The Curious Tale of Sant Narcís

By far the best approach to most things for which you bear absolutely no responsibility is the intuitive one. This includes the acquisition of historical knowledge when rubber-necking in foreign cities, such as Girona in Catalonia, where Saint Narcissus spent a good deal of time, and has done so since he copped it on 29 October AD 307.

Sant Narcís, Bishop of Girona, and its Patron Saint since 1387

Now you know who I am talking about, I shall hereinafter refer to him by his Catalan appellation: Sant Narcís. His claim to fame when still alive is that he he was a pastor, preacher and—tradition has it (italics mine)— bishop of Girona.  During the persecutions of Diocletian he fled to what is now known as Augsburg, Germany, with his deacon, Saint Felix of Girona (in Catalan: Sant Feliu).

Both were arrested and martyred upon their return to Girona, although not at the same time. Well, perhaps they were martyred at the same time; there are conflicting accounts available online. Sant Feliu copped it in AD 304. This seems to be an unequivocal fact. The relics of Sant Narcis, in this somewhat confusing, fluid history, now reside in the Catedral de Girona i Basílica de Sant Feliu, which is curiously most often called the “Collegiate Church of Saint Felix” in English. As you will have gathered by now, my ignorance knows no bounds.

Sarcophagus of Sant Narcís, lying at an uncomfortable-looking angle since 1328 in the
Catedral de Girona i Basílica de Sant Feliu.

I am using Catalan names wherever possible to give you a little of the authentic sense of wonder I experienced deciphering what all these strange words mean. Anyway, I found it odd that bits of Sant Narcís ended up there. Read on to discover why.

Ignorance is amusing as we discovered when first laying eyes on the sign Av(enguda) Sant Narcís, one of the main roads in Girona, of whom Sant Narcís is the Patron Saint.  That anyone would take the Saint’s name of “Narcissus”, much less a devoted man of the Church— when anachronistic sculptures invariably depict Narcissus naked, except for his hunting accoutrements, not to mention the incongruity of the vanity for which he is known and less salubrious practices associated with self-love vigorously discouraged by the Church despite only one single extremely oblique reference made in three verses in the entire Bible (Genesis 38, 8–10) speaking of Onan, younger brother of the deceased Er—had us in fits of laughter.

In a more serious moment, I discovered later, from the Catalan Wikipedia page, that a certain Abbot Oliba, who was Bishop of Vic from 1018 to 1046, gave a somewhat holier interpretation of Narcissus – and who am I to argue with a man considered one of the spiritual founders of Catalonia and possibly one of the most influential prelates in the Iberian Peninsula at the time?

Oliba is said to have been a great writer of prolific output (as was St. Jerome. I suppose the third and fourth centuries were as good a time as any to be a writer). He was also a translator. Who knew? History goes vague on us once again, but the W-word does mention a wad of  “Arabic manuscripts he translated into Latin for the benefit of all Europe”.

What delights these manuscripts contained is anybody’s guess, but perhaps it is worth mentioning at this juncture that before the Dark Ages fell over Europe, the place was considerably enlightened, and it is always a mystery to me that so much more is made of the Middle Ages and the subsequent Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century than is made of what seems to be a much more powerful greatness that existed long, long before.

Bishop Oliba used the martyred Narcís, who had not yet been canonised in the 11th century, as a launching pad for one of his sermons thus:

Oh benaurat Narcís, flor del paradís que constantment exhales la bona olor de Crist, amb quines lloances t’exalçarem, o bé què t’admirarem abans, la fe o les virtuts?
— Sermó del bisbe Oliba sobre Sant Narcís (segle XI); fragment, traducció de Narcís Comadira.

My English approximation of this Catalan translation from I know not what, but probably Latin, is as follows:

“Oh blessèd Narcissus, a flower of paradise that constantly exudes the good smell of Christ, with what praise shall we exalt you, or for what will we admire you first – your faith or your virtues?

 At least now that we have a fuller appreciation of the Saint’s name, I can continue with the story.

A few days after spotting the street sign bearing his name, Sant Narcís would assume greater importance in my life and the lives of my two travelling companions. There we were innocently wandering around the old town of Girona, taking in sights and sounds, when we came across the Carrer de les Mosques (or Street of the Flies, to the uninitiated).

Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

That sign in itself is not the only thing on the wall of the Llegendes de Girona museum hotel. The wall is full of flies, each about thirty centimetres long, as the picture below shows.

So while two of us us were busy touching these wall-mounted stone carvings, and peering at the inscrutable plaque in Catalan, the third in our party was putting her phone to good use, and finding further information on the internet.

The Miracle of the Flies occurred either in 1285, or in 1286, while Girona was held siege by France.

What she discovered, by kind courtesy of a quaint translation on the website of the local Restaurant Casa Marieta, was fascinating, and to our great delight, she read it with much animated expression. I have marked her emphasis when reading aloud as appropriate:

The miracle of the flies took place, so they say, in September 1286, when the army of the King of France, Philip the Fair, besieged Girona with the motive of his quarrel with King Pere of Aragon. Although the city surrendered without a fight, the French behaved abominably when they entered the city: they looted; they insulted and oppressed the people; they attacked churches mocking the religious objects and finally, profaned the incorrupt body of Sant Narcís which was kept in the collegiate church of Sant Feliu, breaking his arm. This was the last straw: huge flies started to emerge from the body, furiously biting the French soldiers and their horses. And after being bitten, the enemies died stamping their feet. This supposed event brought about a multitude of writings, sermons and legends and started the typical and topical Girona iconography which inextricably links the image of flies to that of the city.

To signify a gap in this descriptive text while we giggled, shrieked and danced about, stamping our feet, and coincidentally brushed a few live, real flies, of the gentle kind, from our faces, here is a close-up of two flies greeting each other which have been placed for posterity on the lintel of the grated window in the previous image but one:

The sociable flies of Sant Narcís

Incorrupt body!” I exclaimed, “I suppose the maggots which gave rise to the flies were incorrupt as well, and suddenly, upon the arrival of those abominable French, they bred, well, like flies, transforming themselves into veritable war machines, and swarmed in their fury from the armhole of Sant Narcís!”

Fresh hilarity ensued, since by now, another source of information had been found which established that it was in fact from the tomb that these patriotic but furious flies had emerged and not, as I had immediately imagined from the place where Sant Narcís’s arm had been ripped off, as if his corpse were a rag doll. 

I am used to being laughed at for the sometimes odd ways my imagination rationalises things, and weeks later, I still ponder as to the sound an arm wrenched off an incorrupt body might make. I was much relieved, though, now that the truth of the origin of the flies (in the tomb, with the incorrupt body of Bishop Narcís, dead by that time for 970-odd years) had been clarified.

By the way, it took Narcís only 102 years after this famous Miracle of the Flies to become the Patron Saint of Girona, in 1387. That is roughly one millennium after he actually died (in AD 307).

I still had a nagging doubt, however, which I shared with my fellow travellers. It is only fair to admit that they listened to me patiently, and with quite serious expressions on their faces, considering that flies swarming out of a dead person’s destroyed armpit was the last thing I had described. My contention was that a sealed tomb was no place for flies to live, and certainly not on a sustainable basis for over nine centuries. Our collective reflection came up with a neat conclusion: the flies were Holy Flies, hence the Miracle.

It seems that historians were of the same mind, since the text on Casa Marieta’s website goes on to tell us a similar event occurred again, some 368 years later, roughly. I say roughly, because we have an unreliable narrator in the paragraph below, as far as where we are, exactly, on the timeline (emphasis as read aloud by our smartphone-savvy companion):

Later on, when in 1653 the French, sent by General Plessis-Bellière and Marshal d’Hocquincourt, besieged Girona, once again the flies came out of the body of the patron saint of the city; this time, however, they only bit the horses of the besiegers causing the death of two thousand of them. The following year, in 1684, whilst the French (yes, the French!) came back yet again to besiege Girona under orders from Marshal Bellefond, the patriotic insects came back too to bite the soldiers as well as the horses, causing many deaths

Just as we were making obvious assumptions as to where the idea of horse flies came from, and figuring out that the flies acted on their own accord while the soldiers acted under orders from Marshal Bellefond,  my friend said “Wait! Keep still! You’ve been blessed!”

And sure enough, I had, for miraculously, a fly had landed on the precise spot on the stylised Christian cross on my arm depicting the fire of the Holy Spirit. Naturally, I wanted to see it for myself, so stupidly I moved, and the bloody thing buggered off.

Tourist memento, also available on T-shirts.

No matter, this gave us all time to regroup. By the time my observant friend had her camera ready and I had stopped moving, the blessèd fly returned, and parked its butt just above the seven symbols representing the seven times Jesus Christ says “I am” in the Bible. Here is the proof of the fly on my arm:

Waiter, there’s a fly on my arm.

The blessèd fly then moved to my other travelling companion, and settled on her, so she, too, was blessed, also in the proximity of a tattoo. Suddenly several flies had joined the first, and there followed a general flurry of beatification, as all three of us were graced by the presence of these flies. Because these were blessings, we did not attempt to swat the creatures. Instead we felt strangely calm and merely grinned at each other.

As if the incorrupt body of a Saint and enormous flies biting soldiers, with the ensuing death by the stamping of feet (we wondered whether the horses also stamped their feet upon being bitten in 1653, thereby meeting certain doom) was not enough, we spied another legend writ in stone upon the Wall of the Holy Flies (I am making up names at will now, as you can tell).

It tells the story of how, during the Christian persecutions under the Roman Emporor Diocletian, Sant Narcís was being pursued by his persecutors at some point between AD 304 and 307. At the time, apparently, he had lodgings quite near the current Carrer de las Mosques, at No 5 Carrer Pou Rodó. To avoid being nabbed by his pursuers, he climbed out the window of said house, but had the presence of mind to make a footprint facing inwards on the window sill to make it look as if he had entered the house through the window, and not, in fact, made a hasty escape. When the persecutors arrived, they searched his house thoroughly, believing that Narcís was hidden inside. This gave him enough time to flee far from his would-be captors. Needless to say, a footprint still remains on the sill of the very window from which Sant Narcís fled. There is a delightful book online called 42 Magical Stories of Girona from which I took the salient points of this story. There is also a sculpture of the foot that made the print on a plinth in Carrer de les Mosques.

Another thing we know is that – apart from converting a prostitute, Saint Afra of Augsburg ,and her mother, Hilaria, to Christianity in Augsburg, Germania, where he and Sant Feliu were for several years before returning to Girona, Sant Narcís had exquisitely beautiful feet. Or at least one. 

This has been enlarged and immortalised in white marble and clad in an artful sandal depicting Miraculous Flies. To detract from my praise of this particular sculpture set on a waist-high plinth, may I simply remark that what we know of the relative proportions of the fly and the human foot have not been observed in this instance?  I could not help admire the toenails of Sant Narcís.

The beautiful foot of Sant Narcís

I was not the only one who thought that touching the big toe would bring good fortune, in addition to the blessings already bestowed on us by the flies. This is written nowhere, of course: the three of us simply decided so on the spot.

Actually kissing such a foot in an attitude of devotion was out of the question, so I merely placed two fingers on its big toe, thereby deftly giving you an idea of the size of the sculpture.

It is known that manicurists have existed since Ancient Egyptian times.

One of the biggest surprises was that an old woman from whom the Spanish-enabled member of our party asked directions when we wanted to visit the Carrer de les Mosques again had no idea that the street existed, and had never seen the Miraculous Flies in the whole of her eighty-four-year-old life. She lives approximately three blocks away, and regularly attends Mass at the Catedral de Girona i Basílica de Sant Feliu, whose shadow would fall over the flies as the day goes by, for part of the year at the very least.

Tourist magnets on my fridge: A gekko on a boomerang and flies from Girona…

All that Blessèd Flies business was quite tiring, especially after we had spotted numerous other artistic depictions of the flies on doors and in shops on artisanal items, clothing and knick-knacks of every description in the beautifully solid old quarter of Girona. There is so much visual stimulation in this city, that it might well seem that one is ignoring the flies:

Tourist momentarily ignoring the fly symbolism.

There appears to be an effort to popularise set images, as if these flies who saved the city of Girona on three separate occasions that we know about have now become some kind of mascot. Compare the following image with the one above and you will realise that the top image is not simply a piece of sober graffiti on private property, but something that is possibly initiated by the local authorities.

Low key, soft sell, not really tourism. Besides, who and what can compete with those impressive stone buildings, the strength and longevity of its history and traditions?

Hashtagged #mosquesdegirona

As we sat enjoying a nice cool beer—no flies on us!—I realised that once you know about those flies, you cannot ignore them, for to do so would be to behave abominably, and, moreover, could well constitute the mockery of religious objects.

And that might set those Miraculous Flies going all over again. Best to tread carefully, I reckon.

©2018 Allison Wright
Grateful thanks to friends for photos.

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