"Meeting of Saint Erasmus of Formiae and Saint Maurice" by Matthias Grünewald (1517-23)
As the story goes, Maximilian was Emperor of the Roman Empire with Diocletian as his colleague. An uprising of the Gauls known as "Bagaude" forced Maximilian to march against them with a massive army. One of the units of this army was the Theian Legion composed of 6600 men. This unit had been recruited from upper (southern) Egypt and consisted entirely of Egyptian Coptic Christians. After the revolt was quelled the Emperor Maximilian issued an order that the army engage in the killing of prisoners and civilians, including Christian Gauls. Maurice and his Theban Egyptian Legion, Christians themselves, refused to comply with the orders. A furious Maximilian is said to have ordered the entire Theban legion hunted down and killed for disobeying his orders. It was in this manner that Maurice and 6600 of his fellow soldiers are said to have died at the hands of the Emperor Maximilian (285-305 AD) for their mercy towards early fellow Christians.
Whether this tale is truth or not, is still a matter of historical dispute. The punishment of mass execution of an entire legion had not been used by the Romans for centuries prior to the time in which St. Maurice and his men were to have been killed. Moreover, early Christians often refused to serve in Rome's armies--much less an entire legion--because most of the Roman military were under patron gods outside of the Christian pantheon. This refusal was one of many issues that often brought them into conflict with the state. It is thought by some historians that the tale of St. Maurice and the Theban legion may have been a religious fabrication of Theodore, Bishop of Octodurum, sometime around the late 4th century.
In fact, St. Maurice himself has had diverse depictions. Though the oldest known *existing* images of him (dating back to the 10th century AD) are black, other images of St. Maurice in Europe are sometimes white. In Coptic Egypt he is depicted as brown skinned. What sets the black images of him apart, are that they depict Maurice as a non-European--which follows the legend--and that they associate his name Maurice and the word "Moor" with blacks. Whether St. Maurice actually existed, and whatever he may have looked like, his depictions a as black African in the midst of medieval Europe say a great deal on the fluidity of early notions of race. St. Maurice's name itself sometimes translates to, "like a Moor."
Saint Maurice in the Cathedral of Magdeburg, Germany, next to the grave of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor
St. Maurice appears as a religious figure and is revered as early as 460AD. By the 10th century, he is a patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors. The town St. Moritz, as well as numerous other similar sounding places in French speaking countries, are named for St. Maurice. Numerous artworks, locations, structures - even a castle - are dedicated to him.
St. Maurice is traditionally depicted in full armor. In Italy he is emblazoned with a red cross. He is often connected to the legendary Spear of Destiny, which is claimed to have pierced the side of Jesus while he was upon the cross. In the United States, St. Maurice is the patron saint of a Roman Catholic parish and church in New Orleans Ninth Ward district. The existence of nearly 300 major images of St. Maurice (in his varied incarnations) have been cataloged throughout Europe, and even today his worship is seen within numerous cathedrals in eastern Germany.
Alternative depiction of St. Maurice, 12th Century Germany
According to Coptic Egyptian writings:
"Saint Maurice has always been one of the most popular saints in Western Europe, with over 650 foundations in his name in France alone. Five cathedrals, innumerable churches, chapels and altars are consecrated in his name all over Europe. Aguanum (Saint Maurice en Valais) has always remained the main focus of veneration of the Thebans and a significant pilgrimage resort. In the monastery that bears his name there, the monks perform a special devotion to the saints every day, and celebrate their feast on September 22 of each year. An all night vigil on the night before the feast is attended by nearly 1000 people. On the feast day, they carry in procession the relics of the martyrs in the ancient silver caskets. Over seventy towns bear the name of Saint Maurice".