As Monaco celebrates its patron saint, Jurriaan van Wessem traces the history of the Christian martyr

She is one of the most famous saints in Monaco, not only because of her feast day or because of a corner in the GP circuit named after her, but who was she and why does the Principality celebrate her so exuberantly? Anyone who lives or works in Monaco has probably heard of her: Saint-Dévote. Her real name is Divota and she comes from Corsica.

Her name is said to be a corruption of ‘Dei Vota’, but more about that later.  She lived around the year 300 (AD), when the island was still part of the crumbling Roman Empire and Christianity began to have more and more influence on daily life despite being banned by the government. Divota was a devout Christian, who worshipped only her Lord Jesus Christ and did not want to know anything about the Roman gods. 

According to an account of her life recorded in the 12th century, she was born in Lucciana and in her teens she found refuge in Aleria (the Roman capital of Corsica, now Mariana) with a Roman senator, Eutycius, who had emigrated to the island. Emperor Diocletian called for a great persecution of the Christians in his empire (303-312). In Corsica, the governor (of Sardinia and Corsica) Gabinius Barbarus Pompeianus had to carry out this persecution. “Out of fear of the heathen and their wickedness, Divota secretly took refuge in the house of a certain senator named Eutycius, to live under his protection according to Christian law,” we read in this account. 

Eutycius was impressed by her willpower and offered her protection. The governor Barbarus found out about this and spoke to the senator about it. He demanded that Divota report to him. When Eutycius initially refused, he was poisoned and died not much later. Eventually, Divota was apprehended and brought before Barbarus. She had to explain why she was defiling the Roman gods by worshipping another god. She had to leave the island if she did not respect the gods whom the emperor worshipped.  

“Every day I serve God with a pure heart, I reject the other gods of brass and stone because they are images of men, without vision and without hearing,” she replied devoutly.  

Barbarus reacted angrily and ordered the young woman to be dragged along the rocky ground with bound hands and feet, so that all her limbs would be dislocated, but she said, “Lord God, I thank Your name, You have deigned to let me wear the crown of martyrdom.” Then she cried out with a loud voice, “Lord Jesus Christ, sustain my soul, for I suffer this for your name’s sake.” And there was a voice from heaven, “My sister, your prayer has been answered, what you have asked or desired, you will get.” 

Out of her mouth flew a dove to heaven (as a symbol of her soul). She had died from the injuries. Barbara ordered her remains to be burned on the beach. A few Christians rescued her partially burned remains from the barbaric hands to give her a dignified grave and removed it to transport it by boat to the African coast, where Christians were not yet persecuted. 

As a result of a storm at sea, the skipper fell overboard and the boat was brought adrift by the waves to the coast of Monaco, where it ran aground on a beach accompanied by a white pigeon. That was close to the temple to Heracles, to the harbour under the rock. At the moment that the local residents went to see what had happened, a white pigeon flew out of the boat and the burned body of Divota was discovered. According to tradition, this happened on January 26, 304. The crowd of people granted the girl a dignified grave in the vicinity of the classical temple. A church was built on that site in the 19th century, which would be named after her. But in the eleventh century there was mention of a chapel dedicated to Divota on this spot. 

The story of Sainte-Devote has many similarities with a story of another saint from the third century: Santa Giulia. She was persecuted and martyred at Carthage in the time of the emperor Trajan Decius, who was in power for only two years (from 249 to 251). Her remains were burned and also rescued by Christians and then transported via Corsica to the Tuscan mainland near Livorno. In Corsica, this saint was nicknamed ‘Dei Vota’ and this was probably corrupted into Divota (and thus Sainte-Dévote). “A contamination and multiplication of almost identical hagiographic stories for different places are plausible,” says Monegasque historian Thomas Fouilleron. 
In this respect, it is not entirely surprising that Saint-Dévote is celebrated mainly in Monaco and in Corsica (particularly in Lucciana). On the island this happens on the weekend of Pentecost, while Santa Giulia has another public holiday, for example in Livorno.

Sainte-Dévote in Corsica did not become a patron saint until 1820, while veneration in Monaco dates back to the eleventh century. The celebration took on a more spectacular character after the creation of Monte-Carlo in the mid-19th century to offer a beautiful spectacle to tourists. From that moment on, there is talk of the arrival of a boat accompanied by white pigeons. The boat is set on fire in front of the Sainte-Dévote church. Picking up the nails from the burnt boat in the still smoldering ashes becomes an attraction, the nails are considered by some to be lucky charms. 

Sainte-Dévote has also become a “saint” for racing fans over the years and particularly F1 enthusiasts. That’s why she’s become a household name in that world. Some top drivers have gone off the road in her corner. In 2003, when the 17th centenary of its existence was celebrated, Prince Rainier visited Lucciana in Corsica. It would be his last official visit as head of state. It indicates how much importance is attached in Monaco to the celebration of this martyr of Christianity. 

PHOTO: The picture is a wallpainting on the Rock, near the Palace