When I began to delve into iconography about 25 years ago, I was mildly surprised to learn that many familiar images of the apostles originate in legends and “tall tales,” not in scripture. It was a good reminder that the Christian New Testament is often silent about the later missionary careers of men like Andrew, James, and Bartholomew, and about interesting details in the lives and deaths of major figures such as Paul. Legendary accounts help address the apparent omissions about which people were curious. Some legends, including the story about St. Paul’s martyrdom by decapitation, are plausible. Others, like the story about St. John’s poison draught, are more imaginative than factual. Such legends may not be “true” in the sense that most people understand that term today, but they do convey moral or theological truths through their improbable and entertaining accounts of saintly exploits.
In today’s post, we’ll feature the legendary attributes of the apostles Andrew, John, and Paul. Their attributes, or identifying emblems, often appear in representations of these saintly men in medieval cathedrals and modern churches alike. Our tour will start in Chartres, France and follow a circuitous route to Rouen in Normandy, to Wells in England, and from there to upstate New York, Washington, DC, and Iowa. We’ll start with John who, according to John’s gospel, was the disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
St. John and His Chalice John the Apostle is known by more than one attribute. As mentioned in my post on the iconography of the Four Evangelists (7/21/2014), the eagle symbolizes John’s status as a gospel writer. In addition, he often appears in scenes of the crucifixion, standing or kneeling to Mary’s left at the foot of the cross (photo 1, above) and is shown beardless because he was thought to be the youngest of Jesus’ twelve disciples (photo 2).
But a curious legend about John has long inspired artists to portray him holding a cup with a snake or serpent in it (photo 3). We find this story among the hundreds of tales compiled by Jacobus of Voragine in his voluminous Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, completed around the year 1265.
The Golden Legend tells of John’s testy encounter with Aristodemus, a priest of the goddess Diana. As John was preaching, Diana’s followers stirred up a crowd who dragged the apostle to Diana’s temple to force him to offer a sacrifice to the Greek goddess. John refused and proposed an alternative. If he could destroy Diana’s temple by praying to his Lord, would the people switch their allegiance to Jesus Christ? They agreed to the deal. John prayed and, lo and behold, Diana’s temple crumbled to the ground. But Aristodemus was unconvinced. John asked, “What can I do to persuade you?” The priest replied, “If you want me to believe in your God, I will give you poison to drink, and if it does you no harm, then I shall know that your Lord is the true God!” John drank the poison and lived.
The snake slithering out of John’s chalice symbolizes the power of the apostle’s faith in the true God to overcome the evil of idolatry. It’s an idea that spread throughout Christendom on the heels of sculpted images of John and his cup. You’ll see them in the Apostles Gallery, dating to the mid-1200s, high atop the elaborate West Façade of Wells Cathedral (photo 4, above). John and his chalice join four other apostles in more naturalistic statuary that was characteristic of the later Gothic and early Renaissance periods, on the south portal of the fourteenth century St. Ouen Abbey in Rouen (photos 5 & 6).
In the U.S., John’s chalice is carved in an altar rail at Washington’s National Cathedral and it shows up too in nineteenth century stained glass at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (photos 7 & 8). More examples exist throughout the United States in the churches of many denominations.
St. Paul’s Sword The New Testament, mainly in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s various epistles, provides a wealth of information about the man named both Saul and Paul who persecuted early Christians and then became a believer himself after a dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Scripture details Paul’s three missionary trips to Greece and Asia Minor, his meeting with Peter at the Council of Jerusalem to resolve a dispute about circumcising the Gentiles, his miracles, his shipwreck on Malta and much, much more. But the Bible says nothing about Paul’s demise. The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome “preaching the kingdom of God, and preaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” Who wouldn’t wonder, “What happened next?” Happily, the Golden Legend fills in the blanks.
Paul lived in Rome for two years during the reign of unstable Emperor Nero. The Golden Legend reports that Nero did not take kindly to the apostle. According to the legend, Paul restored Patroclus, the emperor’s cupbearer, to life following a fatal accident. Patroclus fell to his death from the ledge of a second or third story window. He had fallen asleep as he listened to Paul preach. Paul came to the rescue and revived Patroclus through fervent prayer. When the cupbearer regained consciousness, he became a Christian.
When Nero heard the news, he was livid and promptly sentenced Paul to death for treason. Because Paul was a Roman citizen, he escaped crucifixion (the fate of Peter and Andrew) and was instead beheaded with a sword. After Paul’s head fell, the Golden Legend reports that “a great light filled the sky, and a perfume of wonderful sweetness emanated from his body.” What became of Paul’s head? It “was thrown into a pit, and because of all the other people who had been executed and whose heads and limbs had been thrown there, it could never be found….” This apparently explains why curious 13th century pilgrims might not find Paul’s skull among his relics. [On a speculative note, I can’t help but wonder if the story of Patroclus’ fall from the window ledge was added to warn preachers against long-winded and “deadly” sermons!]
And so the sword became Paul’s characteristic emblem in Christian iconography (photo 9, above). It typifies the common practice of using an instrument of martyrdom to identify a saint. Among the 13th century apostle statues on Chartres Cathedral’s south porch (photo 2, above), we find Paul serenely clutching the hilt of a sword. The blade is missing. At the Washington National Cathedral, a delicate rendering of Paul, designed in the 1970’s by Frederick Hart, captures the moment in which heavenly light blinds the apostle on the road to Damascus. Paul holds a sword in his left hand (photo 10). An image of a sailing vessel on the statue’s pedestal refers to Paul’s various missionary voyages on the Mediterranean (photo 11).
Saint Andrew’s Cross The New Testament gospels tell us that Andrew was a fisherman, brother of Simon Peter, and among the first called by Jesus to become one of the twelve disciples. Scripture says nothing though about Andrew’s missionary work after he and the other disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit” on Pentecost. The Golden Legend indicates that Andrew traveled to the north and east where he “preached the word in Scythia,” known these days as the Ukraine. The Chronicle of Nestor (ca. 1000) reports that the apostle preached along the Black Sea and visited Kiev and Novograd. This explains in part how Andrew became the patron saint of Ukraine, Russia, and Romania, but not how he became the patron saint of Scotland or how the X-shaped, saltire cross came to be associated with and the homeland of King James I and, more recently, novelist J.K. Rowling (photo 12).
The story of Andrew’s death on a cross in Patras, Greece has its roots in a third century apocryphal (non-canonical) book called the Acts of Andrew. The account in the Golden Legend of Andrew’s crucifixion at the hands of the Roman pro-consul Aegeus derives largely from this earlier work. It describes Andrew being bound to a cross and preaching to 20,000 people as he hung from it, before he died two days later. But the Golden Legend does not specify the shape of Andrew’s cross. This led early Christian artists to sometimes use a Latin cross as his attribute.
According to Judith Calvert’s 1984 Art Bulletin article, “the familiar iconography” of Andrew’s X-shaped cross “does not seem to have been standardized before the late Middle Ages.” Indeed, the statue of Andrew at Chartres Cathedral, most likely installed around 1224, shows him holding the upright beam of a Latin cross whose cross-beam has broken off (photo 13). Yet a sculpture of Andrew at Wells Cathedral that dates to just a few years later in the mid-1200’s, presents him with an X-shaped cross (photo 14). How is it that England was way ahead of France and its other neighbors in Europe with respect to St. Andrew’s familiar attribute?
The answer is not in the Golden Legend. We find it instead in a story that started in Scotland in the ninth century, C.E., and spread from there. In the year 832, Oengus II led a heavily outnumbered army of Picts and Scots against an Army of Angles led by Athelstan. On the eve of the battle, Oengus prayed to St. Andrew for help and vowed that if his army should prevail he would name Andrew the patron saint of Scotland. The next morning, an X-shaped cloud appeared in the sky. Oengus saw in it the shape of the cross on which Andrew died.
Like Constantine who saw a cross in the sky before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge, Oengus saw a cross and was victorious. Henceforth, the X-shaped or “saltire” cross has been inextricably linked with St. Andrew and Scotland. Regrettably, I could not track down the earliest documented sources for this legend, though it might be among the stories in the Legendary of Scotland. To learn more about the history of the Scottish flag, I recommend a visit to Scotland’s National Flag Heritage Centre [http://www.visitscotland.com/en-us/info/see-do/national-flag-heritage-centre-p253351].
We’ll close this post by noting that Andrew’s Cross eventually made its way from Scotland to cathedrals and churches in North America through a wide range of media and artistic styles. Examples include an altar rail carving at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 15, above), stained glass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa (photo 16), a hand-made needlepoint cushion at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, also in Davenport (photo 17), and a low-relief sculpture of Andrew paired with Moses at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC (photos 18 & 19).
Mike Klug, email@example.com, 12/20/2014