Part I of III
By Dickerman Hollister, Jr., MD.
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?
The images themselves are painted on a wooden screen. This is called a reredos. Reredos is a com- pound word from the French arrear, meaning “be- hind” and the Latin dos, meaning “back,” thus its placement behind the altar, at the back of the church. When the present Christ Church sanctuary was built in 1910, this reredos was installed. The altar and the screen itself are dedicated to Nathaniel Witherell (as also are windows depicting The Good Shepherd, the Evangelists, and Paul). The symbols, however, were not added until 1931. They are the gift of Dr. Vic- tor Thorne in memory of his brother S. Brinkerhoff Thorne, who died the previous year. Unfortunately, I do not know who designed and painted these im- ages. (If you have more information, please contact the Church.) In our 2015 renovation of the sanctuary, Evergreen Architectural Arts restored these emblems to their like-new condition.
Note that there are twelve symbols. Twelve was an important number in the ancient world. It was a cosmic number: Twelve full moons in a year, twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve gods on Olympus are some pagan examples. The Old Testament is the story of the twelve tribes of Israel. In the New Testament, the continuation of the relationship of the one God to humanity, the Twelve now become Christ’s
disciples. Each of these emblems represents one of Jesus’s chosen.
But what do the emblems mean? They not only commemorate the disciples, but more importantly, they honor their roles as apostles. This is an important distinction, often a bit blurred. A disciple studies and follows the teachings of Jesus. The apostle, on the other hand, is charged with spreading the Good News after Jesus’s resurrection. The word apostle comes from the Greek apostello. It means to send forth, or someone who was sent forth, to spread the Word of God. This in fact is the goal of The Great Commission, where Jesus charges his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:19). Look at Mark (3:13-14): “He went up to the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message…” Or Luke (6:13): “And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.”
But of course those disciples who would go to foreign lands needed preparation. They could not preach the Gospel unless they could communicate with the pagan gentiles; Hebrew or Aramaic wouldn’t do. Jesus had the answer: At his last resurrection appearance before his ascension, he said to his chosen apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And so it came to pass: “When the day of Pentecost had come… suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts: 2:1-4).
So in the mid first century, the apostles scattered from the Holy Land, reaching as far west as Spain and east as India. They left neither surviving writings nor diaries, so we have little detail of exactly what they preached, but likely the content was similar to Paul’s letters. We do, however, have some information on their deaths.
The majority of the apostles were martyred for their devotion to Jesus and the then emerging sect of Christianity. Most were executed by Romans or other pagans abroad, but at least two (James the Less and James the Great) were put to death by Jewish authorities. Many of emblems on the reredos, as we shall see, recall the means of their executions. In 313 CE, such ardor and sacrifice led to the legalization of Christianity under Roman law by Emperor Constantine.
But why memorialize the apostles with instruments of their executions? Why was martyrdom so important, their deaths more than their lives? The Greek word for “martyr,” martus, originally meant “witness,” in this context, someone who had witnessed Jesus’s life and resurrection (Acts 1:8, 22). But over time, the title “martyr” was given to those killed for their “witness” of Jesus’s divinity. The early church fathers believed that any person
executed for his faith in Jesus was the most devout Christian. Anticipating his own execution, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 CE) wrote, “Let me be food for the wild beasts; through them I can reach God.” Tertullian (c. 200 CE) described expected martyrdom as “a second new birth…The oftener we are mown down…the more we grow. The blood of Christians is seed.”
By the time of the church historian Eusebius (c. 324 CE), the term martyr meant death in the name of Christ. Paying the ultimate price was Rome’s strategy to crush the new faith: “For as Caesar [Marcus Aurelius] had written that [the Christians] should be beheaded…the governor [of Lyons, c 177 CE] led forth the martyrs, exhibiting them as a show and public spectacle to the crowd. Wherefore, he also examined them again, and as many as appeared to have the Roman citizenship, these he beheaded. The rest he sent away to the wild beasts” (Eusebius, p. 155).
The significance of martyrdom is even today evident by the veneration of relics, purported fragments of the apostles, exhibited in Roman Catholic churches throughout the West.
Thus the purpose of our reredos is to commemorate those who were sent out to spread the good news with a faith so steadfast, they accepted martyrdom that Christianity might flourish. As we kneel today at the altar rail in remembrance of Jesus, we recall their sacrifice as well.
I will summarize a bit about the lives and deaths of the apostles. Of course the historic details are
lost to us. What we have is a potpourri of anecdote, hearsay, and conjecture, which I have derived from a variety of sources (see notes at end). There is plenty of confusion about names, several Jameses could be descended from several Marys, three different Johns, and lots of controversy over which of the Jameses and Johns, if any, wrote the Epistles attributed
to them. But we do have sufficient material to tell credible stories of each.
Let’s start, then, with snapshots of the Twelve Apostles. The names at least should be well known to you. There is one apostle, however, who is not on this list. We shall return to him at the end.
1 ship ⋅ Jude
Starting far left, the first emblem we see is a ship. The ship represents St. Jude. Jude may have been the brother of Jesus or the son or brother of James the Great. He was also known as Thaddeus, a name change so he would not be confused with the villain, Judas Iscariot.
Jude preached the gospel in Judea, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Libya according to various sources. He may or not have authored the Epistle of Jude. His iconography is the ship because his travels were nautical, over both the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Tradition says in 65 CE he was martyred (decapitated) in Beirut, in Syria, or in Armenia, together with Simon the Zealot (see panel 11). Jude’s body was brought from Beirut to Rome, where he was buried in a crypt in St. Peter’s Basilica, although another tradition holds that his remains lie in Armenia.
Jude is known as the patron saint of lost causes. The theory goes that Jude was not venerated because of name confusion with Judas Iscariot. To make up for this, he would help any who supplicated him, no matter how desperate the cause. Perhaps as an extension of this, Jude is the eponym of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Tennessee and patron saint of the Chicago Police Department.
2 BaTs/saws ⋅ James The Less
Just to the right of Jude’s ship, we have a cryptic emblem. It is an instrument of execution, commemorating the martyrdom of James the Less, a.k.a. James son of Alphaeus (A bit more confusion: another epithet calls him “the Just”). James is just that, “the Less,” a literal diminutive meant to clearly distinguish him from James the Great, the son of Zebedee (see panel 5). “The Less” probably meant he was younger or shorter. Despite the disparaging epithet, James the Less had a distinguished parentage, traditionally the son of Alphaeus and Mary of Clopas (John 19:25), who was the mother of Joseph. That would make him Jesus’s paternal uncle. On the other hand, St. Jerome thought James’s mother was the Mary, making him Jesus’s half-brother.
Regardless, James is reputed to have written the Epistle of James, famous for its anti-Lutheran tag: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). In fairness, however, Raymond Brown explains (p. 733), “[James] is insisting that [Christians’] works (not ritual works prescribed by the Law but behavior which reflects love) must correspond to their faith…”
James also became the first Bishop of Jerusalem, c. 50 CE. This turned out not so well: Jewish leaders, angry at his preaching the resurrection, stoned him in 62 CE, then beat him with fullers’ bats. A fuller was essentially a laundryman; cleaning required beating the garments with a club during washing. So this is one explanation of the emblem. But wait, there’s more: After the clubbing, James’s body was sawed into pieces. So the emblem may not actually be bats (who today knows what a first century fuller’s bat looked like?) but saws. To me the saws fit the illustration better, but that’s not the point. Whatever the emblem is, it honors his gruesome death.
Today, James’s name survives as the eponym of St. James’s Palace, built by Henry VIII on the site of the old St. James’s Leper Hospital. Additionally, and not surprisingly, James the Less is the patron saint of wool and textile workers.
3 fLayinG Knives ⋅ Bartholomew
Our next symbol is knives, specifically flaying knives used to skin animals. This commemorates the horrific death of Bartholomew. Bartholomew as disciple had a minor role during Jesus’ ministry, but he may also have been known as Nathanael. If this is so, then Bartholomew would have been the butt of Jesus’s joke, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these” (John 1: 50). Bartholomew/Nathanael was also present when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius (John 21: 1-14).
During his apostleship, Bartholomew traveled widely, including to Armenia and India. The story goes that on mission near present-day Bombay, he converted one Polymius, a court official to the local king Pulaimi. The king was so enraged by the conversion that Bartholomew was brought to torture and death. Even by ancient standards the means was particularly gruesome: The apostle was flayed, skinned alive. A particularly grisly painting by Stefan Lochner (c. 1440) illustrates the scene.
Bartholomew’s relics are scattered over Europe, including Rome at the site of the old pagan temple of Asclepius,
the god of medicine. As might be expected, Bartholomew became the patron saint of butchers, tanners, and other professions associated with knives.
His connection with Asclepius persists as London’s eponymous St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. The St. Bartholomew Massacre of the Huguenots (Paris, 1572) is named in his honor because of the date’s proximity to his feast day.
4 Loaves of Bread ⋅ Philip
Our next emblem is loaves of bread, refreshingly not a representation of death but of life. This is the story of the apostle Philip as told in the Gospel of John. Jesus chose Philip as a disciple with his distinctive imperative: “…Follow me” (1:43). Philip appears again at The Feeding of the Five Thousand, where Jesus sets him up for the miracle: “When [Jesus] looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ ” (6:5). Philip doesn’t understand that Jesus is testing him and that a sign is about to occur. Again, Philip is used as a vehicle for John’s Christology: “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ ” (14:8-9).
As an apostle, Philip is said to have traveled to Greece, Syria, and Phrygia, present-day Turkey, where he met his martyrdom. He converted the wife of the proconsul of the city of Hierapolis. In a rage, the pagan potentate had him crucified upside down. Despite the torture, Philip continued to preach from the cross until death. His relics are said to lie in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Rome.
5 Scallop Shells ⋅ James The Great
Now we move to a trio of scallop shells. This iconography represents James the Great. This James, distinguishing him from James the Less, was the brother of John and the son of Zebedee. James the Great was one of first apostles chosen and one of only three to witness Jesus’s Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-8). James and his brother John apparently had short tempers (they were also known as “the Sons of Thunder”): When Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, was not received by inhabitants of a Samaritan village, both James and John asked Jesus to let them “…command fire to come down from heaven and consume them. But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54-55).
James traveled widely preaching the Word. He is said to have reached Iberia, present-day Spain. On returning to Jerusalem, however, he was decapitated by Herod Agrippa in 44 CE, making him the first apostle to be martyred (St. Stephen was not one of the Twelve). The story goes that his head lies in a chapel in Jerusalem. But his body was taken by angels and placed “in a boat of stone,” rudderless and without crew, which sailed back to Iberia. Because of this sea travel, his emblem became the scallop shell, common on Iberian shores. He was buried in Galicia, Spain, the grave soon forgotten. Forgotten until in the 9th century. It was then that a local shepherd, guided by a star, discovered the remains of St. James, Sanctu Iacobu in Latin, from which is derived “Santiago.” The bishop and king, recognizing this miracle, constructed a chapel at this site, located in what then became known as The Field of the Star, in Latin campus stellae. The latter was subsequently corrupted to “compostela,” and the surrounding town was thus called “Santiago de Compostela.” In the 13th century, an impressive eponymous cathedral replaced the chapel. Since the Middle Ages, The Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela has been a pilgrimage destination, the end of the route named the “Camino (or Way) of St. James.” Pilgrims to this day carry a seashell on their journey. And because of James’ association with shells, the French have dubbed their scallop dish Coquille St. Jacques.
But there is more to James’s story. Legend has it (and described in Cervantes’ Don Quixote) that James returned to Iberia during the Reconquista, the war to retake the peninsula from Moorish control. James led the Christians to victory at the Battle of Clavijo in 834 CE. Iconography shows him as “The Moor Slayer,” in full battle regalia. Still not done, in 1829 James is said to have reappeared, along with Peter and John, to Joseph Smith in order to restore Apostolic Succession to The Church of Latter Day Saints.
For the rest of the Reredos, please enjoy Part II through IV of this essay by Dr. Dick Hollister.
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.