If you’re not fluent in Latin, or if an inscribed or painted name has faded away, it might be difficult to tell one saint from another as they appear in stained glass and sculpture in a Gothic cathedral. That’s where “attributes” can help. Medieval artists enabled viewers to identify prophets, evangelists, and saints by adding an item associated with the subject to their works. Dr. Beth Williamson, a British art historian, observes in her book, Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction, that an attribute “acted as a pictorial label.” She goes on to explain that “attributes might make reference to a significant event in a saint’s life, or a particular achievement for which they are known.” In this way, attributes also served as teaching devices that pointed to key elements in important stories.
Unschooled medieval church-goers could easily identify a statue of St. Peter, for example, by the “keys of the kingdom” that he holds. The keys illustrate the verse in Matthew’s gospel where Christ says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” The statue of Peter holding an over-sized key at Rouen Cathedral (photo 1, above) is one of many fine examples of this attribute put to good use. In this post, we’ll also visit Chartres Cathedral in France and four churches in the U.S. as we review Peter’s various attributes.
Peter, the impetuous fisherman who would come to be known as Rome’s first bishop, has been a popular subject for artists since Christianity’s early days. Churches throughout the world are named for him, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the seat of the papacy and legendary site of Peter’s burial. Many of those namesake cathedrals and churches, as well as dozens of sacred structures dedicated to other saints, contain an image of Peter with keys. A fine 13th century statue on the North Porch of Chartres Cathedral shows a set of keys dangling from Peter’s wrist (photo 2).
But because Peter was involved in many “significant events” recorded in the gospels and Acts of the Apostles, artists often add other attributes to their representations of him. At Chartres, Peter wears a papal tiara and the pallium (Y-shaped sash), visual cues to his traditional designation among Roman Catholics as the first pope (photo 3). Observe also that he stands on a pedestal shaped like a small rock out-cropping (photo 4). The rocky pedestal recalls Christ’s words in Matthew’s gospel: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This speaks to the view among medieval theologians that Peter was preeminent, or had “primacy,” among Jesus’ disciples. Moreover, the sculptor probably knew that Peter’s name derives from petrus, the Greek word for “rock.”
Modern artists depict Peter in much the same way. A 20th century sculpture by John Angel at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City continues the “key tradition” with Peter clutching a large key to his chest (photo 5). But there’s a twist to the story in this sculpture. A crowing rooster stands at Peter’s feet (photo 6). In contrast to Chartres where the emphasis is on Peter’s primacy, the rooster reminds us of his human shortcomings and failings, as when he denied that he knew Christ three times before the rooster crowed. A scene on the pedestal shows Peter with his hands raised in denial as he maintains, “I do not know the man!”
In many cases, saints are known by the instruments of their death. Legend has it that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, during Nero’s reign. The story probably has its origins in an apocryphal book, The Acts of Peter, which dates to the second century. Jacobus de Voragine, writing in the 1200’s, compiled this and many other stories and tales about the saints in a popular book called The Golden Legend. The Golden Legend relates that Peter was uncomfortable with a regular crucifixion. He told his executioners, “Since I am not worthy of hanging on the cross as my Lord did, turn my cross around and crucify me upside down!” The Roman soldiers, who reportedly really did amuse themselves by sometimes changing the position of the cross for executions, obliged him. An inverted Latin cross alludes to this legend on the pedestal for St. Peter’s statue at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC (photo 7), while a stained glass roundel at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Philadelphia actually depicts it (photo 8).
Papal garb and upside down crosses notwithstanding, the key is Peter’s most common attribute. It shows up often in modern stained glass throughout North America. Two examples close this post on Peter’s attributes (photos 9 & 10). The window at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church shows Peter holding keys with his left hand and a book with his right. The book alludes to the two New Testament epistles attributed to the apostle, and is a common symbol used to identify authors of books in the Bible.
Michael Klug, 09/12/14, email@example.com