The Disconnected Zodiac: a Guest Post by Richard J. Legault

Blogger’s Note: Rick Legault of Ottawa, Canada and I share an appreciation for the multi-faceted symbolism in medieval cathedrals and especially Chartres Cathedral in France, a place we have both visited at different times. Since we first met online a couple years ago, we’ve traded emails about our questions, speculations, insights, and resources. Our correspondence has enriched me. Rick opened my eyes to the meaning of astronomical elements in Chartres Cathedral, helping me appreciate it and other cathedrals all the more. For all of that, I am grateful.  I’m pleased to share his guest post about the iconography of the zodiac at Chartres with you. 

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Mandorling – I thank you Mike for accepting this article as a guest post on your blog. I owe you and yours a debt of gratitude not only for your inspiring work but for taking some superb photos for my series of draft papers on Chartres Cathedral. I can never really get to the bottom of sacred images. There is always another connection to pursue, another layer of meaning, another analogy, another allusion. In homage to your Mandorlas in our Midst blog, I’ve taken to using the word mandorling to designate the pursuit of these meaningful connections.

So now, I invite you and your readers to come along with me to a time: AD 1145, to a place: Chartres, to meet the Chartrians and do a bit of mandorling about some of the images they used depict the annual activities of their medieval way of life and, more importantly, their knowledge of time-tracking and astronomy.

The Zodiac and Labors of the Months – In Gothic art, the calendar cycle of annual activities is depicted so often in stone, glass and illuminated manuscripts that it is possible to define a fairly standardized iconography of images known as the Labors of the Months. Two examples are shown below in Figure 1 and Figure 2. To each month is assigned a typical rural activity such as pruning in April, hunting and falconry in May, planting and weeding in June, harvesting in July, threshing in August, pressing grapes in October, butchering livestock in November and, inevitably, feasting in December.

December

Figure 1 – Nobleman Feasting in December, Zodiac Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

These activities and the iconography can vary a bit from place to place with different activities taking place earlier or later in the year depending on local climate, length of seasons and customs. The Labors of the Months images are always fairly easy to understand especially when the artists label each month with their names in letters, as in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2 – Labors of the Month and Zodiac Signs, Zodiac Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Very frequently the Labors of the Months are accompanied by the even more standardized iconography of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, a medieval adaptation of the traditional astronomical lore of late Greek and Roman antiquity. Astronomy has always been essential to keep calendars on track with the natural cycles of time – the days, the months, the seasons and the years. In Gothic art the Labors of the Months and the Signs of the Zodiac are almost always arranged in the standard chronological order of the calendar, as shown in Figures 3 and 4. A major exception to this standard chronological order is displayed in the archivolt sculptures of the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral, shown and mapped in Figures 1a, 1b and 1c.

 

Figure 1a

Figure 1a – The chronological disarray of Ten Zodiac Signs and Twelve Labors of the Months surrounds a Contemplation of Creation scene over the leftmost door of the Royal Portal (c. 1145).

Zodiacs at Chartres – There are several Calendar and Zodiac images at Chartres Cathedral. The most prominent and well known are in the archivolts above two of the three doors of the Royal Portal. Here, the Signs of the Zodiac and Labors of the Months are in disarray, in nothing even close to their proper chronological order. They are also disconnected because only 10 zodiac signs are grouped with the 12 labors of the months over the leftmost door, while two signs – Gemini and Pisces – are split off from that group, and placed separately over the rightmost door. There, the central imagery of the Incarnation is surrounded by angels using censors to sanctify the medieval curriculum of the Seven Liberal arts represented by seven sages of antiquity and female personifications. The separate placement of Gemini and Pisces within this group seems oddly out of place – a curiosity arousing anomaly that taxes the observer for an explanation and makes the topic ideal for a mandorling.

Figure 1b

Figure 1b – Gemini and Pisces (highlighted) and the Seven Liberal Arts are sanctified by Angels with censors surrounding images of the Incarnation over the right door of the Royal Portal (c. 1145).

This disarray and disconnectedness is not the case with other calendar and zodiac images in the Cathedral. For example a second Zodiac in a stained glass window in the ambulatory, shown in Figure 2, ends with December and Capricorn at the top, after working its way up through the months and the zodiac in their proper chronological order with one exception. The exception is the transposition of April and May and of Taurus and Gemini – a transposition I can understand as neither an error on the part of the original glaziers nor a botched restoration. As we go along, you will see why I think this transposition is a later and secondary re-affirmation of the reason for the disconnection of the stone Zodiac in the Royal Portal.

Figure 1c

A third and much later Zodiac Cycle in the outermost archivolt of the rightmost door of the North Transept Porch, shown in Figure 3, is in perfect calendrical sequence, as is the one in the much later Astronomical Clock, shown in Figure 4. An easily overlooked and less well known fifth Zodiac Cycle, shown in part in Figure 5, is delicately tooled into a slender colonette behind the statues in a jamb of the Royal Portal. As I have not seen it in its entirety I don’t know if it is in proper sequence with the calendar.

Figure 3

Figure 3 – Chartres North Porch Zodiac – The signs and the monthly labors in the archivolts of the North Porch follow the calendar. The cycle starts with January at the left bottom, continues through June at the top and ends in December, at the right bottom. The two extra figures at each end depict the seasons Winter and Summer: men in seasonally appropriate attire (c. 1215 – restored). The cut and paste close-ups, in random order, are from a modern French postcard.

Figure 4

Figure 4 – The Face of the Zodiacal Clock at Chartres shows the signs in their proper calendrical sequence, with the Sun on the cusp between Leo and Virgo and the Moon about ¾ full, c. 1525-28.

Figure 5

Figure 5 – Cancer, Sagittarius, Libra and Gemini finely tooled on a colonette in a jamb of the Royal Portal, c. 1145.

I think there can be no question that ignorance or error is the cause of the odd disorder and disconnectedness of the Zodiac of the Royal Portal. The correct chronological order of the signs of the Zodiac was too well-known in medieval culture of the 12th Century. Their cosmology, astronomy and time reckoning methods, inherited from classical Greek and Roman teachings, were read in the Latin works of medieval natural philosophers such as Beothius, the Venerable Bede, Isidore of Seville, Abbo of Fleury and numerous others. The exceptional interest in and knowledge of astronomy among the Chartrians, from the days of Bishop Fulbert of Chartres (c. 1006) up to the chancellorship of Thierry of Chartres (c. 1145) is a well-documented fact of history. Accordingly, I am persuaded that the disarray and disconnectedness of this Royal Portal Zodiac was a matter of deliberate design. The designers, alas, left no written record of the reasoning behind their choices, no record of the teaching they intended to convey with this very peculiar design. We do not even know for sure who they were. We have only the sculptures to speak, as it were, for themselves.

Nevertheless, we do have considerable and reasonably reliable knowledge of the cultural context of medieval Christian theology, natural philosophy, cosmology and astronomy that the Chartrians read about, wrote about and taught in the mid-twelfth century at their Cathedral school. If we accept the idea that their cathedral is a stone and glass record of these teachings, then I think the best way to understand the meaning of the Disconnected Zodiac, is to look for clues in the Chartrian readings, writings and teachings of which the stone and glass version, is but a duplicate. Extracting the meaning of the Disconnected Zodiac in this way is the goal of this paper.

Medieval Astronomy – The understanding of the Chartrians of the structure of the cosmos and of astronomy, at the time they built the Royal Portal (c. 1145), followed the teachings of Plato and Claudius Ptolemy. Up to that time they had had only an incomplete Latin translation of Plato’s Timaeus and for Ptolemy, only second and third hand summaries, compilations and commentaries from other authors of late antiquity. Ptolemy’s actual books, however, were just beginning to become available, arriving from Latin translators of Arabic versions during this period of the twelfth century: the Tetrabiblos c. 1138 from Plato de Tivoli, the Planisphere c.1143 from Hermann of Carinthia, and the Almagest c. 1175 from Gerard of Cremona.

Medieval Zodiac – The stately procession of the fixed stars, including the constellations of the Zodiac, across the night sky was well known to medieval philosophers and astronomers. The name Zodiac comes from the Greek zōdiakos kuklos (ζoδιακoς κύκλος), meaning “circle of animals”. Perhaps the longest lasting game of connect the dots of all time, the constellations and Zodiac, to this day are still a convenient identification, mapping and memory tool. Following Plato and Ptolemy, these constellations were considered to reside on an outer-most sphere of fixed stars that never moved with respect to each other. The entire sphere with its stellar panorama revolved in an east-west direction around the Earth daily.

Inside this outermost sphere – and in front of the zodiac constellations to an observer on earth – they could also see the heavenly pageantry of a second procession. This was the wanderings of seven stars Plato and Ptolemy had called planets because they were not fixed and could be seen to move along from night to night, month to month, and even year to year, from west to east (prograde), against the background of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. Their seven planets, each on their own sphere nested one inside the other, were the Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. This Ptolemaic Model, as we now call it, was frequently illustrated in manuscripts using a series of concentric circles as seen in Figure 6. While some of the planets were seen to sometimes reverse direction and move backwards (retrograde) through the Zodiac for short periods of time, in general, their movement was seen as an ongoing west-east procession, with each planet completing its zodiacal cycle in its own unique period of time.

Figure 6

Figure 6 – Ptolemaic Planetary Model in Medieval Manuscripts

The Disconnected Zodiac – The sculptures of the Royal Portal include the twelve signs of the zodiac, arranged in a strangely disordered manner. Ten appear in disarray over the left door, none over the middle door and two, Gemini and Pisces, over the right door. Many of the authors who describe this arrangement comment on the strange disorder without offering any satisfactory explanation. In 1964 Adolf Katzenellenbogen said the splitting off of the two signs “poses a particular problem for which no definite solution may be offered.” In 2008 Philip Ball said “We no longer know how to read this code.” In 2009 John James attempted a mystical New-Age astrological explanation the meaning of which, frankly, impedes a reasoned understanding. An exception is Margot Fassler who in 2010 said that Pisces and Gemini over the Incarnation doorway are symbolic of the annual feast days of the Annunciation on 25 March in Pisces and of John the Baptist on 24 June in Gemini. Her idea is indeed a meaningful calendrical and contextual fit with the Incarnation images. However, it does not help me understand why the Chartrians would have singled out and given greater prominence to the Annunciation and the Baptist rather than other liturgical dates of equal or arguably greater significance: Advent between 27 November and 3 December in Sagittarius, the Nativity itself on December 25 in Capricorn, Epiphany on 6 January also in Capricorn, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Candlemas) on 2 February in Aquarius, or the Transfiguration of Jesus on 6 August in Leo. Fassler’s idea also gives no reason as to why the other 10 signs are displayed in such messy disarray.

I think we need to look elsewhere to find a better way to understand the disconnected zodiac. The two disconnected signs are placed among a double set of images that represent the wisdom in the teaching syllabus of the Trivium and Quadrivium of late pagan antiquity. Accordingly, rather than look to the liturgical calendar, I think it makes better sense to look for meaning in readings and texts of Theology and Natural Philosophy, subjects for which the Masters of the School of Chartres were then, and are to this day, most well known. I propose working with the idea that the disarray and disconnectedness of the sculptures intentionally fit with the overall theme of the entire portal as a depiction of the theological concept of time using the three key moments of time in Christian theology: Creation, Incarnation and Second Coming. In the context of the Quadrivium, the teachings of the four liberal arts that deal with numbers, order, quantity and measurement, it makes sense that the depiction of the zodiacal signs would have something to do with using astronomy to measure and quantify time. The additional depiction over the center door of astrolabes, shown in Figure 7, is consistent with this idea because astrolabes are instruments of astronomical measurement and computation associated primarily with orderly observation, timekeeping and way finding.

Figure 7

Figure 7 – Angels unwrapping astrolabes in the archivolts of the Royal Portal, center door c. 1145.

Hypothesis – I think the extraction of Pisces and Gemini for placement separately over the right door may depict a Chartrian representation of the amount of time elapsed from the moment of Creation to the moment of the Incarnation, in other words, the duration of the Old Testament period. The idea is that the Chartrians may have used the concept of astronomical precession and what we now call Zodiacal Ages to depict the estimated elapsed time as spanning from early in the Age of Gemini to the beginning of the Age of Pisces.

Year of Creation – The question of how old Creation was had preoccupied Christians from the earliest times. For instance, Mario Livio writes that, as early as the year 169, Theophilus of Antioch had concluded “that the world had been created some 5,698 years earlier),” in other words in 5529 BC. Many estimates of this kind were widely known in medieval times from Christian writers and traditions that had used biblical chronologies to calculate a variety of estimates of the time of Creation. Over a dozen of these estimates are listed in Figure 8. The average of this dozen puts the count between Creation and Incarnation at 5,449 years with a standard deviation of about 114 years or 2 percent of the average. This is a pretty good match with the traditional Anno Mundi (Year of the World) count of 5,500 years. Texts of many of these authors and of others who cited them were available for reading in Chartres at the time of Thierry of Chartres’ Chancellorship, as listed in Figure 9.

Figure 8

Figure 8

 

Figure 9

Figure 9

Astronomy and Precession – From the known contents of Thierry of Chartres’ book Heptateuchon, listed in Figure 10, there is additional good evidence that knowledge of the astronomy of Ptolemy, Hyginus, and Al-Kwarizmi was at hand among the Chartrians. This knowledge included the concept of astronomical precession, understood then as the very slow movement of the position of the equinoxes backwards (retrograde) through the constellations of the zodiac.

Figure 10

Figure 10

What is now called general precession in modern astronomy is the observation that the equinoxes – two points where the celestial equator intersects the ecliptic – slowly move backwards relative to the background stars. An equinox occurs when the Sun is on one of these two intersection points. Their movement takes place at a rate very close to 50.29 arc seconds per year or one full degree of arc in just over 71.5 years or one full 30-degree sign of the zodiac in about 2,145 years. Professor Roy Bishop provides an excellent and up to date description of precession in The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Observer’s Handbook 2017: “As a result of the combined precession of the equator and precession of the ecliptic, the equinoxes (the intersection points of the celestial equator and the ecliptic) drift westward (retrograde) about 50.29ʺ per year (a period of approximately 25,800 years. […] The Vernal equinox was located in the constellation Gemini 7,500 years ago [c. 5483 BC], in Taurus 4500 years ago, and in Aries 3000 year ago. It moved into Pisces from the “first point of Aries” around the beginning of the Christian era 2000 years ago, at roughly the same time as Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes.”

Moreover, the entry in a NASA glossary for a Great Year or Platonic Year states, “the period of one complete cycle of the equinoxes around the ecliptic [i.e. 360 degrees around the zodiac] is about 25,800 years.”

Generally, precession is measurable by observation of long-term displacement of the Sun’s position in the Zodiac on the day of the equinoxes. Considering precession involves a displacement the of the Sun’s position, and the Sun was then thought of as a planet, precession may, following Plato’s definition, be taken as a legitimate marker to measure the passage of time. Today, a Zodiacal Age is the name used for the amount of time the vernal equinox spends in a given segment of the zodiac spanning 30 degrees of the ecliptic or about one twelfth of a Platonic Year (360/30 = 12). The duration of time you assign to a Zodiacal Age or to a Platonic Year depends directly on the rate of presession you use to calculate it. The inaccurate and excessively slow rate first found by Hipparchus and used by Ptolemy was challenged in the Middle ages.

The concept of astronomical precession was nothing new to Medieval Christianity. In the third century, Origen, who was read at Chartres, considered it so well-known that he used it to argue that astrological divination and prognostication was fakery and a heresy: “There is a well-known theorem which proves that the Zodiac, like the planets, moves from west to east at the rate of one part in a hundred years, and that this movement in the lapse of so long a time changes the local relation of the signs […]. We are thus taught that the most learned in these matters cannot show beforehand what the Lord intends to bring upon every nation (Origen The Philocalia XXIII, 18).”

In antiquity, Claudius Ptolemy, following Hipparchus, had put the rate of precession substantially slower than the modern value, at about 1 degree per 100 years, or one full 30-degree sign of the zodiac in 3,000 years. This was the rate known to Origen. Later in later medieval times, the Arab astronomer Al-Battani (c.855 – 929) found much of Ptolemy failed to agree with observations and had measured the rate of precession as being much faster, a value close to 54.5 arc seconds per year, which is one degree in about 66.1 years, or one full 30-degree sign of the zodiac every 1,982 years. This is much closer to the modern value of about 2,145 years. Al-Battani wrote about this in his book Kitab al-Zij. This book appeared in the Latin West in 1116, translated as De motu stellarum (On the Motion of the Stars) by Plato of Tivoli who is reported to have worked in Barcelona from 1116 to 1138 (O’Connor 1999 and Minio-Paluello, 2008).

Al-Battani at Chartres – There is solid textual evidence that Thierry of Chartres, Chancellor at Chartres during the construction of the Royal Portal, was familiar with the more advanced astronomy of Al-Battani. The evidence is written in Hermann of Carinthia’s Preface to his translation from the Arabic of The Planisphere of Claudius Ptolemy. In this Preface, Hermann dedicates his work to his former teacher – Thierry of Chartres – whom he describes as the greatest living master of the liberal arts and of natural philosophy in these words: “To whom, therefore, can I dedicate that which is the deepest principle and root of all studies of humanity rather than to you, who, I know, and therefore plainly confess, hold the first position in philosophy in these times, and are, as it were, an-unmoveably secure anchor in the turbulent storms of ever-changing doctrines? If it pleases the Gods, may envy not make me, like the indolent masses, voluntarily allow myself to lie, or hide the truth before you, most worthy teacher Thierry, in whom, I am convinced, the soul of Plato has once again been brought down from heaven and fitted to mortal man (Translation Burnett 1978, my emphasis).”

The fact that Hermann and Thierry shared knowledge of Al-Battani’s work in astronomy is also evident in the Preface. It contains a passage naming Arabic authors and texts of astronomical science, indicating these were well-known to of both of them: “From these, and `in the Greek tongue, he collected two volumes: the Sintasis for the first discipline, and the Tettastis for the second – in Arabic called the Almagest and the Alarba. Al-Battani has appropriately made the Almagest more concise (?), and Abü Marshar has, no less appropriately, expanded on the Alarba (Translation Burnett 1978).”

Al-Battani’s work, from its first arrival in Europe to this day, has been most well-known for its challenges to Ptolemy’s observational accuracy and especially for improving Ptolemy on the rate of precession. No modern biographer fails to mention it.

Dating Creation Using Precession – Anyone using Al-Battani’s rate of precession, Biblical traditions dating the time of creation at an average of 5449 BC and working backwards from the birth of Christ pegged at year AD 1, the dawn of the Age of Pisces, would place the time of creation early in the Age of Gemini. Accordingly, the interval of time between Creation and the Incarnation may have been depicted over the right door of the Royal Portal using the two signs Gemini and Pisces as symbolically corresponding to a Biblically estimated interval of time between the Age of Gemini and the Age of Pisces, as shown in Figure 11.

Figure 11

Figure 11

This explanation of the reason for disconnecting Gemini and Pisces from the rest of the zodiacal signs over the left door and placing them separately over the right door is, of course, a hypothesis. It follows on the facts of cultural context that the Chartrian community and Royal Portal designers, had access to the absolute most recent Latin translations of Arabic and Greek works of astronomy. As Peter Ellard says, “They were on the cutting edge of the natural sciences of their day, and this included the use of astrology [and astronomy] texts from Islamic sources which were only very recently made available (Ellard 2007).” Moreover, this hypothesis is also consistent with the Royal Portal depictions of the most recent astronomical technology, the astrolabe, which also had just recently arrived from the Andalusian Arabs.

An Ugly Fact? – Whether working in cultural history or in science, any damn fool can propose a hypothesis or theory to explain a puzzling phenomenon. It is the philosopher Sir Karl Popper who most often gets credit for formalizing, in the 1930s, the idea of falsifying hypotheses as the essential element of the scientific method. According to Popper no hypothesis can ever be proven, but one can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments, observations and tests. My favorite and I think the most eloquent phrasing of this idea is in Thomas Huxley’s presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science for 1870. He hit the nail of the falsifiability principle squarely on the head, and much earlier than Popper, when he described the idea as, “the great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

How well does my hypothesis stand up to the rigors of falsifiability and testing? Well, to be intellectually honest and with great humility I must admit that there are strong opinions out there about the scarcity of primary sources from the late classical and medieval periods that show unequivocally that anybody ever used precession or Zodiacal Ages as a timekeeping method to delineate historical periods or to measure and quantify epochs of time. The ugly fact dangling like a guillotine blade above the neck of my hypothesis is that serious literature on the matter opposes my hypothesis. For instance, Nicholas Campion, a respected cultural historian and specialist in the history of astronomy and astrology, writes: “There is though, not a single extant example of the use of precession of the equinoxes to predict the future by astrologers until the late nineteenth century. There are indeed arguments that precession was used by astrologers in the ancient world, but they are based entirely on the retrospective interpretation of circumstantial evidence and lack any textual support. […] Literary evidence is not everything but, when it is entirely absent in the works of people who should have been most concerned with it, the fact does require some attention. Simply, there are no extant classical or medieval astrological texts which attribute any astrological or historical significance to precession. (Campion 2016, my emphasis).”

Accordingly, my hypothesis here would appear to be no better than any damn fool’s, unless there is a way to redeem it with solid historical or scientific evidence. I think the hypothesis is redeemable for two reasons. One is testability; the other is counter examples of Campion’s opinion.

Testability – One of the standard approaches to the scientific testing of hypotheses is to predict consequences that should be observable only if the hypothesis is correct. On this score, if my hypothesis is correct then further study of the sources for the curriculum of the Quadrivium at the Cathedral School of Chartres at the time of Thierry should find that knowledge of Al-Battani’s book De motu stellarum was a source preferred over Ptolemy in the matter of precession. On the contrary, if it is found that some other source was preferred, say Ptolemy or Origen, then that would falsify the hypothesis and justify it being rejected. The kind of evidence to look for would be a statement or comment of the kind made by Copernicus, cited below. Until this test can be performed, I turn my attention to counter examples to the opinion that “there are no extant classical or medieval texts which attribute any astrological or historical significance to precession.”

Calendar Reform and Precession – By 1582 when the Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in the papal bull Inter gravissimas (Latin for: Among the Most Serious), the earlier Julian calendar had fallen 10 days out of step with the true dates of the equinoxes, due to precession. The discrepancy arose because precession makes the tropical year shorter than the sidereal year, we now know, by 20 minutes and 24.5 seconds. The tropical year, on average 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds, is the amount of time it takes to observe the Sun return to the same equinox position and this tracks the seasons. The sidereal year in mean solar time of 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.5 seconds, is the time it takes the earth to orbit the Sun exactly once, measured relative to the distant stars. In 2009 Ari Ben-Menahem, wrote in his Historical Encyclopedia of Natural and Mathematical Sciences that the growing calendar discrepancy, caused by precession, had been well-known since the early medieval period, specifically by Bede noting a three day error in the 8th century and Roger Bacon, c. 1200, a seven or eight day error. Moreover, Johannes Sacrobosco wrote in his book De Anni Ratione (Latin for: On Reckoning the Years), c. 1235, that the Julian calendar was out of step with the equinoxes by ten days and that some correction was needed. Even Dante Alighieri, writing c. 1300, was aware of the issue and the need for calendar reform. I’m not entirely sure how historians would make sense of historical periods without a reliably calibrated calendar of one kind or another. Considering the size of calendar discrepancies that can accumulate over centuries due to precession, I would say the issue, considered by the likes of Bede, Bacon, Sacrobosco and Alighieri, was indeed of rather substantial historical significance. Moreover, the issue of precession, when calendar reform finally came, was rather aptly named as “among the most serious”.

Copernicus and Precession – The Polish priest and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lived on the cusp between the Middle Ages and Modern times, often pegged at the year 1500. He was born in 1473 and died in 1543. In about 1530 he completed his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (Latin for: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) that would not be published until 1543. This work shows not only his knowledge of Al-Battani but expresses a preference for Al-Battani’s rate of precession over Ptolemy’s: “Venus, although bigger than Mercury, can occult barely a hundredth of the sun. So says Al-Battani of Raqqa, who thinks that the sun’s diameter is ten times larger [than Venus’], and therefore so minute a speck is not easily descried in the most brilliant light […] I said, however, that the annual revolutions of the center and of inclination are nearly equal. For if they were exactly equal, the equinoctial and solstitial points as well as the entire obliquity of the ecliptic would have to show no shift at all with reference to the sphere of the fixed stars. But since there is a slight variation, it was discovered only as it grew larger with the passage of time. From Ptolemy to us the precession of the equinoxes amounts to almost 21°. (Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Book I, my emphasis).”

This passage is clear evidence of the use of precession – the displacement of the equinoxes by 21° – in relation to measuring a defined historical period, “from Ptolemy to us.” Al-Battani’s precession rate of 54.5 arc seconds per year for the 1,362 years between Copernicus’ book and the death of Ptolemy in 168 CE gives 20.62 degrees. Ptolemy’s much slower rate would give only 13.75 degrees. The preference of Copernicus is clear. Moreover, the above passage on precession comes at the beginning of the book where precession is introduced as part of the core evidence that helps prove the Earth revolves around the Sun. In fact Book III or fully one sixth of the entire work is devoted exclusively to a discussion of precession. Considering this is the book most often credited as terminating the medieval period by triggering the greatest scientific revolution in history, it is difficult to imagine a discussion of precession in a context of greater historical significance.

The Data in the Disarray – Considering the presence in the Royal Portal of at least two Zodiac Cycles and of six or seven astrolabes, I think there is enough data or information in the sculptures to trigger in the mind of an astronomically informed observer, the idea of instrument-aided observational astronomy as a legitimate and beneficial pursuit and as a matter of natural philosophy. This connects meaningfully with the sanctification of the Seven Liberal Arts depicted over the rightmost door. Moreover, I find it most meaningful that the data in the Zodiac sculptures are astronomically inaccurate and presented in messy chronological disarray: it connects perfectly with the theological idea of disruption in the Heavens. Disarray of the heavens in the context of the end of times and of the Second Coming is fully consistent with Biblical teaching. These teachings and centuries of commentary on the theology and eschatology of Adventus warn that disruption and disarray in the heavens will be signs of the Second Coming. A few New Testament quotes illustrate the point:

But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.  At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Mark 13: 24-26  

Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. Matthew 24:29-30

There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Luke 21:25

I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. Acts 2:19-20

In addition, because the zodiacal information in the sculptures is in such disarray it also connects well with Scriptural emphasis on the idea that the timing of the Second Coming can be neither known nor predicted:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. Matt 24:36

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Matt 24:36

Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. Mark 13:33

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 1 Thessalonians 5

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 2 Peter 3:10

In the language of modern media communications, the sculptures are ‘on message.’ They are consistent with and reinforce traditional Christian teaching associated with the end of time.

The Gemini Taurus Transposition – And lastly, why do I think Gemini and Taurus were deliberately transposed in the Zodiac Window? It is really quite simple. Once you replace Ptolemy’s rate of precession with Al-Battani’s, it makes sense for a Chartrian to sideline Taurus and emphasize Gemini because now he knows it as the age in which God created the universe.

Consider the May/Gemini pane in the Zodiac Window, shown in Figure 12 below. The monthly labor for May is supposed to be hunting. However, the knight has interrupted his hunt. He has dismounted and placed his lance at rest. Instead of stalking game, he gazes wide eyed and in rapt attention at a pole standing against a blue sky, planted vertically upon the horizon line. His horse has found something worth munching at the precise point where the pole intersects the horizon. The Gemini Twins both gesture with their hands in a downward direction toward their feet. Is it just my imagination or could the body language of the knight, the horse and the twins be a glazier’s way of directing an observer’s attention to something important lower, or rather, earlier in Gemini? Could the intersecting pole and horizon line in this image somehow represent an important intersection, say of the equator with the ecliptic, at the feet of Gemini? Considering the pole and horizon intersect at 90°, while the equator and ecliptic do so at 23.5°, would there be any value in tracing lines to connect various points in this image, just to see if any interesting 23.5° angles pop-out? Well, maybe. But that could just as easily be an exercise in projecting meaning rather than extracting it. Moreover, however much fun you can have with geometrical doodling to connect the dots, I really think there is a much more important historical connection to be made in all of this.

Figure 12

Figure 12 – May / Gemini in the Chartres Zodiac Window

The Mathesis Connection – My hypothesis of connecting the disorder and disconnectedness of the Royal Portal Zodiac to the astronomy of precession and to numerically measured time keeping is grounded on the keen interest of the Chartrians in the business of applying numbers – the teachings of the Quadrivium – to theology and to natural philosophy. We know how keen they were to do this from their written work. The concept of ‘numerizing’ or mathematicising knowledge is known today by the word mathesis, derived from the Greek μάθησεως. It is used primarily in discussions of the historical quest for a scientia mathematica universalis or a universal science grounded in mathematics. The historical outline of this quest usually starts with Pythagoras and Plato and their late classical followers. Generally ignoring the Middle Ages completely, it then jumps straight to the Italian renaissance with the work of Marsilio Ficino and Galileo, in a rush to get to Descartes, Leibniz and then to perhaps the greatest work of mathesis of all time, Newton’s Principia, the full title of which is Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Make no mistake: it is to the multi-generational journey of mathesis that we owe the debt of transforming what the Chartrians knew as Natural Philosophy into what we know today as Astronomy, Cosmology and Physics. And whoever overlooks the role of the Chartrians on that long and arduous journey through time, fails in connecting the dots.

Richard J Legault

26 May AD 2017 (Gregorian), Ottawa

Figure 13

Figure 13 – The Disconnected Zodiac of the Chartres Royal Portal c. 1145, in random order.

 

Richard J Legault is a freelance journalist who lives with his wife Lynn in Ottawa, Canada. Some of his astronomical work has appeared in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Some of his unpublished work-in-progress on Chartres is posted on the Academia.edu web-site. Legault welcomes questions, comments and feedback at richardjlegault@gmail.com.

References:

Ball, Philip 2008 Universe of Stone–A Biography of Chartres Cathedral Harper Collins New York.

Ben-Menahem, Ari 2009 Historical Encyclopedia of Natural and Mathematical Sciences Springer, New York. Consulted 31 May 2017 at URL:

https://books.google.ca/books?redir_esc=y&id=9tUrarQYhKMC&q=precession#v=snippet&q=calendar&f=false

Bishop, Roy L. and Turner, David G 2016 “Astronomical Precession” in Observer’s Handbook 2017, James S. Edgar, Editor, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Toronto 2016.

Burnett, Charles S. F.  1978 “Arabic into Latin in Twelfth-Century Spain: the Works of Hermann of Carinthia”, in Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch, 13, 1978, pp. 100–34. Consulted 26 April 2017 at URL:  http://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/a/a053253.pdf

Campion, Nicholas 2016 Astrology and Popular Religion in the Modern West: Prophecy, Cosmology and the New Age Routledge, New York.

Copernicus Nicolaus 1530 De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, manuscript digital copy consulted 25 May 2017 at URL: http://pka.bj.uj.edu.pl/bjmanus/revol/plist_e.html

Copernicus Nicolaus 1543 De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) translator Charles Glen Wallis, in Hawking 2002

Edgar, James 2016 Observer’s Handbook 2017, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

Ellard, Peter 2007 The Sacred Cosmos–Theological, Philosophical and Scientific Conversations in the Twelfth Century School of Chartres, University of Scranton Press, Chicago Illinois.

Fassler, Margot E. 2010 The Virgin of Chartres – Making History through Liturgy and the Arts Yale University Press, New Haven.

Hawking, Stephen 2002 On the Shoulders of GiantsThe Great Works of Physics and Astronomy Running Press Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Hermann of Carinthia 1143 Preface of The Planisphere of Claudius Ptolemy in Burnet 1978.

Huxley, T. Henry 1873 Critiques and Addresses MacMillan and Co., London

James, John 2009: In Search of the Unknown in Medieval Architecture Pindar Press, New York.

Katzenellenbogen, Adolf 1964 The Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral W. W. Norton & Co, New York.

Knitter, Brian John 2000 “Thierry of Chartres and the West Façade Sculpture of Chartres Cathedral” San Jose State University Master’s Theses, Paper 2052.

Legault, Richard J 2015a Chartres – Adventus, draft monograph posted at URL: https://www.academia.edu/11801856/Chartres_-_Adventus

Legault, Richard J and Powell, Martin J. 2015b Chartres – The Guardians of Time draft paper posted at URL: https://www.academia.edu/19747483/Chartres_The_Guardians_of_Time

Legault, Richard J 2017a A Close Encounter of the Medieval Kind draft monograph posted at URL: https://www.academia.edu/30679872/A_Close_Encounter_of_the_Medieval_Kind

Legault, Richard J 2017b Chartres Royal Portal – Ascension or Creation? draft monograph posted at URL: https://www.academia.edu/32400373/Chartres_Royal_Portal_Ascension_or_Creation

Lewis, George 1911 The Philocalia of Origen – A Compilation of Selected Passages from Origen’s Works made by Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York. Digital copy consulted 25 May 2017 at URL: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/origen_philocalia_01_intro.htm

Livio, Mario 2013 Brilliant Blunders From Darwin to Einstein Simon and Schuster New York.

Mâle, Emile 1958 The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the 13th Century, translated by Dora Nussey, Harper & Row, New York.

Mâle, Emile 1983 Chartres Harper and Row, New York.

Minio-Paluello “Plato of TivoliComplete Dictionary of Scientific Biography 2008. Encyclopedia.com, retrieved 29 Oct. 2013 http://www.encyclopedia.com.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Aerospace Dictionary, web site consulted 10 May 2017 at URL: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/hqlibrary/aerospacedictionary/aerodictall/g.html

O’Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., 1999 “Muhammad ibn Jābir al-Harrānī al-Battānī”, in MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews, retrieved 29 October 2013 from: http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Al-Battani.html

Origen c. 250 Philocalia in Lewis 1911.

Plato, Timaeus, cited in Ellard 2007.

Thierry de Chartres et al. La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral), lithoscript monument, Cathedral School of Chartres, Chartres, in phases from circa 1145 to circa 1219.

Van Der Meulen, Jan and Nancy Waterman 1981 The West Portals of Chartres Cathedral: The Iconology of the Creation University Press of America.

Meaning in the Monstrous: Gargoyles, Grotesques, and Other Curiosities

When I volunteered years ago as a greeter at the Washington National Cathedral’s gate house, visitors would sometimes ask, “Why are gargoyles on cathedrals?” The National Cathedral is known for its gargoyles. The architects who conceived the neo-Gothic structure in the early 20th century saw fit to incorporate gargoyles and grotesques in the building’s design just as cathedral builders did in thirteenth century Europe.  160 sculpted gargoyles jut from the National Cathedral’s walls, towers, and buttresses. Some amuse (photo 1), others delight, and more than a few are nightmarish.

WNC-Morigi Gargoyle Snip

1. Master Carver Gargoyle, a tribute to master stone mason Roger Morigi, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Inevitably, discussions about the presence of gargoyles on cathedrals came to a point. The inquirer perceived a glaring inconsistency in the juxtaposition of snarling dragons on a cathedral’s exterior with the benevolent images of apostles and saints within the cathedral.  I admit that it’s not easy to square, for example, the bizarre image of an eagle (or hawk?) with human breasts and horse hooves outside Barcelona cathedral (photo 2) with the Christian symbolism that marks the building’s interior. Often people who asked the question about gargoyles also assumed that the creatures hold some hidden meaning. It’s a reasonable assumption. There’s no doubt that most cathedrals burst at the seams with meaning and ambiguity: a set of keys symbolizes St. Peter or the papacy, a rainbow may signify divine favor, Noah, or the Apocalyptic Christ, and the color blue is associated with the Virgin Mary and the heights of heaven. Significance abounds. And yet, what could a screeching bird of prey with dangling breasts possibly mean, other than that the artist had a wild imagination?

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2. Anthropomorphic Gargoyle, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & Saint Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

I’ll do my best to answer that question below. But first, I want to admit that my pat answer to the question about why gargoyles appear on cathedrals went something like this: “Many say that gargoyles are there to ward off evil spirits.” It sounds plausible, given that some gargoyles are hideous enough to scare the pants off Freddy Krueger. But my answer begged a key question: When does something that looks like a demon dispel a demon or, in more philosophical terms, how does evil vanquish evil? I’m not sure that it does. So, I’ve wondered all along if there’s more to the story about gargoyles, and now I think there is. In this post, following some background information on gargoyles, grotesques and misericords, we’ll consider one theory about their meaning in the sculpture and wood carving of cathedrals and a few other buildings in France, Spain, Canada, and the United States.

Key Terms and Background    The question about a gargoyle’s meaning differs from one about its purpose. The purpose of gargoyles is to shunt water away from the walls of a building to prevent erosion and discoloration of the stone. They function as elaborate drain pipes. Medieval builders used gargoyles to drain the roofs of churches, residences, and government buildings (photo 3).

RUN-Gargoyles Close

3. Dragon Gargoyles on the Palais de Justice, Rouen, Normandy, France

The English word gargoyle derives from the Latin word garga, meaning throat. It’s the root for “gargle” too. The Germans are more descriptive. They call gargoyles wasserspeirs, or “water spitters.” Depending on the rainfall’s intensity, they spit or disgorge water through their mouths. Medieval stone masons would cut a trough on the topside of the gargoyle to channel water away from the building and through the gargoyle’s mouth to the ground below. A 13th century gargoyle in the form of a dachshund at Chartres Cathedral illustrates the concept (photo 4). These days, masons typically insert metal conduit in a gargoyle to carry water through the sculpture. The conduit pipe is evident in the mouth of “Sir Ram,” a 21st century gargoyle at Gloucester Cathedral (photo 5).

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4. Dachshund Gargoyle (ca. 1300), Chartres Cathedral, France

GLO-Ram

5. Sir Ram Gargoyle by Pascal Mychalysin, Cathedral of St. Peter and the Holy Trinity, Gloucester, England, UK

It’s important to mention here that the words gargoyle and grotesque are not synonymous. According to Janetta Rebold Benton in her informative book, Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings, “The term gargoyle has come to be applied, inaccurately, to other sculptures on the exteriors of medieval buildings that are similar to gargoyles in their grotesque anatomy but do not function as waterspouts.” This means that we can think of gargoyles as a subset of grotesques, which may themselves be decorative, functional, or both.  And to complicate things a bit, not all grotesques are ugly. Ms. Benton notes that “grotesque” comes from the French word grotte, meaning grotto or cave. It referred originally to the imaginative paintings of people, animals, and flowers found in caves beneath some Roman dwellings.  The so-called Bayeux Lovers, a famous twelfth century stone carving at Bayeux Cathedral, provide an example of a rather charming grotesque (photo 6).

BAY-Lovers

6. The Bayeux Lovers, Notre Dame Cathedral, Bayeux, France

In addition to sculpted grotesques, one sometimes sees strange or fanciful figures in the wood carvings that adorn the misericords in the choir stalls of some medieval cathedrals. Misericords, defined as “a narrow ledge on the underside of a hinged seat, designed to support a person standing at rest against the turned up seat,” enabled weary monks to rest their bottoms as they stood for long hours during the Mass. The subject matter for misericords runs the gamut from solemn and serious to absurd and hilarious. I invite you to envision a monk’s behind in close proximity to the roosters who are peering up at the buttocks of two indistinguishable creatures (who might as well be monks) and try not to smile. Pere C’Anglada, the artist commissioned in 1394 to design Barcelona Cathedral’s choir stalls, clearly had a ribald sense of humor (photo 7)!

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7. Rooster Misericord, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Studies and Speculation   Those who have studied gargoyles in the context of cathedrals and churches have advanced more than a few ideas about what these monsters in stone might mean. Janetta Benton lists nearly a dozen interpretations in her book; gargoyles as warnings to sinners, guardians of the church, symbols of temptations, attention grabbers, and more. She observes that given their great variety, “it is extremely unlikely that there is one meaning for all gargoyles.” I agree. Nonetheless, one theory about their meaning intrigues me more than all the others: that gargoyles and grotesques in general may be “survivals of pagan beliefs the church permitted to persist beside Christian subjects….”

Ronald Sheridan and Anne Ross agree with that hypothesis and, in their book Gargoyles and Grotesques: Paganism in the Medieval Church, assert that, “The Church in medieval times had come to be the storehouse of the sub-conscious of the people–the lumber room as it were, in which were bygone, ancient, half-forgotten and half-formulated beliefs and superstitions, customs, and folklore. The authorities would seem to have been remarkably tolerant of these, and by countenancing such bric-a-brac the Church has effectively preserved to an astonishing degree a great deal of our ancient past.”

So, whose ancient past did the Church preserve?

Meet the Celts  I think it’s safe to say that most people in the United States and perhaps elsewhere associate Celt and Celtic with Ireland.  To be sure, people in Ireland are Celts and some speak Gaelic, a Celtic language. But they’re not the only ones with Celtic roots. Three centuries before Christ, Celtic tribes inhabited much of Europe north of the Alps. The Greeks called them keltoi. The Romans called them Galli, the Latin root for the English words Gaul and Gallic. Nations are named for the Celts; Belgium for the Belgae and Great Britain for the Britanni. Celtic tribes lived in northern Spain where the Galicia region still bears their name. France’s famous capital city is named for the Parisii, a tribe that joined an uprising against Julius Caesar and his Roman legions after they invaded and occupied Gaul around 50 BCE. Before the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean world and Western Europe, the so-called free Celts extended from Ireland in the west to the Balkans in the east. One tribe moved even further east to what is now Turkey. Saint Paul wrote to the Christians among them in his epistle to the Galatians.

PED-Celt

8. Celtic Head Corbel (13th or 14th c.) on House Moved from Girona to Pedralbes Monastery, Barcelona, Spain

The Romans dreaded the Celts. They were fearsome warriors who wore mustaches (photo 8), painted their bodies before battle, fought naked, and decapitated their fallen enemies. They hung the severed heads on their horses and, in some cases, displayed them in their homes as trophies. Women fought alongside men, a practice that possibly inspired a late 14th century misericord at Barcelona’s cathedral that shows two (fully clothed) maidens raising shields against sword wielding combatants who stand on the legs of strutting birds (photo 9, below). These and other customs led one historian to describe the Celts as “a Roman nightmare.” Consequently, Rome warred against various Celtic tribes for more than three hundred years before and after Christ. Roman legions drove the Celts out of northern Italy around 200 BCE in a brutal conflict that had genocidal aspects. They finally subdued Celtic resistance in continental Europe and much of Britain by the end of the first century CE. Over time, dozens of Celtic tribes were integrated into the Roman Empire. Celtic gods eventually merged with their Roman counterparts.

BCN-Female Combatants

9. Misericord with Women in Combat, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

Centuries later, long after the Christianization of Western Europe, vestiges of the pagan beliefs to which Janetta Benton referred appeared in stone and wood images in countless cathedrals, abbey churches, and cloisters in France, England, and Spain. It’s significant that many of Europe’s most famous medieval cathedral towns began as Celtic settlements. Canterbury began with the Cantiaci, and Chartres was originally Carnutum, “City of the Carnutes” (photo 10). The “lumber room” full of half-forgotten superstitions, customs, and beliefs in these towns and others was stuffed by the Celts.

Chartres

10. View to North of Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France

Celtic Deities  As we’ve seen, there is a lot of wood—most of it finely carved oak—in the lumber room that Sheridan and Ross so aptly named. But the medieval storehouse of the subconscious also holds a quarry full of limestone bearing the images of Celtic gods and goddesses.  Dr. Miranda Aldhouse Green, an eminent authority on Celtic religion, wrote in her Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend that the names of more than 400 Celtic gods and goddesses are known, the majority of them being local deities. Let’s meet one whose cult was widespread and whose popularity continues.

Cernunnos was the lord of the animals, fertility, abundance, and regeneration. His name means horned or peaked one. He appears in art well before the Roman conquest and variously wears antlers and bull or ram horns.  In one of the earliest images of Cernunnos inscribed on a silver cauldron that dates to the 3rd or 4th century BCE, the god holds a snake with a ram’s head. The snake likely symbolizes regeneration and the ram, virility and fecundity. Sheridan and Ross note that he often represented the devil or the demonic in Christian contexts. With his emblematic horns and portrayed with a sinister or threatening affect, it’s easy to mistake Cernunnos for the Christians’  “prince of darkness.”

MSM-Horned Face1

11. Cernunnos Capital, Mont St. Michel Abbey, France

Sculpted Cernunnos figures are reportedly common in Europe, and they’re not uncommon in North America. In a capital atop a column, probably dating to the 12th century, at Mont St. Michel Abbey the god appears to be placid or staring blankly into space (photo 11, above). About 300 years later, Cernunnos showed up in a much more  elaborate setting. Wearing a crown, his horned visage is easily missed in the complex gilded carving that borders the canopy in the choir stalls at Barcelona’s cathedral.  Foliage, most likely symbolizing the god’s association with regeneration, spreads evocatively from his groin (photo 12).

BCN-Cernunnos

12. Cernunnos, Choir Stall Carving, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

Two 20th century sculptures in North America give some sense of Cernunnos’ resilience as a motif in Christian art. With ram’s horns, wings, and a snake in his hands, Cernunnos seems to represent Satan, the fallen angel, in the multifaceted iconography of the Wisdom portal at Riverside Church in New York City (photo 13). He seems friendlier as a grotesque greeter near the main doorways to Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal (photo 14).

RIV-Cernunnos Snip

13. Cernunnos, Wisdom Portal, Riverside Church, New York City

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14. Cernunnos Grotesque, Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, Canada

Celtic Beliefs and Customs   Explaining the basis for Celtic religion, Professor Aldhouse Green notes that the Celts believed that everything in the natural world contained its own spirit. Thus, the Celts saw divinity in every tree, spring, stream and mountain. Gods were everywhere. The oak was sacred, wells were holy, and human heads were revered as the seat of the soul, the locus of power and spirit.  This likely explains the head-hunting practice that horrified the Romans. It may also explain why the Celts’ used stylized heads to decorate everything from wine flagons to shrines, and how “severed heads” came to be a common decorative motif in medieval cathedrals (photo 15) as well as a sculptural convention that continued into modern times (photo 16).

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15. Severed Heads (14th century), Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

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16. Lady’s Head (1909), University Club, Chicago, USA

Of the domesticated animals, dogs seem to have captured the Celts’ imagination more than others. Dogs variously represented hunting, healing and death. As companions and guardians of the hunter, they sometimes appear in Celtic religious art as symbolic protectors of a god or goddess. Two dogs, who hold what look like battle-axes, stand guard beside an unidentified deity (possibly Silvanus, the hammer god) in a misericord at Barcelona Cathedral (photo 17).

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17. Canine Guardians Misericord, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

The Celts also held a curious belief that dog saliva has healing properties. Evidently, the chance to use the dog as another symbol for the spiritual healing offered by the Church was too good for Christian iconographers to pass up. Gargoyles and grotesques in the likeness of dogs or dog-like creatures bark from the walls of cathedrals on both sides of the Atlantic (photo 4, above, and photos 18 & 19).

BCN-Dog

18. Dog Gargoyle, Cathedral of the Holy Cross & Saint Eulalia, Barcelona, Spain

CCM-Dog Grotesque 1

19. Dog-like Grotesque, Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, Canada

I’ll conclude this post with some thoughts about the hybrid gargoyle (photo 2) whose weird features I highlighted above. It might come as no surprise that one of my favorite movies is Camelot. The 1960’s musical based on King Arthur’s legend and starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave resonated with me. I bought the soundtrack album and played it over and over again until I learned the songs by heart. The lyrics for one of them came to mind as I wrote this post. They’re a latter day tribute to the Celtic belief in metamorphosis, or shape shifting.  At one point in the musical Arthur chides Merlin, his boyhood teacher, about an omission in young Arthur’s education. Perplexed by his wife, Guinevere, Arthur complains, “And what of turning me to animal and bird, from beaver to the smallest bobolink?  I should have had a whirl at changing to a girl to learn the way creatures think!” King Arthur, we’re led to believe, learned how to see the big picture by looking through the eyes of a bird (photo 20).

Celtic myth, says Professor Aldhouse Green, “is redolent with animals who were once in human form, and of divinities who could transform themselves back and forth between human and animal shape.” The Celtic sense that the spiritual and physical are inseparable and that the boundaries between humans and animals are malleable, inspired medieval sculptors to fashion the strange creature with human, avian, and animal features. It may symbolize the god-like qualities of a horse’s speed and strength, a mother’s power to give birth and nurture, and an eagle’s ability to soar with the spirit of the wind. This brings me to a final thought: What would a cathedral be as a symbol of an all-encompassing City of God without a storeroom where we can sift through the artifacts that lie beneath the city’s surface?

CTT-Owl

20. Humanoid Owl with a Book (1925), Tribune Tower, Chicago, USA

Article and Photos Copyright 2017 by Michael Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, July 3, 2017    

St. Joan of Arc

In the fall of 2010 when I was between jobs, I went to France on a self-styled pilgrimage to visit some of its Gothic cathedrals. Knowing of my desire to learn more about the history and iconography of the famous cathedral at Chartres, my wife, Mercedes, encouraged me to go despite my precarious employment status. Her argument went something like this: “If not now, when you have more time than money, then when?”  It didn’t take much convincing.

St. Ouen Abbey Church

1. St. Ouen Abbey Church, Rouen, France

Using money left over after refinancing our home for an improvement project, I happily set out for a two week sojourn in northern France with stops in Paris, Rouen, Amiens, Chartres, and Reims. I visited abbey churches (photo 1, above), cathedrals, and museums. I walked a lot, rode trains, and ate simple meals (fresh baguettes made every sandwich seem extraordinary). I enjoyed the slower pace and quiet, reflective, moments that enabled me to ponder a range of possible answers to a question that anyone who’s entering his 57th year, when it seems that time is running out, would be well-advised to ask: What’s waiting in the wings?

One of my answers to that question led indirectly to this blog. When I thought about what I’d like to do with the time that remains, I wrote in my journal that I’d like to be “Malcolm Miller’s protégé.” Malcolm Miller has been the resident English-speaking guide at Chartres Cathedral for decades. He knows the cathedral—its history, art, and meaning—like the back of his hand. He’s also very good at communicating it. I first saw Miller in action in 1991, and thought at the time that he has the ideal job; one that would get me out of bed every morning. I wanted to do what he does. So, with all this in mind, I decided to spend six days at Chartres just to hear Malcolm Miller talk about its wondrous cathedral (photo 2).

Malcolm Miller So Porch 2010

2. Malcolm Miller leading a tour in 2010, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France

But on my fourth day in France, before I got to Chartres, something else caught my eye. I learned at a small museum in Rouen, 80 miles northwest of Paris, that Mark Twain was a big fan of St. Joan of Arc (Sainte Jeanne d’Arc in French).  The Joan of Arc Museum displayed a letter where Twain wrote that Joan was the “world’s supremest heroine.” It also had an early edition of the author’s last novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a fictional account of her life written from the perspective of a lifelong friend. Twain published it in 1896 when he was 61 years old. What’s more, I learned that he spent the better part of a decade researching background information for the book. I’d never heard of it, nor did I know that Twain considered it his finest literary achievement.

In retrospect, I now see that my brush with Mark Twain and Joan of Arc marked the start of a course correction. Did I really want to be Malcolm Miller’s protégé? I learned during my trip that protégé literally means “protected one.” I sensed that I didn’t need protection beneath an older man’s wings as much as I needed inspiration to lift my own, and for that I had cathedrals and churches all around me including a historic chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc in my hometown (photo 3).

MKE-Joan of Arc Chapel

3. Joan of Arc Chapel, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

Twain’s deep interest in Joan of Arc’s story helped to broaden my view, and incidentally validated my desire to delve into the stories and symbols one finds in sacred structures everywhere, and follow them where they lead deep into the rich soil of the spirit where the seeds of timeless ideals and enduring principles like love, courage, and self-sacrifice mysteriously start to grow. So, on the 586th anniversary of her death, I am happy to post this article as a tribute to Joan of Arc whose extraordinary life inspired a novel, films (love that Ingrid Bergman!), countless works of art, and my decision to stay put and write about what I’ve been so fortunate to see on my travels. As we revisit Joan’s story, I’ll illustrate it with photos I’ve taken in France, Quebec, and the United States.

Voices of Saints   Joan of Arc was born in the Champagne region of France in 1412 at roughly the three quarters mark of a drawn out conflict that historians would later call the Hundred Years War. The war stemmed from a dispute about who was the legitimate ruler of the Kingdom of France. Intermarriage among the royal families of England and France had led to competing claims over the French crown. When Joan was seven years old, the English and their Burgundian allies had the upper hand, occupying entire regions of France and major cities such as Rouen, Caen (photo 4), Reims and Paris.

Abbey Towers

4. Abbey of St. Etienne (Abbaye aux Hommes), Caen, France

It was a rough time for France. People had lost hope. One writer notes that many residents of Domremy, Joan’s village, were forced to leave their homes as the war threatened them.  The French peasantry suffered under English rule, perhaps none more than the small farmers whose crops and livestock were appropriated without compensation to feed the occupiers. Joan’s father was a tenant farmer, and her mother was a devout Catholic who, it is said, conveyed her deep love of the Church to her daughter. Artists sometimes portray Joan as a pious French farm girl, as in a window at the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Quebec (photo 5).

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5. Joan of Arc Window, Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame of Quebec, Quebec City, Canada

When she was 13 years old, Joan began to hear saints’ voices. She believed that Michael the archangel (photo 6), Catherine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch wanted her to embark on a divine mission to deliver France from its English enemies and install Crown Prince Charles (i.e., the Dauphin), son of the deceased Valois King Charles VI, as the King of France. Consecrating herself to the cause, Joan took a vow of chastity and later refused an arranged marriage. In January 1429, without a formal education or military training, 17 year old Joan presented herself to the Dauphin and convinced him to place an army under her command to relieve the besieged city of Orleans.

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6. St. Michael the Archangel, Mont St. Michel Abbey, France

Before the army set out, someone asked about Joan’s sword. Where was it? She didn’t have one, yet. She replied that a sword would be found in a church a few miles from Charles’ encampment at Chinon, and so it was. The sword would later become Saint Joan’s acknowledged attribute, as we see in statuary commemorating her and other martyrs on the North Portal at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York (photo 7).

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7. St. Joan of Arc (3rd from Left); John Angel, Sculptor; St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral, New York, NY

The Maid of Orleans   Joan and her army arrived at Orleans on April 29, 1429. On May 4, she led a successful assault on one of the English forts. Joan led another attack on May 7 and was wounded. She persisted in battle and urged the French troops forward. By May 8, the English had abandoned the siege and were in retreat.  The lower panels in the Joan of Arc window at the Washington National Cathedral show Joan on her horse leading the French infantry in a charge against the English (photos 8 & 9, click to enlarge).

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8. Joan of Arc Window, Burnham Studios, 1941,Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

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9. Joan of Arc on Horseback, Joan of Arc Window, Washington National Cathedral

After breaking the siege at Orleans, Joan urged the Dauphin to proceed quickly to Reims where, for centuries, French kings were crowned in its cathedral (photo 10, below). Joan, who reportedly had uncommon common sense, understood the symbolic value of a traditional coronation ceremony for French morale. Charles hesitated at first, but after the French defeated an English army at Patay on June 18—as Joan promised they would—the Dauphin set out for Reims with Joan at his side. The coronation of Charles VII took place in Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429. Joan was present at the ceremony and afterwards knelt before Charles to pronounce him her king, as depicted in the pedestal beneath the Joan of Arc statue at St. John the Divine (photo 11).

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10. Sculpture with Reims Cathedral Facade, Fleurs de Lis, and Crown Symbolizing Charles VII’s Coronation; Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

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11. Pedestal with Joan of Arc Kneeling as Charles VII is Crowned King of France; John Angel, Sculptor; St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral, New York, NY

In the ensuing months, several towns north of Paris turned from the English side to the French. In early September, the French forces with Joan in the lead made an unsuccessful attempt to take Paris. She was wounded again and retired to the Abbey Church at St. Denis where she paid homage to one of France’s patron saints (photos 12 & 13). By this time Joan’s compatriots had begun to idolize her and Charles may have been wary of her growing power. Nevertheless, after the army disbanded in December for the winter, King Charles VII decreed that Joan and her family would become members of the nobility.

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12. Nave and Apse, Abbey Church of St. Denis, Suburban Paris, France

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12. Joan of Arc Memorial, Abbey Church of St. Denis, Suburban Paris, France

Heretic, Hero, Saint   In spring 1430, the Burgundians captured Joan at Compiegne.  The Oxford Dictionary of Saints summarizes what happened next:  “The duke of Burgundy imprisoned her; Charles made no attempt to save her; the Burgundians sold her to the English, who attributed her success to witchcraft and spells.  She was imprisoned at Rouen and tried for heresy by the court of the bishop of Beauvais (a French cleric aligned with the English) who carefully chose her judges. She was examined repeatedly, but made a spirited and shrewd defense, single handed.”

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13. Joan of Arc’s Tower, Remnant of Bouvreuil Castle, Rouen, France

Joan spent a year in captivity, most of it under close guard in a drafty tower in Bouvreuil castle in Rouen (photo 13, above).  During her trial, the judges pressed her on the question of her submission to church authority, given that she claimed to communicate with saints directly. She did her best to avoid the trap, maintaining that she held herself answerable to God and the saints. She responded, “I am relying on our Lord, I hold to what I have already said.” When the judges threatened to torture her into submission, she declared that she would reply no differently even under threat of torture.  On May 23, 1491, the court convicted her of heresy and handed her over to the secular authorities for punishment. A week later, English executioners burned her to death in Rouen’s market square (photo 14). The record of Joan’s trial was a primary source for Mark Twain and his book.

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14. Street Scene near the Market Square where Joan of Arc was Burned; Rouen, France

In 1450, when King Charles VII entered Rouen after his army drove out the English forces, he ordered an inquiry into Joan’s trial. After a thorough investigation by a papal legate, the Pope revoked the findings of heresy against Joan. The French faithful were free to regard her as a national heroine and centuries later, in May 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized her as a martyred saint.

Voices of Saints, Revisited   Did three saints really speak to Joan?  It seems to be the source of some controversy among skeptical theologians and psychologists. Let’s take a look at some evidence. It’s obvious that the voices Joan heard inspired her to take extraordinary risks and accomplish unprecedented feats for the love of God, king, and country. It’s also clear that many of her compatriots never doubted that she was a divine messenger, sent to restore their faith in themselves. A prophecy had been gaining traction among the French populace at the time of Joan’s birth, that a young virgin would deliver the country from its English oppressors. Joan, who vowed perpetual chastity at an early age, was thought to be that deliverer. Those who knew and fought beside her took heart in her example and encouragement, and they carried on bravely after she died. They sensed something transcendent about her.

But along with what we can see of her impact on others, I think it’s important to consider what the three saints might have meant to young Joan. To put it another way, what did they symbolize? It’s a key question because symbolism, says theologian Huston Smith, is the “technical language” of religion; of human correspondence with the divine.

When we look closely at the traditions involving Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret, we find some interesting connections between their stories and Joan. She embodied qualities associated with each of them. The Bible’s Book of Revelation describes St. Michael as the principal fighter against the forces of evil who was thought by the Church to lead the armies of God. He’s the patron saint of the military and is often depicted, as in photo 6 above, as a powerful warrior. Joan too, was a warrior.

St. Catherine of Alexandria declared herself to be a “bride of Christ” and is one of the early church’s virgin saints. Legend has it that she turned down the emperor’s marriage proposal. He didn’t take kindly to being spurned so Roman authorities tortured her on a spiked wheel, ever after called a “Catherine wheel.” She survived the torture and was martyred by beheading, signified by the palm branch and red blade in a window at Albany’s Roman Catholic cathedral (photo 15, below). Joan too, refused marriage.

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15. St. Catherine Window; Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

St. Margaret of Antioch also was a beautiful virgin who, according to legend, for the love of Christ refused a Roman official’s marriage proposal. As punishment, he had her put on the rack, beat with rods, and had her flesh raked with iron combs. She survived these horrible tortures and was thrown into her cell where a monstrous dragon suddenly appeared and began to swallow her whole. Margaret made the sign of the cross and the dragon disintegrated. The dragon lies at Margaret’s feet, likely symbolizing the evil of her oppressor, in a 19th century stained glass window at the cathedral in Albany, NY (photo 16). Joan too, withstood oppression.

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16. St. Margaret Window; Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; Albany, NY

A fascinating window at St. Roch’s church in Quebec City pulls it all together through the symbolic use of flowers (photo 17). It depicts Joan with her emblematic sword standing  in a garden with a cathedral in the background. Flowers associated with three saintly virtues appear in the composition. The lilies stand for innocence and purity; roses symbolize self-sacrifice; and irises, sometimes called sword lilies, signify divine messengers. The fleurs de lis on her skirt signify devotion to France. I’m inclined to think that Mark Twain, who wrote that Joan “was unfailingly true in an age that was false to the core,” would have liked the window as much as I do.

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17. Ste. Jeanne d’Arc Window; St. Roch Church, Quebec City, Canada

Copyright 2017 by Michael Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, May 30, 2017

Sacred Symbols: My Roots

Sometime in the summer of 1990, Mercedes, my wife, and I visited Philadelphia. We lived in Washington, DC at the time, making Philadelphia an easy weekend getaway. The Philadelphia Museum of Art with its famous “Rocky steps,” immortalized in the 1976 film Rocky starring Sylvester Stallone, was on our list of sights to see. The museum’s extensive collections impressed me, but the thing I remember most is a thought that crossed my mind when I saw four marble plaques bearing the images of four winged creatures,  including a flying bull (photo 1). Accompanying placards identified the images as symbols for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the evangelists who authored the four gospels. I remarked to Mercedes, “I’ve seen these symbols my whole life long, and never knew what they meant.” My lack of awareness and curiosity bugged me.

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1. Symbol of St. Luke, northern Italy ca. 1250, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in churches, most of it in a back pew at St. Martini church where small Christian symbols discretely surrounded me. St. Martini is a Missouri Synod Lutheran church built by German immigrants in 1887.  The building, designed by local architect Herman Schnetzky, is typical of late 19th century Gothic revival structures in Milwaukee with its brick façade, lancet windows, and lofty spire (photo 2). Mr. Schnetzky undoubtedly drew inspiration from the soaring pointed arches and windows that first appeared in Europe’s abbeys and cathedrals around 1150. In doing so, he created a simple, yet elegant, sacred space for St. Martini’s working class congregation. I was baptized at St. Martini in 1954 and confirmed there on Palm Sunday 1968.

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2. St. Martini Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI

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3. Ark of the Covenant (left) and Bronze Serpent (right) which alludes to the story of miraculous healing in the book of Numbers: 21:4-9. St. Martini Church, Milwaukee, WI

During Sunday morning services, sitting with my mom and dad, I had plenty of time to ponder the symbols embedded in St. Martini’s modest stained glass windows. I knew they were there, but honestly, I mostly ignored them. Every week, for example, I saw the image of a snake hanging from a T-shaped cross and never asked myself, “What does that mean (photo 3, above)?” But a week ago last Saturday, I returned to St. Martini for the first time in more than 20 years to attend a special “Return to Your Roots” service and to look more closely at the windows that prompted my embarrassed admission to Merce at the Philadelphia museum. So after the service, I turned my camera with its telephoto lens to an oculus high above one of St. Martini’s doorways. I clearly saw for the first time the attributes of three apostles, a chalice, and the black silhouette of St. George’s dragon (photo 4).

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4. Oculus with Chalice and Four Saint Attributes, St. Martini Church, Milwaukee, WI

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5. The Tower of Babel (left) and Noah’s Dove (right), St. Martini Church, Milwaukee, WI

It’s easy to overlook the symbols in St. Martini’s stained glass. Set in large sheets of opaque glass, they seem understated. (photo 5, above). But it’s a mistake to ignore them. Each contains a tiny cache of meaning that links viewers to stories and ideas that comprise a faith tradition with roots in Christianity’s distant past and the more recent Protestant Reformation which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. When I looked closely at St. Martini’s symbolic windows, I was delighted to see that they quietly, and with great economy, allude to some of the same themes that one finds in the stained glass and sculpture of the great cathedrals. But in today’s post, we’ll focus on just one theme: St. George, the dragon, and evil.

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6. St. George’s Dragon Attribute, St. Martini Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI

Why St. George?   To say that the presence in a Lutheran parish church of a stained glass window honoring St. George intrigued me would be an understatement (photo 6, above).  It flat out mystified me. That’s because the only saints one usually sees in the stained glass of Missouri Synod churches are those with a biblical pedigree. It’s common to see the four evangelists, the twelve apostles, and St. Paul. But I never expected to see St. George, in large part because his legend very likely derives from a myth with origins in ancient Phoenicia or Greece (photo 7). So, if St. George isn’t in the Bible, what is his dragon doing at St. Martini?

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7. Bellerophon Killing the Fire Breathing Chimaera, Apulia ca. 300, BCE; British Museum, London

The Martyr and the Legend   St. George of Cappodocia, historians are reasonably sure, was a soldier and Christian martyr who died in 303, C. E. during a purge of Christians who served in the Roman army. Beyond that, we don’t know much about him. At some point, an enduring story of combat with an evil dragon attached to St. George. We can thank Jacob of Voragine for perpetuating it. His Golden Legend, written in the 1250’s, tells how George saved a young princess from a sacrificial death in the clutches of a pestilential dragon. The beast lived in a lake near the city of Silena in the Roman province of Libya and “would venture right up to the city walls and asphyxiate everyone with its noxious breath.” Silena’s citizens temporarily mollified the dragon with the daily sacrifice of two sheep. But they soon ran out of sheep and then started to sacrifice the city’s youth. Finally, the king’s only daughter was the last youngster remaining.

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8. St. George and the Dragon, oil painting by Sodoma around 1518, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

George enters the story on horseback as the distraught maiden stands at the lakeside, weeping (photo 8, above). The hungry dragon soon appears and George springs into action. He thrusts his lance into the dragon’s side and throws the wounded creature to the ground. The Golden Legend notes that the subdued dragon followed the princess through the city’s streets “like a puppy.” But when people saw it, they began to head for the hills. George calmed the panicked citizenry, saying, “Do not be afraid. The Lord has sent me to free you from the tyranny of the dragon.” He vowed to kill the dragon if everyone agreed to be baptized. They were baptized, and the dragon met its end.

Early Christians venerated St. George as a Christian martyr who died at the hands of the brutal Emperor Diocletian. But the saint’s popularity as the personification of chivalrous knighthood boomed in medieval England and elsewhere during the crusades to the Holy Land. It started for England when a vision of St. George appeared to someone before a battle in 1098 that ended the siege of Antioch in the crusaders’ favor, during the first crusade.  About a century later, King Richard I (the Lion Heart) placed himself and his army under George’s protection during the third crusade. By the early 1400’s, George was England’s official patron saint. St. George’s historic association with England is signified today by the red crusader’s cross superimposed on the United Kingdom’s “Union Jack” flag, along with St. Andrew’s X-shaped cross representing Scotland.

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9. Great East Window, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

St. George in Art  As St. George’s cult grew, churches throughout Europe were dedicated to him and artists increasingly depicted his legend in a variety of media, including sculpture, stained glass, and liturgical art. In England, St. George stands with a host of saints in the Great East Window, installed at Gloucester Cathedral in the 1350’s (photo 9, above). An anonymous stained glass artist depicted the saint as a medieval knight wearing full body armor with his lance and sword in hand. St. George’s cross is emblazoned in red on his breastplate and shield (photo 10).

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10. St. George (2nd from left) in the Great East Window, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

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11. St. George (left) and St. Christopher (right), Holy Thorn Reliquary, France ca. 1300, British Museum, London

Around the same time, a talented French goldsmith crafted a scene of St. George vanquishing the dragon on the reverse side of a fascinating artifact called the Holy Thorn Reliquary (photo 11, above). The vessel’s facing side displays a single thorn that came from the reputed crown of thorns or Holy Crown (photos 12), a relic of Jesus’ crucifixion, brought to France by King Louis IX around 1240. Look for the thorn at the center of the elaborate scene depicting the Biblical judgment day, where the dead rise from their graves, below, and Christ sits with the thorn surrounded by the apostles in heaven. The Holy Thorn Reliquary was likely used in private devotion by the Duke of Berry and his close relatives in their family chapel. The rare piece is among the British Museum’s most prized treasures from the medieval period.

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12. Holy Thorn Reliquary, British Museum, London

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13. Sant Jordi and the Dragon, Barcelona Cathedral, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

St. George also appears frequently in the sculpture and decorative arts of Catalonia where he’s the country’s patron saint and is named, in Catalan, Sant Jordi. A sculpture in the 15th century cloister at Barcelona’s Cathedral is illustrative. It shows St. Jordi wearing chain mail as he whacks the dragon with a sword. He holds a shield bearing St. George’s cross in his left hand (photo 13, above). Note the row of sculpted roses above the battle scene. The flowers signify a Catalonian tradition in which men present roses to their lady loves on April 23, St. Jordi’s feast day. Capitals in the medieval cloister at Vic Cathedral, about 40 miles north of Barcelona, charmingly honor this long-standing gifting custom with a sculpted rose bed (photo 14).

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14. Rose Capitals, Vic Cathedral, Vic, Catalonia, Spain

George and Martin   St. George is regarded as the patron saint of Portugal, Ethiopia, Georgia, and many other nations. He’s the patron saint of soldiers, archers, armorers and, oddly enough, farmers due to the original Greek meaning for his name. But he’s not the patron saint of the region in Germany where the Missouri Synod Lutherans originated, nor is he Martin Luther’s patron. Another Christian soldier, St. Martin of Tours, holds that distinction. So, what’s the connection between St. George and a Lutheran church on Milwaukee’s south side?

I think it is about Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation who lived from 1483 to 1546 and for whom Lutherans are named. Between 1498 and 1501, young Martin attended St. George’s Latin School in the town of Eisenach. I assume that St. George was Eisenach’s patron saint because he appears in knightly attire on the city’s coat of arms.  But that’s not all. In 1521, Luther returned to Eisenach following his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. He stayed in nearby Wartburg Castle for the better part a year to escape a death sentence. Safe in the castle, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German and was inspired to write the great hymn of the reformation, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Thus, his time in Eisenach was culturally and spiritually significant for Luther’s followers and Germany.

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15. Organ and Choir Loft, St. Martini Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI

But could there be even more to the St. George window at St. Martini than meets the eye? There’s no doubt that symbols evolve and acquire new and multiple meanings. Did the artist who designed the window or the churchmen who commissioned it see Martin Luther as something of a latter day St. George? After all, Luther jousted long and hard with Rome over the sale of indulgences and ultimately rid Germany of the evil he perceived in the noxious idea that a person can buy his or her way into heaven. We may never know the answers to those questions. But we can be sure of one thing. St. George belongs at St. Martini, where his roots run deep.

Copyright 2017 by Michael J. Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 05/23/17

Sacred Symbols: The Lily

I decided a week ago to write a post about the symbolism of flowers when crocuses, hyacinth, and daffodils—the heralds of spring—began to appear here in Iowa City. The use of flowers as symbols in sacred art has been an interest of mine for some time.  It took off in 1998 when I played an unwitting part in a remarkable coincidence involving a rose. For one of my friends, that flower represented an answer to a prayer.

A Purple Rose  The story in a nutshell, is this. My friend’s job was ending so I decided to give her a rose as a sign of friendship and support. I stopped at a florist to buy one long stemmed rose and have it wrapped in paper, on my way to say goodbye to her. When I presented the rose, my friend looked stunned and was silent for what seemed like minutes. Then she asked, “Is that a purple rose?”  I nodded yes and said apologetically, “But it was supposed to be red.” The flower looked red when I selected it. The lighting in the flower shop must have tricked my eyes. My friend choked up and, with tears welling in her eyes, said, “I’ll talk with you later.” I left, perplexed.

A week later, I received a handwritten note in which my friend explained that she and her prayer group were praying for a terminally ill man.  Among their petitions, the group asked St. Therese of Lisieux to intercede with God on their friend’s behalf. Seeking reassurance, they also asked St. Therese to give a sign to confirm that their prayers were heard. Unknown to me, the purple rose is St. Therese’s emblem (photo 1) and the flower I presented was amazingly the sign they asked for. Growing up in a Lutheran denomination that dismissed prayers to saints as idolatry, I knew nothing of St. Therese of Lisieux or her attribute. As far as I was concerned, the purple rose was a mistake!

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1. St. Therese with Purple Roses, Basilica of St. Therese, Lisieux, France

I could easily see how that purple rose and its timing rendered my friend speechless. The power of the coincidence boggled my mind too. It shook some long-held beliefs and opened me to a sense of wonder, which has only intensified with time, about the astounding scope of humanity’s unseen interconnections. These days, I find myself wondering, “Who else in other places, times, and religious traditions found divine presence in a flower?  Did Hera and Venus answer the prayers of ancient Greeks with flowers too? Is that how lilies and roses came to symbolize these goddesses?”  The mystery in these flowers, no less than their sweet scent, draws me to the garden.

In today’s post we’ll investigate the symbolic use of lilies in Christian iconography.  I’ve learned that floral symbolism can be complex. The lily, for example, has multiple associations with Mary, Joseph, the Archangel Gabriel, virgin saints and Easter, to name just a few, as well as multiple meanings.  As with other posts on this blog, I’ll illustrate the narrative with photos of stained glass, sculpture and painting that I’ve taken at cathedrals, churches, and museums on both sides of the Atlantic.

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2. Lilies in Cloister Window, Gloucester Cathedral, England

Lilies and the Annunciation   On March 25th Christians of various denominations—Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalian, and others—celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. The holiday commemorates the Archangel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, described in Luke’s gospel,  when the angel announces that Mary will give birth to a boy. Mary asks how a virgin could conceive a child and Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy….”  Tradition has it that Mary conceived Jesus at that very moment. The white lily, symbolizing purity and chastity, has long been tied to this episode (photo 2, above).  How did it become one of Mary’s attributes?

As with many questions involving the evolution of symbols, the answer is not entirely clear. It seems that early Christian artists chose not to use the lily to suggest Mary’s virginity. Raffaela Fazio Smith, in a series of informative articles she wrote for the Global Dispatches, notes that a fresco in the catacomb of Priscilla near Rome, dated to the 3rd century, is the oldest representation of the Annunciation in art. It shows Mary without a veil and with her hair down. Unmarried women wore their hair that way at the time so her hairstyle symbolizes virginity. Lilies don’t appear in the scene, and there’s probably a good reason for it.

At the time of Christ and for many years later, the lily was popularly tied to the Greek goddess Hera whom the Romans called Juno. Hera was a major figure in the Greek and Roman panoply—the queen of the Olympian gods—and her cult would have been active throughout the Roman Empire in the first three or four centuries of the Common Era. She was known as the patron of marriage and women, and one classical poet called her the “Mother of all.” Artists sometimes depicted Hera with a lily to distinguish her from other goddesses, as in a 1st century BCE frieze from Italy, now at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. The sculpture shows Hera holding a staff topped by a stylized lily (photo 3).

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3. Hera (center) in Procession of Deities Frieze, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD

The connection between Hera and lilies bears a brief description. It stems from a myth that’s relevant for linguists and star gazers alike. One version of the story has Zeus tricking Hera, his wife, into nursing the infant Herakles (i.e., Hercules) late one night. Herakles is Zeus’ son, born by a woman named Alcmene. When Hera discovers the trick, startled and upset she pulls the babe away from her breast. Her milk continues to spill and, according to legend, the droplets that fell to earth became lilies. Those that dispersed into the night sky formed the Milky Way. It’s worth noting that gala, the Greek word for milk, is the root for the English words galaxy and galactic. Similarly, galaxie is the French word for the Milky Way.

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4. Annunciation Roundel, Life of Mary Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Ms. Fazio Smith wrote in one of her articles that the lily began to appear in the 14th century as a symbol for Mary’s purity in painted Annunciation scenes produced by Italian workshops. It’s possible that French artists started the trend about a century earlier, perhaps as an allusion both to Mary’s chastity and her growing stature as Christianity’s Queen of Heaven. A roundel in the Life of Mary window at Chartres Cathedral, dating to the early 1200’s, depicts a tall vase, apparently containing lilies, standing between Gabriel and Mary (photo 4, above). About 30 years later, artists who designed the north rose window at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris depicted Mary holding in her right hand what appears to be a lily plant with three white blooms (photos 5 and 6).

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5. North Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

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6. Mary and Christ Child, North Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

In a similar vein, Pere Oller carved and painted a large retablo altar piece in the early 1400’s for the Cathedral of Vic, north of Barcelona in Catalonia. It contains an Annunciation panel with a lily and vase prominently placed in the foreground between Gabriel and Mary (photos 7 and 8).

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7. Retablo by Pere Oller with Annunciation Panel at Lower Left, Vic Cathedral, Catalonia, Spain (click to enlarge)

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8. Annunciation Panel, Retablo by Pere Oller, Vic Cathedral, Catalonia, Spain

Altar pieces like the one in Vic and similar depictions of the lily in late medieval paintings eventually became models for the 19th and 20th century artists who designed stained glass Annunciation scenes for Gloucester Cathedral in England, Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City, and the Riverside Church in New York (photos 9–11).

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9. Mary with Lilies in Vase, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England

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10. Annunciation Window, Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame of Quebec, Quebec City, Canada

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11. Annunciation Roundel, The Riverside Church, New York City, NY

Gabriel and the Lily  Since Gabriel appears with Mary in most Annunciation scenes, the lily and a scepter symbolizing divine authority often appear as the Archangel’s main attributes. Examples abound, as in a window at St. Matthew’s Church (now a public library) in Quebec City where he holds a royal scepter in his left hand with an adjacent lily, and roses surround Mary, perhaps symbolizing her reputed perfection (photo 12). In a window at All Saints Cathedral in Milwaukee lilies distinguish Gabriel from the Archangel Uriel with whom he is paired (photo 13).

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12. Gabriel and Mary, St. Matthew’s Church, Quebec City, Canada

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13. Gabriel (left) and Uriel, All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee, WI

Joseph and the Lily  We’ll close this post with a look at an early 20th century window in the St. Joseph chapel at St. Paul’s Cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota. I like it especially for the subtle connections it makes. The window displays a tall flowering lily plant in an ornate vase. A long scroll inscribed with a Latin verse entwines the plant (photos 14 and 15). The inscription reads, “Justus Germinabit Sicut Lilium et Florebit in Aeternum Ante Dominum.”

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14. Lily Window, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, MN

What motivated the artist? Certainly the traditional image of a lily in a vase is a common source of inspiration and inscribed scrolls often appear in Annunciation scenes, typically bearing Gabriel’s “Ave Maria” salutation. But I’ve not seen a scroll embedded in a lily plant anywhere else. By the window’s placement in a chapel dedicated to Joseph, the lily could symbolize the saint himself, his care for Mary and Jesus as a child, or one of his other qualities. I think it’s the latter.

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15. Lily Window Detail, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, MN

The inscription loosely translated in English means, “May justice sprout like lilies and bloom before God into eternity.” Its source is a lovely Gregorian chant written in the 9th or 10th century. The window connects Joseph’s reputation as a model of fairness—given his decision to wed Mary even though she was pregnant when they married—to a prayer for the propagation of justice sung by medieval monks. A window at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal supports the connection between Joseph and justice (photo 16). It declares him to be tres juste, “very just,” and invites us to follow Joseph’s lead and be the answer to a prayer. [Use this link to listen to the chant:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MN6TTp24io].

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16. Tres Juste Rosette, St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Copyright 2017, Michael J. Klug; mikejklug@aol.com; March 25, 2017

The Good Samaritan

I’m using Valentine’s Day as an excuse to write about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and its message of love for one’s neighbor. The story is familiar to many. In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus encounters a lawyer who recites the great commandment to love God and neighbor and then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus proceeds to tell a story about a compassionate Samaritan and in the process raises a different question: “What does it mean to be a neighbor?” (photo 1). As we delve into the parable’s context and interpretation, we’ll illustrate this post with images from the famous 13th century Good Samaritan window at Chartres Cathedral and more recent windows from churches in the United States and Canada.

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1. Jesus and the Lawyer, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

At the outset, though, I want to offer two disclaimers. First, I am a lawyer who appreciates strong definitions. Second, I decided to write about the Good Samaritan when the timing of a scripture reading hit me hard as I sat in church on Sunday, January 29, just two days after President Trump issued an executive order barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely. The lector read a passage from the sixth chapter of Micah in which a man openly wonders what God expects from us.  The prophet responds as if the answer should be obvious: “He has told you O mortal what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

As the words sank in, I thought to myself that the president’s order, with its absolute rejection of all immigrants from war-torn Syria without so much as a second thought, is the opposite of what Micah said the Lord requires. The ban seemed to turn a blind eye to those in great need while driving the nation at top speed toward a dead end marked “absolute security.”  The Good Samaritan would probably have it otherwise, hence my desire to learn more about the parable’s context.

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2. Good Samaritan Window, Chalmers-Wesley United Church, Quebec City, Canada

Parables Generally   The three synoptic gospels— Matthew, Mark, and Luke—record Jesus telling many stories that use vivid images of houses built on sand, prodigal sons, and lost sheep to help explain humanity’s relationship with God and with one another. The English word parable comes from a Greek word, parabole, meaning something thrown beside something else. In other words, a parable compares one thing to another, side by side. It may be a short simile or a longer metaphor. But regardless of length, their purpose according to Prof. Bernard Brandon Scott is to make the listener see the world differently. In his book, Re-Imagine the World: an Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Prof. Scott writes, “the parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living….” They help us see “the possibilities of life,” and “imagine how we might live life in this world.”  That may be especially true of the Good Samaritan parable. Professor Scott speculates that the Jewish listeners who first heard it would have been shocked by the mere suggestion that a Samaritan could be the story’s kindly hero. The thought strained their sense of the possible in a way that may be hard for us, long removed from that ancient divide, to appreciate.

 Love of Neighbor   Concern for one’s neighbor is an age old notion that crosses cultural lines. In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle (photo 4, below) recognized philia along with agape, eros and storge as four types of love.  For the Greeks, philia implied affection, friendship and loyalty in regard to family, friends and community. They even named cities for it. Amman, the capital of modern-day Jordan was one of two cities called Philadelphia, meaning brotherly love, at the time of Christ.

But the idea that we should show compassion to others, including strangers, predates Aristotle by centuries if not millennia. The author of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, probably written around 700 BCE, instructed “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and goes on to say that “you shall love [the stranger] as yourself….” The author of Luke’s gospel, writing about 750 years later, combined the verse from Leviticus with the requirement in the book of Deuteronomy to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and might, to form what Christians call the “great commandment.”

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3. Plato & Aristotle, Philosophy Window, Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ

Definitions   The great commandment appears in the three synoptic gospels. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus responds with it to a question aimed to test his knowledge of the law. He replies that love of God is primary, and that love of neighbor “is like unto it” and runs a close second. But only in Luke’s gospel does a lawyer ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer quotes the great commandment verbatim: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says approvingly, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But the lawyer asks Jesus to define a key term; “And who is my neighbor?” The gospel implies that the lawyer’s motives are less than pure when he poses the question (imagine that!). But for someone who takes compliance with the law seriously, it’s a fair question. A good lawyer would want to know to whom he owes a duty of care. Is he responsible for the man or woman next door; a farmer who lives on the outskirts of town; a foreigner who lives on the other side of the mountains? The lawyer wants to know how far the law extends.

If the lawyer is baiting Jesus, the teacher doesn’t bite. Instead Jesus turns the tables by shifting the discussion from the limits of law to the boundlessness of love through a story about the actions of three men who are traveling on the road to Jericho.

The Good Samaritan   The story starts with a “certain man” who sets off on a journey along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man is presumably Jewish. Along the way robbers accost and beat him. They strip off the man’s clothing and leave him “half dead” beside the road. By chance, a priest comes along, sees the naked man, and keeps going without stopping to help. Next, a Levite approaches and does the same. Photo 4, below, shows five scenes from the story. Read them from bottom to top and left to right. The lower scene in the quatrefoil shows Jesus and two Pharisees conversing. Moving clockwise to the left, the man exits his home. In the center, two robbers wait in the woods. On the right, three robbers beat the man. One holds a sword, one a club, and a third bandit strips the man’s tunic. The scene on top depicts the priest and Levite passing by the injured man who lies between them.

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4. Scenes from the Good Samaritan Parable, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Finally, a Samaritan comes along, sees the beaten man, “and was moved with pity.” He bandages his wounds after cleaning them with oil and wine.  The Samaritan takes the injured man on an animal to an inn where he cares for him. Observe the bandage streaming from the man’s head in photo 5, below. As the Samaritan leaves the inn, he gives the proprietor money in advance and tells him to, “Take care of him; and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

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5. The Samaritan and Injured Man Go to the Inn, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus ends the discussion with a challenge that still reverberates two thousand years later: “Go and do likewise.” Note the caption and the flask symbolizing the medicinal oil and wine in the Good Samaritan scene at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 6).

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6. Good Samaritan Scene, Parable Window, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

What is a Samaritan?  Samaritans lived in Samaria, a district named for the capital of the Biblical northern kingdom of Israel. The region was under Roman rule during Jesus’ ministry. It was bounded by Jesus’ native Galilee to the north and the kingdom of Judea to the south. Today, Samaria is part of the Palestinian West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

The Jewish people who first heard the Good Samaritan parable nearly 2,000 years ago most likely pictured the Samaritan as a descendant of Babylonians who settled the region after the Assyrians conquered it in 722 BCE and then deported more than 20,000 Israelites to points east. But aside from ethnicity, the Samaritans and Jews—who worshiped the same God—disagreed bitterly about the location and timing of worship practices. Jewish worship centered on the temple in Jerusalem. For the Samaritans, the city of Shechem and Mt. Gerazim were holy. The animosity between the two groups led one contributor to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church to observe, “The hostility of the Jews to the Samaritans was proverbial.”

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7. Good Samaritan, Gospel of Luke Window, Country Club Christian Church, Kansas City, MO

The Road to Jericho   In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well known for its danger and for the priests and Levites who used it to travel to and from their work at the temple in Jerusalem and their homes in Jericho. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho descends about 3,200 feet in the 18 miles that separate the two cities. It was known as “the way of blood” because robbers commonly preyed on travelers who were well-advised to travel in caravans.  The Cambridge Companion to the Bible notes that “bandits or brigands became numerous in the Roman period.” Many bandits were dispossessed peasants—perhaps like Jesus and his family—who were “forced off the land by a combination of harsh economic conditions, politically inefficient governments, military oppression, and failed harvests….” King Herod, the Great, earned his reputation as a military commander through his largely successful effort to rid Galilee of bandits.

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8. Robbers on the Road to Jericho, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral France

Given the threat, the priest and Levite might have risked their own lives by stopping to help the half-dead man. On the day before he died, Martin Luther King spoke of his own travels on the road to Jericho (photo 9, below). He reportedly said, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable. It’s a winding, meandering road….  It’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to lure them over there for quick and easy seizure.”  It’s possible that these familiar words crossed the minds of the priest and Levite as they passed by the man: better safe than sorry.

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9. Martin Luther King Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Re-Imagining the World   Prof. Scott’s insight about the parables, as invitations to re-imagine life’s possibilities, resonates with me. I long for a world where we define neighbor in the broadest terms, follow the Good Samaritan’s example, and treat one another fairly. But in a re-imagined world, where humility prevails, the parable invites me to walk in the shoes of the priest and Levite. From where they stand, I must acknowledge the power of instinctual self-preservation to dampen my own heart’s fire for compassion. The parable also invites me to imagine myself as a half-dead man lying in a ditch. From his viewpoint, I must see the Samaritan as a black person coming to the aid of a white person; of a Mexican showing mercy to a gringo; and of a Muslim bandaging the wounds of a Christian. Luke’s gospel reminds us that the shift in perspective will be good for us in the long run.

A Nod to Eros   For the romantics among you, here’s a sculpted rose bouquet from the Washington National Cathedral (photo 10). Use your imagination to color them red, yellow, or purple. Regardless of color, I see American Beauties.

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10. Sculpted Roses, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Copyright 2017, Michael Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 02-14-17

Nicholas: Patron Saint of Children

Looking back on my boyhood, I’m aware that December 6—St. Nicholas Day—functioned like a pressure relief valve for me. With anticipation building in the weeks preceding Christmas Eve, the night I would finally learn if the Kenner Girder & Panel set and GI Joe paraphernalia that I longed for were buried in the mound of gift-wrapped boxes under the tree, St. Nicholas Day helped make the long wait for December 24 more tolerable. Mom would select two of the smaller items on my Christmas wish list and give them to me on St. Nick’s Day and they would tide me over until the main event on the night before Christmas.

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1. Christkind, Bavarian National Museum, Munich (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I didn’t know much about St. Nicholas then, but I sensed that he and Santa Claus were somehow related. Maybe they were cousins. But because I grew up in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, I didn’t dare ask my pastor or Sunday School teachers, “Who was St. Nicholas?” Deep down, I worried that someone might tell my mom to stop giving me toys on St. Nicholas Day because Lutherans don’t believe in saints.  I didn’t know at the time just how much my mom’s gifting practice ran afoul of Martin Luther’s desire to shift emphasis in the 16th century away from St. Nicholas to the Christkind (photo 1, above), German for “Christ child.” The angelic Christkind, who brings gifts on Christmas Eve and gives its name to the popular Christkindlemarkts in Europe (photo 2), today bears little resemblance to the baby Jesus lying in a manger. And so I think it’s a shame that the Protestant Reformation prevented me from getting to know St. Nicholas better. Because he personifies the old adage that it is better to give than to receive, Nicholas probably would have made a good role model for an acquisitive American kid like me.

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2. 2015 Christkindlemarkt, Bath, England

The Saint in History and Legend   We know for sure that Nicholas was a bishop (photo 3) in fourth century Myra, a Roman town in Lycia, now part of Turkey.  Some reports place him at the great church Council of Nicaea in 325, CE but the evidence of his attendance is inconclusive. Tradition has it that Nicholas died on December 6, 343, thirty years after the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. We also know that Italian sailors stole his bones in 1087 and moved them from Myra to Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they now lie in the crypt of a basilica named for the saint. Aside from that, we don’t know much about his factual life story. According to Prof. Adam English, author of the Saint who would be Santa, Nicholas left us nothing in writing; no theological statements, no poems, no sermons, and no contemporary biographies.

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3. St. Nicholas, bishop, on the far right with (L-R) Sts. Laumer, Sylvester, and Ambrose, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

What we have are stories—lots of stories—through which we catch a faint glimpse of a man whose personal qualities and selfless actions captured the imagination of the common folk and inspired many enduring legends about his regard for youngsters and the downtrodden.

Three Bags of Gold  The most compelling story about Nicholas, which likely led to his designation as the patron saint of children, involves three girls whose family had fallen on hard times. In one version of the story, Nicholas receives a large inheritance from his parents whose death left him orphaned as a boy. Later, as a young man, he learned that a destitute nobleman planned to sell his daughters into slavery or prostitution, as was the accepted custom at the time. The news pained Nicholas and prompted him to anonymously donate three bags of gold coins that each girl could use as a dowry. A sculpted scene at Chartres Cathedral shows Nicholas reaching through a hole in a wall to drop a bag of coins on the floor as the three distraught girls stand over their father who lies in bed (photo 4). A panel in one of the two St. Nicholas windows at Chartres depicts the saint dropping three large coins through the window as the daughters and father lie together in a large bed (photo 5).

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4. St. Nicholas Delivering Gold Coins, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

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5. St. Nicholas Delivering Coins, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

The anonymous gifts, delivered on three successive nights, delighted the girls because it meant they could escape a dreadful fate. But their curious and grateful father wanted to learn the identity of the donor. So he stayed up on the third night to wait for the mystery man.  Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend describes the encounter. The father shouted, “Stop! Don’t sneak away! I want to see you!” Nicholas bolted. The man gave chase and when he caught up to Nicholas, “fell to the ground and tried to kiss his feet, but Nicholas stopped him, and made him promise never to reveal his secret until after [Nicholas’] death (photo 6).” Evidently, Nicholas was both generous and humble, and presumably the father made good on his promise.

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6. Grateful Father Kneeling before St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Why is this legend so significant? In an interview with Read the Spirit magazine [http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/adam-english/], Adam English explained, “here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls—girls who no one else in that era would have cared about. He is truly taking the biblical command to look out for ‘the least among you’ to heart in a serious way. He does something that is purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that era—and he does it without any hope of reward.”

The story of Nicholas’ unexpected gift spread far and wide and contributed to his fame from Byzantium to western Europe and eventually beyond. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints reports that more than 500 churches in Britain alone are dedicated to St. Nicholas. Moreover, the largest annual religious pilgrimage in Russia, with 90,000 people reportedly joining the throng in 2015, follows a traditional route to the town of Velikoretsky to commemorate a peasant’s discovery in 1383 of a miraculous icon with a traditional image of St. Nicholas and eight scenes of events in his life (photo 7).

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7. St. Nicholas Starting His Learning at a Monastery, Scene from a mid-16th Century St. Nicholas of Velikoretsky Icon, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal

Saving the Children  A second legend involving children in dire straits, which likely expresses a dark medieval fear more than it testifies to Nicholas’ innate kindness, presents the saint as the savior of three boys who had the great misfortune of crossing paths with a murderous butcher.  The butcher and his wife hack the boys to death and place them in a large vat with an eye toward selling their remains as pickled meat. Nicholas intervenes and brings the boys back to life. The murder and resurrection scenes are depicted in thirteenth century stained glass panels in Chartres Cathedral (photos 8 and 9).

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8. Boys and Butcher with Hatchet, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

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9. St. Nicholas Resurrects Boys in the Vat, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Remarkably, this gruesome tale continued to provide subject matter for artists into modern times. You will sometimes see three boys (or adolescents) standing in a big barrel, a common attribute for St. Nicholas. A late nineteenth century window designed by the English firm of Lavers and Westlake (photo 10) at Milwaukee’s All Saints Episcopal Cathedral (photo 11)  offers an example of the iconography.

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10. St. Nicholas with Boys in a Barrel, All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee

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11. All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A final story in this overview of how sculptors and glaziers portrayed St. Nicholas’ legends in stone and glass is the subject of yet another colorful 13th century window at Chartres Cathedral. The story apparently combines two aspects of Nicholas’ sainthood, as the patron of children and sailors. Legend has it that a boy fell from a boat into the sea. His parents called on Nicholas for help and, though the details of the rescue are vague, the saint miraculously saved him. The artist in Chartres’ workshop depicted the boy sinking as a blue demon with a grappling hook tries to snag him (photos 12 and 13, the panel at 9 o’clock in the quatrefoil).  The boy’s worried parents sit in the boat, praying, as two oarsmen look on. The next scene in the sequence shows the mother, father and boy with St. Nicholas, wearing bishop’s vestments, standing before Nicholas’ cathedra or bishop’s throne (see photo 13; the panel at 3 o’clock in the quatrefoil).

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12. Drowning Boy, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

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13. Quatrefoil with Scenes of St. Nicholas Legends, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

From Saint to Santa   After the Protestant Reformation, Nicholas drifted into the background of Advent and Christmas celebrations in most of Europe. Nevertheless, Dutch and Flemish-speaking groups kept alive the tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day eve and brought Sinterklaas, an elderly, bearded, adaptation of St. Nicholas, with them to New Amsterdam (renamed New York by the English in 1684). More than a century later, a Revolutionary War veteran named John Pintard promoted St. Nicholas as a patron saint for New York City. Then in 1809, Washington Irving published a satirical history of New York in which he mentions a jolly St. Nicholas character coming down chimneys to deliver gifts. In 1823, a poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” attributed to Clement Clark Moore, appeared in the Troy, New York newspaper. It “twas the night before Christmas…” and the rest, as they say, is Santa Claus history. There were illustrations of Santa on magazine covers and eventually Santa ads in the 1930’s for Coca Cola. For more on the story about St. Nicholas and the origins of Santa Claus and about the Velikoretsky pilgrimage, visit the St. Nicholas Center’s informative website [https://www.stnicholascenter.org/].

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14. St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

A Saintly Exemplar   One of the great ironies in Nicholas’ evolution from a saintly cleric to a rotund, red and white clad cultural icon who spends most of the year at the North Pole (now reportedly with an icy swimming hole in the vicinity), is that the German name for the character who supplanted him, Christkindl, has morphed in English to become “Kris Kringle,” a nickname for Santa Claus. It’s hard to keep a good man like Nicholas down! And why should we when the man took to heart Jesus’ call in Matthew’s gospel to treat “the least of these my brethren” with dignity?  St. Nicholas of Myra, legendary wonder worker and patron saint of children, personifies humane qualities that are no less pertinent—or essential—today than they were 1,673 years ago on the day he died.

Copyright 2016 by Michael Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 12/5/2016.