Tag: symbols

Saint Joseph’s Lily Staff

When our church was built, back around 1911, every detail inside was carefully designed – right down to the lily staffs surrounding the cross on the door of the Saint Joseph altar tabernacle.

What is a lily staff and why is it important?

We don’t know much about St. Joseph from the Bible. Stories of Mary’s betrothal come from the apocrypha (ancient books not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible). There, the Protoevangelium of James claims that when young Mary wanted to dedicate herself as a perpetual virgin at the Temple, the high priest prayed for direction. An angel then told him to gather all of the unmarried men of the area, and have each one bring his rod (generally thought to be a walking stick or staff) to the temple “and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be…and Joseph took his rod last; and behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord.’” The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew tells a similar story, stating that “the man from the point of whose rod a dove shall come forth, and fly towards heaven, and in whose hand the rod, when given back, shall exhibit this sign, to him let Mary be delivered to be kept.”

A new detail appeared centuries later, when the stories were gathered into the Medieval Wikipedia-like Golden Legend compilation of all knowledge: “And then Joseph by the commandment of the bishop brought forth his rod, and anon it flowered, and a dove descended from heaven thereupon, so that it was clearly the advice of every man that he should have the virgin.” Use of the word “flowered” is unclear – it can mean “come out into full development,” and the earlier stories seem to suggest that the dove “flowered” from the rod, rather than that the rod burst into bloom. In any case, artists were inspired by the botanical idea, and over time, the concept of a flowering rod seems to have further developed into a specific flower. The University of Dayton Archives observes “The lily is associated with St. Joseph, spouse of Mary, through an ancient legend that he was so chosen from among other men by the blossoming of his staff like a lily. Likewise, the biblical passage, ‘The just man shall blossom like the lily’ is applied to St. Joseph in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church for his feastday, March 19.” The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art notes that the lily is “The best known symbolic flower. It is the principal symbol of purity and thus associated with the Virgin Mary, especially in scenes of the Annunciation…Saint Joseph also frequently carries a lily…”

It’s actually more curious and complicated: the particular kind of lily on our tabernacle – often shown with St. Joseph in religious art — is a Calla Lily, native to Africa – an arum genus rather than a lilium – technically not a lily at all. Arums were associated with fertility in ancient cultures. At the same time, the rod of Joseph is not just a walking stick: the word was used in the Old Testament to mean genealogy — part of a family tree – such as the passage in Isaiah, thought to foretell the birth of Jesus: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (ISA 11:1). Mary has also sometimes been described as a rod, with Christ as the flower.

So, the lily staffs shown on our St. Joseph tabernacle, surrounding the symbol of a cross (which also is part of a tree) combine ancient natural symbols for integrity, belonging, and heritage, on a container for the sacred Eucharist. And one tiny artistic detail “blossoms” to connect and ground us through space, time, and history. The essence of our Catholic culture.


Unexpected Cherubs

What comes to mind when you hear the word “cherub”? Our church has a few, and some are not quite what you might expect.

The beings shown in our round stained-glass windows – crafted by Nicola D’Ascenzo in 1910 – are a good fit with the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art, which observes that: “In art, cherubim and seraphim are often represented as chubby children with wings, sometimes only a head and two wings. Because cherubim are referred to as ‘burning coals of fire’ (Ezek 1:13), they are often coloured red, symbolizing burning love, while seraphim may be blue, the colour of heaven, but it often occurs the other way round…”  But that’s only one idea.

Cherubim are types of angels. The word angel comes from Latin for “messenger.” The roots of the word cherubim are unclear, but it may be related to “blessing” or “approaching.” Beings called cherubim are mentioned in the Old Testament, as guarding the Tree of Life in Genesis; and in Exodus, as guardians of the Mercy-Seat in Solomon’s Temple. They appear in the Vision of Ezekiel and in the Apocalypse. When a fifth-century Greek monk named Dionysius proposed a “celestial hierarchy” — which was later accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas (who imagined Satan as a fallen Cherub) and used by Dante in his works – he placed the cherubim and seraphim in the highest order of angels, closest to God. But what do they look like? We can only guess!

The original cherubim of Jewish tradition are both fierce and solemn. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,The prophet Ezekiel describes the cherubim as a tetrad of living creatures, each having four faces—of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man—the stature and hands of a man, the feet of a calf, and four wings. Two of the wings extended upward, meeting above and sustaining the throne of God; while the other two stretched downward and covered the creatures themselves… and they were full of eyes ‘like burning coals of fire.’” These imposing characters eventually supplied the artistic symbols for the four gospel-writing evangelists of Christianity – the eagle, winged lion, winged ox and winged man shown on the four pillars supporting our dome!

How did “cherub” come to refer both to scary winged creatures and sweet, winged children? Angelic beings are made of energy and don’t actually have bodies, so any representation is symbolic — and symbols can change with time and circumstance. In the early 1400s, when Italian Sculptor Donatello saw Eros and Cupid — spirits of love and desire in classical mythology – depicted as cheeky, winged babies on ancient Greek and Roman funerary art, he was inspired to create charming child angels to embody the Christian spirit of God’s love. These figures were called “putto,” plural “putti” (from the Latin for “boy” or “child“), and they became a popular theme in art through the Renaissance. Often grouped closely around sacred figures in paintings, their arrangement suggested an important position in the angelic hierarchy. The English use of the word “cherub” to describe these characters appears to have evolved over time: the word originally signified the fierce cherubim of Ezekiel. Cherub was also occasionally used to describe someone with a red face. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the adjective “cherubic” as meaning “like a child angel,” seems to date from the 1800s.

Today, whether they are “blessing” or “approaching,” cherub messengers bring gifts of continuity and connection to our church — in art evolved from Old Testament tradition that adorns our four supporting pillars, and Renaissance-style putti represented in our windows. Two post-Victorian winged-child sculptures — perched at the back of our church, near the doors to the Baptistry and the Choir — are quite possibly modeled on the youngest child of architect Henry Dagit or sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s own baby son, born in 1908. And high in the choir loft, if you listen closely enough, perhaps you’ll hear ghost echoes from recent generations of “choir babies” – the young children of our choir members – warbling their own cherubic notes to our song.

Color OUR Collections!

Launched by The New York Academy of Medicine Library in 2016, #ColorOurCollections is an annual coloring festival on social media during which libraries, museums, archives and other cultural institutions around the world share free coloring content featuring images from their collections.

 In past years, our SFDS Parish History Archives has contributed stained-glass windows and other church details to color, and 1920s parish bulletin advertising art. This year’s parish coloring book celebrates parish organizations and activities of yesteryear. Check out all the new offerings for 2021 – from SFDS to Drexel University to the Vatican Libraries and beyond at https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/

Here’s our 2021 coloring book:http://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/01/sfds-2021-coloring-parish-activiities.pdf

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!

Secret Santa Window

swallowThe builders of St. Francis de Sales Church left many messages for the faithful to decipher, but the symbols in the bottom part of the Nativity window (middle long window, St. Joseph side of church), are especially hard to puzzle out, since they were imperfectly formed in the glass.

Historic photos from the D’Ascenzo Archives at the Athenaeum are only a little sharper, but those seem to show the two lily-like decorations as anchors with crossbars, or anchor crosses. The blob between the crosses is a bird with long pointed wings and a forked tail — a swallow – a traditional complement to the Nativity scene above, and part of a unifying theme for the three bottom windows.

Swallows were mysterious birds because they disappeared in winter: until the early 1800s, it was believed that they hibernated, or slept, in mud at the bottom of ponds, and “returned to life” in the spring. Because of this annual  “resurrection,”  the swallow was used in art to represent the incarnation – the dual status of Christ as both divine and human.

(Incidentally, it was Edward Jenner, an English country doctor and naturalist, who marked individual birds, observed their behavior, and determined that they actually flew south in the winter and returned in the spring. Jenner is an interesting character, more famously credited with the invention of vaccination against smallpox).

The anchor crosses on either side of the swallow also fit nicely with the Nativity theme, since they are supposed to signify “hope” – and what could be more hopeful than the birth of the Savior! Why are they paired? All three bottom windows on that side of the church show variations of a double-cross (two crosses together, not a weasely form of cheating) – more emblems of Christ’s combined human and divine nature.

What’s the Santa secret? The anchor cross is an interesting cross choice for the Christmas window, since the anchor can also be a symbol for Saint Nicholas – the saint who inspired Santa Claus! His most famous legend relates to tossing bags of gold through a window to provide a dowry for young ladies. But he is also the patron saint of sailors and ships, since his prayers were thought to have calmed a fierce storm at sea as he returned by ship from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

So we are illuminated by our windows. We realize that like Saint Nicholas, we are on a pilgrimage through life, inspired by a divine mystery. The muddiness of the hand-crafted symbols in our glass offers an extra layer of meaning: reminding us of human imperfection, and our tendency to obscure the message of Hope that the season should represent.

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