Coloman: Austria’s Irish Saint

In Melk, 13 October marks the 1,000 year commemoration of a martyr whose miracles ­confirmed the power of the Babenbergs

Top Stories | Alexander OHara | October 2012

St. Coloman’s Altar in Melk Abbey. His remains have been guarded in the monestary since the 11th century (Photo: Leon Reed)

The next time you pass Stephansdom take a moment to enter the Gothic gloom of the cathedral. Shuffle through the tourists and make your way to the gift shop on the left-hand side of the central aisle. As you enter the little shop, ask if you may look behind the right door panel. There, at about eye level, is a non-descript worn stone clearly inserted within a brass frame. A faded Latin inscription runs around the edges: Hic est lapis, super quem effusus est sanguis ex serratione tibiarum S. Colomanni Martyris, quem huc collocavit illustris Dominus Rudolphus IV. Dux Austriae. 

"This is the stone on which the blood from the sawing of the bones of the martyr, St. Coloman, was poured, which the illustrious Lord Rudolf IV, Duke of Austria, had placed here."

The stone is in fact a secondary or contact relic of St. Coloman, an Irish pilgrim who was martyred at Stockerau, near Vienna, in 1012, and who became Austria’s first patron saint. Behind the stone, reputed to be the one on which his martyr’s blood was spilled, was a lead box with other relics and a parchment attesting to their authenticity. It was placed here in the Bischofstor in 1361 by Rudolf IV, the first Habsburg to proclaim himself Archduke, and the man who built the Gothic nave of Stephansdom and founded the University of Vienna in 1365.

Today you find the stone smoothed and burnished by a millennium’s worth of veneration by pilgrims whose hands have touched it, whose lips have kissed its surface. Rudolf wanted to make Vienna an independent bishopric – it was still a part of the diocese of Passau in Bavaria whose patron, St. Stephen, gives his name to the cathedral – and to promote Coloman as the patron saint of the new diocese. Vienna did not become a bishopric until more than a century later, in 1469, by a later monarch who named the cathedral Stephansdom, instead of Kolomansdom as it might well have been. Only the Kolomanistein remains, hidden away as a witness to Rudolf’s failed ambitions, known best to antiquarians and Irish historians.

So, who was this obscure Irish pilgrim, venerated as Austria’s patron saint?


An Irish pilgrim martyr

The story begins a thousand years ago this year, in the autumn of 1012, when an Irish pilgrim named Colmán – a very common Irish name in the Middle Ages – was following the old Roman road along the Danube towards Vienna. Coloman was following the overland pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, an ancient path that followed the course of the Danube valley through Hungary, reopened following the conversion to Christianity of King Stephen of Hungary in 997.

Coloman only made it as far as Stockerau, 30 km to the north-west of Vienna. He had unwittingly entered a war zone in what was a borderland on the south-eastern frontier of the Holy Roman Empire. It was known as the marcha Orientalis or the Bavarian Eastern March, a strategic frontier zone wedged between the Magyars or Hungarians to the east and the Moravians to the north. The Babenberg margraves, the rulers of the March, were in the process of extending their control and territory in this colonial land. Stockerau stood on the borders of the March and was subject to frequent raiding by hostile neighbours. The locals were in no mood to welcome exotic strangers, and garbed as a pilgrim and speaking Gaelic, Coloman stood out. According to a near-contemporary account by Thietmar of Merseburg, a bishop who wrote an important contemporary chronicle, the locals suspected him of being a spy and summarily lynched him from a tree.

The exact circumstances will never be known, but following Coloman’s death, miracles began to take place – the dead man’s hair and nails continued to grow, the dead tree on which he was hanged began to bloom, and people were healed who came in contact with his body. This, people believed, proved both his innocence and also his sanctity. The locals came to venerate him as a martyr, and he was buried in a nearby church where miracles continued.


Coloman and the Babenbergs

News of these miracles eventually came to the attention of Margrave Henry I at Melk. One of the powerful Babenberg dynasty who were to rule Austria from 976 to 1246, Henry recognised the power adhering to this new saint and sent his soldiers and clerics to take the body from Stockerau to the monastery at Melk. The "translation" of Coloman’s relics not only marked the formal acceptance of Coloman’s sainthood, but his promotion from a cult figure to an elite and dynastic one. Coloman’s relics had now become a vehicle for the political and spiritual aspirations of the Babenberg margraves.

The spiritual power of the new saint was a valuable asset for Henry, a marcher lord consolidating his power in a volatile, frontier region. The use of relics in frontier zones was a common strategy by secular magnates in Europe at this time, often coinciding with periods of territorial expansion. Throughout the Middle Ages the relics of saints served as conductors for the creation of social, religious, and political identities, objects of social meaning and spiritual strength – a means to legitimise power, increase prestige, and enforce consensus. They were, as the historian Julia Smith has put it, "Sacred tokens of political superiority." When Henry died in 1018, he was the first member of his family to be buried in the Melk church where he had interred Coloman’s relics, where ultimately, 11 Babenbergs would lie.

The appropriation of Coloman’s relics by Henry I ensured the continual action of divine providence for the region and its rulers. By promoting the cult of this new Irish martyr as a dynastic and regional patron, Henry may have hoped to shape a spiritual landscape for this new land that drew on common cultural traditions of Bavaria and Franconia where there was a strong tradition of veneration of Irish missionary and martyr saints. The new cult of St. Coloman became a vehicle for the Babenberg margraves, which they were keen to latch on to from the beginning in order to cement their new power base in the Eastern March and to bring cohesion to this frontier region.

Coloman was venerated as the patron saint of the historical core of Austria, Österreich ob und unter der Enns, from 1244 until 1663, and his tomb can still be seen in its baroque and gilded manifestation in the abbey church of Melk close to where the Babenbergs, Austria’s first rulers, were buried.

Today Coloman is still the patron saint for hanging convicts, passengers, and livestock and is invoked against disease, head and foot problems, plague, storm, fire-hazards, rat and mice infestations. His feast day of 13 October will be marked with special celebrations in Melk this year, the millennium anniversary of the death of the unfortunate Irish pilgrim who became Austria’s first patron saint.

Other articles from this issue