Tag: mosaics

Stations of the Cross at Saint Francis de Sales

First Station, from the Stations of the Cross at Saint Francis de Sales Church, Philadelphia

Our church was completed in 1911, with this set of mosaic Stations of the Cross by Mayer & Co, — identical to those our second pastor Reverend Crane had installed at St. Malachy just a few years before!

They are accompanied here with a 1924 Key of Heaven text donated to the Parish archives by a parishioner. The writing is more formal than we expect today, and pre-Vatican II, but those who prayed using this text had recently survived the 1918 Influenza epidemic, providing a link to our history! (Click here for the PDF: stations of the cross. The link is also provided under the Self-Guided Tours tab). Incidentally, this particular volume of the Key of Heaven has a 1931 gift inscription in the front by Reverend William Canney who grew up in the parish, became a priest, assisted at the parish from 1924 to 1934 and died in 1937 (his story is posted here: Tuberculosis).


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!).

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!

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!


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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.