Saint Charles Borromeo: A Tale from the Crypt of Milan Cathedral

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Sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy.  The sign to the right reads, "Reliquie di San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinale Arcivescovo di Milano."

Sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy. The sign to the right reads, “Reliquie di San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinale Arcivescovo di Milano.”

A Poem Wrought in Marble 

In 1867, Mark Twain spent several months touring Europe and the Holy Land aboard the steamship Quaker City.  He recorded his observations of the trip, which he later published as his first book, The Innocents Abroad, one of the great travelogues of the English language and one of the bestselling travel books of all time.  Among his impressions are those of Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano), the majestic seat of the Archbishop of Milan and currently the fifth largest cathedral in the world.  Milan Cathedral simply mesmerized him.  “What a wonder it is!  So grand, so solemn, so vast!  And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful!  A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems in the soft moonlight only a fairy delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath! . . .  It was a vision!—a miracle!—an anthem sung in stone, a poem wrought in marble!”[1] 

Twain was awed by Milan Cathedral’s spires,[2] its luminous windows,[3] its sculptures,[4] and its sheer mass.  He called the cathedral “the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived”[5] and could imagine no greater church building in the world.[6]  “They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome,” he remarked.  “I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”[7]

Altar of San Giovanni Buono, Milan Cathedral

Altar of San Giovanni Buono, Milan Cathedral

Nevertheless, despite his obvious and unbounded enthusiasm for the cathedral, Twain managed to devote nearly half his chapter on the cathedral to a subject unrelated to the aesthetic merits of the building—namely, saints and holy relics.  In particular, he dwelt on the earthly remains of Saint Charles (Carlo) Borromeo, a former Archbishop of Milan, who was displayed in the cathedral’s crypt in a “coffin of rock crystal as clear as the atmosphere.”[8]  “To us it seemed that so a good a man . . . deserved rest and peace in a grave sacred from the intrusion of prying eyes,” he rued, “but peradventure our wisdom was at fault in this regard.”[9] 

Twain on Saints and Relics

Twain did not have a particularly positive opinion of saints or relics.  In The Innocents Abroad, for example, he criticizes “coarse” depictions of saints as suffering martyrs[10] and he decries the veneration of relics as “Jesuit humbuggery.”[11]  In his book The Reverend Mark Twain, Joe B. Fulton explains that Twain questioned not only the “theological concept of a saint,” but also the “aesthetic practices of martyrology.”[12]  Twain found “visual depictions of the saints unintentionally grotesque, using his own ‘grotesque realism’ to undermine their reverential seriousness.”[13]  In Italy, for example, Twain complained of the “huge, coarse frescoes of suffering martyrs” he found painted on the facades of roadside inns.[14] Twain, who rejected the “ideology inherent in the martyrological form,”[15] wryly noted that “[i]t could not have diminished their suffering any to be so uncouthly represented.”[16]  Twain was similarly disturbed by the statue of Saint Bartholomew at Milan Cathedral (pictured below), which depicts the martyr with his skin flayed.  “It was a hideous thing,” he wrote, “and yet there was a fascination about it somewhere.  I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now.  I shall dream of it sometimes.”

St Bartholomew - Milan CathedralStill, Twain complained “less about the idea of sainthood than about relics and the depictions of them.”[17]  To Twain, the veneration of relics was an irrational, antiquated practice, a holdover of the “peculiar devotional spirit of the olden time.”[18]  As Fulton observes, “[r]elics of the saints trigger comedy rather than reverence” for Twain, and relics are a frequent target of his irreverent humor in The Innocents Abroad.[19]  While recounting his visit to Genoa, for example, he paused to ruminate on the multiplicity of relics he had encountered.  “But isn’t this relic matter a little overdone?” he begins skeptically.[20]  “We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together.  I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails.  Then there is the crown of thorns; they have part of one in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, and part of one also in Notre Dame.  As for the bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary.”[21]  (Saint Denis, pictured below from Rheims Cathedral, is commonly depicted carrying his decapitated head in his arms.)

St Denis - Rheims Cathedral

Twain is not the only one to have expressed exasperation at the multitude of saintly relics displayed throughout Europe.  A French anti-clerical cartoon from the early 1900s, for example, “reconstructed” Saint Blaise—complete with five heads, six arms, and six legs—from “authentic” bones displayed in various cities.[22]  Twain’s avowed skepticism of relics, however, did not preclude a certain fascination with the sainted figures who supplied them.  Later in his career, in fact, Twain would actually engage in hagiography, although he arguably never really altered his view of saints, sainthood, or Catholicism generally.[23] 

Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, published in 1896, is a fictionalized account of Saint Joan of Arc’s life as retold in the (fictional) memoir of her page, Louis de Conte.  The book’s seriousness and the “air of absolute reverence” with which Twain portrays Joan of Arc represent such a stark break from his previous work that he initially published it anonymously.[24]  Years later, however, Twain fully acknowledged his authorship and embraced the book as his greatest work.  “I like the Joan of Arc best of all my books and it is the best,” he declared.[25]  “[I]t furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; 12 years of preparation & 2 years of writing.  The others needed no preparation, & got none.”[26]  Twain valued Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc even more highly than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.[27] 

Good Saint Charles Borromeo

Twain manifested an interest in the life of another saint, Saint Charles Borromeo, in his much earlier The Innocents Abroad.  Twain described Saint Charles with reverence and admiration, characterizing him as “a good man, a warmhearted, unselfish man,” even though he bristled at the way the saint’s corpse had been placed on public display.[28]  Inviting readers to descend with him into the crypt, under the grand altar of Milan Cathedral, he prepared them to “receive an impressive sermon from lips that have been silent and hands that have been gestureless for three hundred years.”[29]

St Borromeo - Crypt3“The priest stopped in a small dungeon and held up his candle,” Twain begins.  He and his companions now stood in Saint Charles’s tomb.  Recognized as one of the great 16th century reformers of the Catholic Church, during a period known as the Counter Reformation, Saint Charles was responsible for, among other things, establishing seminaries to educate priests and ministering with great compassion to victims of the plague.[30]  He was born an aristocrat and could easily have taken advantage of the ease and luxury his station afforded.  Instead, he showed little interest in worldly goods and devoted his life to serving others.

Saint Charles was born on 2 October 1538 at Arona Castle on Lake Maggiore.  His father, Count Gilbert Borromeo, was a “man of talent and sanctity,” and his mother, Margaret, was a member of the Medici family, one of the most power and influential families of the Renaissance.[31]  He received the tonsure at the age of twelve and after his uncle’s election to the papacy in 1559, he served in various offices in Rome.  He was ordained a priest in 1563 and was subsequently appointed Archbishop of Milan in 1564.  

Milan Cathedral - Spires 3

Spires of Milan Cathedral, as seen from roof

After arriving in Milan, he immediately set to work reforming the diocese.  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, “[w]hen St Charles came first to reside at Milan he sold plate and other effects to the value of thirty thousand crowns, and applied the whole sum for the relief of distressed families.”[32]  Meanwhile, despite earning a considerable income from various sources, he chose to live modestly.  Francis Panigarola, Bishop of Asti, recounted how he once found Saint Charles on a very cold night studying “in a single tattered cassock.”[33]  He said, “I entreated him, if he would not perish with cold, to put on some better garment.  He answered me smiling, ‘What if I have no other?  I am obliged to wear a cardinal’s robes in the day; but this cassock is my own and I have no other, either for winter or summer.’”[34]

St Carlo Borromeo Tended by an Angel, by Francesco Caccianiga, oil on copper (early 18th century) (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

St Carlo Borromeo Tended by an Angel, by Francesco Caccianiga, oil on copper (early 18th century) (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

To curb the gross abuses he discovered in his diocese, Saint Charles established strict regulations governing the clergy, who he found “lazy, ignorant and debauched” upon his arrival.[35]  He also established seminaries to “remedy the disorders engendered by the decay of medieval life.”[36]  His broader reforms, however, were not always well received, and they created many enemies.

On 26 October 1569, a priest by the name of Jerome Donati Farina was sent to murder him while he attended evening prayers.  As Saint Charles kneeled before the altar and a choir performed a motet by Orlando di Lasso—“It is time therefore that I return to Him that sent me,” they sang—Farina fired an arquebus, striking Saint Charles in the back.[37]  Believing himself mortally wounded, Saint Charles “commended himself to God.”[38]  However, as the Lives of the Saints explains, “it was found that the bullet had only struck his clothes in the back, raising a bruise, and fallen harmlessly to the floor.”[39]  A painting titled Farina’s Assassination Attempt by Gian Battista della Rovere (Fiammenghino) located in the south transept of Milan Cathedral depicts the event.[40]

Reliquary (St Borromeo) - KrakowSaint Charles died many years later in Milan on 4 November 1584 at the age of forty-six.  He had celebrated his last mass at Arona, his birthplace, several days earlier, and arriving in Milan, he immediately took to bed and asked for the last rights.  After receiving the final sacrament, he whispered Ecce venio (“Behold, I come”), and expired.  He was canonized by Pope Paul V in 1610.[41]  (The reliquary, pictured left, contains a relic of Saint Charles.  It is located at the Archdiocesan Museum in Krakow, Poland.)

The Vanities of Earth

Twain was clearly familiar with Saint Charles’s story, and he alludes to several of the saint’s virtues, particularly his generosity and his compassion, in The Innocents Abroad.[42]  Twain writes, “His heart, his hand, and his purse were always open,” and he imagines the saint’s “benign countenance moving calmly among the haggard faces of Milan in the days when the plague swept the city.”[43]  In the presence of Saint Charles’s corpse, however, Twain’s thoughts turn to death and the impermanence of earthly things. 

Relics of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral

Relics of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral

The body, he states, was “robed in costly habiliments covered with gold embroidery and starred with scintillating gems.”[44]  Meanwhile, Saint Charles’s “decaying head was black with age, the dry skin was drawn tight to the bones, the eyes were gone, there was a hole in the temple and another in the cheek, and the skinny lips were parted as in a ghastly smile!”  After describing other treasures arrayed about the body, Twain declares, “How poor and cheap and trivial these gewgaws seemed in the presence of the solemnity, the grandeur, the awful majesty of Death!”[45]  Saint Charles’s “sermon,” delivered by silent lips and still hands, was this:  “You that worship the vanities of earth—you that long for worldly honor, worldly wealth, worldly fame—behold their worth!”[46]

In the end, the body of Saint Charles—the relics of Saint Charles—had greater power over Twain than perhaps he realized.

Post Script:  Charles Borromeo and Palestrina, the “Savior of Church Music”

View of the Roman Forum.  Palestrina's music has been called the "soundtrack" of Rome.  He composed over 100 masses and 250 motets here during his lifetime,

View of the Roman Forum. Palestrina’s music has been called the “soundtrack” of Rome. He composed over 100 masses and 250 motets here during his lifetime.

One of the issues taken up by the Council of Trent, the 16th century Ecumenical Council convened to debate and implement extensive reforms in the Catholic Church, was the future of sacred music.  By the mid-16th century, liturgical music had grown so elaborate and unintelligible in its complexity that the Council considered banning polyphonic music from the liturgy altogether.  According to popular legend, Cardinal Borromeo, then a member of the Council, commissioned Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to compose a Mass to convince the Council otherwise.[47]  The result was the extraordinary Missa Papae Marcelli (Mass for Pope Marcellus).  Palestrina’s Mass demonstrated that polyphonic music could be simultaneously beautiful, pure, and textually clear, and it changed the minds of those on the Council, which ultimately abandoned the movement to ban sacred music from the liturgy. 

In reality, Palestrina likely composed the Missa Papae Marcelli years earlier, probably in 1555, eight years before the Council of Trent sought a resolution on the fate of sacred music.  Nevertheless, regardless of whether the Missa Papae Marcelli was commissioned for the purpose, Palestrina’s music, and the Missa Papae Marcelli in particular, were undoubtedly highly influential in saving polyphony.  As Will Durant has noted, “by its fidelity to the words, its avoidance of secular motives, and the subordination of musical art to religious intent” Palestrina’s music “played a part in leading the committee to sanction polyphonic music.”[48]

Milan Cathedral, as seen from roof

Milan Cathedral, as seen from roof

For a fantastic overview of Palestrina and his music, see the BBC’s extraordinary series Sacred Music, series 1, episode 2, on “Palestrina and the Popes.”  Presented by Simon Russell Beale with music performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, the episode originally aired on 28 February 2008.


[1]Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad 124 (Signet Classic 1980) (1869).

[2]Id.  (“Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond.”).

[3]Id. at 125 (“We loitered about gazing aloft at the monster windows all aglow with brilliantly colored scenes in the lives of the Saviour and his followers.  Some of these pictures are mosaics, and so artistically are their thousand particles of tinted glass or stone put together that the work has all the smoothness and finish of a painting.”).

[4]Id. at 124 (noting that the bas-relief carvings on the cathedral’s doors were “so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures—and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest”).

[5]Id.

[6]Id. at 130.

[7]Id.

[8]Id. at 129.

[9] Id. at 128.

[10] See id. at 149.  During his journey through Italy, Twain observed, “Here and there, on the fronts of roadside inns, we found huge, coarse frescoes of suffering martyrs like those in the shrines.  Id. at 149.

[11] Id. at 43.

[12] Joe B. Fulton, The Reverend Mark Twain:  Theological Burlesque, Form, and Content 106 (2006).

[13] Id. at 105. 

[14] Twain, supra note 1, at 149.

[15] Fulton, supra note 12, at 106.

[16] Twain, supra note 1, at 149.  Twain concludes dismissively, “We were in the heart and home of priestcraft—of a happy, cheerful, contented ignorance, superstition, degradation, poverty, indolence, and everlasting unaspiring worthlessness.”  Id.

[17] Fulton, supra note 12, at 105 (internal citations omitted).

[18] Twain, supra note 1, at 179.  Twain described the veneration of relics as a belief in “the protecting virtues of inanimate objects made holy by contact with holy things.”  Id.

[19] Fulton, supra note 12, at 105.

[20] Twain, supra note 1, at 119. 

[21] Id. at 119–20.  Later, while exploring Milan Cathedral, Twain is shown, among other relics, “two of St. Paul’s fingers and one of St. Peter’s,” a “bone of Judas Iscariot (it was black),” “part of the crown of thorns (they have a whole one at Notre Dame),” and a “picture of the Virgin and Child painted by the veritable hand of St. Luke,” the second he had seen.  Id. at 129.

[22] See, e.g., Europski Dom Dubrovnik, Saint Blaise:  Veneration Without Boundaries 21 (2012) (featuring an illustration titled “Les Reliques Authentiques”).

[23] Fulton, supra note 12, at 107–08.  Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a novel about Joan of Arc, in 1896.  Fulton argues that since “Twain’s attitudes toward Catholicism remained negative before, during, and after the writing of the work, one must find some other, more reasonable, explanation to make sense of it.  Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc marks no sea change in Twain’s attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church, or indeed toward religion generally.”  Id. at 108.

[24] See 17 The Cambridge History of English and American Literature 29 (A.W. Ward et al. eds., 1907–1921) (2000) (“Recognizing that the book was quite out of his customary vein, Mark Twain published it first anonymously . . . .”).

[25] Id. at 29.

[26] Id.

[27] Fulton, supra note 12, at 108 (explaining that Twain ranked Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc above Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). 

[28] Twain, supra note 1, at 127.

[29] Id.

[30]4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 255–62 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).   Butler’s Lives of the Saints declares that “with Pope St Pius V, St Philip Neri and St Ignatius Loyola, he is one of the four outstanding public men of the so-called Counter-reformation.”  Id. at 255.

[31] Id. at 255.

[32] Id. at 257. 

[33]Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id. at 258.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. at 259. 

[38] Id. at 259–60.

[39] Id. at 260.

[40] See Ernesto Brivio, The Life and Miracles of St. Carlo Borromeo:  A Pictorial Itinerary in Milan Cathedral (2006), fig. 11.

[41]Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 30, at 261–62.

[42] Twain, supra note 1, at 127. 

[43] Id.

[44] Id. at 128.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Will Durant, 6 The Story of  Civilization:  The Reformation (1957).  Importantly, another major reason for the movement to ban sacred music was the realization that some composers drew inspiration for their compositions from common, often bawdy, popular songs of the day.  In addition to rejecting the unintelligibility of polyphonic compositions, which regularly resorted to overlapping melodies and multiple, interwoven lines of text, the Council sought to “exclude from churches all such music as . . . introduces anything of the impure or lascivious, in order that the house of God may truly be seen to be . . . the house of prayer.”  Id.

[48] Id.

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“Santo Subito”: The Future Saint John Paul

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John Paul II PortraitPope Francis announced yesterday, 30 September, that he will formally canonize two of his predecessors, John Paul II and John XXIII, on 27 April 2014. The date falls on the first Sunday after Easter and coincides with the Feast of the Divine Mercy, a feast added to the General Roman Calendar by then-Pope John Paul II in 2000. Based on the writings of Saint Faustina Kowalska, the message of the Divine Mercy is one of mercy and forgiveness. Pope John Paul II actively promoted devotion to the Divine Mercy and is closely associated with both Divine Mercy Sunday and Saint Faustina.

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow, Poland.  Blessed John Paul, known a Karol Wojtyla, celebrated his first Mass as a priest in the Crypt of Wawel Cathedral on 2 November 1946.

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow, Poland. Blessed John Paul, then known as Karol Wojtyla, celebrated his first Mass as a priest in the Crypt of Wawel Cathedral on 2 November 1946. A side chapel devoted to Blessed John Paul contains a few drops of the future saint’s blood, displayed in a sleek, modern reliquary.

Pope Francis’s choice of Divine Mercy Sunday is significant for a number of reasons. First, as noted above, Pope John Paul II is responsible for officially designating the first Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. Second, on the same day Pope John Paul II added Divine Mercy Sunday to the liturgical calendar—30 April 2000—he also canonized Saint Faustina. Pope John Paul II had previously beatified Saint Faustina on 18 April 1993. Finally, John Paul II was himself beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday, 1 May 2011, by then-Pope Benedict XVI.

Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Sometimes referred to as John Paul the Great, Blessed John Paul is still wildly popular and widely revered in his native Poland. The Archdiocesan Museum (Muzeum Archidiecezjalne) in Krakow houses a number of artifacts associated with Blessed John Paul, including his skis, his watch, his personal breviary, and various liturgical vestments. The room where Blessed John Paul once lived has also been restored and contains a number of objects, including Blessed John Paul’s bed and his typewriter. The museum also possesses an assortment of sacred art and relics, primarily of Polish saints.

Blessed John Paul's Kama Watch from the 1950s, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Blessed John Paul’s Kama Watch from the 1950s, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Breviary used by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla circa 1975, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Breviary used by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla circa 1975, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Various gifts presented to Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Various gifts presented to Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Skull cap of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Red skull cap of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Relic of Saint Antoni Padewski, silver and gold plate, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Reliquary with relic from the skin of (“Ex Cute”) Saint Anthony of Padua (Antoni Padewski), silver and gold plate, Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Altar of Blessed Pope John Paul II, Church of Saint Florian, Krakow, Poland.  The white skull cap at the bottom of the photo once belonged to Blessed John Paul, who served as an Associate Pastor at the church from 1949 to 1951.

Altar of Blessed Pope John Paul II, Church of Saint Florian, Krakow, Poland. The white skull cap encased in glass at the bottom of the photo once belonged to Blessed John Paul, who served as an Associate Pastor at the church from 1949 to 1951.

Interior room of the Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Interior room of the Archdiocesan Museum, Krakow, Poland

Saint Leonard's Crypt

Altar of Saint Leonard’s Crypt, Wawel Cathedral, Krakow, Poland. Blessed John Paul celebrated his first mass at this altar on 2 November 1946, a day after his ordination as a priest.

Saint Matthias: The Thirteenth Apostle

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Saint Matthias on Mary's Altar (detail)

Veit Stoss, Saint Mary’s Altar (detail with Saint Matthias), Saint Mary’s Basilica, Krakow, Poland

The Kiss of Judas

Judas Iscariot, one of the original Twelve Apostles of Jesus, infamously betrayed Christ with a kiss in exchange for thirty pieces of silver.  Following the Last Supper, Judas led the priests and Temple guards of the Sanhedrin to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he identified Jesus to the gathering crowd with a kiss.  His treachery set in motion the events leading to the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.

Giotto Scrovegni, Kiss of Judas (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Giotto, The Kiss of Judas (1304-06), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Upon learning that Jesus had been sentenced to death, Judas repented.  According to the Gospel of Saint Matthew, “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood.”[1]  Judas’s plea fell on deaf ears.  “What is that to us?” the chief priests and elders responded.[2]  Judas then “cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.”[3]  In a conflicting account, retold in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter states that Judas “purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”[4]

Whatever the manner of his death, Judas’s betrayal opened a void in the ranks of the Apostles.  At a gathering of Jesus’ followers, which met shortly after the Ascension, Peter proposed that the vacancy in the Apostolate be filled.  Two disciples were nominated:  Joseph, who was known as Barsabas, and Matthias.

Once Barsabas and Matthias had been singled out, the group prayed for guidance.  “Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.”[5]  They then drew lots to select Judas’s replacement.  The lot fell on Matthias, “and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”[6]

Not much is known of Matthias’s life following his election to the Apostolate.[7]  Some sources claim he preached first in Judea and then Ethiopia before he was eventually crucified for his faith.[8]  Others state he traveled to Ethiopia, where he preached near the sea of Hyssus, and died at Sebastopolis.[9]  Still others declare he was stoned and then beheaded in Jerusalem.[10]

Reliquary of St. Mattias

Reliquary of Saint Matthias, Trier, Germany

Ultimately, Saint Matthias’s relics were purportedly brought to Rome by Saint Helena – although some speculate that the relics in Rome are those of a different Matthias:  Saint Matthias, Bishop of Jerusalem, who died in 120.[11]  Some of Saint Matthias the Apostle’s relics were also translated to Trier, where they are currently kept in the crypt of the abbey church of Saint Matthias.

St. Matthias Church

Abbey Church of Saint Matthias, Trier, Germany, prior to Mass

Depictions In Art

Compared with the other Apostles, including Judas, Saint Matthias is infrequently portrayed in works of art.  His iconography is also less well-defined.  For example, while keys are a sign of Saint Peter and seashells are a common attribute of Saint James, no single symbol has come to distinguish Saint Matthias in the visual shorthand of Christian art.

Veit Stoss and Saint Mary’s Altar

Veit Stoss’s magnificent Saint Mary’s Altar, located at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Krakow, Poland, includes one of the few depictions of Saint Matthias I’ve encountered.  Carved in the late 15th century, Saint Mary’s Altar is the largest gothic altar in the world, measuring approximately 11 m (36 ft) long and 13 m (42.65 ft) high.[12]  The altar, or retable, is constructed as a pentaptych consisting of a large central cabinet and two pairs of wings: an inner pair that is hinged and can be used to close the cabinet, and an outer pair that is fixed.[13]  The altar is further supported by a predella and is surmounted by a finial of carved baldachins spread between thinly carved pillars.[14]

Saint Mary's Altar

Veit Stoss, Saint Mary’s Altar, Saint Mary’s Basilica, Krakow, Poland

According to multiple sources, the doors of the altar are ordinarily kept closed during the liturgical year and are only opened for important feasts.[15]  On several recent visits to Krakow, however, I noted that the doors were generally opened for a few hours each day to allow visitor’s to view the central scene of Stoss’s masterpiece.  The central scene of the open retable depicts two important events in the life of Mary – the Death of the Virgin (or Dormition) and the Assumption – while a variety of Biblical episodes are represented on the wings of the altar.[16]

The Dormition depicts a youthful Mary falling to her knees at the moment of her passing.[17]  Unlike more traditional depictions of Mary’s passing (such as the one pictured below), Stoss’s Dormition purposely omits references to death or dying to emphasize the extraordinary nature of Mary’s passage from earthly life.[18]  There is no deathbed in Stoss’s scene, although Mary continues to be surrounded by Apostles, including Saint Peter and Saint John.[19]

A traditional depiction of the Death of the Virgin (detail), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Joos van Cleve, The Death of the Virgin (detail) (1520), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

In my opinion, in addition to Mary herself, three figures in particular stand out in Stoss’s portrayal of the Dormition.  The first is Saint James.[20]  Because of his central position and his dark, generous beard, the eye is naturally drawn to James, who stands above Mary, supporting her as she sinks to her knees.  He is also one of the few figures that stares out towards to the viewer, seemingly making contact with the world outside the altar.  The second is Saint John (pictured below), who stands to the right of Saint James, behind Mary.[21]  John is holding a blue cloak or cape, which he is raising in an enigmatic gesture.  Some suggest he is lifting it to his face to dry a tear while others argue he is extending it to Mary.[22]  The third figure that stands out is purportedly Saint Matthias, whose unusual pose is noteworthy.[23]

Saint John (detail)

Saint John (detail), from Saint Mary’s Altar

Like the representation of Saint James, the figure of Saint Matthias is also centrally located in the scene, although he is arranged even closer to the center of the composition.  His position serves as a visual link between Mary and the saints of the Dormition, and the Assumption, which takes place in the sky above his head.[24]  Matthias holds his hands outspread, his fingers interlaced, just above Mary’s head in a gesture some have described as one of protection.[25]  To me, however, Matthias’s interlaced fingers are reminiscent of a crown, and his gesture is suggestive of a coronation.  Matthias almost appears ready to place a crown on the kneeling Mary’s head.  Could the arrangement have been intended to evoke Mary’s imminent coronation as Queen of Heaven?

It is interesting to speculate why Veit Stoss might have chosen to place Saint Matthias in so prominent a position on Saint Mary’s Altar.  Alternatively, Saint Matthias may be the Apostle whose face, carved in profile, is just visible at the left of the composition.  All twelve Apostles are present for Stoss’s Dormition, so Saint Matthias must be among them.  In the absence of a clear pictorial tradition, however, identifying Matthias from among Stoss’s crowd of carved Apostles must remain a matter of conjecture.  Nevertheless, as Rainer Kahsnitz notes in Carved Splendor: Late Gothic Altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol, “Presenting twelve apostles in a single scene—one or two of them young, the rest old and with flowing beards, was a notoriously difficult task for a Late Gothic artist.  Only a very few carvers and painters proved themselves up to it.”[26]  Of those, Veit Stoss may have been the best.

Interior of Saint Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland, with Veit Stoss's Saint Mary's Altar in background

Interior of Saint Mary’s Basilica, Krakow, Poland, with Veit Stoss’s Saint Mary’s Altar in background


[1] Matthew 27:3 (King James Bible).

[2] Matthew 27:4.

[3] Matthew 27:5.

[4] Acts 1:18 (King James Bible).

[5] Acts 1:24-25.

[6] Acts 1:26.

[7] See “St. Matthias,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10066a.htm (providing a general overview of sources describing the ministry of Saint Matthias).

[8] Id. (citing Nicephorus, 2 Church History 40, in 1 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Philip Schaff ed., Arthur Cushman McGiffert trans, 1890)).

[9] Id. (citing the The Synopsis of Dorotheus).

[10] Id. (citing Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont, 1 Mémoire pour servir à l’histoire ecclésiastique des six premiers siècle 406-7).

[11] Id. (citing Jean Bolland, Acta Sanctorum, Maii, III (1680)).

[12] Krzysztof Czyzewski, Veit Stoss: Mary’s Altar 10 (Aleksander Ptak et. al, trans. 2007).

[13] See id. at 10-11.

[14] Id. at 11.

[15] See, e.g., Czyzewski, supra note 12, at 11; Teresa Czerniewicz-Umer, Eyewitness Travel:  Cracow 96 (2010).

[16] The following scenes are depicted on the internal wings of the altar and are visible when the doors are open:  the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost.  The following scenes are visible when the doors of the altar are closed:  the Meeting of Saint Anne and Saint Joachim, the Birth of the Virgin, the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Christ Among the Doctors, the Capture of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, the Entombment, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (Noli me tangere), the Three Marys at the Sepulcher, and the Descent into Hell.

[17] Czyzewski, supra note 12, at 12.  In her travel guide to Krakow, Teresa Czerniewicz-Umer opines that the “figure of the youthful Mary is one of the greatest sculptures ever made in Poland.” Czerniewicz-Umer, supra note 15, at 97.

[18] Czyzewski, supra note 12, at 12.  In Carved Splendor: Late Gothic Altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol, Rainer Kahsnitz states, “In accordance with legendary tradition going back more than five hundred years—the Gospels say nothing about the death of the Virgin—the standard Dormition shows the apostles, miraculously transported from their far-flung missions, convened around Mary’s deathbed . . . .” Rainer Kahsnitz, Carved Splendor: Late Gothic Altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol 137 (2006).

[19] Rainer notes that portrayals of Mary kneeling in prayer before her death was a form that “spread from Bohemia to southeast Germany, Austria, and adjacent territories in the late fourteenth century.” Rainer, supra note 19, at 137.

[20] Rainer identifies this figure as possibly being Saint Paul rather than Saint James.  Id. at 139.

[21] Rainer identifies this figure as possibly being Saint Philip rather than Saint John.  Id. at 140.

[22] See, e.g., Czyzewski, supra note 12, at 29 (featuring a caption reading “St. John raises the rim of his coat to dry a tear,” which accompanies a detail of The Dormition); Czerniewicz-Umer, supra note 15, at 97 (featuring a caption beneath a detail of Saint John stating “the saint is about to put a cape on the fainting Mary”).

[23] Rainer identifies this figure as possibly being Saint John rather than Saint Matthias.  Rainer, supra note 19, at 139.

[24] In the Assumption, Christ and Mary are being raised to heaven by angels.

[25] Czyzewski, supra note 12, at 12 (noting that one of the Apostles “protects” Mary with his “hands above Her”).

[26] Rainer, supra note 19, at 140.

Saint Florian: Saint of Fire and Flood

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St. Florian (detail), Altarpiece, Strasbourg Cathedral

St. Florian (detail), Altarpiece, Strasbourg Cathedral

Images of a knight serenely dousing a burning building with a bucket of water have mystified generations of travelers journeying through Europe.[1]  The knight can be found atop pillars in city squares, emblazoned on buildings, and perched beside church altars.  Depictions of the knight, identifiable as Saint Florian, are particularly common in central Europe, where he continues to be honored and venerated to this day.  I have even encountered his statue in a Salzburg hotel calmly quenching a fire with a telltale bucket and have wondered at his likeness on a fire extinguisher in the sleepy town of Maria Alm, Austria.  Why does Saint Florian carry a bucket?  What is the meaning of the burning building at his feet?  And why is he so popular in central Europe?

Who Was Saint Florian?

St. Florian Fountain, Salzburg, Austria

Saint Florian was a Roman army officer who held an administrative post in Noricum, a Roman province that included what is now Austria.[2]  In 304, during the Christian persecutions of the emperor Diocletian, Saint Florian publicly revealed he was a Christian and was subsequently tortured and killed for his faith.[3]  According to the Passion of Saint Florian, Florian encountered soldiers with whom he had previously served as he approached Lorch (Lauriacum).  When he asked where they were going, they responded, “Have you not heard the emperor’s commands which reached the praeses, in accordance with which he orders all men to offer libations to the gods, and that those who refuse should be put to death by various means?”[4]  Florian answered, “Brother and fellow soldiers, what else do you need seeing that I am a Christian?  Go and tell the praeses that I am a Christian and am here.”[5]

The soldiers were skeptical of Florian’s surprising confession, but they dutifully arrested him and brought him before the governor, Aquilinus, who first encouraged and then ordered Florian to offer sacrifice to the gods to prove he was not a Christian.  When Florian refused, the governor ordered him beaten with clubs.  Florian replied, “Be as angry and do as much harm as you can, since you possess power over my body which has been given to you for now.  If you want to know why I do not fear your tortures, light a fire, and I will climb upon it.”[6]

According to various sources, Florian was beaten with clubs, was “twice scourged, half-flayed alive and finally thrown into the river Enns with a stone around his neck.”[7]  Because he was martyred by drowning, Saint Florian is often invoked as a protector against drowning or against danger from water, including flooding.  He is also frequently portrayed in art with a millstone around his neck or in close proximity.

Patron Saint of Firefighters

Saint Florian is also recognized as the patron saint of firefighters, although the reason for his association with firefighting is unclear.  Some commentators have tried to link the origin of the tradition to his martyrdom, although Saint Florian was not recognized as a protector against fire until much later.  Florian’s association with firefighting likely derives from a legend that arose in the Middle Ages, a legend that also explains why he is commonly portrayed with a bucket and a burning building.

St. Florian, Waldauf Chapel, Hall in Tyrol

St. Florian, Waldauf Chapel, Hall in Tyrol

Explanations tracing Saint Florian’s patronage of firefighters to his martyrdom seem improbable, particularly since they involve some manipulation of the historical sources.  A number of online sources claim that Saint Florian’s executioners initially intended to burn him at the stake, but Saint Florian told them, “If you do, I will climb to heaven on the flames.”[8]  At this, they grew uneasy, and they decided to beat him instead before ultimately drowning him in the Enns.[9]  While this version of the story may sound compelling, it is not entirely consistent with earlier versions of Saint Florian’s “acts.”

As noted in the Passion of Saint Florian, above, Florian did tell Aquilinus, “light a fire, and I will climb upon it,” but he made no reference to rising to heaven either on its smoke or flames as some online sources suggest.  These sources tend to misquote the Passion and unintentionally shift the focus of Florian’s words from his faith in Christ to his faith in his own apotheosis.  Florian invoked the image of a pyre to affirm his Christian beliefs and to demonstrate his willingness to suffer torture for it, not as gasconade.  The Acta Sanctorum similarly places Florian’s statement in this context.[10]  In it, Saint Florian had already been beaten “for a long time,” when he turned to Aquilinus and said, “You have power over my body, but not over my soul.  So do whatever harm you can, since no way will I submit to your commands.  In order that you may learn that I do not fear your tortures, order a strong fire to be lit, and, in the name of my God, I will walk upon it without harm.”[11]

Modern commentators appear to be reaching for a link between Saint Florian’s martyrdom and his status as a protector against fire.  However, because Saint Florian did not become identified with firefighting until centuries after his death, during the late Middle Ages, it is unlikely the circumstances of his death precipitated the tie to firefighting.[12]

Bucket Brigade

St. Florian - Salzburg (detail)Most representations of Saint Florian depict him dressed as a Roman soldier or a medieval knight holding either a banner or sword in one hand, a bucket or pitcher in the other, with a burning building, city, or church at his feet.  Alternatively, as mentioned above, he may be shown with a millstone, the instrument of his death.  According to a catalogue published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Saint Florian first appeared with a bucket and a burning building in the late 15th century.[13]  According to legend, Saint Florian managed to save a burning house – sometimes it is as an entire city – with a single bucket of water.[14]  Florian’s reputation as a protector against fire earned him great devotion in medieval society, which lived in constant fear of fire and the threat of urban conflagration.

Representations of Florian as a firefighting saint quickly gained popularity, particularly in Austria and southern Germany.  In the region even today, Saint Florian has become so synonymous with firefighting that his image is readily used to identify fire stations and departments.  The exteriors of firehouses frequently feature an image of Saint Florian on a wall or a statue of Saint Florian tucked into a niche.  The name “Florian” even serves as a universal radio call sign for Feuerwehr (fire department) vehicles and stations.

The Florian Cross

Florian Cross

Beyond Austria and Germany, Saint Florian’s influence on firefighting may be less conspicuous, but it is still discernible.  Many fire departments incorporate what has come to become known as a “Florian cross” or “cross of Saint Florian” into their badges, patches, and other organizational emblems.  The cross features four triangular arms, of equal length, that are rounded at each terminus and that taper toward the center.  (An example is depicted at left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)  Often confused with the Maltese cross, which has no curved lines, the origin of the Florian cross’s design remains obscure.[15]  Many commentators have argued that the Maltese cross, which the Knights of Saint John famously wore to identify members of their order, became a symbol of firefighters because firefighters, like the earlier knights, were willing to lay down their lives to protect others.[16]  While this explanation may sound plausible, it ignores the fact the Florian cross is simply not a Maltese cross.[17]

Maltese Cross

Alternatively, the Florian cross may have evolved from a Maltese cross over time.  (An example of a Maltese cross is depicted at left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)  Many cross variations share similar features, and it is possible the Maltese cross gradually developed into a Florian cross over the course of several centuries.  A comparison of the two symbols – one featuring relatively thin, angular arms, the other comprised of broad, curved arms – suggests, however, that such a radical metamorphosis is unlikely to have occurred.  Another explanation is that the Florian cross is sui generis – though possibly inspired by the Maltese cross.

The various representations of Saint Florian I’ve examined, mostly from the medieval period, offer no clues to the cross’s origin.  Occasionally, Saint Florian is portrayed holding a banner emblazoned with a cross, but the cross it features is invariably a simple Latin cross.  In at least early representations of Saint Florian, the saint does not appear to wear or carry the symbol that has come to bear his name.  On the other hand, many protective medals and medallions featuring Saint Florian are shaped in variations of the Florian cross, with broad, curved arms enclosing an image of the saint.  Could the shape of early Saint Florian medallions have inspired the outline of the Florian cross?  Perhaps it’s a question of the chicken or the egg, and ultimately, I do not know how the Florian cross came to be.  My guess is the design derives from the late 19th century, since that appears to be when fire departments began to incorporate a cross into their emblems.[18]

The Relics of Saint Florian and the Royal Road

In addition to serving as the patron saint of firefighters, Saint Florian is also the patron saint of various localities, including Linz, Austria; the state of Oberösterreich (Upper Austria), Austria; and Poland.

According to legend, after Florian was drowned in the Enns, his body was recovered by a devout woman named Valeria and was buried.  His body was eventually transferred to the Augustinian Abbey of Saint Florian, near Linz.

St. Florian ChurchIn 1184, Pope Lucius III sent relics of Saint Florian to Duke Kasimir the Just of Poland.  Kasimir had the relics sent to Krakow, one of Poland’s oldest and most important cities.  According to tradition, the horses carrying the relics stopped in Kleparz, a medieval suburb of the Cracow, before reaching the city gate and refused to continue any further.  Their obstinacy was interpreted as a sign, and the church of Saint Florian (pictured above) was erected on the spot to house the relics.[19]

After the capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw, the church of Saint Florian became the receiving point for the bodies of deceased royalty, who continued to be buried at Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral.  Royal funeral processions followed what became known as the Royal Road or Royal Route, a course replete with references to Saint Florian.  The route originated at the church of Saint Florian, passed through the 14th century Florian Gate with its polychrome figure of Florian extinguishing a gilded fire, and continued along Floriańska Street before reaching the Main Market Square.  From there, the route wound through the Old Town, past the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, to Wawel Hill and its looming cathedral.

The Royal Road with the tower of the Florian Gate at left

The Royal Road with the tower of the Florian Gate at left

May I Propose a Toast . . .

Shortly after returning from a trip to southern Austria, I stumbled upon this passage from the correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, a 19th century American historian.  Written almost 179 years earlier, I was struck by how, in some ways, very little has changed since Motley’s own travels through the region.  On the other hand, I was surprised to learn of Saint Florian’s apparent standing as the patron saint of innkeepers and brewers.  Motley writes:

Maria Alm, Austria

Maria Alm, Austria

“Among other Catholic images which are strewed all along the roadside, one in particular puzzled me for a long time—the figure of a saint in armour with a sword in the right hand and a bucket of water in the left, which he is emptying on a burning house.  I have found that it is St. Florian, the patron saint of burning houses and firemen, and also, according to the popular legends, of innkeepers and brewers, to whom he always sends a sufficient quantity of water to temper their wine and other potations, and who in gratitude, as I have observed, have always his figure over their doorways.”[20]

While Saint Florian may also serve as a patron saint of brewers, it is as the patron saint of firefighters that he is frequently identified today.  In fact, in 1999, the date of International Firefighters Day was fixed as May 4th, the feast day of Saint Florian.  Fittingly, both Saint Florian and the heroic firefighters he is often invoked to protect, may now be celebrated and remembered on the very same day.

Florian Street

Florian Street, Krakow, Poland


[1] See, e.g., 1 The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley 38 (George William Curtis ed., 1889)

[2] See, e.g., 2 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 230-31 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[3] Id. at 230.

[4] Monumenta Germaniae Historica:  Passiones Vitaeque Sanctorum Aevi Merovingici et Antiquiorum Aliquot 65-71 (Bruno Krusch ed., 1896), available in translation at http://www.ucc.ie/milmart/BHL3054.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 2, at 230.

[8] See, “Saint Florian: The Patron Saint of the Fire Service,” The Public Safety Net, available at http://www.publicsafety.net/st_florian.htm; see also, “Saint Florian,” Saint Florian Roman Catholic Church, available at http://www.stflorianparish.org/en/history/saint-florian/; “Saint Florian History,” Brookline Firefighters Association, available at http://www.brooklinefirefighters.org/index.cfm?zone=/unionactive/view_page.cfm&page=St20Florian.

[9] See, e.g., The Public Safety Net, supra note 8; Saint Florian Roman Catholic Church, supra note 8; Brookline Firefighters Association, supra note 8.

[10] See 1 Mai 463-466, in Acta Sanctorum Quotquot Toto Orbe Coluntur (1863), available in translation at http://www.ucc.ie/milmart/BHL3058.html.

[11] Id.

[12] See Metropolitan Museum of Art, Medieval Art from Private Collections:  A Special Exhibition at the Cloisters 61 (1968) (“At the end of the Middle Ages he came to be regarded as a protector against fire.”).

[13] Id. (“The earliest representations of him with a bucket and a burning house are of the late fifteenth century.”).

[14] See, e.g., George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 71 (1959).

[15] See Donald V. Engebretson, “The Firefighter’s Cross,” Northwoods Seelsorder Blog, Mar. 8, 2008, available at http://nwseelsorger.blogspot.de/2008/03/firefighters-cross.html.

[16] See, e.g., “History of the Maltese Cross,” New York City Fire Dept., available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/fdny/html/history/maltese_cross.shtml (arguing that the Knights of Saint John were “our first firefighters” because they regularly put out fires ignited by weapons during the Crusades).

[17] Some fire departments, however, do incorporate a Maltese cross, rather than a Florian cross, into their emblems.  See, for example, the Canadian Fire Service.

[18] See, e.g., Mica Calfee, “The ‘Maltese Cross’ and the Fire Service,” available at http://www.fireserviceinfo.com/maltesecross.html (citing a 1882 newspaper article describing a local NY fire department’s decision to adopt a new “Maltese cross” badge design); “Origins of the Fire Service Badge,” Hampshire (UK) Fire and Rescue Service, available at http://www.hantsfire.gov.uk/theservice/organisation/history/servicebadgesorigin.htm (“Quite when the star was first used in this country for the badge of a firefighter is not easy to establish.  The earliest example found is the brass eight pointed star adopted for use by the National Fire Brigades Association in 1887.”)  The 1887 National Fire Brigade Association badge appears to be an actual Maltese cross.  Over time, it evolved into something quite different, although the original eight points of the Maltese cross are still discernible.  Could the Florian cross have developed similarly over time?

[19] See, e.g., Teresa Czerniewicz-Umer, Eyewitness Travel:  Cracow 138 (2010)

[20] The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, supra note 1.

Charlemagne: Saint of the Holy Roman Empire?

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Bust of CharlemagnePater Europae – Father of Europe

In her 2008 study of Charlemagne, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, Rosamond McKitterick observes, “Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814, is one of the few major rulers in European history for whom there is an agreed stereotype.”[1]  Celebrated as a mighty conqueror, a pious Christian ruler, and an enlightened patron of learning, Charlemagne is memorialized throughout Europe, particularly in the lands of his former empire.  McKitterick notes, “Statues and paintings of Charlemagne abound in many of the cities of Europe, whether major capitals such as Paris or towns that have often long since lost their political pre-eminence.”[2]  His likeness “graces the market place in Aachen . . . and the cathedrals of Bremen, Frankfurt and Halberstadt.  He surveys the cities of Zurich, Dinant and Liège, and he sits astride his horse in front of Notre Dame in Paris.”[3]  Reverence for Charlemagne is, perhaps, strongest in Aachen, Germany, where Charlemagne continues to be not only honored as the first Holy Roman Emperor but also venerated as a saint.  But was Charlemagne, in fact, ever a saint?

Dome of Aachen Cathedral

Dome of Aachen Cathedral

Playing with the King of Hearts

Even those who have never seen a statue or painting of Charlemagne have probably encountered at least one portrait of the emperor before.  Charlemagne is apparently the enigmatic King of Hearts in a deck of playing cards.  Also known as the “suicide king” because he is commonly shown stabbing himself in the head with a sword, the King of Hearts may be a stylized representation of Charlemagne, but the visual depiction is flawed in at least one fundamental aspect:  the King of Hearts has no moustache.

Throne of Charlemagne, Aachen Cathedral

Throne of Charlemagne, Aachen Cathedral

Of the four kings represented in a deck of cards, only the King of Hearts sports a clean-shaven upper lip; however, as Professor Paul Freedmen has noted in his lectures on medieval history, the Carolingians, of whom Charlemagne was a member, were well-known for their moustaches.[4]  More evidence militating against this interpretation can be found at Aachen, the former imperial capital.  The famous reliquary bust of Charlemagne in the Treasury of Aachen Cathedral clearly portrays Charlemagne with a moustache, suggesting the King of Hearts cannot be the famous Holy Roman Emperor.  Notably, Charlemagne also never stabbed himself in the head, another “fatal” flaw in the historical conceit linking the two royal heads.

Vita Karoli

How do we know what Charlemagne looked like?  Einhard’s Vita Karoli, written sometime between 817 and 833, provides one of the earliest written descriptions of Charlemagne, including an account of his physical appearance.  In the preface to his work, Einhard, a Frankish courtier and contemporary of Charlemagne, explained that he had committed the story of Charlemagne to writing so that “the most glorious life of this most excellent king, the greatest of all the princes of his day, and his illustrious deeds” should not become “wrapped in the darkness of oblivion.”[5]  Elegantly written in Ciceronian Latin, Einhard’s biography has proven to be one of the most influential and enduring portraits of the ancient king.[6]

The High Altar of Aachen Cathedral

The High Altar of Aachen Cathedral

Part of Vita Karoli’s popularity may derive from its disarmingly honest depiction of Charlemagne.  Einhard tells us, for example, that Charlemagne was “large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot) . . . .”[7]  Additionally, “the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry.”[8]  His appearance was “always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting, although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent.”[9] He enjoyed red meat, and his favorite book was Saint Augustine’s The City of God.[10]

As McKitterick explains, “The scholarly reaction to Einhard’s account has ranged from uncritical acceptance to outright rejection of its historical validity.”[11]  Still, “as a reflection of perceptions of Charlemagne and knowledge available about him at the time Einhard wrote, . . . it is immensely valuable.”[12]

The Canonization of Saints

While Einhard’s admiration for Charlemagne is evident in his writing, Einhard never referred to Charlemagne, either figuratively or literally, as a saint.  From the Vita Karoli we learn that Charlemagne died on 28 January 814 at the age of seventy and that he was buried on the same day.  Because Charlemagne never indicated where he wanted to be laid to rest, confusion arose as to where he should be buried.  Eventually, “all agreed that he could nowhere be more honorably entombed than in the very basilica that he had built in the town [of Aachen] at his own expense.”[13]

Arm Reliquary of Charlemagne

Arm Reliquary of Charlemagne

A local cultus eventually developed around the storied king; however, only the Church could officially recognize the beatification or canonization of individuals.  As Monsignor P. E. Hallett explains in his study on canonization, the Church constantly “had to guard against the extravagant and unauthorized devotion of the people.”[14]  Indeed, Charlemagne himself was the author of a synodal law designed to check the arbitrary veneration of alleged saints.[15]  The law, which prohibited the public veneration of new saints without the official sanction of the local bishop, was intended to prevent the type of mistake Saint Martin of Tours once encountered in his diocese.[16]

According to the legend, the people of Tours highly honored a shrine believed to be the tomb of a martyr.  Saint Martin, however, had his doubts.  As Rev. Alban Butler explains, “The place was much reverenced by the people; but St. Martin, who was not over credulous, would not go thither to pray, not hearing any assured account of the relics.  He asked the eldest of the clergy what they knew of them, and not receiving satisfaction, he went one day to the place with some of his brethren, and, standing over the tomb, besought God to show him who was buried there.  Then turning to the left he saw near him a pale ghost of a fierce aspect, whom he commanded to speak.  The ghost told his name, and it appeared that he had been a robber who was executed for his crimes, whom the people had honoured as a martyr.  None but St. Martin saw him; the rest only heard his voice.  He thereupon caused the altar to be removed; and freed the people from this superstition.”[17]

Until the 12th century, local bishops could beatify individuals by permitting public cultus, that is, the “erection of altars, the celebration of feasts, the offering of Holy Mass in their honour within the limits of their diocese.”[18]  Today, however, only those whose cultus has been accepted, either expressly or tacitly, by the Holy See are considered beatified, and only those whose cultus has been extended to the Universal Church are considered canonized saints.[19]

Saint Charlemagne?

The cultus of Charlemagne provides an illuminating example of this system of recognition.  Three and a half centuries after his death, in 1165, Charlemagne was canonized by the anti-pope Paschal III.[20]  The Catholic Church never officially recognized Paschal III’s canonization of the Carolingian emperor, however,[21] and in fact, all of Paschal III’s pronouncements were eventually abrogated in 1179 by the Third Lateran Council.[22]  This wholesale repudiation of Paschal III and his decisions would presumably have included his canonization of Charlemagne.[23]

View of Organ, Aachen Cathedral

View of Organ, Aachen Cathedral

Despite the rejection of Charlemagne’s canonization, a local cultus that had developed around the emperor persisted and spread to parts of Germany, Belgium, and France.[24]  No subsequent pope protested the cultus, so it endured for several centuries with the tacit permission of Rome.[25]  In the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV confirmed the cultus, though apparently not as an official papal act.[26]  Ultimately, because the cultus continued to exist with the permission of the Church, Charlemagne is considered beatified.[27]  Charlemagne, therefore, can be referred to as Blessed Charlemagne; however, he is not Saint Charlemagne.[28]

The Shrine of Charlemagne at Aachen

Charlemagne is believed to have been initially buried in a marble sarcophagus from the 3rd century.[29]  His body was later transferred to a more ornate and impressive golden shrine commissioned by Emperor Frederick II in the late 12th century.[30]  The shrine, which is sometimes referred to as a reliquary, was created between 1182 and 1215.[31]  The “Concise Guide to Aachen Cathedral,” a tourist pamphlet available for purchase at Aachen, states that Charlemagne’s bones have been housed in the shrine since 1215.[32]  It further notes that the “Emperor’s bones are surrounded by sixteen of his successors” depicted on the shrine, and “Charlemagne himself sits at the end wall below Christ giving a blessing, flanked by Pope Leo III and Archbishop Turpin of Reims.”[33]

Shrine of Charlemagne

Shrine of Charlemagne

On the day we visited the cathedral, the guide who led our tour stated the sixteen kings represented on the shrine were included instead of saints because Charlemagne’s status as a saint was uncertain.  From afar, the royal figures have the aspects of saints, but on closer inspection, they wear crowns rather than mitre or halos, and they hold symbols of secular power rather than instruments of martyrdom.


[1] Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity 1 (2008).

[2] Id. at 3.

[3] Id.

[4] Paul H. Freedman, Charlemagne, Class Lecture for The Early Middle Ages, 284-1000 at Yale University (Nov. 9, 2011).  Professor Freedman contrasts the short hair and moustaches of the Carolingians with the long hair and beards of their rivals, the Merovingians.  Freedman states, “one of the symbols of Merovingian familial prestige was this long hair. But Carolingians had short hair and wore mustaches. They kind of broke with the Merovingian look. But of course, this is not just a male fashion statement.”

[5] Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne (Samuel Epes Turner trans., Harper & Brothers 1880), available at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/einhard.asp#EINHARD’S%20PREFACE.

[6] See, e.g., McKitterick, supra note 1, at 7.

[7] Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] McKitterick, supra note 1, at 7 (citation omitted). 

[12] Id.

[13] Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne, supra note 5.

[14] P.E. Hallet, The Canonization of Saints (1952), available at http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/canonize.htm.

[15] Id.

[16] See id.

[17] Alban Butler, 9 Lives of the Saints (1866), available at http://www.bartleby.com/210/11/111.html.

[18] Hallet, supra note 15.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.  By canonizing Charlemagne, Paschal III hoped to gain the support of the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, in his struggle against the legitimate pope, Alexander III.  Id.

[21] Id.  Inexplicably, McKitterick erroneously avers that Pope Alexander III, not Paschal III, canonized Charlemagne in 1165.  McKitterick, supra note 1, at 2 (citing R.Folz, Etudes sur le liturgique de Charlemagne dans les églises de l’empire (1951)).  She writes, “A liturgical feast in honour of St Charlemagne was actually instituted in 1165 when Pope Alexander III canonized him and a cult of Charlemagne spread across western Europe.  Id.

[22] William Beckett, 1 A Universal Biography 116 (1834).

[23] See id.

[24] Hallet, supra note 15.

[25] Id.

[26] See id.  Hallet notes that Pope Benedict XIV confirmed the cultus “writing as a private theologian, not officially as Pope.”  Id.

[27] Id.; Benedictine Monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey, The Book of the Saints 62 (photo. reprint 2003) (1921).  In Hallet’s words, “In virtue then of this toleration, and not of course in virtue of the act of the anti-pope, which was null and void, it has been held . . . that he is to be considered as beatified.”  Hallet, supra note 15.

[28] See Benedictine Monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey, supra note 27, at 62.  The Book of the Saints lists Charlemagne as beatified though not canonized, noting that “in some churches” he has been “honoured as a Saint.”  Id.

[29] See, e.g., McKitterick, supra note 1, at 3.

[30] See id.; Dom Schatz Kammer Aachen, “Concise Guide to Aachen Cathedral.”

[31] Dom Schatz Kammer Aachen.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

Winter of Discontent: Saint Sebaldus, Protector Against Cold Weather, Takes a Sabbatical

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IMG_3624

Statue of St. Sebaldus, Church of Saint Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

This winter has been unusually cold, dark, and damp in Germany.  A recent article in Spiegel Online proclaimed it the “darkest winter in 43 years,”[1] and the German weather service (Deutscher Wetterdienst) reported that this past March was the 6th coldest since 1881, when official records began to be kept.[2]  One headline expressed what many Germans have been thinking.  It read, “Just Kill Us Now: German Spring Kicks Off With More Snow.”[3]

In past centuries, unrelenting winter weather like this might have elicited prayers and entreaties to a saint.  In Germany, that saint might have been Saint Sebaldus, a protector against cold weather, who is also the patron saint of Nuremberg.

Patron Saint of Nuremberg

St. Sebaldus KircheSaint Sebaldus (or Sebald), was a hermit who lived in the Reichswald around the 8th century.[4]  Little is definitively known about Saint Sebaldus, although by 1072, he was already recognized as the patron saint of Nuremberg.[5]  Sigismund Meisterlin’s Life of Saint Sebald, completed in 1484, provides some background on the saint, although even Meisterlin acknowledged that his vita was imperfect.[6]  David Collins, in his book Reforming Saints:  Saints’ Lives and Their Authors in Germany 1470-1530, notes that Meisterlin “fixed certain inaccuracies and contradictions in the older legends” about Saint Sebaldus, although Meisterlin realized his corrections “might offend popular sensibilities.”[7]  According to Collins, “Meisterlin’s concern about the changes he had made indicates his familiarity with Sebald’s rich hagiographical tradition.”[8]

Meisterlin wrote the Life of Saint Sebald at the request of the Nuremburg city council.[9]  Collins states, “The city fathers sought a new life of Sebald apparently because the earlier ones were not inspiring the reverence for Sebald outside of Nuremberg in the diocese of Bamberg . . . that the city fathers believed he (and, derivatively, they themselves) deserved.”[10]  At the time, Bamberg was a rival of Nuremberg, and jokes about Saint Sebaldus, especially ones that characterized the saint as rustic and simpleminded, offended the people of Nuremberg, who imagined the jokes implicated them by extension.[11]  Meisterlin’s new vita, it was hoped, would restore the dignity and prestige of Saint Sebaldus, as well as of the city of Nuremberg.

The Life of Saint Sebaldus

St Sebaldus - Reformation of NurembergAccording to Meisterlin’s account, Sebaldus was a Danish prince who felt called to serve God from an early age.  Upon reaching adulthood, he left Denmark and joined three children of the king of Brittany:  Willibald, Wunibald, and Walpurgis.  The group dedicated itself to religious asceticism and elected Willibald, the eldest, as their leader.  The four chose to serve God as itinerants, and they vowed to travel to Rome as pilgrims.  When they arrived in Rome, the pope appointed Willibald a bishop and eventually sent the group back to Germany.  Sebaldus made his way to Regensburg and then to the forests of Franconia, where he lived in solitude, praying and fasting, until his death.  When the locals discovered his body, they placed it on a bier and yoked it to several untamed oxen, which brought the body to a deserted place in the woods, the future site of Nuremberg.[12]

Miracle of the Icicles

Saint Sebaldus is credited with having performed several miracles during his lifetime.  One of his more famous miracles involved the transformation of icicles into fuel for a warm fire.  The story, as recounted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, goes like this:  “[O]ne snowy night [Saint Sebald] took shelter in a peasant’s cottage, but found it was almost as cold within as without, for the fire was low and small.  Sebald suggested that more fuel might be put on, but the man answered that he was too poor to keep up a decent fire, so Sebald turned to the housewife and asked her to bring in a bundle of long icicles hanging from the eaves; this she did, Sebald threw them on the fire, and they blazed up merrily.”[13]  The miracle of the icicles is depicted in relief on the base of Saint Sebaldus’s shrine at the church of Saint Sebaldus in Nuremberg.  The bronze shrine (below), which was made between 1508 and 1519, is one of the best-known works of Peter Vischer the Elder.

Shrine of Saint Sebaldus by Peter Vischer the Elder, Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

Shrine of Saint Sebaldus by Peter Vischer the Elder, Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

Another miracle, included in earlier hagiographies but omitted from Meisterlin’s 1484 vita, describes the experience of an unfortunate Scottish monk who, for some unexplained reason, was plucking the beard of Saint Sebaldus’s corpse.  Apparently annoyed by this, the dead saint’s right hand shot up and poked out the monk’s eye.  This story is not depicted on the saint’s tomb.

Attributes in Art

Depictions of Saint Sebaldus are not as ubiquitous as depictions of more popular saints, such as Saint Christopher or the four Evangelists, even in Germany.  In the few representations I have seen, the saint is frequently depicted as a pilgrim, replete with a pilgrim’s hat, cloak, and staff.  Albrecht Dürer, a native of Nuremburg, executed a number of woodcuts of Saint Sebaldus dressed as a pilgrim, including Saint Sebald on the Column (c. 1501) in the collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna.  Another woodcut by Dürer, entitled Saint Sebald in the Niche (c. 1518), similarly shows Saint Sebaldus as a pilgrim holding his namesake church in his right hand.

St. Sebald in the Niche (1518) by Albrecht Durer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

St. Sebald in the Niche (1518) by Albrecht Durer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When depicted as a pilgrim, it is easy to confuse Saint Sebaldus for Saint James, the patron saint of pilgrims.  For example, the statue shown at the beginning of this post, located inside the church of Saint Sebaldus in Nuremberg, could be mistaken for Saint James, although the miniature church in the figure’s hand – and, importantly, the location of the statue itself – would suggest it is actually Saint Sebaldus.

IMG_3631Interestingly, Peter Vischer the Elder’s shrine of Saint Sebaldus is supported by several plump snails, which I was not aware were associated with Saint Sebaldus.  Whether the snails are symbolic or whether they were included for purely aesthetic reasons, I am not sure.  In Christian art, snails do not have the best of reputations.[14]  Snails were believed to have been born from mud and were thought to feed on mud.[15]  Consequently, they were seen as symbols of laziness because they did not seek food but merely ate what was available.[16]

On the other hand, the snail is an apt symbol for this long German winter, which has passed at a snail’s pace and threatens to linger while Saint Sebaldus takes a sabbatical.

Exterior of the Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany

Exterior of the Church of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg, Germany


[1] Overly Overcast: Germany Weathers Darkest Winter in 43 Years, Spiegel Online, Feb. 26, 2013, available at http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-weathers-darkest-winter-in-43-years-a-885608.html.  According to Spiegel Online, Germany receives an “already measly” average of 160 hours of sunshine each winter.  As of late February, Germany had received less than 100 hours of sunshine over the course of the meteorological winter, which begins in December and ends in February.  Id.

[2] Press Release, Deutscher Wetterdienst, “Deutschlandwetter im März 2013,” March 28, 2013

[3] Just Kill Us Now:  German Spring Kicks Off With More Snow, Spiegel Online, Mar. 21, 2013, available at http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/winter-weather-plagues-germany-as-spring-begins-a-890166.html.  The article remarks, “The calendar says spring started Wednesday, but a look outside tells sun-starved Germans otherwise. Snow has blanketed large parts of the country in recent days, and forecasts predict yet more wintry weather to come. Super.”

[4] See 3 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 357 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[5] Id.

[6] See David J. Collins, Reforming Saints: Saints’ Lives and Their Authors in Germany 1470-1530 at 56-64 (2008).

[7] Id. at 57.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 57-58.

[10] Id. at 57.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 59.

[13] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 4, at 357.

[14] See Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 25 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

Saint Theodore: Warrior Saint and Dragon-Slayer

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Statue of Saint TheodoreSaint Theodore Arrives in Venice

He arrived in Venice from the East in pieces: a torso and cuirass, a disembodied head, a crocodile.  The Sack of Constantinople in 1204 had devastated the city, but the Venetians, who had transported the army of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople, managed to salvage an enormous horde of objects from the captured city. The Venetians systematically shipped these objects – statues, jeweled reliquaries, architectural columns, and marble pediments – back to Venice. Among the crates were several fragments of statuary that, when recombined, would become a statue of Saint Theodore, the great warrior-saint, dragon-slayer, and a patron saint of Venice.

Saint Theodore of Amasea

Saint Theodore of Amasea was a Roman recruit martyred in the early 4th century for professing his faith in Christianity.  As a new recruit, he is also known as Saint Theodore Tiro, tiro meaning “recruit” in Latin.[1]  Saint Theodore of Amasea is often confused with another Theodore – Saint Theodore of Stratelates, a Roman general – although most scholars believe the two Theodores were probably the same person.[2]  Butler’s Lives of the Saints notes that the stories relating to Saint Theodore of Amasea “cannot be relied on,” although they probably refer to “a real martyr who may or may not have been a soldier.”[3]  Butler’s Lives of the Saints continues, “So complicated and contradictory did his story become that, in order to make it less inconsistent, a second soldier St Theodore had to be posited and so we have the St Theodore Stratelates of February 7.”[4]  Saint Theodore of Amasea’s feast day is November 9.

Saint TheodoreThe first known mention of Saint Theodore of Amasea derives from a panegyric delivered by Saint Gregory of Nyssa near Saint Theodore’s tomb in Euchaita, modern-day Turkey.[5]  According to various legends, when Saint Theodore refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods along with his legion he was brought before the governor of the province to explain himself.  He declared himself to be a Christian, and when asked why he would profess faith in an outlawed religion, the worship of which was a capital offense, he responded, “I know not your gods.  Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, is my God.”[6]  He was dismissed and, according to some sources, went into the city of Amasea near the Iris River and burned down the temple of Cybele.[7]  Not surprisingly, he was captured and was again brought before the Roman authorities who questioned and cajoled him, and then tortured him.[8]  When he was returned to his prison cell, he was comforted by visions of angels.[9]  Eventually, he was condemned to death and was burned alive in a furnace.[10]

Here Be Dragons

Notably absent from these stories is any mention of dragons or dragon slaying.  Why, then, is Saint Theodore frequently depicted slaying a dragon?  Saint Theodore’s identification as an heroic dragon-slayer may be related to the belief that by his intercession “devils were expelled and distempers cured.”[11]  In The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art, Sara Kuehn suggests that the belief in Saint Theodore’s power to vanquish evil probably inspired the dragon-slaying motif.[12]  Kuehn writes, “Dragon-slaying riders were progressively identified as warrior saints and can conclusively be interpreted as exercising an apotropaic or protective function.”[13]

St. Michael and Dragon, Minster of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany

In early Christian art, Saint Theodore is often depicted with fellow dragon-slayer Saint George, although portrayals of Saint Theodore slaying a dragon predate those of his more famous companion.  Kuehn states, “Among the military saints Theodore and George were predominantly associated with the miracle of dragon-slaying and often appear together.  In the hagiographical tradition, Saint Theodore clearly preceded Saint George in the role of dragon-slayer.”[14]  Early references to Saint Theodore slaying a dragon can be traced to the late 9th century[15] while the earliest known depiction of Saint George smiting a dragon is from the early 11th century.[16]  Before then, Saint George was sometimes shown killing a man rather than a dragon.[17]  Other saints frequently depicted with dragons include Saint Margaret, Saint Martha, Saint Sylvester, the Apostle Philip, and the Archangel Michael (pictured in the carved sculpture, above, located at the Minster of the Holy Cross, Rottweil, Germany).[18]

Saint George and the Dragon

Incidentally, the celebrated story of how Saint George vanquished a dragon and rescued a princess was likely a later embellishment to the legend of Saint George the martyr – and one that clearly captured the imagination of subsequent generations.  Most famously told in the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), Saint George was a Christian knight born in Cappadocia who, while out riding in the province of Lybia, arrived at the city of Sylene.  The city’s inhabitants were being terrorized by a terrible dragon, which they attempted to appease by providing two sheep every day.  When the inhabitants ran out of sheep, they substituted a human victim, who was selected by lot.  On the day of Saint George’s arrival, the king’s daughter had been selected to serve as the sacrifice.  Saint George ultimately rescued the princess, but before he would slay the dragon, the saint elicited the people’s promise to convert to Christianity.  This they promised, and once the dragon was killed, four oxcarts were needed to dispose of its carcass.[19]

Heroic Landscape with St George, Joseph Anton Koch (1807).  Alte Pinakothek, Munich, German.

Joseph Anton Koch, Heroic Landscape with St. George (detail) (1807). Alte Pinakothek, Munich, German.

Butler’s Lives of the Saints observes that “the story of the dragon, though given so much prominence, was a later accretion of which we have no sure traces before the twelfth century.”[20]  The authors further comment, “There is every reason to believe that St George was a real martyr who suffered at Diospolis (i.e. Lydda) in Palestine, probably before the time of Constantine.  Beyond this there seems to be nothing which can be affirmed with any confidence.”[21]  Although Saint George is not mentioned in the Syriac Breviarium, he is mentioned in the Heironymianum, and various pilgrims of the 6th to 8th century identified Lydda or Diospolis as the site of his relics.[22]

Arm Reliquaries

Arm Reliquaries, Basilica of Saint Mark

Coincidentally, the arm of Saint George was apparently one of four important relics taken from Constantinople to Venice following the sack of the city in 1204.[23]  Located today in the Treasury of Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Reliquary of the Arm of Saint George (pictured above, in the right foreground) features an unusual cone-shaped exterior, oval in cross-section, of silver gilt and enamel and a glass lid topped with a figure of Saint George on horseback spearing a dragon.[24]

Arm Reliquary of S George

Reliquary of the Arm of St. George (detail of lid)

A plaque on the lowest part of the reliquary case, above the stems and leaves that form the base, reads in reserve against niello, “ISTVT · EST · BRAC/HIVM · GLORIOXIS/IMI · MARTIRIS S/ANCTI · GEORGEII” (“This is the arm of the most glorious martyr, Saint George”).[25]  This exterior, of Venetian design, dates to before 1325.[26]  The outer reliquary holds an earlier Byzantine reliquary made of silver that dates to before 1204.[27]  While the dragon is likely original, the equestrian figure of Saint George is probably more modern, dating to the 16th century.[28]  According to some sources, Saint George became Venice’s third patron saint – after Saints Mark and Theodore – sometime following the translation of his arm to the city.[29]

Plaque of S George Reliquary

Reliquary of the Arm of St. George (plaque in reserve against niello)

He Came in Pieces

As noted above, the statue of Saint Theodore arrived in Venice in various pieces, although the pieces were not, in fact, part of a single, unified work.  Edward Hollis, who writes about the evolution and transformation of buildings over time in The Secret Life of Buildings, explains how the Venetians recombined disparate sculptural fragments pilfered from Constantinople to create a single, monumental statute of their patron saint.[30]

Saint Theodore in Saint Mark's SquareAfter the Venetians left Constantinople, some of the treasures they had appropriated were lost at sea and some were sold along the journey, but most of the objects arrived safely in Venice, where they were unloaded and unpacked at the Arsenale.[31]  After they were evaluated by various officials, they were eventually repurposed to enhance the beauty, status, and prestige of La Serenissima.  For example, building material and other decorative ornaments stripped from the churches of Constantinople were used to clothe the basilica of Saint Mark “in the borrowed raiment of vanished sanctuaries” so that “what had been an austere brick structure soon shone, and sparkled, and flashed in the sun.”[32]

Hollis explains that a centurion’s cuirass, a crocodile, and a disembodied head “became the body of Saint Theodore.”[33]  Similarly, a pair of brazen angel’s wings and a lion were “welded together to make the emblem of Saint Mark.”[34]  Both of these new creations were hoisted atop a pair of Numidian granite columns, also taken from Constantinople, and set in Saint Mark’s Square.[35]  The two statutes, symbolizing two patron saints of Venice, remain in the square to this day.[36]

Antonio Canaletto, Piazzetta in Venice, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, German

Antonio Canaletto, Piazzetta in Venice.  Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.


[1] 4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 302, 301-303 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).  Alternatively, Butler’s Lives of the Saints suggests that the surname Tiro more probably derives from his membership in the Cohors tironumId.

[2] See, e.g., id.; Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 345 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002) (“Beginning in the tenth century, Theodore split into two figures in popular devotion, a general and a soldier that were really the same person.”).

[3] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 302.

[4] Id.

[5] See, e.g., id. at 301.

[6] Id. at 302.

[7] See, e.g., Giorgi, supra note 1, at 345; Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 302.

[8] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 302.

[9] See, e.g., Giorgi, supra note 1, at 345; Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 302.

[10] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 302

[11] Id. (citing the panegyric attributed to Saint Gregory of Nyssa).

[12] See Sara Kuehn, The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art 109 (2011).

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 108.

[15] Id. at 108 n.215 (“His exploit of vanquishing a dragon with a spear only appeared in the second state of his Passio Prima (dated 890) . . . .”).  Kuehn also notes that the 7th century Passion of Marina of Antioch contains “antecedents” of Saint Theodore’s dragon-slaying.  Id.

[16] Id. at 108 n.216.  Kuehn identifies the church of Saint Barbara at Soganli as possessing the earliest identifiable portrayal of Saint George vanquishing a dragon.  Id.

[17] Id. at 108.

[18] See, e.g., George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 16 (1954).

[19] See 2 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 148-50 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[20] Id. at 149.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 150.

[23] See, e.g. Treasures of Heaven:  Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe 92 (Martina Bagnoli et al., eds., 2010).  The other three important relics were a relic of the Holy Blood, a piece of the True Cross, and the head of Saint John the Baptist.  Id.

[24] Id.  The lid was originally made of rock crystal.  Id.

[25] William D. Wixsom, Western Metalwork, in The Treasury of San Marco Venice 282 (David Buxton ed., 1984).

[26] Treasures of Heaven, supra note 23, at 92.

[27] Id.

[28] Wixsom, supra note 25, at 282.  Wixsom writes, “The horse and rider are probably directly based on Leonardo’s designs for the Sforza and Trivulzio monuments, dating respectively 1485-93 and 1506-13, even though the theme of a rearing horse goes back to the early Florentine Renaissance sculptor, Bertoldo (1420-91), to Paduan bronzes dating around 1510, and to ancient bronzes.” Id. (citations omitted).

[29] See, e.g., id.; Treasures of Heaven, supra note 23, at 92.

[30] See Edward Hollis, The Secret Lives of Buildings (2009).

[31] Id. at 55.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] The statute of Saint Theodore in Saint Mark’s Square, however, is a replica.  The original is now located in the Doge’s Palace.  A sign next to statue states that the marble statue “is a fourteenth-century sculpture with an ancient armoured bust and a young man’s head of different origins. . . . According to tradition, the saint’s face is a portrait of Mithradates of Pontus.”

The Way of Saint James: Pilgrimage to the Tomb of a “Son of Thunder”

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Twelve Apostles AltarThe Way of Saint James

According to tradition, Saint James, one of the twelve Apostles, was martyred by beheading in the year 44.  After the rediscovery of his relics in 814, pilgrimages to his tomb in Compostela, northern Spain, became extremely popular.  Compostela even rivaled Jerusalem and Rome as a destination for pilgrim travelers during the Middle Ages.  Consequently, routes to Saint James’s shrine, including one through Rothenburg, Germany, crisscrossed Europe, marking the path to the saint’s tomb.  Today, the Way of Saint James (Camino de Santiago) continues to direct travelers to the remains of the fiery-tempered Apostle whom Jesus once called a “Son of Thunder.”

Invitation to a Beheading

Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem during the Christian persecutions of King Herod Agrippa I.  According to Clement of Alexandria, Saint James’s accuser was so moved by the courage and conviction James showed at his trial that he subsequently repented and declared himself a Christian.  As a consequence, the man was sentenced to be beheaded alongside Saint James.  As both men were led to execution, the accuser turned to James and begged for his forgiveness.  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, “St James, after pausing a little, turned to him and embraced him, saying, ‘Peace be with you’.  He then kissed him, and they were both beheaded together.”[1]

A Tomb by the Sounding Sea

Saint James (detail)Early chronicles suggested that after his death, Saint James’s remains were transported from Jerusalem to the northern coast of Spain where they were buried contra mare Britannicum, “close to the British sea.”[2]  The location of the tomb, however, remained a mystery until, centuries later, in about 814, the tomb was rediscovered under miraculous circumstances.[3]  According to legend, a local monk named Pelayo was guided by a star to a secluded spot in the woods near the Galician coast.[4]  There he discovered a marble sarcophagus that contained human bones, apparently very old.[5]  Bishop Teodomir, the local bishop, proclaimed the remains to be those of Saint James, long believed to have been buried in the region.  After learning of the discovery, King Alfonso II journeyed to the site to venerate the relics and ordered that a church be built on the spot.  The modest church established by King Alfonso II later grew into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the ultimate destination of pilgrims traveling the Way of Saint James.

King Alfonso II’s journey to the tomb of Saint James is considered the first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and it set the example for subsequent generations of pilgrim travelers.  Departing from Oviedo, the location of his royal court, King Alfonso II likely took the Roman road known as the Camino Primitivo to Compostela.  As the popularity of Saint James’s shrine grew, other routes gradually came into regular use, such as the Camino del Norte, another Roman road, which skirted the coast.  By the 11th century, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela had become an international phenomenon, drawing visitors from all over Christendom and establishing Santiago de Compostela as a rival to Jerusalem and Rome for pilgrims.[6]  In a paper discussing the history of the pilgrimage, Laurie Dennett opines that interest in Saint James’s relics had begun to shift the “conceptual geography of Christian Europe, giving it a new pole in the west, a new focus for popular devotion, that balanced the Byzantine east with its spiritual centre at Jerusalem.”[7]  She further notes that “Santiago de Compostela even seemed to rival the pretensions of Rome,” at least for a time.[8]

St. Jakobskirche and the Twelve Apostles Altar

The St. Jakobskirche (Saint James’s Church) in Rothenburg ob der Tauber was once an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela.  Known more widely as the home of the Altar of the Holy Blood, the church also houses the impressive Twelve Apostles Altar (Zwölfbotenaltar), a carved altarpiece with a painted predella and painted wings, which incorporates several images of Saint James.

St Jakobskirche

View of St. Jakobskirche from the city walls.

Completed in 1466, the altarpiece is the work of Hans Waidenlich and Friedrich Herlin with carvings in the Multscher tradition by an unknown sculptor.[9]  Herlin, who may have been from Rothenburg, moved to Nördlingen later in his career and is closely identified with the Twelve Apostles Altar, which he signed: “This work was made by Friedrich Herlin, painter, mcccclxvi.  Saint James pray to God for him.”[10]

In Carved Splendor:  Late Gothic Altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol, Rainer Kahsnitz identifies the Twelve Apostles Altar as “one of the best-preserved altarpieces from the Late Gothic period.”[11]  Although little is known about the origins of the altarpiece, Kahsnitz speculates that it must have replaced an earlier work at St. Jakobskirche.[12]

Twelve Apostles Altar - Detail

Twelve Apostles Altar (detail)

The corpus of the altarpiece depicts the Crucifixion, with Mary (to the left) and Saint John the Evangelist (to the right) below the cross, flanking the dying Christ.  Next to Mary stands Saint James wearing a pilgrim’s hat decorated with a scallop shell, a symbol of pilgrimage.  Two other shells dangle from his wrist, and he is shown with a pilgrim’s staff, another defining attribute of the patron saint of pilgrims.[13]  The other carved figures below the cross are Saint Elizabeth (to the far left), who is carrying a loaf of bread and a pitcher; Saint Leonard (next to Saint John), the patron saint of prisoners of war; and Saint Anthony the hermit (to the far right), who is shown with a bell.  According to Kahsnitz, the altar was kept permanently closed following Rothenburg’s adoption of the Reformation.[14]  This helped preserve the sculptures and the paintings on the inner wings.[15]

SS James and PaulSaint James appears again on Herlin’s predella with a shell in one hand and a pilgrim’s staff in the other.  To his right, Saint Peter carries two of his traditional attributes: a set of keys and a book, which he peers into with the aid of spectacles.  All twelve Apostles are represented on the predella, arranged in pairs behind a Late Gothic balustrade.[16]  In addition to other paintings, the back of the predella also features a depiction of the veil of Saint Veronica:  the image of Christ’s face with a crown of thorns imprinted on a veil or shroud.[17]

Sons of Thunder

Saint James is often known as “the Greater” to distinguish him from Saint James, son of Alphaeus, known as “the Lesser.”  He was the son of Zebedee and brother of Saint John the Evangelist, and he was the first Apostle martyred.  Saint James and his brother John apparently earned the epithet Boanerges, or “Sons of Thunder,” on account of their “impetuous spirit and fiery temper.”[18]  Nevertheless, as noted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, James, John, and Peter, the Apostles “who from time to time acted impetuously, and had to be rebuked, were the very ones our Lord turned to on special occasions.”[19]  James, John, and Peter were the only Apostles to witness the agony in the garden of Gethsemani and were the only ones present for the Transfiguration.

Modern Pilgrims

The Way of Saint James continues to be a popular with pilgrims even today.  According to the Confraternity of Saint James, an organization founded “to bring together people interested in the medieval pilgrim routes through France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela,” the last several decades “have seen an extraordinary revival of interest in the pilgrimage to Santiago.”[20]  Once considered “one of the greatest of all Christian shrines” in the Middle Ages,[21] the route from the border of France and Spain known as the Camino Francés was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.[22]

Twelve Apostles Altar 3Still, some scholars question whether Saint James ever preached in Spain and whether the remains interred at Santiago de Compostela really are those of Saint James.  Butler’s Lives of the Saints states, “Outside of Spain almost all eminent scholars and critical students of history answer both questions in the negative.”[23]  Several authors have argued that Saint James’s visit to Spain is “improbable” because Saint James was martyred in Jerusalem in the year 44 and because he was “unheard of in Spain before the end of the seventh century.”[24]  Additionally, while it may be “quite possible that the relics recovered, after they had been lost, are identical with those which were venerated at Compostela in the middle ages, . . . the authenticity of medieval relics is always difficult to establish and in this case it is more than dubious.”[25]

Nevertheless, thousands of people continue to follow the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela each year.  While there are “as many reasons for this revival as there are pilgrims,” the Confraternity of Saint James observes that “many people make the pilgrimage at a turning point in their lives, and . . . many are helped to come to terms with personal crisis by a period of separation from all that is familiar, and the shared hardship of the road.”[26]

Pilgrim's Hat, felt, silk braid, shell, bone, jet (c. 1571).  This pilgrim's hat belongs to a set of pilgrim's garb (hat, cloak, and staff) once owned by Stephan Praun III.  It is currently on display at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.

Pilgrim’s Hat, felt, silk braid, shell, bone, jet (c. 1571). This pilgrim’s hat is currently on display at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany, along with a matching pilgrim’s cloak and staff.  The matching set of pilgrim’s garb belonged to Stephan Praun III, a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela.

Saint James - Metropolitan Museum

Saint James the Greater, pine with paint and gilding, South German (1475-1500), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The influence of Veit Stoss, who worked in Nuremberg and Krakow, is evident in the carving of the statue’s robes and face.


[1] 3 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 183 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[2] Laurie Dennett, “2000 Years of the Camino de Santiago:  Where Did It Come From?  Where Is It Going?,” The Confraternity of Saint James, http://www.csj.org.uk/2000-years.htm (citing martyrologies by Florus of Lyons and Usuard of St. Germaine-des-Prés).  Dennett observes that “by the late 8th century, a literary tradition had developed which held that the burial place of St James lay in Spain, even if the site had not yet been identified.”  She further notes, “Interestingly, it was not until after the purported discovery of the tomb in about 814 that a corresponding tradition evolved concerning the Apostle’s return to Palestine and death, and the transportation of his mortal remains back to Spain for burial.”  Id.  The mare Britannicum is the present-day English Channel.

[3] See id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See Rainer Kahsnitz, Carved Splendor:  Late Gothic Altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol 58 (2006).  Kahsnitz explains that the sculptures “were executed by a carver from the circle around the Ulm sculptor Hans Multscher (active there from 1427 until his death in 1467).  In their compact three-dimensionality they are based more strongly on Multscher’s earlier works from the 1450s, at which time the sculptor was probably Multscher’s pupil.”  Id. at 61.

[10] Id. at 58.  A clever Latin inscription on the frame of the altarpiece also dates the work to 1466.  It begins, “Bis duo c quoque sexagintaque sex quoque mille . . . .”  Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] See George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 112 (1959).  Ferguson observes that the pilgrim’s staff is “used alone and in combination with various other objects as an attribute of numerous saints who have been noteworthy for their travels and pilgrimages.”  Id.  Other saints commonly depicted with staffs include Saints Christopher, John the Baptist, Jerome, Philip the Apostle, Ursula, and Roch.  Id.

[14] Kahsnitz, supra note 9, at 58.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 60.

[17] See, e.g., Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 119 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002).

[18] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 182.

[19] Id.

[20] The Confraternity of Saint James, The Confraternity of Saint James, http://www.csj.org.uk/csj.htm; The Present-Day Pilgrimage, The Confraternity of Saint James, http://www.csj.org.uk/present.htm.

[21] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 183.

[22] The Present-Day Pilgrimage, supra note 20.

[23] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 1, at 183.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] The Present-Day Pilgrimage, supra note 20.

The Altar of the Holy Blood

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Altar of the Holy Blood 2

The Altar of the Holy Blood

The Altar of the Holy Blood, located at the church of Saint James (St. Jakobskirche), Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, is named for the rare relic it contains:  a small sample of Christ’s blood.  The relic, encased in rock crystal, is set in a cross held aloft by two carved angels, enshrined above the corpus (central panel).[1]  The altarpiece itself is a masterpiece of woodcarving created by the Würzburg sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider between 1501 and 1505.  In the medieval period, the church of Saint James, named for the patron saint of pilgrims, was an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and the Holy Blood (Heilig Blut) relic was an object of intense devotion.  Today, the Altar of the Holy Blood, as well as the church’s other great altarpiece, the Twelve Apostles Altar, continue to draw visitors to the church of Saint James and the picturesque, medieval town of Rothenburg.

Tilman Riemenschneider

Rothenburg - StreetTilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), a sculptor and woodcarver who worked primarily in the prince-bishopric of Würzburg, is considered the “most famous of all German late-Gothic sculptors.”[2]  Although little is known of his early life, it is believed that he learned to sculpt while traveling in the Rhineland and Swabia, possibly in the cities of Strasbourg and Ulm.  In addition to the Altar of the Holy Blood, other celebrated works by Riemenschneider include the Assumption of the Virgin Altarpiece in the Herrgottskirche, Creglingen, Germany, and the Tomb of Emperor Henry II and Empress Cunigunde in Bamberg Cathedral, Bamberg, Germany.

Design of the Altar of the Holy Blood

Holy Blood Altar - Corpus 2The central panel of the Altar of the Holy Blood depicts the Last Supper, although the figure of Christ, who is normally portrayed at the center of such scenes, has been supplanted by Judas, the Apostle who would later betray Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, 1475-1525, Michael Baxandall writes, “Judas is Riemenschneider’s protagonist, displacing Christ from the centre of the Corpus. . . .  The emphasis on poor Judas invites meditation, though its significances are unlikely to be arcane:  Judas might, for instance, be taken to stand for the lack of discrimination with which God offers grace.”[3]  Citing a sermon from the 1490s by Johannes Pauli, a Franciscan writer, Baxandall observes, “Judas . . . can be a signal of hope to pilgrims poor in spirit.”[4]

The two side panels, or wings, flanking the corpus are carved in low relief and depict two other scenes from Jesus’ life: the Entry into Jerusalem and the Agony in the Garden.  Near the central pinnacle of the altarpiece is a carving of the Christ of Mercy, which is approximately 3 feet tall.

Relic of the Holy Blood - DetailThe relic of the Holy Blood, as mentioned above, is displayed just above the corpus and below the figure of the Christ of Mercy.  A contract between Riemenschneider and members of the Rothenburg city council from April 1501 describes how the relic was to be displayed.  It states, “[A]bove in the shrine in the Auszug he shall carve in the middle two Angels kneeling opposite each other and holding the Holy Cross, and also above the Cross two gliding Angels . . . ; and at the sides next to the Cross, on the right the image of the Virgin Mary and on the left the Angel Gabriel of the type announcing the angelic greeting to her virgin heart . . . .”[5]

A Monochrome Altarpiece

Altar of the Holy BloodUnusual for this time period, the Altar of the Holy Blood is not gilded or painted.  Rather, the wood has been left in its natural state, unfinished.  Some sources have argued that Riemenschneider eschewed paint because he preferred the natural beauty of wood.[6]  Alternatively, the altarpiece may have remained unpainted because it would have cost too much to paint.  Julien Chapuis of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, “Retables were costly undertakings that often resulted from the collaboration of several individuals: a sculptor, a joiner, an ironmonger, and, in the case of a polychrome altarpiece, a painter.”[7]  The Altar of the Holy Blood, meanwhile, was relatively inexpensive.  Baxandall observes, “The sculpture is cheap, monochrome, narrative work . . . .  It was very inexpensive work indeed, Riemenschneider being paid sixty Florins for the sculpture, Harschner fifty Florins for the shrinework, very little for a quite large retable in an important station . . . .”

Baxandall suggests that the absence of color “makes for a degree of alienation” and discourages “personal participation” and the “empathetic relation” one may feel toward other works.[8]  He states, “The monochrome medium is like black-and-white engraving in that it declares itself as a convention, not fully identifiable with the actual person or event.”[9]  In Baxandall’s opinion, the “altarpiece complements rather than abets the kind of pious attention aroused by a relic of the Holy Blood, for Riemenschneider is carving, to use Zwingli’s term, in Geschichteswyß, in a narrative way.”[10]

An Immersive Experience

Nevertheless, the opportunity to see an altarpiece in situ, especially one as significant as the Altar of the Holy Blood with its prized relic, is rare and should not be undervalued.[11]  As Chapuis observes, “very few carved altarpieces have survived intact” despite their ubiquity in the late 15th and early 16th century in Central Europe.[12]  “The destruction of religious images during the Protestant Reformation, along with neglect, changes in taste, fire, and the secularization of ecclesiastic institutions account for this loss,” he explains.  “Many figures and reliefs in museum collections are merely fragments of elaborate, monstrance-like structures, which served as a focus for liturgy, veneration, and pilgrimage.”[13]

Holy Blood Relic - Sign


[1] See generally Julien Chapuis, Late Medieval German Sculpture: Images for the Cult and for Private Devotion, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grmn_4/hd_grmn_4.htm (describing the four main elements of an altarpiece).

[2] Tilman Riemenschneider, Encyclopedia of World Biography (2004), available at http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Tilman_Riemenschneider.aspx.

[3] Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, 1475-1525, at 179 (1980).

[4] Id. at 180.

[5] Baxandall, supra note 3, at 174.

[6] See, e.g., “The Reredos IV:  The German World – Tilman Riemenschneider,” The Society of St. Hugh of Cluny (Nov. 16, 2009), http://sthughofcluny.org/2009/11/the-reredos-iv-the-german-world-tilman-riemenschneider.html (“He was one of the German carvers of altarpieces to leave the carvings in the natural wood and abandon the gilt and painted surfaces of tradition.”); Encyclopedia of World Biography, supra note 2 (“Sensing the beauty of the wood itself, Riemenschneider frequently did not polychrome his altarpieces, a novelty at this time.”).

[7] Chapuis, supra note 1.

[8] Baxandall, supra note 3, at 186.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] See, e.g., Karen Rosenberg, At the Altar of Renaissance Tuscany, NY Times, February 14, 2013, at C32, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/arts/design/piero-della-francesca-in-america-at-the-frick.html?_r=0 (explaining how difficult it can be to “recreate the immersive experience” of a church setting).

[12] Chapuis, supra note 1.

[13] Id.

Saint Munditia: A Holy Skeleton Near the Rindermarkt in Munich

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Saint MunditiaThe Skeleton of Saint Munditia

The skeleton of Saint Munditia rests in a glass ossuary, hidden in plain sight at the Peterskirche (Saint Peter’s Church) in Munich. Situated just steps from the church’s north entrance, the ossuary is ordinarily locked behind a wrought iron gate that partially Shrine of S Munditiaobscures it from view. Most visitors never notice she’s there, but those who catch a glimpse of her and pause to peer through the gate may be surprised to find a skeleton, bedecked in jewels and bound in gauze, staring back at them.

The skeleton is propped on cushions and rests at a slight angle to the viewer. Its arms and legs are adorned with alternating red and green jewels, the color of gumdrops. She holds a golden palm frond resembling a giant quill pen in her left hand, her thumb hooked around its stem. The palm frond is emblematic of martyrdom. In her right hand she holds what appears to be a small philatory with the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P), surrounded by a radiance, extending from the lid. Chi and rho are the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ. Unfortunately, although the philatory is transparent, it is difficult to discern what it contains. Are they the relics of another saint?

The skeleton’s most striking feature are its glass eyes. Set securely in the saint’s skull, they stare out at the world in slightly different directions. The skull is also crowned with a metal laurel wreath, another symbol of martyrdom.

Who Is Saint Munditia?

Not much is known of Saint Munditia. She does not appear in the Roman Martyrology or even the Book of Saints, although the inscription above her tomb is unequivocal about her status as both a saint and martyr. The inscription reads CORPUS SANCTA MUNDITIA MARTYRIS (“Body of Saint Munditia, Martyr”). She is also purportedly the patron saint of spinsters.[1]

According to some sources, the relics of Saint Munditia were discovered in the Roman catacombs and were obtained by Franz Benedikt Höger, a Munich businessman, in 1675. The relics were translated to the Peterskirche on 5 September 1677, where they have remained ever since. In 1804, the skeleton was concealed behind a wooden shrine in an attempt to combat “Aberglaube” (superstition), but the relics were eventually uncovered again in 1883, which resulted in renewed interest in her cult.[2]Peterskirche - Interior

The inscription located inside the ossuary, beneath Saint Munditia’s head, is somewhat enigmatic, but it offers clues about the life and death of the mysterious saint. It reads:

DDM MUNDICIE PROTOGENIE BENEMERENTI QUAE VIXIT ANNOS LX QUAE IBIT IN PACE XV KAL D ZUM FROMMEN GEDENKEN AN MUNDITIA PROTOGENIA DIE WOHLVERDIENTE: SIE LEBTE 60 JAHRE UND GING EIN IN DEN FRIEDEN AM 15. TAG VOR DEN KALENDEN DES DEZEMBERS (17. NOVEMBER) – APC

The abbreviation “APC” appended at the end of the text is one of the most perplexing parts of the inscription. Some have interpreted it to mean “ASCIA PLEXA CAPITA,” Shrine of S Munditia 2indicating Saint Munditia had been decapitated by an ax or hatchet. Others propose that “APC” stands for “ANDRONICO PROBO CONSULIBUS,” meaning “During the counsulship of [Tatius] Andronicus and [Pompeius] Probus.” Under this interpretation, Saint Munditia would have died in the year 310.

While Saint Munditia may not have the star power of more famous saints, like Saint Mark or Saint George, she continues to be celebrated every year[3] at the Peterskirche, and she even has a following on Facebook. A contemporary poem by the Trinidadian writer Vahni Capildeo offers further evidence of Saint Munditia’s ability to provoke and inspire, even today. “St. Munditia, centuries later,” he writes, “bewigged, bolted and belted with jewels, . . . glassed off like the snake room at the zoo.”[4]

The Skull of Saint Erasmus

Skull of Saint ErasmusBut Saint Munditia is not the only saint to share the small enclosure that contains her shrine. Above her glass ossuary and easily overlooked amidst the visual tumult of bones, jewels, and Baroque ornamentation surrounding her skeleton rests another, much smaller, glass reliquary. Peering out of the box with unnaturally blue eyes is a skull with a halo placed on a cushion. The inscription above it declares that it is the skull of Saint Erasmus: CAPUT S. ERASMI P. MART.[5] As I’ve written before, Saint Erasmus of Formiae is a patron saint of mariners and protector against intestinal ailments. He is incorrectly believed to have been martyred by disembowelment.


[1] Die Pfarrgemeinde von St. Peter, “Eine Katakombenheilige in St. Peter,” available at http://www.alterpeter.de/frameneu/mundi_frame.htm.

[2] Id.

[3] The Munditiafest takes place every November 17th.

[4] Vahni Capildeo, No Traveller Returns 163 (2003).

[5] “MART” is a shortened form of “Martyr.”  The “P.” I believe stands for “Pius,” meaning dutiful.