Over a two-day period in February, Dubrovnik, Croatia observes the Festivity of St. Blaise to celebrate the patron saint and saviour of the city.
Pious Yet Joyous
The festivity is a pious yet joyous celebration that has been continuously observed since at least 1190 CE and possibly longer.
Dubrovnik city wallsCroatian National Tourist Board
It draws thousands of attendees from Dubrovnik and its surrounding towns and islands, as well as tourists who visit to observe the festivity.
The importance of both St. Blaise and this tradition in Dubrovnik resulted in the festivity being inscribed in 2009 to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Walls of Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik stairwayCroatian National Tourist Board
Dubrovnik and St. Blaise
St. Blaise (Sv. Vlaho in Croatian) began life as Blaise of Sebaste, a physician and bishop who lived between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE in the region that is now Armenia. The saint’s legend recalls that he was a mystic healer who retreated to a cave for contemplation and prayer.
Here, he was sought out by followers who believed he could cure a variety of ailments, especially injuries and diseases of the throat. He also cured animals, who are said to have come to him on their own to seek his help.
Saint Blaise statueCroatian National Tourist Board
Blaise’s large following was apparently a threat to Licinius, then co-emperor of the Roman Empire, who ordered his arrest, torture and eventual beheading. On his way back to Sebaste for persecution, Blaise was said to have performed one or more miracles involving curing children and animals. His cult of worship began soon after, and he was venerated as a saint sometime before the 11th century as the saint of throat disorders and wild animals.
Saint Blaise statue closeup by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board
Festival of St. Blaise, patron Saint of Dubrovnik by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board
St. Blaise’s association with Dubrovnik started in either 971 or 972, when the city was also known as Ragusa. Ships from the powerful Republic of Venice were moored offshore, ostensibly to restock their food and water supplies. St. Blaise, in the form of an old bearded man, appeared to a priest named Stojko, and warned him that the Venetians intended to attack the city. Stojko told the Dubrovnik Senate of his vision, and the city was able to organize a successful defense.
St. Blaise was named the patron saint of Dubrovnik and his saint day became one of the city’s most important religious festivals. Statues and images of the saint are dotted throughout Dubrovnik, including one of St. Blaise with a gold miter and holding a model of the city, which presides over the church named after him.
This is also where his relics are kept, including his skull, a neck bone and other small bones.
Priest hat by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board
How the festivity is celebrated
The Festivity of St. Blaise begins every year on February 2, or Candlemas (also called the day of Our Lady of Candelora), when white doves are released over the town and the banner of the saint is raised in front of Crkva svetoga Vlaha, the Church of St. Blaise.
The faithful enter the church to have their throats blessed with two crossed candles, symbolic of St. Blaise’s role as the protector of disorders of the throat.
The statue of Orlando by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board
On February 3, the actual day of the festivity, ceremonies begin with church bells ringing around the city. A gilded statue of St. Blaise, along with the saint’s relics and a relic of the shroud of Jesus, are presented outside the church, where a mass is held. After the mass, these items are paraded before thick crowds on the Stradun, the main street in Dubrovnik’s old walled city, which is festooned with banners.
St Blaise Relic by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board
The Bishop of Dubrovnik and other priests carry the reliquaries, which the gathered crowd pray to and try to touch.
St. Blaise domeCroatian National Tourist Board
Accompanying the procession is a succession of participants. They include young women from Dubrovnik and neighboring towns dressed in elaborate colorful folk costumes, and costumed flagbearers. Near the waterfront, a corps of trombunjeri soldiers fire historic powder muskets to open and close the procession—the noisy barrage symbolizes scaring enemies away from the city.
The festivities continue well after the religious portion of the ceremonies end, with folk music and dancing, flag-waving and feasting, as well as an orange-throwing fight.
Dubrovnik palaceCroatian National Tourist Board
The Festivity of St. Blaise has historically functioned as a way to unite all segments of the city, from the richest to the poorest—even wanted criminals were given special permission to enter the city and celebrate without fear of arrest. They came together both to venerate the saint and to celebrate the city’s historic independence.
Dubrovnik skylineCroatian National Tourist Board
Sources claim that the Festivity of St. Blaise has been observed continuously every year since 972, though UNESCO only verifies it as far back as 1190.
Dubrovnik, Lovrijenac fortressCroatian National Tourist Board
Still, its long continuity and significance to the culture and identity of Dubrovnik are uncontested.