“…at Rome, St. Genesius, martyr, who embraced the profession of actor while he was yet a Pagan. One day he was deriding the Christian mysteries in the theatre in the presence of the emperor Diocletian; but by the inspiration of God he was suddenly converted to the faith and baptized. By the command of the emperor, he was forthwith most cruelly beaten with rods, then racked, and a long time lacerated with iron hooks, and burned with fire-brands. As he remained firm in the faith of Christ, and said: “There is no king besides Christ. Should you kill me a thousand times, you shall not be able to take Him from my lips or my heart,” he was beheaded, and thus merited the palm of Martyrdom.”
Actors have never been considered virtuous people, perhaps because their vocation relies on lying and fraud, i.e. they represent themselves to be what they are not. Even in Rome, they were a despised class of foreigners and former slaves, and since their performances could include [as it does today] sexual acts onstage or off, it is no wonder that they were barred from decent (and hypocritical) society. That they tended to be of the roving sort – bands of players moving about the countryside – classed them with other vagabonds and tramps. Father Alban Butler describes their milieu as “… the stage, the most infamous school of vice and the passions, and the just abhorrence of the holy fathers of the church, of all zealous pastors, and all sincere lovers of virtue.” [That was in 1866, and Hollywood and all its Babylonish women hadn’t even been thought of.]
Father Butler continues: “Among other entertainments prepared for him [Emperor Diocletian], those of the stage were not neglected…one of the players took it into his head to represent, in a ludicrous manner, the ceremonies of the Christian baptism, which could not fail to divert the assembly, who held this religion, and its mysteries, in the utmost contempt and derision.” [Sound familiar?] According to the story, Genesius, who had informed himself of the Christian rites in order to more effectively deride them on stage, acted the part of a mortally ill man wanting baptism; he and the other actors went through the entire ceremony, up to and including arresting the new “Christian” and hauling him before the emperor sitting in the audience, who was prepared to play his part in the comedy and condemn the new Christian to untold torments [audience participation is nothing new.]
But something happened to Genesius when he jestingly spoke his lines, “I am resolved to die a Christian, that God may receive me on this day of my death, as one who seeks his salvation from flying from idolatry and superstition.” God took him at his word, and Genesius went through the ‘baptism’ with all the sincerity of a new convert before a true priest. When he stood before Diocletian, the words were not from the script but from his heart, “…Wherefore, I advise you, O great and mighty emperor, and all ye people here present, who have ridiculed these mysteries, to believe, with me, that Jesus Christ is true Lord; that He is the light and the truth; and that it is through Him you may obtain the forgiveness of your sins.”
People don’t like it when you deviate from the script. Nor, when they are out for an evening’s entertainment, do they want to be preached at. The emperor returned to the script and condemned the new Christian to untold torments. The audience was amused.
A 9th century English martyrology says of him: “… he was first a certain emperor’s mima, that is jester, and sang loose songs before him and danced obscene dances. At last he began to read the divine scriptures and received baptism. When the emperor tried by threats to convert him again to paganism, he said, ‘As I received baptism, I saw that God’s angel stood there and had in writing all the sins I ever committed before; he blotted them all out and extinguished them in the bath of baptism.’ For this, the emperor ordered him to be beheaded.” And so he was, circa 303 AD.
He is the patron, of course, of actors, clowns, comedians, dancers, entertainers, and of all who make their livings by stage-craft. There is a Confraternity of St. Genesius devoted to praying for all those in the theatrical arts (and if the scandal sheets are correct, there is a lot of prayer needed!) By association, he is a patron of prostitutes, since actresses and prostitution were pretty much synonymous.
He is also the patron of lawyers and barristers, perhaps because of their courtroom theatrics, or perhaps conflating him with Saint Genesius of Arles, a notary of that city, who “refusing to record the impious edicts by which Christians were commanded to be punished, threw away his tablets publicly, and declared himself a Christian. He was seized and beheaded, and thus attained to the glory of martyrdom through baptism in his blood.” His feast is also today.
Comic Mask, Roman mosaic, Indianapolis Museum of Art
Giovanni Battista Poza, c1591. Baptism of St. Genesius (detail). Church of Santa Susanna, Rome.