Month: April 2017

The Poisoned Chalice

apostle john1

Snake on cup — unhygienic?

Perhaps not!

The 1940 parish anniversary book reported that the snake-and-cup emblem of Saint John the Apostle (by the 47th Street door) came from an ancient legend: “according to the tradition handed down by Saint Isidore, the idolatrous enemies of the Saint having poisoned the wine which he used for the holy sacrifice of the Mass, hoped thus to kill him. But the Saint frustrated their design, for on his blessing the wine a serpent came forth to warn him.”

The story first appeared in the Apocrypha — a collection of manuscripts not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible. In the Sixth century, St. Isidore included the texts in an ambitious encyclopedia of all world knowledge. His information was then folded into the 13th century Golden Legend collection of saints lore, and spread from there.

Versions of the story differ: the wine was sometimes Communion wine; more usually, it was a beverage given to John at the Temple of Artemis or in the Marketplace. But the truth might actually be related to the roots of modern medical science.

bowl of hygeia

In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of medicine and his daughter, Hygieia, was the goddess of health and hygiene. Hygieia tended to the snakes at her father’s temple, which were made immortal by his magical potions. Her snake-on-a-cup emblem, known as the “Bowl of Hygieia,” has become an international symbol of pharmacy.

Snake magic was a distraction that obscured real medical knowledge. Ephesus (in Turkey), where St. John visited, was not far from Pergamum – site of an important temple to Asclepius  and early medical center (where celebrated physician Galen would establish the foundations of modern medicine half a century later). So John’s snake chalice could have been a “Bowl of Hygieia” containing medicine. Was he healed of an illness? In any case, legend suggests that acceptance of science strengthened, rather than damaging his religious faith. An important idea.

The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests a (snake-free) chalice is a logical emblem for Saint John for an entirely different reason: “Perhaps the most natural explanation is to be found in the words of Christ to John and James: ‘My chalice indeed you shall drink…’” This brings us to the central image above the altar in our church, with Saint John on the left, gazing up at the crucified Jesus, and, abstractly, the “Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation.”

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BONUS: The Tale of St. John’s bedbugs from the Apocrypha:

bedbug…And having so said, and bidden farewell to them, and left much money with the brethren for distribution, he went forth unto Ephesus…

Now on the first day we arrived at a deserted inn, and when we were at a loss for a bed for John, we saw a droll matter.

There was one bedstead lying somewhere there without coverings, on which we spread the cloaks which we were wearing, and we told him to lie down upon it and rest, while the rest of us all slept upon the floor.

But John, when he lay down, was troubled by the bugs, and as they continued to become yet more troublesome to him, when it was about midnight, in the hearing of us all, he said to them: I say unto you, O bugs, behave yourselves, one and all, and leave your abode for this night and remain quiet in one place, and keep your distance from the servants of God.

And as we laughed, and went on talking for some time, John went to sleep; and we, talking low, gave him no disturbance (or, thanks to him we were not disturbed).

But when the day was now dawning I arose first, and with me Verus and Andronicus, and we saw, in the doorway of the house which we had taken, a great number of bugs standing, and while we wondered at the great sight of them, and all the brethren were roused up because of them, John continued sleeping.

And when he awoke we told him what we had seen. And he sat up on the bed and looked at the bugs and said: Since ye have behaved yourselves in heeding my rebuke, come unto your place.

And when he had said this, and had risen from the bed, the bugs ran from the door, hastened to the bed, climbed its legs, and disappeared into the joints.

And John said again: This creature listened to the voice of a man, and stayed by itself and was quiet and did not trespass; but we who hear the voice and commandments of God disobey and are light-minded: and for how long?

After these things we came to Ephesus…

Adapted from  “The Apocryphal New Testament”
M.R. James-Translation and Notes
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924

 

Snake in the Glass

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_MG_2611The third long window on the St. Mary side of our church is an Easter theme with a Christmas puzzle.

At the top, Jeremiah prophesies “Then I took the cup at the hand of the Lord...” The sections below show Jesus comforted by an angel during the Agony in the Garden, and the Death of St. Francis de Sales – two stories about the end of life. So how does the Star of David at the bottom – a symbol of Jesus’ family lineage and of his birth at Bethlehem — fit this theme?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t.

Long ago, someone restored several panels and put them back incorrectly. A photo at the Athenaeum shows the windows just after they were installed in 1910. At that time, the bottom part of the Agony in the Garden window featured the wreath-with-a-passion-flower-and-snakes currently under the middle window.

That makes more sense! The passion flower is said to represent “faith and suffering.” The laurel wreath surrounding it is a traditional symbol of victory, creating  an Easter message of triumph over death. According to Heilmeyer’s Language of Flowers, the passion flower can also represent “a hankering for a long-lost paradise.” Two snakes nibbling at crosses represent original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the reason we need a Savior.

Worries about lost paradise form a subtle undercurrent in the Agony in the Garden window. Stained Glass Historian Jean Farnsworth notes that “D’Ascenzo’s composition …appears to have been derived from an etching of the Agony in the Garden by Rembrandt. But D’Ascenzo has changed Rembrandt’s composition with the introduction of an olive tree, which forms a tapestry-like background that recalls the designs of William Morris…” William Morris was an English artist in the late 1800s, who promoted a nostalgic, medieval, hand-crafted, nature-inspired worldview. His ideas were popular when our church was built and D’Ascenzo admired him. The world in 1910 was experiencing rapid change – our church had modern electricity, a state-of-the-art Guastavino dome, and fireproof tiles made for skyscrapers  — new “fruit from the tree of knowledge” that was both exciting and unnerving. D’Ascenzo, like Morris, looked backwards to a simpler, more natural age.

Curiously, the accident of the mixed-up windows has changed their mood from melancholy reflection on change, to a reassuring meditation on continuity: moving clockwise around the church, the Star of David — the symbol of Jesus’ family lineage — below the Agony in the Garden heralds the next window in the eternal cycle — the Annunciation across the aisle, followed by Jesus’ Birth.