Sandy’s Garden ... The Patron Saint of Horticulture

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I was Idly browsing a quite bewilderingly long list of saints’ days in my elderly copy of ‘Schott’s Original Miscellany’ recently.

It’s a book which says of itself that it is, “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles (whose) purpose is to gather the flotsam and jetsam of the conversational tide”.

In the book I came across the name of Saint Dorothea (or Dorothy) of Caesarea.

Her feast day was … and, for that matter, still is … February 6; and she interests me because I learned that she is the patron saint of gardens and gardeners. And a very busy patron she is, for brewers, newly-weds, midwives and florists come within her remit in addition to horticulture.

I learn, too, that very little is known about her factually.

A respectable number of artists have had a go at imagining what she looked like, most of them picturing her either in an orchard or an orange grove, or carrying a basket of fruit. Of course, we have no idea whatsoever whether she was tall or short, blonde or brunette, slim or stout.

We do, however, have some reason to suppose that she was attractive, for Dorothea was martyred on 6 February 311 at Caesarea during the persecution of Diocletian apparently because, having dedicated her life to celibacy and prayer, she refused to marry a pagan who coveted her for her beauty.

Accordingly, she was accused and convicted of being a Christian and the local governor, Sapricius, had her put to death.

To understand the death penalty being imposed for holding Christian beliefs at the beginning of the fourth Christian century, the Emperor Diocletian was responsible for initiating the Roman Empire’s last, largest, and

bloodiest official persecution of Christianity, which failed. Indeed, Diocletian’s successor Constantine reversed this policy completely, declaring Christianity to be the preferred religion of the empire.

It is supposed that the prosecuting lawyer, Theophilus … a man dedicated to imposing Diocletian’s dictats … taunted Dorothea by saying, “Bride of Christ, send me some fruits

from your bridegroom’s garden.” And, so the story goes, shortly before her execution, she arranged for a young boy to deliver her headdress, redolent with the fragrance of roses and fruits, to him.

Theophilus was so impressed by her Christian conviction and her refusal to abandon her faith despite having been horribly tortured and disfigured prior to meeting her

death that he converted to Christianity. This was not the best career or life choice which he might have made, for it quickly resulted in him being arrested, tortured and executed in turn.

Her story has been embellished many times over the centuries, perhaps the most comprehensive … and horrifying … account appearing in pioneer English printer William Caxton’s translation of The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, compiled by the Archbishop of Genoa in 1275, a translation which first appeared in 1483.

To give a flavour of Caxton’s fictitious account of St. Dorothy’s demise, how is this for a horrific tale? “Dorothea said, ‘Do to me what torment thou wilt, for I am all ready to suffer it for the love of my spouse Jesu Christ, in whose garden full of delices (sic) I have gathered roses, spices, and apples.’

And when the tyrant heard that he trembled for anger, and commanded that her fair visage should be beaten with stones so that there should appear no beauty in her visage, but all disfigured, and so to be put in prison till the next day.

And on the next day she came forth all so whole and sound as though she had no disease, and was more fairer for to look on than ever she was tofore.

And then this cursed judge commanded to smite off her head; and she was led to the place assigned where it should be done. … And this holy virgin bowed down her head, and the cruel tyrant smote it off.”

So the patron saint of horticulture met her end.