45. Four Crowned Saints

Quattuor Coronati

The legend of the Quattuor Coronati is a story of four stonemasons from Pannonia, who lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284 – 305 AD). They were called Claudius, Castorius, Simphorianus and Nicostratus (DEMETER, 1961; SIMON et al., 1988), and secretly devoted to Christianity.

The stonemasons opposed an assignment of the emperor to make a statue of Aesculapius, the god of surgery and medicine. Earlier they had, in cooperation with Simplicius, finished a statue of the sun god (Sol invictor) on a quadriga. The refusal of the stonemasons provoked anger with the emperor, who had the man whipped and put into lead coffins to be thrown in the river Save. This happened, according to legend, on the eighth of November, around 302 AD.

The Roman Catholic Church in the ‘Breviarium Romanum’ sanctioned this story, being part of the old-Christian and early medieval hagiography. In this version there were, together with the four stonemasons, another four martyrs (the brothers Severus, Severianus, Carpophorus and Victorinus), who were also tortured and killed under the reign of Diocletian. They were supposedly buried at the same place, along the Via Labicana in Rome, as where the Quattuor Coronati found their last resting-place.

The source in the ‘Brevarium‘ is not indicated. The work was a compilation of the ‘Vita‘, which circulated as legends. The story of the four stone-masons was only added to the ‘Brevarium‘ in the revision of 1568. KELSCH (1987) gave four primary sources of the legend of the martyrs:

1. A Roman calendar of the fourth century, which provided the anniversary of the martyrs. This was before the early Christian church became the state-religion within the Roman Empire;

2. The so-called ‘Depositio martyrium’ of Furius Dionysius Philocalus from the year 354;

3. The ‘Martyrologium Hieronymianum’, from the beginning of the fifth century and

4.  A ‘Passio SS. Quattuor Coronatorum’.

A church on the Mons Caelius in Rome was mentioned in the year 595 AD as a place of pilgrimage for the ‘Quattuor Coronati’. Travelogues from the seventh century recorded a catacomb along the Via Labicana as their last resting-place.

Pope Leo IV (847 – 855)(fig. 319) had a particular affinity with the four martyrs, as described in the ‘Histoire des Papes et souverains chefs de l’eglise‘ by Francois DUCHESNE (1653): ‘Il auoit vne affection & deuotion particuliere aux saints Martyrs appelez les Quatre Couronnez. A cette cause il fit principalement rechercher leurs Os; & les ayent trouuez auec peine, les mit en la Basilique de leur nom, laquelle il regissoit auant son Pontificat. Il y transfera pareillement les Corps saints de Claude, Nicostrat, Symphorien, Castorius, & Simplicius ...’ (Tome I, p. 489)(He had an affection with and a particular devotion to the saints called the Quattuor Coronati. For that reason he searched for their bones; and after having found them with difficulty, he put them in the basilica bearing their name. He organized this before he received the pontificate. He moved apparently the holy bodies of Claudius, Nicostratus, Symphorianus, Castorius and Simplicius…). Historical evidence showed that Leo IV enlarged the old basilica, which is named after the ‘Quattuor Coronati’.


Fig. 319 – Pope Leo IV, with his pontificate from 857 – 865 AD, was an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘Quattuor Coronati’. He searched for their bones and had them transferred to a basilica. In: DUCHESNE (1653).

The saints on the ceiling of the church of SS. Quattro Coronati in Rome by an unknown master are of a much later date. The church itself (the emporium) dated from the twelfth century. In the apses are frescoes of Giovanni Manozzi, also called Giovanni da San Giovanni, painted around 1630. DUFFY (1997) gave an illustration of the ‘Donation of Constantine’ as a fresco in the Capella di San Silvestro in the church of the Quattro Santi Coronati  (fig. 320).


Fig. 320 – The ‘Donation of Constantin’. A fresco in the Church of the Quattro Santi Coronati in Rome. Emperor Constantine gives Pope Sylvester I (in office: 314 – 335) the tiara, an event which supposedly took place in the fourth century AD. The fresco cycle was ordered by Pope Innocent IV in 1248 to consecrate the false legend of the transfer of temporal power from Constantine to Pope Silvester I. The forged document  was probably written in Rome around 753 AD.   Pepin, father of Charlemagne, had marched into Italy in 754 and 756 and defeated Lombardy. He gave the territories dominated by the Lombards to Pope Stephen because Pepin had conquered the country ‘for the love of St Peter and for the forgiveness of his sins’. In: DUFFY (1997).

Also in other places in Italy are representations of the ‘Quattro Coronati’, for instance, in Florence in the guildhall of San Michele at the Via Calzaiolio. The sculptor Nanni d’Antonio di Banco (c. 1373 – 1421) depicted the saints around 1415 (GOLDTHWAITE, 1980)(fig. 321).


Fig. 321 – The four crowned saints (Quattuor Coronati) in marble, by the Italian sculptor Nanni di Banco, in the tabernacle of the Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e di Legname (Stonecutters and carpenters), Orsanmichele, Florence, around 1415. In: BOULBOULLE,  (1989) and KELSCH (1987).

Portraits of the saints also occur in Pavia (in the S. Pietro church on the Arca of the Holy Augustine, around 1360), in Venice (in the dome of the San Marco and in the Dogen Palace, Colonna degli Scultori, around 1400), in Arezzo (S. Francesco church, painted by Parri Spinelli in 1400, destroyed) and on the isle of Sicily (DU COLOMBIER, 1953).

Further north, in Austria, are representations at the Stadtpfarrkirch of Neunkirchen (Lower Austria), dating from around 1500. In the Pfarrkirche of Steyr (Upper Austria) is an epitaph of the builder-master Wolfgang Tenk, made of sandstone, with the heraldry of the building guild St. Stephan and the Quattuor Coronati.

The consecration of the Munster of Aachen (Germany) took place in 1474 and was dedicated to the Quattuor Coronati. The only profane representation of the ‘Coronati’ in Germany is at Wertheim on the Main. A sixteenth century house (now the Heimatmuseum in the Rathausgasse) is decorated with the ‘Quattor Coronati’ in red sandstone (fig. 322).






Fig. 322 – The ‘Quattuor Coronati’ and their symbols at the (former) town hall of Wertheim on the Main, Germany. From top to bottom: Claudius with a T-square; Symphorianus with a spirit level; Nikostratus with a compass; Castorius with a measuring rot (Photos: Marten Kuilman,  August 2002).

The ‘Quattuor Coronati’ were, especially in Belgium and Holland, a popular motif. Paintings and sculptures can be found in Brussels, Antwerp, Brugues, Gent, Leuven, Mechelen, Amsterdam, Dordrecht and Haarlem. The following historical occurrences are also noticed by KELSCH (1987): Middelburg (Guildhouse ‘In de Steenrotse’, around 1590, lost), Leiden (Guildhouse of the carpenters and masons, 1615, destroyed), Delft (silver guild-beakers, 1633;  fig. 323), Arnhem (Eusebius church, destroyed and Appingedam (Groningen, fourteenth century, restored, fig. 324).


Fig. 323 – Guild cups from Delft. S. Lorenz and the ‘Quattuor Coronati‘, as patron saints of the guild of the building trade; silver, 1633. In: KELSCH (1987).


Fig. 324 – The ‘Quattuor Coronati’ as a painting on the ceiling in the church in Appingedam (Groningen, Northern Holland). Left: 1. Claudius with a compass; 2. Nikostratus with a T-square (note that this is a reversal from the symbolism on the town hall in Wertheim); Right: 3.  Castorius with a measuring rot and 4. Symphorianus with a trowel. In: STEENSMA (1984).

Many representations of the ‘Quattuor Coronati’ are connected with the building guilds, which flowered in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The guild of the ‘Maestri‘ in Florence was, for example, a considerable political power block (GOLDTHWAITE, 1980) Their shield of arms showed the attributes of the ‘Quattuor Coronati’ (fig. 325-1), with a waller’s instrument for mixing mortar in the center.

The guild sign of the masons and thatchers of Middelburg (Holland), dated from 1607, exhibited at its reverse four persons with tools from the trade. Their names (Claudus, Nicostracius, Dicideryus and Syplycus) indicated that the knowledge of the original legend had become somewhat distorted (fig. 325-2).

A medal with the arms of the building guild of St. Stephan in Vienna is dated from 1651 (fig. 325-3). In the outer rim of the sign is written: ‘Der Purgerlichen Steinmezen unndt Maurer Sigill der Haupthitten peu S. Steffan in Wien‘ and in the inner rim: ‘S (= Sigillum) Fraternita Lapicidarum Vienensiu Austriae‘.

The influence of the building- and crafts-guilds diminished during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and tradition became the main motive to continue the societies. The prominence of the ‘Quattuor Coronati’, as the patron saints of the construction-workers, declined in due course. They are remembered in literature and on the calendar of the holy days (the 8th of November) of the Roman Catholic Church.


Fig. 325 – The ‘Quattuor Coronati’ are seen here as patrons of the building trade. 1. A shield of the Maestri, Florence (Italy), mid-fifteenth century. GOLDTHWAITE (1980). The symbols (tools) of the ‘Four Crowned’ are depicted in medallions; 2. A guild sign from Middelburg (Zeeland, The Netherlands), 1607. The names are given as Claudus, Nicostracius, Dicideryus en Syplycus (KELSCH (1987). 3. Seal of the building guild of St. Stephan in Vienna (Austria), with the ‘Quattuor Coronati’. The names are given as (from left to right): S. Thorianus, S. Claudius, S. Nicostratus and S. Castorius. Dated from 1651.  KELSCH (1987).

The building guilds found an interesting continuation in the Freemasonry. More and more ‘members of honor’ were allowed in the original medieval trade union. They were not only interested in the (financial) aspects of the building trade, but were also concerned with religious and moral questions within the union. The ‘Grand Lodge’ of the Freemasons in London was established in 1717. This event was the beginning of a movement, which subsequently spread over greater parts of Europe.

The union was open, in theory, for all races and creeds. To quote Alfred Robbins: ‘Freemasonry can be described as an organized system of morality, derived from divine wisdom and age-long experience, which, for preservation from outer assault and inner decay, is veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbol.’ This latter quality gave the movement a ‘secret’ aspect, aiming at knowledge, which was outside the mainstream of Christian thinking. The use of allegorical aspects and symbols with a pagan background brings Freemasonry sometimes within the realm of the tetradic world. The movement, however, is not guided by a specific form of division thinking, but seems to be attracted to the dynamic character of the (numerological) phenomenon as such.

The ‘secret’ character is enhanced by the fact that the type of ‘division’ is not explicitly mentioned as a philosophical force. What remains is a puzzling game of various observational stances. There are references to ‘divine wisdom and age-long experience’ – pointing to the Egyptian cultural period – but the quintessence of division-thinking remains in the dark. Despite these objections, it should be noted that Freemasonry is a valuable historical effort to explore the depths of multiple understanding. It is not surprising that the movement gained popularity in Mozart’s time (1780 – 1790) when a ‘renaissance’ of higher division thinking was  in the air: from the Latin ‘ars quadrataria’ to the medieval guilds of masons and the Freemasonry runs a conceptual line, which favored a square and quadrated world, either in reality (of a building) or in the mind.

The oldest written record of devotion to the ‘Quattuor Coronati’ as a patron saint of the masons in England was discovered by James Orchard Halliwell in a document of the second half of the fourteenth century in the British Museum (Bibl. Reg. 17.A.I). A loge of the Freemasons in England was founded in 1886 under the name ‘Quator Coronati’. The same happened in Germany in 1951. The more recent publication of KELSCH (1987) was published by the ‘Forschungsloge ‘Quatuor Coronati‘ in Bayreuth.

DEMETER (1961) pointed to some obvious contradictions in the story of the ‘Quattuor Coronati’: why did the sculptors make a representation of the pagan sun god (in a quadriga), but refused to make a sculpture of Asclepius? Furthermore, the connotation with four completely different persons, which were killed two years later – on the eighth of November – in Rome, because they were Christians, is peculiar. They were described as ‘cornicularii‘ (with horns). A ‘cornicularius‘ was a soldier of a civil servant with a certain rank. This title is very similar to the ‘coronati’. It seems as if an old popular story – maybe collected in the provinces – was used by the Roman Catholic church for their own good use.

The name ‘Coronati‘ has been subject to various interpretations of its meaning. The word could point to the martyrs – with a crown of thorn, a well-known Christian symbol. The term could also be associated with Asclepios, the son of Apollo, the sun god, and with the Koronids. The latter name is, in this assumption, subsequently being corrupted to Coronati. The number four was probably only of numerological importance.

The addition ‘Quator‘ (written with one t) is, according to DEMETER (1961), not relevant, because there are five stonemasons in the original story. Stonemasonry was called the ‘ars quadrataria’ in Latin, and a stonemason was a ‘quadratarius‘. Maybe the legend writers of the fifth and sixth century transferred the initial five ‘Quadratarii Koronidis’ (stonemasons of Asclepios) into the ‘Quatuor Coronati’ (four Crowned Ones).

There could have been a connection between the Mithra-religion and the origin of the saints’ life’s of the Four Crowned Ones. The worship of Mithra is centered on the Light. The god Mithra acts, in the dualistic environment of Light and Darkness/Heaven and Earth/Good and Evil, as a mediator between God and human beings. Mithra, as a God of Light (Sol Invictus) rode in a quadriga along the sky, pulled by four horses symbolizing the power over the elements.

The (Persian) mysteries of Mithra had special appeal to the Roman military and developed gradually into a soldiers-religion, which covered at one stage the entire length of the empire from east to west. The emerging Christianity grew into a serious competitor. Severe persecution of the Christians took place during the reign of Diocletian (emperor from 284 – 305 AD), who was born in Illyricum (Dalmatia), next to Pannonia. However, times changed, and now it was the turn of the followers of Mithra to be persecuted, also during the reign of Diocletian.

A complete break with history took place during the rule of Constantine I (306 – 337 AD) when Christianity became the state-religion. It is possible, according to DEMETER (1961), that the four (or five) sculptors were followers of Mithra instead of Christians. This could explain why they first sculptured the sun god on his quadriga and later infuriated the Christians, who did not allow sculptures of (pagan) gods. They would have been accused of idolatry.

A ‘mithrarium‘ (place of worship of Mithra) in Rome, underneath the church of San Clemente, between the Via Labicana and the Via de Santi Quattro supported the view (of DEMETER, 1961) of a possible tension between the Mithras and early Christianity. The original four martyrs (for Mithras) changed into the four Coronati, somewhere between the third and the fifth century AD. They became martyrs for Christianity and were incorporated into the world of legends of the Roman Catholic Church. KELSCH (1987, p. 8) disagreed with these suggestions and reckoned that the boundary between sound scientific research and fantasy was crossed: ‘Hier beginnen sich die Grenzen der nüchternen Forschung und der ausufernden Phantasie der Forscher zu verwirren’.

The area of origin of the saints deserves some further attention. Pannonia is the area to the south and west of the Danube in the tributary of the Save and the Drau and comprises (present) parts of eastern Austria, western Hungary and Croatia. No special devotion of the four saints can historically be traced in Pannonia. The inhabitants of Pannonia had a track record of rebellion and insurrection, right from the beginning of the Roman domination in 119 BC.

The resistance of the inhabitants of Dalmatia was particular strong during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (6 AD) and it took him three years to control. Emperor Trajanus Decius (249 – 251) was sympathetic to Pannonia. Several of their dignitaries were immortalized on coins. Diocletian divided the area geographically and politically in a Pannonia Prima en Secunda. Emperor Valentinian originated from this area, but had to fight numerous rebellions on his home ground during his reign from 364 – 375 AD.

The Langobards, with their original home ground in Northern Germany, wandered during the period of the migration (526 AD) south to Pannonia and partly remained there. Another part of the population continued to the Po Valley and laid the foundations of the cultural area of the Longobards (Venice). From the east was an influx of Arian tribes, originating from the slopes of the Caucasus, who went as far as Silesia and Galicia. They founded the Croatian Empire, which made contact with the Slaves in Pannonia (GOSS, 1987)(fig. 326). Clearly,  such a geographical melting pot provided a good substratum for the origin of legends.


Fig. 326 –  The boundaries in the Balkan in the early Middle Ages, showing the borderline between the ‘western’ Croatians and the ‘eastern’ Serbs. Pannonia was situated in the upper central part (and further north into Hungary (GOSS (1987).

The reputation of Pannonia as a place of ‘mystery’ continued in the seventeenth century, when this area was known in Western Europe as ‘Europa mirabilia‘. It was, to a certain extend, the cultural horizon of Europe of that period, just as ‘Timbuktu’ figures in the present imagination as a place-far-away and the unknown. Pannonia featured, for this very reason, many times in the ‘Martyrologium Hieronymianum’ (composed at the beginning of the sixth century). The area was mentioned as the place of birth of Saint Martin of Tours, the man who cut his coat in half and gave it to a beggar.

A reference in the book of the German physician Michael Maier (1568 – 1622) ‘Symbola Aureae Mensae Duodecim Nationum’ (1617; FRICK, 1972, p. 574) painted the magical environment of Pannonia: ‘In quibusdam Pannoniae locis homines sub aquis habitare scribunt, quia ex aquis induratis tophacei lapides concreuerint: In montanis Carolinis aqua feruentes lapidescunt similiter: Alibi intra ignem viuos degere mortales asserunt, si silices ignem actu continent, ut Castilia.’

HENDERSON (1987) mentioned the ‘Quattuor Coronati’ of the ‘Coelian Hill’ in Rome as a motif for a representation at the Canterbury Cathedral (now lost). He pointed to eight-century Bede and his ‘Ecclesiasticae historiae gentis Anglorum‘, which mentioned the four saints (Lib. II, Cap. VII, r. 15, edition 1550): ‘Erat autem eo loci, ubi flammarum impetus maxime incumbebat, martyrium beatorum quatuor coronatorum.’

The legend of the ‘Four Crowned Ones’ is a curiosity in the history of the thoughts in the first centuries of the Christian era, regardless of the difference in interpretation of the details. The myth of the ‘Quattuor Coronati’ allowed, in all its complexity, a glimpse at the contrivances of a tetradic theme in the time of fermentation of the Christian belief. The history is informative since it showed the transformation of a pagan tetradic theme (quadriga, quadratarius, Quattuor Coronati) change into a legend of the Roman Catholic Church and the subsequent defusing of its four-fold contents into numerology.

A further study of the changes in division thinking during the tetrarchy of Diocletian in the early fourth century would be warranted. The historic visibility (of tetradic thinking) had surfaced in the second century AD in the Roman Empire, more or less from emperor Hadrian (76 – 138 AD) onwards, but this upcoming presence was also a proof of its (political) weakness. The early Christian manifestations of belief in the true spirit of peace for all mankind – as the essence of the message of Christ – fitted smoothly within the world of (Roman) tetradic thinking. It was only when it became involved in a power-struggle (with Mithraism as their main adversary), and the Christian identity was stressed, that a downgrading to oppositional thinking became necessary to fight off the dualistic tendencies of other religions. The Christian message lost its innocence in the real world.


BOULBOULLE, Guido et el. (1989). Florenz. Ein Reisebuch durch die Stadtgeschichte. Athenäum, Frankfurt am Main. ISBN 3-610-04731-3

DEMETER,  Karl  (1961).  Die Legende von den ‘Vier Gekrönten’ (Quatuor  Coronati). Im Akazien-Verlag Alfred Buss, Hamburg.

DUCHESNE, Francois (1653). Histoire des Papes et sovverains chefs de l’eglise (Deux Tomes). Jean Roger, Paris.

DUFFY, Eamon (1997). Saint & Sinners. A History of the Popes. Yale University Press/S4C. LCCCN 97-60897/ISBN 0-300-07332-1

FRICK, Karl R.H. (1972). Michael Maier’s ‘Symbola Avreae Mensae Dvodecim Nationvm’ (1617) (Facs.). Akademische Druck- u. Verlaganstalt, Graz, Austria.

GOLDTHWAITE, Richard A. (1980). The Building of Renaissance Florence. An Economic and Social History. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore/London. ISBN 0-8018-2342-0

GOSS,  Vladimir P. (1987). Early Croatian Architecture: a study of the Pre-Romanesque. Gerald Duckworth & Co., London. ISBN 0 7156 2149 1

HENDERSON, George (1987).  From Durrow to Kells. The Insular Gospel Books 650 – 800. Thames and Hudson, London.

KELSCH, Wolfgang (1987). Die Quattuor Coronati in der Legende und der bildenden Kunst. Forschungsloge ‘Quatuor Coronati’, Bayreuth. No. 808. ISBN 3-925749-03-9

SIMON, E. (Red.); BALTY, J. Ch.; BERGER, E.; BOARDMANN, J.; BRUNEAU, Ph.; CANCIANI, F.; KAHIL, L. & LAMBRRIOUDAKIS, V. (1988). Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC),  IV, 2  Eros – Herakles. Artemis Verlag, Zürich & München. ISBN 3 7608 8751 1

STEENSMA, Regd. (Ed.) (1984). Kerken in Friesland: gebouwen, inrichting en gebruik.  Bosch & Keuning , Baarn ISBN 90-246-4542-5.

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