A high-ranking Roman official who was tortured and drowned for refusing to accept Roman paganism, Saint Florian’s life is an inspirational tale of a man who chose Christian integrity over wealth and status.
St. Florian von Lorch was born in around 250 AD in the Roman city, Aelium Citium, which is now called Sankt Pölten in Austria. St. Florian had decided to join the Roman army as a young man and had quickly risen up the ranks. He was eventually made imperial commander for the Roman province of Noricum (also in modern Austria). As well as this, it was his responsibility to train and organize soldiers who would be used exclusively as firefighters.
St. Florian is most notably the patron saint of firefighters, a protector against the dangers of water (including drowning and flooding), beer brewers, chimney sweeps, and soap makers. He is also patron saint of Upper Austria, including its capital city Linz, and of Poland. The name “Florian” comes from the Latin word for “flower.” He is one of the most venerated early Christian martyrs and has particular modern influence in Central Europe. Here are 9 fascinating facts about his life.
#1 Saint Florian Died Around 304 AD After Being Drowned
St. Florian’s martyrdom came as a result of extraordinary defiance to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire at this time, led by Emperor Diocletian, was ordering Christians to be executed on a very large scale. When reports came back to Rome that St. Florian was refusing to kill Christians in his own province, Noricum, Emperor Diocletian sent Governor Aquilinus to investigate. There was a deep suspicion that St. Florian was refusing to carry out these executions because he, too, was a Christian.
To test his faith, Governor Aquilinus ordered St. Florian to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. St. Florian refused, denying the authority of these pagan gods. Enraged by this denouncement of Roman values, it was first ordered that St. Florian was to be brutally beaten by the Roman guards. It is reported that St. Florian boldly declared, “Tell the Emperor that I am a Christian and will suffer the same fate as the Christians.” After he was beaten, Governor Aquilinus decided that St. Florian should be burned to death, a punishment often used to execute Christians.
As he was stood on the funeral pyre and preparing to be burned, it is said that St. Florian began to taunt the Roman soldiers. St. Florian encouraged them to light the sticks beneath him, saying of the pyre: “light a fire, and I will climb upon it.”
Governor Aquilinus then decided to have St. Florian flayed alive, beaten again, and then drowned by having a millstone tied around his neck and throwing him into the River Enns. The rock dragged St. Florian down to the bottom of the river where he died.
#2 Saint Florian Was “Canonized” Around 900 AD – 955 AD
St. Florian is considered to have been made a saint around 900-955 AD when an Augustinian abbey was built near St. Florian’s tomb. A village called St. Florian, near Linz, Austria sprang up around this new monastery.
St. Florian was never formally canonized, as he lived in a time called “pre-congregation,” which was before the creation of today’s formal process of canonization where the Catholic Church decides whether someone is worthy of universal veneration. He may have been considered a saint by local bishops or communities before the construction of this Austrian monastery. St. Florian is recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint, but because he is one of the earliest known Christian martyrs he is not subjected to the complicated and rigorous modern process of authentication.
#3 Saint Florian Is Venerated as the Protector of Firefighters
International Firefighters’ Day is celebrated on the feast day of St. Florian, May 4. This day is celebrated mostly in Europe, with a parade and other festivities.
Central Europe especially venerates St. Florian as the patron saint of firefighters. In the German language, the word “Florian” is often used interchangeably with the word “firefighter” and is a universal radio call sign for fire departments. In 1935, a statue of St. Florian was unveiled outside the main fire station in Vienna, Austria.
The Polish city of Kraków also holds particular respect for St. Florian. This is not only because his remains are kept in the city, but also because of a fire in 1528 when the fire destroyed the neighborhood without damaging St. Florian’s Church.
#4 Saint Florian’s Symbol and Iconography Is of a Roman Soldier Putting Out a Fire
The Saint Florian cross is the most famous symbol of St. Florian. It is widely used to represent organizations of firefighters around the world. The cross has four rounded points, an example of it may be seen on the badge for the International Association of Firefighters. It is distinct from but sometimes confused with the Maltese cross.
St. Florian may also be seen in portraits pouring a bucket of water onto a burning building. This comes from a legend that claims St. Florian saved an entire house, and sometimes it is said it was an entire town, from flames using only a single bucket of water.
Other depictions of St. Florian choose to emphasize his role in the military more extensively. This is done by presenting him in full Roman garb or as a medieval knight. Red is the symbol of martyrdom, and as such his uniform is usually the color red.
Contrary to the popular symbolism of other martyrs, St. Florian is rarely shown holding a palm branch.
#5 Saint Florian’s Feast Day Celebration Is on May 4th
His feast day is May 4, the date of his martyrdom, and is widely celebrated in Europe. It is also celebrated by firefighters in Europe as a “Day of Fire Service.”
#6 Saint Florian’s Remains Are in Kraków, Poland
St. Florian’s Church in Kraków inters St. Florian’s remains.
St. Florian had little to do with Poland before 1184 when Pope Lucius III sent his remains to Duke Kasimir the Just of Poland, who directed the remains to be sent to Kraków. His remains are said to have grown miraculously heavier as they passed Kraków by horse cart. The horses refused to continue when they reached Kleparz, and it was judged that the remains had become too heavy to be pulled further and the remains were laid to rest on that spot. St Florian’s Church was built on that very spot to inter the remains.
#7 Saint Florian’s Major Shrines Are in Kraków, Poland, and Budapest, Hungary
St. Florian’s Gate, or “Florian Gate” is one of the best-known Polish Gothic structures in the world. Built in the 14th Century, this impressive gate marks the entrance to Kraków’s Old Town and was a former defense against Turkish attack for the town. A statue-type figure of St. Florian is embedded high up in the gate. The famous St. Florian’s Church is also located in Kraków.
The Church of St. Francis in Budapest, Hungary, has a large altar dedicated to St. Florian. Built in 1829, this includes a massive painting of St. Florian by Karl Held.
#8 The “Florian Principle” Ironically Means “Not in My Backyard”
There is a common German idea known as the “Florian Principle” which is similar to the concept of “not in my backyard (but okay if in someone else’s).” The phrase relating to this roughly translates as “O Holy St. Florian, please spare my house, set fire to another one.” It is ironic that such a saying would be associated with a selfless Saint who died instead of hurting others.
#9 International Firefighters’ Day Is Celebrated on St. Florian’s Feast Day
International Firefighters’ Day started after five firefighters, Garry Vredeveldt, Chris Evans, Stuart Davidson, Jason Thomas, and Matthew Armstrong, were killed in the line of duty on December 2, 1998 in Linton, Australia. These fallen heroes were headed to fight a large bush fire when the wind suddenly changed directions and killed all five men. The blue and red ribbons symbolizing International Firefighters’ Day are cut exactly five centimeters long, for the five deceased heroes, and one centimeter wide. People wear a blue and red ribbon or hang the ribbon in various places. The blue symbolizes water and the red symbolizes fire.
Many lessons may be learned from the life of St. Florian. He becomes a powerful example of a man who chose his faith in God over status and pride. It is obvious that he could have continued his comfortable life as a successful Roman administrator and taken full advantage of the worldly possessions at his fingertips. Instead, he sacrificed all of this for the integrity of his faith and worked alongside his conscience to denounce Roman paganism.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.