The Reredos of Christ Church – Part II of III

Part II of III

You kneel at the communion rail, ready to receive the bread and wine. Raise your eyes, and there behind the priests is a puzzling sight. Painted on decorative wood panels behind the high altar are a dozen symbols, some disturbing, all enigmatic. There are everyday objects like a ship, loaves of bread, shells, and even bags of coins. Others are sinister: knives, spears, and even an axe. What are these images do- ing at our altar? What are they telling us?  This is part II of the Reredos story as written by Christ Church parishioner, Dr. Dick Hollister.

6 Cup & Snake ⋅ John The Evangelist

The next emblem is the cup and the snake. This represents John the Evangelist. He was also a son of Zebedee and thus James the Great’s brother and the other “Son of Thunder” who threatened the Samaritan village. He is the supposed author of the Gospel of John and presumably the referent to the “beloved disciple.” At the Cross, he stood with Mary, and Jesus charged John to care for Mary after his death (John 19:26-27).

After the resurrection, John the Evangelist traveled throughout Asia Minor, including Ephesus, where he may have been a bishop. Because of his strident evangelism, he was persecuted. One tradition holds that the Roman Emperor Domitian had him thrown in a cauldron of boiling oil. John emerged unscathed, so he was exiled to the island of Patmos c. 95 CE, just off the coast of present-day Turkey. It is there or on his return to Ephesus that in addition to the Gospel, some hold he also wrote Johannine Epistles and the Book of Revelation. Most scholars disagree and believe that the Epistles and Revelation were written by another John, John of Patmos, and not by the Evangelist. Regardless, John lived to an old age, the only apostle not martyred. He probably was buried in Ephesus, but no location has been identified and no relics remain.

His emblem of cup and snake has several interpretations. One holds that his enemies plotted to murder him by a poisoned drink, but a vision of a snake warned him away. Alternatively, the cup is the Christian equivalent of the Bowl of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, and the daughter of Asclepius, whom we know as the god of medicine. Snakes were common in pagan temple worship, but there is a particular link to medicine. Because snakes slough and replace their skin, they are symbols of healing, rebirth, and immortality. Another theory is that snake venom, while obviously poisonous, could in trace amounts be therapeutic and of benefit to the ill. For either or both of these explanations, to this day the cup and snake is the international symbol of pharmacies.

The Cross

We are now at the half-way point of the reredos. In the center is the Cross, highlighted in its own niche. This is the foundation and symbol of our faith. It, too, is an instrument of torture, perhaps the worst of all: public, degrading, and painfully slow.

Unlike Catholics, we Episcopalians choose the Cross over the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion commemorates Christ’s agony and death, the passion of Good Friday. But the simple Cross says so much more: It does not mourn his death but celebrates his resurrection.

Just like the Tomb, the Cross is empty. Christ has risen on Easter Day, above the suffering of incarnation, and he sits forever at the right hand of God. We await his return in glory. And just so, we recite the Nicene Creed.

Return to the sanctuary one evening, after all services are completed. The lights of the nave will be off save one. The niche of the Cross is always illuminated: “And again Jesus spoke to them, saying. ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ ” (John 8:12).

7 Keys To Heaven ⋅ Peter

This one is obvious: Peter was the rock on which the Church would be built, and hence according to Roman Catholic teaching, the first pope. One of the first disciples chosen, he was the first to understand and explicitly state that Jesus was the Messiah: “[Jesus] said to them, “ ‘But who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ ” (Matthew 16:15-16).

Because of this insight, Jesus shortens Simon Peter to simply Peter, playing on the pun that Peter is petros, the Greek for “rock”: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Jesus then gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). There is an echo here of 1st century Judaism: The concept of divine authority is the authority to “bind and to loose,” to forbid and to permit. Note that there are always two keys to heaven, perhaps one to let in the good and one to lock out the evil from the eternal kingdom. A crest with these “keys saltire” (crossed), underneath the bishop’s miter, can be seen on the balcony as you exit the sanctuary. It is a sign of episcopal, and in the Catholic tradition, papal authority. Along with James the Great and John, Peter was present at Jesus’s Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). Perhaps his most famous moment was when, as Jesus predicted, Peter denied Jesus three times as recounted in all three synoptic gospel (e.g. Matthew 26:69-75). Peter was present at the resurrection, although Luke, John, and Paul (1st Corinthians) give different versions of the story. Along with James the Great and John, Peter was a “pillar of the Church” (Galatians 2:9). His relationship with Paul, however was strained (Galatians 2:11) as Paul wanted to break away from Judaism while Peter wanted to remain within it. Unlike James, Peter escaped execution by Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great) by a miraculous angelic rescue (Acts 12: 1-12).

After the resurrection, Peter was an active apostle in the Holy Land, not only in Jerusalem but also in Antioch (Syria) before going to Rome. Two epistles bear his name, but scholars do not feel he was author of either. Nero
is said to have executed Peter (perhaps with Paul) in Rome, c. 64 CE. Traditionally, Peter is said to have been crucified upside down at his request because he felt himself unworthy of dying in the same manner as Jesus. His relics, by tradition, lie under St. Peter’s Basilica.

Peter is considered the founder of the Church in Rome. Despite Peter’s denial, or perhaps in part because of it, Peter remains the most important of the Twelve and his papal authority supreme for all Christendom— at least until the Reformation.

8 Saltire Cross ⋅ Andrew

This is the symbol of Saint Andrew, Peter’s brother. He was called with Peter to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19, KJV). Andrew derives his name from the Greek anar, “man, warrior.” It is the route of many English words, including “androgen.” Andrew was called with Peter to be the first disciples. In John (1:35), Andrew is called prior to Peter, and thus in the Orthodox Church, he was considered the protokletos, “the first called.” While the pope is the apostolic successor to Peter in the Roman Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople is the successor to Andrew in the Orthodox Church.

Andrew preached widely along the Black Sea, reaching the cities of Kiev, and Veliky Novgorod. He is the patron saint of Ukraine, Romania, and Russia. In 38 CE he founded the Church in Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul) and installed its first bishop. He traveled to Thrace and reached far as Achaea in central Greece. It is there in the town of Patras that he was crucified. Similar to Peter, he did not feel himself worthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Thus he requested the “cross saltire” (decussate or diagonal cross), which we see on this illustration.

The story of his relics is quite complicated. There are today relics in Greece, Italy, Poland, and, of course, Scotland. One legend holds that a certain Greek monk named Regulus (c. 750 CE) was told in a dream to take the relics to “the ends of the earth.” So he sailed as far west as he could until shipwrecked on the coast of Fife, Scotland. Another tradition holds that the relics came via the mission of St. Augustine to England, then to Scotland. Whichever, the remains were eventually interred in the eponymous town of St. Andrews.

But burial is never the end of saints’ legends. In the 9th century, a General Hungus led the Picts and Scots against the Angles in battle, who greatly out- numbered them. On the night prior to the decisive engagement, Hungus prayed to St. Andrew, promising to name him Scotland’s patron saint if victorious. The following morning, in a story similar to Constantine’s, clouds in the shape of a decussate cross appeared. Taking this as a divine omen, the Hungus’ troops were inspired against the odds. The battle was won, and St. Andrew has been memorialized in Scotland ever since.

In 1320, in a break from the ever powerful church in Rome, Andrew was officially recognized at the founder of Christianity in Scotland, and as its first apostle. Our Episcopal flag bears his cross, and it is a component of the Union Jack. But his cross appears in other contexts as well: It is the ensign of the Russian Navy. The cross appears on versions of Confederacy flags. And in parts of Scotland and northern England, it is still seen on fireplace posts as a hex to prevent witches from flying down the chimneys.

9 Spears ⋅ Thomas

Now we come to the disciple, Thomas, whose claim to fame is his doubt that his fellow disciples had actually seen the resurrected Jesus (John 20:24-29). Thomas said that only his touching Christ’s wounds would convince him the Jesus had returned from death. When later Jesus appeared before him and offered Thomas to touch the stigmata, Thomas immediately became convinced that this in truth was the Risen Lord: “My Lord and my God.” Interestingly, this story appears only in the Gospel of John, not in the Synoptics, and even John does not say that Thomas actually touched the stigmata. The teaching point of the story is Jesus’ response: “Because you have seen me, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed.”

The name Thomas derives from a Hebrew word meaning “twin.” The Greek translation is Didymus, so Thomas is often referred to by that name as well. Didymus may have just been a nickname, but if in fact a twin, whose twin was he? No clear answer, but candidates include even Jesus himself. More interestingly, Bissell (p. 224) notes that in many languages, the words “twin” and “doubt” have similar stems: Latin: duo and dubitare, German: zweifeln and zwei, and English: “doubt” and “double.”

Thomas’s apostle career took him to India in about 50 CE. He preached in the southwest of the peninsula and founded the sect known as Thomas Christians, which are active to this day. Thomas Christians speak Tamil, not Hindi. They do not accept the Chalcedon theology (Christ is one person with two natures) but instead the Nestorian view (Christ is two persons with two natures).

In 72 CE, Thomas was martyred in the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) on the India’s southwest coast. Presumably, he was speared to death, hence the emblem on our reredos. Like other martyrs, his relics have been scattered, some in India, Syria, and Italy. Thomas is the patron saint of India and Indonesia.


1. Bissell T, Apostle, Pantheon Books, 2016
2. Brown R, An Introduction to the New Testament, Yale University Press, 1996 3. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. Cruise C, Hendrickson, 1998
4. Fredriksen P, When Christians were Jews, Yale University Press, 2018
5. Griffith H, The Sign Language of Our Faith, Washington Cathedral Press, 1939 6. Hoever H, Lives of the Saints, Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1999
7. Van Brunt W, The Windows of Christ Church, Christ Episcopal Church, 1989 8. Wikipedia, biographies of each disciple

All Bible quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, Oxford, 2010

Thanks to The Rev. Dr. James Lemler and The Rev. Marek Zabriskie for reviewing this manuscript, and to Joanne Bouknight for photography and layout.