We’re taking the “palm branch” theme a step further today through the stories of two Christian martyrs as depicted in stained glass and sculpture at cathedrals in Chartres, France, New York City, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
As mentioned in my first post, the use of the palm branch as a sacred symbol in the Mediterranean world pre-dates Christianity. Early Christians borrowed one of the palm’s symbolic meanings–victory–directly from the Romans. The palm branch was the main attribute, or sign, of the goddess Victory. Christians applied the palm’s victory symbolism to help make meaning of the perilous situation they faced at the time. “The palm,” wrote Maurice Delasser in The Symbols of the Church, “is the emblem of the elect, and especially of the martyrs, who are victorious over death.” Ever since, the palm branch has helped us identify martyred saints in the sculpture and stained glass of Europe’s cathedrals and many churches in the U.S. The martyrs’ stories are often the stuff of legend and have inspired many artists over the centuries. We’ll focus on two of them: Steven and Lawrence.
Saint Steven is said to be the first Christian martyr. As such, he sometimes appears in prominent places next to Jesus’ disciples and other great saints. At Notre Dame in Paris (photo #1, below), Steven’s right hand holds a palm branch to signify his martyrdom as he stands in good company between John the Baptist and Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. The sculptures are 19th century reproductions that replaced originals lost, I believe, during the French Revolution. The stained glass image of Steven (photo #2) comes from All Saints Episcopal Cathedral in Milwaukee. He holds a palm frond in his right hand and a large rock in his left hand that signifies his death by stoning.
Legend has it that Saint Lawrence, one of the deacons in the early church at Rome, died in 258 shortly after the emperor Valerian decreed that clerics should be executed and their wealth confiscated. His story, according to Jacob of Voragine’s The Golden Legend, written around 1266, goes like this.
Lawrence, as the head deacon, was responsible for the church treasury and distributing alms to the poor. When Decius, one of Valerian’s henchmen, demanded that Lawrence turn over the treasury’s contents to imperial authorities, Lawrence asked for three days to comply. Valerian himself granted the request. “During these three days,” Voragine wrote, “Lawrence gathered together all the poor, the lame and the blind and took them before Decius.” With the destitute crew standing beside him, Lawrence said to Decius, “Here you see the eternal treasure, treasure which never diminishes but grows and grows.” He refused to turn over the funds to the Romans.
Decius was irate and ordered his minions to punish Lawrence’s impertinence by roasting him alive over a bed of hot coals. Legend has it that when Lawrence’s backside was well done, he looked up at Decius and quipped, “Look, fool, you have roasted only one side of me. Turn me over and then eat.” Then he gave up the ghost. In time, Lawrence became the patron saint of cooks and chefs, and the grid iron on which he was roasted became his attribute.
A thirteenth century sculpture on Chartres Cathedral’s south porch (photo #3) shows Lawrence lying on a grid iron over coals and flames. The next two photos were taken at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Photo #4 shows a statue of Lawrence holding a small grid iron in his left hand and a pouch containing alms in his right hand. The pedestal below (photo #5) imaginatively portrays the saint’s execution with two men placing Lawrence on the grid iron while Valerian looks on. Cackling demons wait for the emperor to turn in their direction. Lastly, Lawrence appears in stained glass at Milwaukee’s All Saints’ Cathedral holding a palm frond and large grid iron (photo #6). He stands next to St. Giles. The British firm of Lavers and Westlake made the saint windows for Milwaukee’s Episcopal Cathedral in the 1890’s.
Mike Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 4/14/14
2 thoughts on “Sacred Symbols: The Palm of Martyrdom”
A very interesting site!!
However I have one remark:
The window (Magdalene) contains several scenes from Magdalene’s life based on scripture and stories in Jacob of Voragine’s Golden Legend. This cannot be true. The Magdalene window has been constructed before the birth of Jacob of Voragine. Probably the Magdalene window and the “Golde Legend” are based on the same legends
Hein van Valenberg
Hein: Thank you for your compliment and the clarification. You’re right. Voragine wrote “The Golden Legend” after the window was installed. He compiled legends about Mary Magdalene and other saints that were already extant. His sources probably included Jean de Mailly’s “Summary of the Deeds and Miracles of the Saints” and Bartholomew of Trent’s “Afterward on the Deeds of the Saints.” As you say, the window and the “Golden Legend” are based on the same stories. Dank u wel!