Tag: apostles

Saint James Minor

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Why is Saint James called “Minor” and what is that strange lumpy object that is used as his emblem?

First, one might wonder what does it take to get ahead in this world! There were two saints named James among the apostles. The elder (Or taller? Or first-called?  Accounts vary) of the two is known as “Saint James Major,” or “Saint James the Greater.” The other one has gone down in history as “Saint James Minor” or “Saint James the Lesser,” even though he purportedly became the Bishop of Jerusalem!

James Minor is generally identified with Bible references to “James son of Alphaeus” and “James the brother of Jesus.” The brother of Jesus?!  The (not too reliable) medieval Golden Legend collection of saint stories suggested this was because they were similar in appearance. We don’t know. Catholic tradition says James was the son of Mary of Clopas, who was among the women who attended Jesus at the foot of the cross, and may have been related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. “For that reason, and given the fact that the Semitic word for brother is also used for other close relatives, James son of Alpheus is often held as a cousin to Jesus. He is also thought by some to be the brother of Matthew the Apostle, since the father of both was named Alphaeus 

We know very little about James Minor’s life. An early account from a fragment by Hegesippus around 170 AD, claims “He has been universally called the Just, from the days of the Lord down to the present time…” Hegesippus notes that James was not too sociable: he didn’t drink alcohol or eat meat. He didn’t shave or cut his hair. He didn’t bathe or annoint himself with perfumed oil, and “the skin of his knees became horny like that of a camel’s, by reason of his constantly bending the knee in adoration to God, and begging forgiveness for the people”

Hegesippus also offers the account of his death: James was preaching about Jesus in the temple, when disbelievers attacked him. One of the priests tried to stop them, saying “’The just man is praying for us’ But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man. And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot…” The Golden Legend embellishes this a little: “a man in that company took a fuller’s staff and smote him on the head, that his brain fell all abroad and thus by martyrdom he finished his life…

In any case, James Minor’s martyrdom was not dignified or tidy. The fuller’s job was to clean cloth of impurities before dyeing it (at the Transfiguration, Jesus’ clothing is described as brighter than any fuller could make it). In Biblical times, fulling cloth is said to have involved soaking it in a tub of urine and churning it with feet or pounding it with a wooden stick or paddle, which probably remained  chronically moist and smelly. (By 1910, our parish artists had no reliable art references for such an implement, so James got a wicked cave-man club!).

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Bartholomew Cuts the Cheese

_MG_2569Sometimes the symbolism and legends attached to a saint are more notable than the actual saint’s life! So it is with the Apostle Bartholomew (parking lot side of St. Francis de Sales Church), who was adopted as the patron saint of leather tanners and also of cheese sellers — associations that represent two sides of a cow, and two different ideas about faith.

Little is known for certain about Bartholomew’s life. The name is said to mean “Son of Tolmai,” and may have been a nickname; he may also be called “Nathaniel.” He is generally paired with Saint Philip (their two symbols appear side-by-side in our church), and he may have travelled, possibly, to India, Armenia, Persia, and Egypt. His remains are said to have wound up in Benevento and Rome, Italy, although his arm is supposed to have been given to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and his skull is said to be in Frankfurt, Germany.

How did he die? Nobody knows for sure. His symbol in our 1911 church is a “tanner’s knife,” used by leatherworkers to strip cow hides, and described as “the KNIFE with which his persecutors flayed him.” The knife story was chosen to provide an example of faith that was strong enough to withstand torture – an inspirational example in the somewhat anti-Catholic era when our church was built.

The cheese cutting interpretation of the symbol evolved separately in medieval Catholic Florence, Italy. To members of the local Oil, Salt, and Cheese Sellers Guild, looking for a patron saint, the curved blade shown with Saint Bartholomew resembled the familiar tool used for slicing cheese from a round – which is probably why they adopted Bartholomew and felt a cheerful sense of belonging and fraternity whenever they saw his emblem.

Bartholomew’s knife has also sometimes been associated with medicine, since one of his shrines, on an island in Rome, was built on the site of a temple and medical center associated with Asclepius, the ancient Roman god of healing; a medieval hospital was later built nearby. Bartholomew also played an important cameo role as a missionary in Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian fantasy, the New Atlantis, written in the early 1600s – in which Bacon envisioned a mythical island called Bensalem (!) off the coast of Peru, where scientific thought and Christian practice merged together in an imaginary ideal society.

So, depending who is looking at it and when, Bartholomew’s knife can symbolize horrific cruelty, steadfast faith, shared identity, professional expertise, tasty food, medical miracles, or cutting-edge utopian vision. Perhaps, today, it is best regarded as an example of how one symbol can mean vastly different things to different people depending on context – an important reminder in a modern age of instant mass- (and mis-) communication!

The Last Supper Altar

the_last_supper_-_leonardo_da_vinci_-_high_resolution_32x16Have you ever really studied the freestanding altar at St. Francis de Sales?

The frieze carved on the front is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 15th century painting of the Last Supper, which seems appropriate, though, curiously, the scene, as Leonardo painted it, was intended to represent the moment when Jesus told his apostles that one of them would betray him! It’s not an exact copy: our anonymous altar sculptor made some significant design choices where details were unclear, but it’s pretty close.

Leonardo’s ancient planning notes identify the first three people on the left in the scene as Bartholomew, James son of Alpheus (James the Less), and Andrew, all looking astonished at the betrayal. In Leonardo’s original plan, which he later changed, one of those apostles is so surprised, that he “blows his mouthful” — a very human, but possibly too distracting image!

Next comes Judas, the villain in the piece. A 19th century analysis of Leonardo’s artwork notes that Judas “is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone” in the scene. He is shown “clutching a small bag…He is also tipping over the salt cellar” – said to be a symbol of betrayal. Intriguingly, in Jewish religion, salt also signified God’s (Old-Testament) covenant.

A bread knife in a hand behind Judas has caused much speculation through the ages. Leonardo’s original notes describe a character later identified as Peter who “speaks into his neighbour’s (John’s) ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and in the other the loaf half cut through by the knife.” Carefully read, this convoluted sentence suggests that Leonardo originally intended John to hold the knife, although Peter is more usually credited, and our altar sculptor has chosen Peter.

Why is John a more interesting possibility? Here’s a thought: in Renaissance art, a “loaf with a knife in it” symbolized the Eucharist and Christ’s sacrifice. It seems like John, the beloved disciple, on hearing the news of betrayal, might instinctively try to yank the knife from the loaf and cast it away, to symbolically stop Jesus’ suffering. Peter, future head of the church, might grab his arm to stop him, knowing that Jesus must die as foretold. And Judas spills the salt.

Jesus, in the center, studiously ignores the drama, since he knows what must happen.

On his other side, Thomas points heavenward, while James the Greater gestures to Jesus and Philip points to himself, questioning. Matthew, Thaddeus (Jude) and Simon confer together at the far end of the table.

Our altar, by the way, has a story of its own. The ultramodern streamlined acrylic freestanding altar installed at SFDS to celebrate the new ideas of Vatican II and the 1960s proved to be too brittle, and it cracked. It was replaced several times by sturdier, less austere wooden substitutes (much like the adjustments to the New Mass). In 2007, the MBS altar was moved and installed here to commemorate the merging of the two parishes, symbolically gathering everyone around the same table. Its marble  was a perfect match — restoring the traditional look of the sanctuary and fitting in as though it has always been here!

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Heavenly Keys

DSCN3325 (3)I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19)

Two sets of keys in our church decorations encapsulate history.

The first is the emblem of Saint Peter the Apostle, on the 47th Street side of the church. This pair of crossed keys features handles with three lobes, symbolizing the Trinity. Saint Peter’s keys – representing his leadership role in the church — are commonly called the “keys of heaven” and Peter is often imagined as the guardian at the “pearly gates,” as well as the first Catholic Pope.

The other keys are up in the dome, exactly opposite the window showing the papal tiara. These match the keys of the Papal insignia, official “since the XIV Century,” as described by the Vatican Press Office: “The symbolism is drawn from the Gospel and is represented by the keys given to the Apostle Peter by Christ.” The correct insignia shows “two keys crossed as the Cross of St. Andrew…” (a symbol of humility). The gold one, on the right, alludes to the power in the kingdom of the heavens, the silver one, on the left, indicates the spiritual authority of the papacy on earth… The cord with the bows that unites the grips alludes to the bond between the two powers…”

Wait a minute! In our window, the keys are reversed —  gold on the left; silver on the right. They’re also upside-down: traditional Vatican key “mechanisms are turned up towards the heaven and the grips (handles) turned down, in other words into the hands of the Vicar of Christ” — that is, symbolically, toward the Pope. But in our church, the handles point up to heaven and the unlocking parts of our keys point down at the congregation. And although our keys are very similar to the emblem of Pope Pius X, who was Pope at the time the church was built, one of the crosses in our handles is mysteriously blackened.

So what does it all mean? Our emblem of papal allegiance could have been crafted wrong-way-up by mistake or by design. The black and white crosses could emphasize eternal versus worldly concerns or add layered meanings of power and knowledge; order and chaos; or beginnings and endings.  Whatever the intent, their heaven-turned handles today remind us of the limits of all earthly power, since God alone unlocks the secrets of souls.

 

St. John the Omnipresent

harpies (2)Have you ever noticed how many times St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is represented in our church?

Saint John is the left-hand figure in Nicola D’Ascenzo’s Saint Cecilia window in the choir loft based on an altarpiece by Raphael. He is also the right-hand figure in the round stained glass window on the Mary side of the church, inspired by Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.” He kneels beside Jesus in the middle long window on that side of the church, as Jesus names Peter; and he hides in the bushes in the Agony in the Garden window. He is next to Jesus at the Last Supper on the freestanding altar from MBS and he kneels with Mary at the foot of the crucifixion mosaic.

johnEmblematically, Saint John’s apostolic symbol is near the 47th Street door; his Gospel is quoted above a former confessional; and he appears as one of the four Gospel-writing Evangelists, on the pillars supporting our dome. His sculptured eagle symbol also appears below the lectern on the old high pulpit, where the Bible would rest, since his gospel begins “In the beginning was the word…”

Why is St. John all over our church?

t007Beardless John is said to have been the youngest apostle and brother of James. As one of the original twelve, he was present at all the big moments in the adult life of Jesus. He also thought to have written one of the four Gospels, describing those events. According to his own account, he was the first to believe that Christ had risen from the dead. He is said to have written several Epistles, later,  from Ephesus (Turkey today). And his contributions have been studied and commemorated by scholars and artists through history.

Based on his identity as gospel-writer, various groups have adopted St. John as their patron over the centuries: he is invoked by writers, theologians, and those in the book trade. But all the attributions are based on traditions about him: we know very little about the real man. Scholars are not even  entirely sure that the Apostle and the Evangelist are the same person!  And debate continues over whether he also wrote the book of Revelations.

This mysterious “facelessness” allows John, known traditionally as the “Beloved Disciple,”  to be our symbolic representative.  When he participates in the Last Supper or kneels before the cross, we put ourselves in his place and share his experience. It’s a useful spiritual exercise, although  too much of a backward focus can also lead us away from the message that we need to act in the spirit of Christ today!

The Dragon of Saint Philip

_MG_2572 (2)Tales of long ago saints have, in modern times, been stripped of their more fantastical elements, often leaving us with confusing vague stories of good people with few distinguishing details. Such has been the fate of Saint Philip, whose cross emblem is on the St. Joseph side of our St. Francis de Sales Church. It’s time to reclaim him!

We know very little about Philip from the Bible. He is said to have been the third Apostle to be called by Jesus. He is quoted in the story of the Loaves and the Fishes from St. John’s Gospel, and he is thought to have been present with the other Apostles at Pentecost. His emblem in our church is the cross “by which he is said to have overthrown the statues of the idols in the countries which he converted.

A lost story of Saint Philip, handed down through the medieval mythical Golden Legends, described how he overcame a dragon in the ancient spa city of Hierapolis, in what is now Turkey. He was said to have been captured there and taken to a pagan (Roman) temple to make a forced sacrifice, when “anon under the idol issued out a right great dragon...” which killed several people who were preparing the sacrificial fire. Then “the dragon corrupted the people with his breath that they all were sick, and St. Philip said: Believe ye me and break this idol and set in his place the cross of Jesus Christ and after, worship ye it, and they that be here dead shall revive, and all the sick people shall be made whole.

It seemed implausible, until 2013, when archaeologist Francesco D’Andria uncovered an ancient Roman shrine called the “Gates of Hell” buried under the ruins of Hierapolis. A natural gas pocket, running beneath the shrine, produces a hallucinogenic and deadly vapor which issues from the doorway. The air is poisonous even today: as it was being excavated, birds and small animals were killed when they strayed  too close to the entrance. It is easy to see how this mysterious phenomenon could be interpreted as a giant beast hidden underground, breathing out  foul and murderous breath. Sealing its shrine and constructing a cross above it would likely have closed off the vent and stopped the poison – a miracle for its time.

Suddenly, the story of Philip gains colour and interest! And a piece of our Catholic culture is restored with a new appreciation of history.

The Art of the Kneel

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Who are these four people and what has brought them to their knees in the middle window on the St. Mary side of St. Francis de Sales Church?

Crafted around 1910, the long stained glass windows at the back of the church were one of Philadelphia stained glass artist Nicola D’Ascenzo’s first big commissions. Episodes from the life of St. Francis de Sales in the lower part of each window, were carefully synchronized to the life of Christ above them, and with an Old Testament prophecy at the top. But only a few of the Jesus windows have captions so we have to use other clues to find their meanings.

david (3)The prophecy above the middle window, from the psalms of David, translates: “The Lord hath sworn…thou art a priest…He shall judge among nations.” And the bottom part of the window shows St. Francis de Sales establishing the cloistered Sisters of the Visitation: “giving  St. Jeanne de Chantal and her first two companions the rules of visitation” (D’Ascenzo conveniently copyrighted that design with its description). The associated Jesus scene should, therefore, relate to religious life.

The four kneeling figures in the Jesus window have halos, so they are saints — and they are men, so probably apostles — and the picture represents a significant event between the Sermon on the Mount and the Agony in the garden. Why do they kneel? Wikipedia helpfully observes that  “Kneeling, similar to bowing, is associated with reverence,  submission and  obeisance, particularly if one kneels before a person who is standing or sitting: the kneeling position renders a person defenseless and unable to flee. For this reason, in some religions, in particular by  Christians and Muslims, kneeling is used as a position for prayer.

When Jesus lays his hand on the head of one of the respectful  men — like a monarch bestowing a knighthood – the meaning becomes clear: he is saying “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church….” (Mt 16:18)

The early 1900s, when our church was built, were troubled times of local religious intolerance and rising European hostility to Pope Pius X – part of the simmering global unrest that led up to World War I. Our window reassured parishioners of their faith’s deep roots and enduring history. Further, it offered a social example. The 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, current when our church was built,  suggested that kneeling and standing were both acceptable prayer postures, but the ancient gesture of bending the knee had a more profound significance as an expression of reverence, humility, and trust.

 

Imperfection

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Have you ever noticed that Saint Matthew’s name  is missing an H above the 47th Street door inside St. Francis de Sales Church?

It is ironic – or appropriate — that Saint Matthew should be victim of a typo, since he is the Gospel-writing Evangelist whose chronicle is thought to represent the “human” side of Christ; and spelling mistakes are pretty human! Matthew, whose Evangelist symbol is the “Winged Man” shown on one of the triangular pendentives that support the dome, begins his  Gospel with a litany of Jesus’ earthly family lineage through Joseph. His writing stresses the Jewish background and human nature of Jesus.

_MG_2568 (2)Matthew is both Evangelist and Apostle. As an Apostle, his symbol is the tax collector’s bag (shown near the parking lot door), since his profession before becoming a follower of Jesus, was that of publican, collecting taxes for the occupying Roman forces. Tax collectors in those times were allowed to collect as much extra money as they dared for themselves, once they had extracted the amount required by the government, so they were despised for greed and feared for extortion. And to the Jewish people, tax collectors were complicit with the Romans, which was considered particularly awful (though Jesus did remind his followers to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” so he was not against funding the government!)

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was criticized for associating with undesirables. When Pharisees asked  Matthew “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replied “Those who are well have no need of a physicianI came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:11-13). Jesus  came to minister to those in need,  not to praise the smug and judgmental.  And he supports and stands by those who follow him: the quote above our door reminds us that Jesus vowed “I am with you all days, even to the consummation (end!) of the world...”

In many cultures and times, it has been a tradition purposely to  insert an error in an artistic work to acknowledge that God alone is perfect. The spelling error in our otherwise magnificent interior is likely to be a genuine mistake, but it still reminds us that the church is a place for imperfect people to find hope in trying to connect with something greater than themselves. And we are all imperfect – no room for complacency – with every reason to be welcoming to all.

Seeing and Believing

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Saint Thomas the Apostle was labeled “The Doubter” because he needed to see proof of the resurrection in order to believe. But his focus on visual  confirmation might have been a natural result of his professional training, with some modern implications.

The Builder’s Square (near the 47th street door) is an especially appropriate symbol for Thomas, because square encompasses multiple meanings: it can be a geometric shape, or a tool used  to measure and lay out right angles. As a figure of speech, it relates to certainty, as in a sample sentence from Thesaurus.com: “do those announcements really square with the facts?”

Ironically, we have few dependable facts about Thomas, who is thought to have been a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan (and who may have been Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany).  Encyclopaedia Iranica reports an ancient tale that “The apostle was entrusted with funds for building a palace, but spent them on relief of the poor. When called to account, he declared he had built the king a palace in heaven…”  (this is a slightly different version from our 1940 Anniversary Book, which claims Thomas built the palace then donated his own construction profits to the poor). Tradition says Thomas went afterwards to India, where he is  “commemorated as a founder of the South Indian Christian community, and a church is named in his honor.”

We don’t know if Thomas ever actually built a palace for the glory of King Gondophares: his story is from an early manuscript in the Apocrypha not considered reliable enough to become part of the Bible. But its lesson – that a heavenly palace built of good deeds is superior to an ostentatious display of personal wealth – is very apostolic. The location of Thomas’ emblem next to the donor plaque in our church is also interesting: is it there because he is the Patron Saint of Architects and Builders or is it a  subtle reminder to early wealthy parishioners that they should also work on their spiritual palaces?

Thomas, emphasizing visual symbols, is an important saint for those who build and maintain religious structures. Large buildings commemorate what is valued in a society and modern landmarks tend to be commercial.  But each church in the landscape provides a needed visual reminder of God’s presence to all who pass by — a reason to keep ours in good order!

 

The Poisoned Chalice

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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