These national figures may be some of the best-known patron saints, but many different professions, places, and people have gained their own divine protectors over the years. And there is evidence of the role of one of these lesser-known “guardian angels” in the archives of the National Emergency Services Museum (NESM) in Sheffield.
In the museum’s collection is a 20th century wooden figure of St Florian who is said to have once watched over a fire station and its crew. Many stations had – and still have – statues or images of this martyr who became the patron saint of firefighters.
Research into the icon’s origins has shown that Saint Florian was a Roman army commander in present-day Austria, who was executed for refusing to participate in the persecution of Christians.
It is believed that during his military service he was responsible for the maintenance of the area’s bucket brigades and fire watch. Legend has it that during his lifetime, Saint Florian extinguished a huge fire with a single bucket of water, saving a village from ruin. As such, he is often depicted – as in the statue in the museum – holding a jug of water.
He also avoided being burned at the stake, angering his tormentors by daring them to light the fire so he could climb it himself. Instead, St Florian was drowned in a river. When modern firefighters were looking for their own patron saint, he proved to be the perfect candidate for fire brigades around the world to adopt.
It is perhaps unsurprising that patron saints offering divine assistance have been echoed by the emergency services past and present, given that those who serve with fire, police, ambulance and others are in daily danger.
In fact, the practice of turning to divine protection predates Christianity; even the ancient forerunners of our emergency services had their heavenly helpers.
Long before 999 services as we know them began to appear in the 19th century, our ancestors still had to deal with disasters, and there are many examples of people – like St Florian – who were officially tasked with helping in emergency situations.
Since religion in the ancient world had gods and goddesses for just about everything (including a Roman goddess of door hinges), it was only natural that people working in these situations would call on the help of certain very specific deities.
The ancient Roman world has particularly good examples in the field of fire prevention. Rome itself, like many large cities, was constantly threatened with fire.
In AD 64, huge swaths of the city were destroyed in a fire in which Emperor Nero was famous for “fiddling while Rome burned”.
The various “bucket brigades” and wardens whose duty it was to try to put out the fires would no doubt have pleaded with Vulcan, the god of fire, for a safe resolution of urgency.
Every summer, when the risk of major fires was greatest, the Romans held a festival, Vulcanalia, to appease the god of fire, lighting their own bonfires to save him from having to light his own!
This particular god is also a familiar figure to modern Sheffielders; Vulcan is also the god of metallurgy and his statue sits atop the city’s town hall.
The Romans also had a goddess whose sole mandate was to prevent fires. Stata Mater was the goddess of protection against destructive fire, her name meaning “stabilizing mother”. Although not as famous as Vulcan, she was well known in Imperial Rome where her image adorned the Forum.
Many other civilizations had fire gods who were invoked to help guard against destructive fires, including the Greek Prometheus, the Titan god of fire, and the Norse Logi, or Halogi (“High Flame”), a giant who personified fire itself.
Unsurprisingly, the old gods aren’t commemorated that much by modern firefighters, but there is at least one emergency service today that still bears the mark of the past.
Many NHS ambulances – and others around the world – feature the image of a snake entwined around a stick. This symbol is the “stick of Asclepius” which derives from ancient Greek religion.
Asclepius was the Olympian god of medicine and healing. The symbol proved powerful enough to last. And, if you look closely, you can find many references to gods who would once have been called upon to avert disaster adorning modern emergency vehicles: Neptune has been, and remains, a popular name for Coast Guard ships .
However, the saint that many emergency services most often consider a patron – including the police, paramedics and coastguards – is not a human being, but rather a celestial being: the archangel Michael.
St Michael has many patronages and is particularly associated with chivalry, and it is notable that many emergency services have adopted him as their patron. Ambulance drivers and paramedics, police officers and the coastguard have all seen Michael as the patron of those who work in dangerous conditions. the guardian angel of those whose job it is to act as the guardian angels of the public.
A fascinating story like this is often revealed when the NESM team explores the origins of objects in the museum’s collection. Much of this research helps inform the museum’s exhibits and galleries – covering everything from the history of firefighting to crime and punishment in the Victorian era and the First World War – or provides important information to enable the team to better care for the collection.
Experience some of this fascinating history for yourself by visiting the NESM. Find more information about the museum at visitnesm.org.uk.