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.

PMA-St. Luke Plaque

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.

St. Martini Church

2. St. Martini Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI

StM-Ark of Covenant & Bronze Serpent

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).

Oculus

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

StM-Babel & Dove

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.

StM-St. George's Dragon

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?

BrM-Bellerophon& Chimaera

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.

St. George & Dragon

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.

GLO-Great East Window

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).

GLO-Cecelia. George

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

BrM-George Close

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.

BrM-Reliquary Front View

12. Holy Thorn Reliquary, British Museum, London

BCN-Jordi & Dragon

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).

VIC-Roses

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.

STM-Organ & Nave

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

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2 thoughts on “Sacred Symbols: My Roots

  1. Kluger,
    I love this story. You combine your personal history with Lutheran history, art & symbols. Whether you intentionally did it or not, you seemed to employ techniques like “but there’s more…” which pique my interest and held my attention. I also like how you returned to the theme of roots time and again. However you left me hanging sir! Why does St. George belong in St. Martini??

    • Wags: I’m glad you liked the article for all the reasons you mentioned. Your question about St. Martini is a good one because I know the closing line was ambiguous. Here’s what was on my mind. Lutherans have a claim to one interpretation of what George and the dragon represent–namely challenging an oppressive institution or tyrant–as well as anyone does. Lutherans might not realize it, but St. George has a place in their iconography too. ~ Thank you for your feedback and encouragement. MK

      Mike Klug 1803 C Street Iowa City, IA 52245 319-338-3809 (home) 319-541-4208 (cellular)

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