medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
From 591 to 604 pope St. Gregory the Great wrote a number of letters to a bishop of Catania named Leo, mentioning him as well in missives directed to others. In one of the latter (_ep._ 14 Ewald-Hartmann) Leo is said to act severely against _malefici_, a Latin term that can denote either illdoers in a broad sense or, in a narrower one, practitioners of harmful magic. This historically attested figure is thought to underlie the legendary saint Leo, bishop of Catania in what would appear to be the eighth century. So imagined, Leo -- in this construction also known as Leo the Thaumaturge -- is the hero of a Bios surviving in a polished longer version variously dated to the eighth or ninth century and presumed on stylistic grounds to have been written somewhere in the Greek east (BHG 981b; from the location of its surviving witness sometimes called the Moscow version) as well as in a shorter version written somewhere in the Greek west and dated to the late eighth or earlier ninth century (BHG 981). Often presumed to have originated in Sicily, this shorter, plainer version also exists in a slightly fuller Latin translation (BHL 4838). The dates of both versions are conjectural.
Of these two versions, the shorter appears to be closer in content and in arrangement to their now lost joint ancestor. In it Leo is an overseer of church property at Ravenna who in the absence of acceptable local candidates is chosen to fill the see of Catania, who struggles mightily with an evil and blasphemous thaumaturge named Heliodorus, and who cures a woman of a hitherto incurable bloody flux (on which latter cf. Luke 8:43-48). In Leo's extended contest with Heliodorus (a.k.a. Liodorus) the saint operates holy magic to overcome the achievements of his diabolically inspired and imperially condemned opponent, capturing him with his stole after he had profaned a service at Catania and, without damage either to his own hand or to the stole, holding him in a fire until he is burned to death. In the Latin translation Leo also destroys a pagan cult statue surviving from the days of the emperor Decius.
Leo's cult traveled widely in the Byzantine world. In the Synaxary of Constantinople his feast falls on 21. February; in other calendars he is remembered on 20. February. In addition to the aforementioned Bios Leo is the subject of Greek hymns by the ninth-century St. Joseph the Hymnographer and by the eleventh-century St. Bartholomew of Grottaferrata, of a verse Bios (BHG 981c) preserved in the first volume (Messanensis gr. 30) of the famous menologion written in 1307 or 1308 for the monastery of Santissimo Salvatore dell'Acroterio / in lingua Phari at Messina, and of the Latin hymns in his late medieval Office from Catania. Though he had been celebrated liturgically in the Siculo-Calabrian corner of the medieval Latin west, where he was the titular of several churches, Leo entered the Roman Martyrology in the 1580s from Greek liturgical practice as represented by a translation into Latin of the so-called Menologion of Sirlet. In the RM his day of commemoration has always been 20. February.
Leo as depicted (at center; at left, St. Charalampus of Magnesia; at right, a St. Sophronius) in a twelfth-century vault fresco in the church of the Theotokos in the monastery of Hosios Loukas near Distomo in Phokis:
Heliodorus has survived at Catania in the name (U Liotru) of the mostly basalt late antique elephant which in the Middle Ages stood over one of the city gates and which led Arabic-speakers to refer to Catania as Medina el-fil ("City of the Elephant"). The city's official symbol since 1239, in the eighteenth century it was made part of a sculptural confection adorning a fountain in the Piazza Duomo:
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