This past Thursday, November 1, many Christians celebrated All Saints Day, also called the Feast of All Saints or All Hallows Day. It’s been one of my favorite holy days since I attended an All Saints Day chapel service many years ago where I first sang For all the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest (Hymn 463 in the Lutheran Hymnal) with rousing accompaniment by the trumpets and tympani in my Lutheran high school’s band. I see now that the hymn’s fourth verse nicely summarizes the Protestant perspective on saints. It stresses solidarity over hierarchy:
O blest communion, fellowship divine; we feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!
For Lutherans and other Protestants, the main point is that all believers belong to a mystical communion of saints. Thus, the Feast of All Saints becomes a day to remember Christians past and present—Saints with a “big S” like Paul and John and those with a “little s” like mom, dad and my Sunday school teacher. I think that All Saints Day appeals to me because it’s a time to reflect on the unseen connections between the living and dead, and those near and far. It reminds me that I’m part of a big picture that looks a bit like a Diego Rivera mural where the lines between past and present poignantly blur.
In this post, after a brief overview of All Saints Day’s origins, I’ll present images of several saints in a decidedly un-Lutheran like way. Using categories in a Roman Catholic prayer called the Litany of Saints, I’ll offer background and photos on one or two saints who exemplify each group. The ancient prayer is significant for its beauty and because many Roman Catholic congregations sing or recite it on All Saints Day and at the Easter vigil. A lector invokes dozens of saints’ names and after each is spoken or sung, the congregation responds, “Pray for us” (Ora pro nobis in Latin). The categories are:
- Mary and the Angels
- Patriarchs and Prophets
- Apostles and Disciples
- Bishops and Doctors of the Church
- Priests and Members of Religious Orders
- Lay Members
Origins of All Saints Day Denominations in the Western church celebrate the holiday on November 1 while Eastern rite churches do so on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The common theme among denominations is a desire to honor all saints, known and unknown, whose souls abide after earthly life with God. The liturgical practice of commemorating saints’ lives extends to the early days of Christianity when local communities recalled the martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths. Some speculate that the need for a day of remembrance for all martyrs—the saints in early usage—arose during the Diocletian persecutions of the early 300’s (photo 1, below) when so many Christians died that each could not have his or her own memorial day. Scholars trace the first reference to a common saints’ day to a Syrian Christian community in the late 300’s.
Two centuries later, on May 13, 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome as a church in honor of Mary and all martyrs, naming it the church of Santa Maria del Martiri. Workers reportedly removed 28 cartloads of human remains from the catacombs where Christians buried their dead, and placed them beneath the converted church’s high altar as relics of the holy martyrs. Today, many cathedrals and churches are dedicated to All Saints including the Episcopal cathedral in my hometown (photo 2).
According to the Encylopedia Brittanica, “the first evidence for the November 1 date … and broadening the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs occurred during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731–741), who dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, Rome, on November 1 in honor of all saints.” E.O. James asserts in Seasonal Feasts and Festivals that Pope Gregory IV officially established the annual commemoration of All Saints on November 1, 835 as part of an effort to curb the autumnal pagan rites that coincided with November 1 and still persisted in parts of northern Europe, Britain and Ireland. About 150 years later, the Benedictine abbeys in Europe were celebrating All Souls Day on November 2, an observance to honor the faithful departed established by Odilo, the abbot of the Cluny monastery, in 988. The three day period between Halloween and All Souls Day has since been called “All Hallowstide.”
Spiritual Bonds The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the theology of the All Saints Day feast emphasizes the bond of those Christians who are already with God and those who are still on the earth, and that it points to an ultimate goal—“to be with God.” Consequently, artists sometimes depict the saints “in glory,” i.e., in heaven with God, as we’ll see below with Mary and some others. But in the stained glass and sculpture that appears in many churches and cathedrals, we usually find heroic images of saints holding an attribute, an identifying symbol. One sees martyrs holding a palm frond, a symbol of victory over death, along with the instrument(s) used to kill or torture them. Other images employ elements drawn from saints’ legends or biographies to help identify them. The evangelists and other writers often appear holding a pen or book.
Here, organized around the seven categories in the Litany of Saints, are photos I’ve taken of some noteworthy saints as they appear in the stained glass and sculpture of 11 cathedrals and churches in Europe, the United States, and Mexico.
Mary and the Angels Aside from Jesus, Mary probably appears more often in Christian art than any other figure. She is central to scenes of the Nativity, Annunciation, and Pentecost. Artists also portray her as the Queen of Heaven, imaginatively interpreting a verse in the Book of Revelation that describes a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, who wears a crown of 12 stars. A 20th century Munich-style window in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Denver (photo 3, above) illustrates a traditional scene of God the Son and God the Father, both seated on a heavenly rainbow throne, crowning Mary as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, hovers above with two curious cherubs. The Father’s triangular nimbus symbolizes the Christian belief in a Triune God. A 14th century boss in the vaulting of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona condenses the scene with Jesus and Mary seated while two angels make heavenly music with a stringed instrument and flute (photo 4, below).
Patriarchs and Prophets Three Hebrew patriarchs and their wives—Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel—appear in the art of some cathedrals and churches. One of the more popular scenes shows Abraham’s “test of faith” described in Genesis 22 where an angel of the Lord shows up in the nick of time to stop Abraham from sacrificing Issac, his son. A stained glass panel at St. Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta captures the drama with Abraham heeding the angel as a worried Issac, hands bound with rope, observes the encounter with a heaven-sent messenger (photo 5).
My favorite biblical account involving a patriarch, though, is Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28. In the dream Jacob sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven upon which angels ascend and descend, and then hears God declare, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go….” A sculpted ensemble at Bath Abbey in England famously conveys the essentials of the dream with sculpted angels scurrying up and down two ladders that flank the prominent window on the abbey’s west façade (photos 6 and 7).
Apostles & Disciples Stained glass images of the most famous apostles and disciples abound in the cathedrals and churches of many Christian denominations. Familiar ones include St. Peter holding the keys of the kingdom, St. Paul with a sword, and St. Mary Magdalene holding a box or jar containing ointment that, tradition tells us, she used to anoint Jesus’ feet (photo 8). But what of disciples like St. James Minor (also called the Less) whose very name implies obscurity? As with other saints, when St. James Minor shows up in art he often holds the legendary instrument of his death, in his case a club or bat. But sometimes you’ll find him holding a leafy branch. What does this attribute signify? It likely alludes to a pre-Christian May Day ritual. In the pre-dawn hours of May 1st, St. James Minor’s saint’s day, the youth in some European towns would go off into the woods to cavort and later return with branches cut from young trees to use as Maypole decorations. A window at Conception Abbey in Missouri shows the saint (Jacobus in Latin) holding a branch in one hand a a book in the other (photo 9, below).
Martyrs An enterprising writer could devote an entire blog post (or voluminous book) to the many martyred saints and their attributes. But that’s not me. I’m going to focus on St. Catherine of Alexandria, one of the so-called “Virgin Martyrs.” As a group, the Virgin Martyrs were said to endure unspeakably cruel tortures in witness to their faith. According to the Golden Legend, Jacob of Voragine’s 13th century compilation of myths and legends about the lives of saints, Catherine lived during the persecution of Maxentius, the emperor who ruled Rome in the early 4th century after Diocletian. Catherine, an aristocrat and devout Christian, rejected marriage with the emperor because she was a “bride of Christ” and publicly protested the persecution. The Roman authorities punished her impertinence by breaking her body on a wheel, afterwards known as a “Catherine wheel.” Legend holds that the wheel broke during the torture, and Catherine was then beheaded. A 13th century panel at Chartres Cathedral shows an angel dismantling the wheel as Catherine kneels in prayer before it (photo 10).
The Roman Catholic Church’s list of martyred saints recently grew with the addition of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Abp. Romero, an outspoken critic of the El Salvadoran revolutionary government’s treatment of the poor, was assassinated by gunfire as he stood on the altar of a hospital chapel. Pope Francis canonized him three weeks ago on October 14th. A few years after Romero’s death in 1980, the Washington National Cathedral installed a statuette in his honor (photo 11).
Bishops and Doctors of the Church I’ll feature a saint in this category who was both bishop and doctor. St. Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo (now Annaba in modern day Algeria), a coastal city in North Africa, in the early 5th century. After converting to Christianity in 386, Augustine became a brilliant and influential writer on theological topics ranging from grace and charity to the Trinity. The Roman Catholic Church has long regarded him as one of its original four great “doctors,” meaning teacher in Latin. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Doctor of the Church is a title given to saints who are recognized as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing. Augustine was a prolific writer who is probably best known in our time for works that include his Confessions and the City of God.
But in addition to his scholarship, in 397 Augustine wrote a set of rules to guide the common life of lay Christian communities. The Augustinian Rule, which is likely the oldest monastic rule in the western church, is still followed today by monks (or friars) of the Augustinian Order. A detailed bas-relief sculpture above the portal to the 18th century Augustinian monastery church in Oaxaca, Mexico (photos 12 and 13) shows the saint wearing a bishop’s mitre and vestments, standing as a heavenly giant above a host of kneeling clerics. A pair of angels lift and open his robe as Augustine holds a model of a church building and book, likely symbolizing his role as a foundational Christian author. He stands on the heads of three bearded men. Who do they represent? Since Augustine surmounts them, the heads probably symbolize three heretical opponents—Mani, Pelagius, and Donatus Magnus—against whom Augustine argued and prevailed.
Priests & Religious This category covers priests and the male and female members of religious orders such as the Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Sisters of Mercy. I’m highlighting St. Rose of Lima because she’s the first saint of the Americas, canonized by Pope Clement IX in 1667. Rose of Lima joined a Dominican community in her native Peru, snubbing marriage and vowing virginity in the face of her parents’ strong protests. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, she “lived as a recluse in a hut…and experienced both trials and consolations of an extraordinary kind.” Rose was known to help the sick and hungry by caring for them in her room, and by making and selling lace to help the poor. She also withstood extreme forms of self-inflicted penance to help her identify with Christ’s sufferings. This might have shortened her life. She died after a long illness in 1617, at age 31. St. Rose is regarded as the patron of South America and the Philippines, and today many Roman Catholic churches in South and North America are dedicated to her, including a parish church in Quincy, Illinois. A window there, designed by the Emil Frei Studios in St. Louis, shows her contemplating a crucifix as she wears her signature silver crown of thorns and holds a crown of roses (photo 14).
Lay Members of the Church Occasionally men and women who were not members of the clergy have been seen as saintly and eventually canonized. In some cases, rulers have been honored for the role they played in Christianizing their realms. Bohemia’s good St. Wenceslas is a prime example. Less frequently, the Church has recognized noblemen and noblewomen for lives devoted to the less fortunate. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a widowed princess, spent much of her fortune founding hospitals and caring for children who were orphaned by the Crusades in the 13th century. A panel in the Humanitarians Window at Washington National Cathedral shows her nursing a sick man (photo 15).
But it probably comes as no great surprise that some saints in this category are largely forgotten. One of them is St. Henry who is known to historians and the Germans who settled in and around Austin, Texas in the 1800’s, as Emperor Heinrich II. Henry was a Bavarian duke who became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1014 and a saint in 1146. His claim to sainthood rests largely on efforts to restore property taken from the church during a long war between the German states and Poland. Henry also founded the diocese of Bamberg, one of his favorite cities, and built a cathedral there. He and Abbott Odilo of Cluny were good friends, and Henry is the only German king ever to be canonized. A window in Austin’s St. Mary’s Cathedral shows the saint in imperial garb holding a model of Bamberg’s renowned four-towered cathedral (photo 16).
Article and Photos Copyright 2018 by Michael Klug, email@example.com, 11/4/2018