Agaunum, is now named Saint Maurice-en-Valais, site of the Abbey of Saint Maurice-en-Valais.
So reads the earliest account of their martyrdom, contained in the public letter which Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon (c. 434–450), addressed to his fellow bishop, Salvius. Alternative versions have the legion refusing Maximian's orders only after discovering a town they had just destroyed had been inhabited by innocent Christians, or that the emperor had them executed when they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods.
There is a difference of opinion among researchers as to whether or not the story of the Theban Legion is based on historical fact, and if so, to what extent. The legend, by St. Eucherius of Lyons, is classed by Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye among the historical romances. Donald F. O'Reilly, in Lost Legion Rediscovered, argues that evidence from coins, papyrus, and Roman army lists support the story of the Theban Legion.
Denis Van Berchem, of the University of Geneva, proposed that Eucherius' presentation of the legend of the Theban legion was a literary production, not based on a local tradition. The monastic accounts themselves do not specifically state that all the soldiers were collectively executed; an eleventh-century monk named Otto of Freising wrote that most of the legionaries escaped, and only some were executed.
The military staunchly followed Isis or Mithras (Sol Invictus), until Constantine's time at the earliest, making it unlikely that Christians filled an entire legion. If the legend was a later fabrication by Eucherius, its dissemination served to draw pilgrims to the abbey at Agaunum.
Our Lady of Laus
Our Lady of Laus included an apparition of Saint Maurice, who appeared in an antique episcopal vestment and told Benoîte Rencurel that he was the one to whom the nearby chapel was dedicated, that he would fetch her some water (before drawing some water out of a well she had not seen), that she should go down to a certain valley to escape the local guard and see the Virgin Mary, and that Mary was both in Heaven and could appear on Earth.
Saint Maurice became a patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors. In 926, Henry I (919–936), even ceded the present Swiss canton of Aargau to the abbey, in return for Maurice's lance, sword and spurs. The sword and spurs of Saint Maurice were part of the regalia used at coronations of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors until 1916, and among the most important insignia of the imperial throne. In addition, some of the emperors were anointed before the Altar of Saint Maurice at St. Peter's Basilica. In 929 Henry I the Fowler held a royal court gathering (Reichsversammlung) at Magdeburg. At the same time the Mauritius Kloster in honor of Maurice was founded. In 961, Otto I was building and enriching the cathedral at Magdeburg, which he intended for his own tomb. To that end,
- in the year 961 of the Incarnation and in the 25th year of his reign, in the presence of all of the nobility, on the vigil of Christmas, the body of St. Maurice was conveyed to him at Regensburg along with the bodies of some of the saint's companions and portions of other saints. Having been sent to Magdeburg, these relics were received with great honour by a gathering of the entire populace of the city and of their fellow countrymen. They are still venerated there, to the salvation of the homeland.
Maurice is traditionally depicted in full armor, in Italy emblasoned with a red cross. In folk culture he has become connected with the legend of the Spear of Destiny, which he is supposed to have carried into battle; his name is engraved on the Holy Lance of Vienna, one of several relics claimed as the spear that pierced Jesus' side on the cross. Saint Maurice gives his name to the town St. Moritz as well as to numerous places called Saint-Maurice in French speaking countries. The Indian Ocean island state of Mauritius was named after Maurice of Nassau, a member of the House of Orange, and not directly after St. Mauritius himself.
Over 650 religious foundations dedicated to Saint Maurice can be found in France and other European countries. In Switzerland alone, seven churches or altars in Aargau, six in the Canton of Lucerne, four in the Canton of Solothurn, and one in Appenzell Innerrhoden can be found (in fact, his feast day is a cantonal holiday in Appenzell Innerrhoden). Particularly notable among these are the Church and Abbey of Saint-Maurice-en-Valais, the Church of Saint Moritz in the Engadin, and the Monastery Chapel of Einsiedeln Abbey, where his name continues to be greatly revered. Several chivalric orders were established in his honor as well, including the Order of the Golden Fleece, Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus and the Order of Saint Maurice. Additionally, fifty-two towns and villages in France have been named in his honor.
Maurice is also the patron saint of a Roman Catholic parish and church in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and including part of the town of Arabi in St. Bernard parish. The church was constructed in 1856, but was devastated by the winds and flood waters of Hurricane Katrina on 29 August 2005; the copper-plated steeple was blown off the building. The church is currently closed, and the building is for sale.
On 19 July 1941, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Maurice to be patron Saint of the Italian Army's Alpini Mountain Infantry Corps The Alpini Corps has celebrated Saint Maurice's feast every year since then.
St Maurice is the patron saint of the Duchy of Savoy (France) and of the Valais (Switzerland) as well as of soldiers, swordsmiths, armies, and infantrymen. In 1591 Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy arranged he triumphant return of part of the relics of Saint Maurice from the monastery of Agaune in Valais. See also Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.
He is also the patron saint of weavers and dyers. Manresa (Spain), Piedmont (Italy), Montalbano Jonico (Italy), Schiavi di Abruzzo (Italy), Stadtsulza (Germany) and Coburg (Germany) have chosen St. Maurice as their patron saint as well. St Maurice is also the patron saint of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a historical military order of unmarried merchants in present-day Estonia and Latvia. In September 2008, certain relics of St. Maurice were transferred to a new reliquary and rededicated in Schiavi di Abruzzo (Italy).
Because of his name and native land, St. Maurice had been portrayed as black ever since the 12th century. The oldest surviving image that depicts Saint Maurice as a Black African in knight's armour was sculpted in mid-13th century for the Cathedral of Magdeburg; there it is displayed next to the grave of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor. Jean Devisse, The Image of the Black in Western Art, laid out the documentary sources for the saint's popularity and documented it with illustrative examples. When the new cathedral was built under Archbishop Albert II of Käfernberg (served 1205-32), a relic said to be the head of Maurice was procured from the Holy Land.
The image of Saint Maurice has been examined in detail by Gude Suckale-Redlefsen, who demonstrated that this image of Maurice has existed since Maurice's first depiction in Germany between the Weser and the Elbe, and spread to Bohemia, where it became associated with the imperial ambitions of the House of Luxembourg. According to Suckale-Redlefsen, the image of Maurice reached its apogee during the years 1490 to 1530. Images of the saint died out in the mid-sixteenth century, undermined, Suckale-Redlefsen suggests, by the developing African slave trade. "Once again, as in the early Middle Ages, the color black had become associated with spiritual darkness and cultural 'otherness'".
There is an oil on wood painting of Saint Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.