Cagliari pays homage to its Warrior Saint

more than a year ago

The 1st of May, in Cagliari St Ephysius’s Day, is one of the most important dates on the Sardinian calendar - indeed perhaps the most important of all. The Italian word for the sort of celebrations that St Ephysius’s Day typifies is sagra. And sagra means festival, feast, procession, commemoration. St Ephysius’s Day is all this - and more.
For long centuries, Cagliari has on May Day mixed, some say confused, religious devotion with secular display; liturgy with folklore; mirth with solemnity. There is something for everyone here.
So how did all this come about? Ephysius, possibly a Syrian by birth, enters recorded history as an officer in the Praetorian Guard of the emperor Diocletian (245-313 AD). He had been sent to southern Sardinia as part of a punitive expedition to suppress a local rebellion. While here, he converted to Christianity (then an outlawed religion). When he refused to recant, he was arrested, tortured and beheaded at Nora, twenty-odd miles along the coast to the south west of Cagliari.
Time passed but Sant’Efis (as he is known locally) was not forgotten. In 1102, a pretty Romanesque church was completed and dedicated to him at Nora, on the site of his martyrdom. More time slipped by until in the early 1650s the plague arrived in Cagliari, soon decimating the city. Probably 12,000 died out of a total population of 20,000. At its height, when the plague was claiming 200 lives every day, the Chief Municipal Magistrate vowed before the reliquary of St Ephysius, which was exposed in the Cathedral, that if the deaths were to cease, the city authorities would honour the Saint ever after with a solemn procession every year from Cagliari to Nora and back. The deaths did cease. In 1657, the first procession took place, and has done every year since, except in 1917 when, according to the local authorities, “the international situation precludes such public displays”. In 1943, when Anglo-American bombing had reduced much of Cagliari to mounds of rubble, the Saint was transported on the back of a milk van. The renewal of this annual vow is at the core of Cagliari’s May Day festivities.


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