The Good Samaritan

I’m using Valentine’s Day as an excuse to write about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and its message of love for one’s neighbor. The story is familiar to many. In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus encounters a lawyer who recites the great commandment to love God and neighbor and then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus proceeds to tell a story about a compassionate Samaritan and in the process raises a different question: “What does it mean to be a neighbor?” (photo 1). As we delve into the parable’s context and interpretation, we’ll illustrate this post with images from the famous 13th century Good Samaritan window at Chartres Cathedral and more recent windows from churches in the United States and Canada.


1. Jesus and the Lawyer, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

At the outset, though, I want to offer two disclaimers. First, I am a lawyer who appreciates strong definitions. Second, I decided to write about the Good Samaritan when the timing of a scripture reading hit me hard as I sat in church on Sunday, January 29, just two days after President Trump issued an executive order barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely. The lector read a passage from the sixth chapter of Micah in which a man openly wonders what God expects from us.  The prophet responds as if the answer should be obvious: “He has told you O mortal what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

As the words sank in, I thought to myself that the president’s order, with its absolute rejection of all immigrants from war-torn Syria without so much as a second thought, is the opposite of what Micah said the Lord requires. The ban seemed to turn a blind eye to those in great need while driving the nation at top speed toward a dead end marked “absolute security.”  The Good Samaritan would probably have it otherwise, hence my desire to learn more about the parable’s context.


2. Good Samaritan Window, Chalmers-Wesley United Church, Quebec City, Canada

Parables Generally   The three synoptic gospels— Matthew, Mark, and Luke—record Jesus telling many stories that use vivid images of houses built on sand, prodigal sons, and lost sheep to help explain humanity’s relationship with God and with one another. The English word parable comes from a Greek word, parabole, meaning something thrown beside something else. In other words, a parable compares one thing to another, side by side. It may be a short simile or a longer metaphor. But regardless of length, their purpose according to Prof. Bernard Brandon Scott is to make the listener see the world differently. In his book, Re-Imagine the World: an Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Prof. Scott writes, “the parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living….” They help us see “the possibilities of life,” and “imagine how we might live life in this world.”  That may be especially true of the Good Samaritan parable. Professor Scott speculates that the Jewish listeners who first heard it would have been shocked by the mere suggestion that a Samaritan could be the story’s kindly hero. The thought strained their sense of the possible in a way that may be hard for us, long removed from that ancient divide, to appreciate.

 Love of Neighbor   Concern for one’s neighbor is an age old notion that crosses cultural lines. In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle (photo 4, below) recognized philia along with agape, eros and storge as four types of love.  For the Greeks, philia implied affection, friendship and loyalty in regard to family, friends and community. They even named cities for it. Amman, the capital of modern-day Jordan was one of two cities called Philadelphia, meaning brotherly love, at the time of Christ.

But the idea that we should show compassion to others, including strangers, predates Aristotle by centuries if not millennia. The author of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, probably written around 700 BCE, instructed “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and goes on to say that “you shall love [the stranger] as yourself….” The author of Luke’s gospel, writing about 750 years later, combined the verse from Leviticus with the requirement in the book of Deuteronomy to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and might, to form what Christians call the “great commandment.”


3. Plato & Aristotle, Philosophy Window, Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ

Definitions   The great commandment appears in the three synoptic gospels. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus responds with it to a question aimed to test his knowledge of the law. He replies that love of God is primary, and that love of neighbor “is like unto it” and runs a close second. But only in Luke’s gospel does a lawyer ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer quotes the great commandment verbatim: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says approvingly, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But the lawyer asks Jesus to define a key term; “And who is my neighbor?” The gospel implies that the lawyer’s motives are less than pure when he poses the question (imagine that!). But for someone who takes compliance with the law seriously, it’s a fair question. A good lawyer would want to know to whom he owes a duty of care. Is he responsible for the man or woman next door; a farmer who lives on the outskirts of town; a foreigner who lives on the other side of the mountains? The lawyer wants to know how far the law extends.

If the lawyer is baiting Jesus, the teacher doesn’t bite. Instead Jesus turns the tables by shifting the discussion from the limits of law to the boundlessness of love through a story about the actions of three men who are traveling on the road to Jericho.

The Good Samaritan   The story starts with a “certain man” who sets off on a journey along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man is presumably Jewish. Along the way robbers accost and beat him. They strip off the man’s clothing and leave him “half dead” beside the road. By chance, a priest comes along, sees the naked man, and keeps going without stopping to help. Next, a Levite approaches and does the same. Photo 4, below, shows five scenes from the story. Read them from bottom to top and left to right. The lower scene in the quatrefoil shows Jesus and two Pharisees conversing. Moving clockwise to the left, the man exits his home. In the center, two robbers wait in the woods. On the right, three robbers beat the man. One holds a sword, one a club, and a third bandit strips the man’s tunic. The scene on top depicts the priest and Levite passing by the injured man who lies between them.


4. Scenes from the Good Samaritan Parable, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Finally, a Samaritan comes along, sees the beaten man, “and was moved with pity.” He bandages his wounds after cleaning them with oil and wine.  The Samaritan takes the injured man on an animal to an inn where he cares for him. Observe the bandage streaming from the man’s head in photo 5, below. As the Samaritan leaves the inn, he gives the proprietor money in advance and tells him to, “Take care of him; and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.”


5. The Samaritan and Injured Man Go to the Inn, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus ends the discussion with a challenge that still reverberates two thousand years later: “Go and do likewise.” Note the caption and the flask symbolizing the medicinal oil and wine in the Good Samaritan scene at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 6).


6. Good Samaritan Scene, Parable Window, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

What is a Samaritan?  Samaritans lived in Samaria, a district named for the capital of the Biblical northern kingdom of Israel. The region was under Roman rule during Jesus’ ministry. It was bounded by Jesus’ native Galilee to the north and the kingdom of Judea to the south. Today, Samaria is part of the Palestinian West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

The Jewish people who first heard the Good Samaritan parable nearly 2,000 years ago most likely pictured the Samaritan as a descendant of Babylonians who settled the region after the Assyrians conquered it in 722 BCE and then deported more than 20,000 Israelites to points east. But aside from ethnicity, the Samaritans and Jews—who worshiped the same God—disagreed bitterly about the location and timing of worship practices. Jewish worship centered on the temple in Jerusalem. For the Samaritans, the city of Shechem and Mt. Gerazim were holy. The animosity between the two groups led one contributor to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church to observe, “The hostility of the Jews to the Samaritans was proverbial.”


7. Good Samaritan, Gospel of Luke Window, Country Club Christian Church, Kansas City, MO

The Road to Jericho   In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well known for its danger and for the priests and Levites who used it to travel to and from their work at the temple in Jerusalem and their homes in Jericho. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho descends about 3,200 feet in the 18 miles that separate the two cities. It was known as “the way of blood” because robbers commonly preyed on travelers who were well-advised to travel in caravans.  The Cambridge Companion to the Bible notes that “bandits or brigands became numerous in the Roman period.” Many bandits were dispossessed peasants—perhaps like Jesus and his family—who were “forced off the land by a combination of harsh economic conditions, politically inefficient governments, military oppression, and failed harvests….” King Herod, the Great, earned his reputation as a military commander through his largely successful effort to rid Galilee of bandits.


8. Robbers on the Road to Jericho, Good Samaritan Window, Chartres Cathedral France

Given the threat, the priest and Levite might have risked their own lives by stopping to help the half-dead man. On the day before he died, Martin Luther King spoke of his own travels on the road to Jericho (photo 9, below). He reportedly said, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable. It’s a winding, meandering road….  It’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to lure them over there for quick and easy seizure.”  It’s possible that these familiar words crossed the minds of the priest and Levite as they passed by the man: better safe than sorry.


9. Martin Luther King Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Re-Imagining the World   Prof. Scott’s insight about the parables, as invitations to re-imagine life’s possibilities, resonates with me. I long for a world where we define neighbor in the broadest terms, follow the Good Samaritan’s example, and treat one another fairly. But in a re-imagined world, where humility prevails, the parable invites me to walk in the shoes of the priest and Levite. From where they stand, I must acknowledge the power of instinctual self-preservation to dampen my own heart’s fire for compassion. The parable also invites me to imagine myself as a half-dead man lying in a ditch. From his viewpoint, I must see the Samaritan as a black person coming to the aid of a white person; of a Mexican showing mercy to a gringo; and of a Muslim bandaging the wounds of a Christian. Luke’s gospel reminds us that the shift in perspective will be good for us in the long run.

A Nod to Eros   For the romantics among you, here’s a sculpted rose bouquet from the Washington National Cathedral (photo 10). Use your imagination to color them red, yellow, or purple. Regardless of color, I see American Beauties.


10. Sculpted Roses, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Copyright 2017, Michael Klug,, 02-14-17

Nicholas: Patron Saint of Children

Looking back on my boyhood, I’m aware that December 6—St. Nicholas Day—functioned like a pressure relief valve for me. With anticipation building in the weeks preceding Christmas Eve, the night I would finally learn if the Kenner Girder & Panel set and GI Joe paraphernalia that I longed for were buried in the mound of gift-wrapped boxes under the tree, St. Nicholas Day helped make the long wait for December 24 more tolerable. Mom would select two of the smaller items on my Christmas wish list and give them to me on St. Nick’s Day and they would tide me over until the main event on the night before Christmas.


1. Christkind, Bavarian National Museum, Munich (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I didn’t know much about St. Nicholas then, but I sensed that he and Santa Claus were somehow related. Maybe they were cousins. But because I grew up in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, I didn’t dare ask my pastor or Sunday School teachers, “Who was St. Nicholas?” Deep down, I worried that someone might tell my mom to stop giving me toys on St. Nicholas Day because Lutherans don’t believe in saints.  I didn’t know at the time just how much my mom’s gifting practice ran afoul of Martin Luther’s desire to shift emphasis in the 16th century away from St. Nicholas to the Christkind (photo 1, above), German for “Christ child.” The angelic Christkind, who brings gifts on Christmas Eve and gives its name to the popular Christkindlemarkts in Europe (photo 2), today bears little resemblance to the baby Jesus lying in a manger. And so I think it’s a shame that the Protestant Reformation prevented me from getting to know St. Nicholas better. Because he personifies the old adage that it is better to give than to receive, Nicholas probably would have made a good role model for an acquisitive American kid like me.


2. 2015 Christkindlemarkt, Bath, England

The Saint in History and Legend   We know for sure that Nicholas was a bishop (photo 3) in fourth century Myra, a Roman town in Lycia, now part of Turkey.  Some reports place him at the great church Council of Nicaea in 325, CE but the evidence of his attendance is inconclusive. Tradition has it that Nicholas died on December 6, 343, thirty years after the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. We also know that Italian sailors stole his bones in 1087 and moved them from Myra to Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they now lie in the crypt of a basilica named for the saint. Aside from that, we don’t know much about his factual life story. According to Prof. Adam English, author of the Saint who would be Santa, Nicholas left us nothing in writing; no theological statements, no poems, no sermons, and no contemporary biographies.


3. St. Nicholas, bishop, on the far right with (L-R) Sts. Laumer, Sylvester, and Ambrose, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

What we have are stories—lots of stories—through which we catch a faint glimpse of a man whose personal qualities and selfless actions captured the imagination of the common folk and inspired many enduring legends about his regard for youngsters and the downtrodden.

Three Bags of Gold  The most compelling story about Nicholas, which likely led to his designation as the patron saint of children, involves three girls whose family had fallen on hard times. In one version of the story, Nicholas receives a large inheritance from his parents whose death left him orphaned as a boy. Later, as a young man, he learned that a destitute nobleman planned to sell his daughters into slavery or prostitution, as was the accepted custom at the time. The news pained Nicholas and prompted him to anonymously donate three bags of gold coins that each girl could use as a dowry. A sculpted scene at Chartres Cathedral shows Nicholas reaching through a hole in a wall to drop a bag of coins on the floor as the three distraught girls stand over their father who lies in bed (photo 4). A panel in one of the two St. Nicholas windows at Chartres depicts the saint dropping three large coins through the window as the daughters and father lie together in a large bed (photo 5).


4. St. Nicholas Delivering Gold Coins, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France


5. St. Nicholas Delivering Coins, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

The anonymous gifts, delivered on three successive nights, delighted the girls because it meant they could escape a dreadful fate. But their curious and grateful father wanted to learn the identity of the donor. So he stayed up on the third night to wait for the mystery man.  Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend describes the encounter. The father shouted, “Stop! Don’t sneak away! I want to see you!” Nicholas bolted. The man gave chase and when he caught up to Nicholas, “fell to the ground and tried to kiss his feet, but Nicholas stopped him, and made him promise never to reveal his secret until after [Nicholas’] death (photo 6).” Evidently, Nicholas was both generous and humble, and presumably the father made good on his promise.


6. Grateful Father Kneeling before St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Why is this legend so significant? In an interview with Read the Spirit magazine [], Adam English explained, “here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls—girls who no one else in that era would have cared about. He is truly taking the biblical command to look out for ‘the least among you’ to heart in a serious way. He does something that is purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that era—and he does it without any hope of reward.”

The story of Nicholas’ unexpected gift spread far and wide and contributed to his fame from Byzantium to western Europe and eventually beyond. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints reports that more than 500 churches in Britain alone are dedicated to St. Nicholas. Moreover, the largest annual religious pilgrimage in Russia, with 90,000 people reportedly joining the throng in 2015, follows a traditional route to the town of Velikoretsky to commemorate a peasant’s discovery in 1383 of a miraculous icon with a traditional image of St. Nicholas and eight scenes of events in his life (photo 7).


7. St. Nicholas Starting His Learning at a Monastery, Scene from a mid-16th Century St. Nicholas of Velikoretsky Icon, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal

Saving the Children  A second legend involving children in dire straits, which likely expresses a dark medieval fear more than it testifies to Nicholas’ innate kindness, presents the saint as the savior of three boys who had the great misfortune of crossing paths with a murderous butcher.  The butcher and his wife hack the boys to death and place them in a large vat with an eye toward selling their remains as pickled meat. Nicholas intervenes and brings the boys back to life. The murder and resurrection scenes are depicted in thirteenth century stained glass panels in Chartres Cathedral (photos 8 and 9).


8. Boys and Butcher with Hatchet, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France


9. St. Nicholas Resurrects Boys in the Vat, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Remarkably, this gruesome tale continued to provide subject matter for artists into modern times. You will sometimes see three boys (or adolescents) standing in a big barrel, a common attribute for St. Nicholas. A late nineteenth century window designed by the English firm of Lavers and Westlake (photo 10) at Milwaukee’s All Saints Episcopal Cathedral (photo 11)  offers an example of the iconography.


10. St. Nicholas with Boys in a Barrel, All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee


11. All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A final story in this overview of how sculptors and glaziers portrayed St. Nicholas’ legends in stone and glass is the subject of yet another colorful 13th century window at Chartres Cathedral. The story apparently combines two aspects of Nicholas’ sainthood, as the patron of children and sailors. Legend has it that a boy fell from a boat into the sea. His parents called on Nicholas for help and, though the details of the rescue are vague, the saint miraculously saved him. The artist in Chartres’ workshop depicted the boy sinking as a blue demon with a grappling hook tries to snag him (photos 12 and 13, the panel at 9 o’clock in the quatrefoil).  The boy’s worried parents sit in the boat, praying, as two oarsmen look on. The next scene in the sequence shows the mother, father and boy with St. Nicholas, wearing bishop’s vestments, standing before Nicholas’ cathedra or bishop’s throne (see photo 13; the panel at 3 o’clock in the quatrefoil).


12. Drowning Boy, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France


13. Quatrefoil with Scenes of St. Nicholas Legends, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

From Saint to Santa   After the Protestant Reformation, Nicholas drifted into the background of Advent and Christmas celebrations in most of Europe. Nevertheless, Dutch and Flemish-speaking groups kept alive the tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day eve and brought Sinterklaas, an elderly, bearded, adaptation of St. Nicholas, with them to New Amsterdam (renamed New York by the English in 1684). More than a century later, a Revolutionary War veteran named John Pintard promoted St. Nicholas as a patron saint for New York City. Then in 1809, Washington Irving published a satirical history of New York in which he mentions a jolly St. Nicholas character coming down chimneys to deliver gifts. In 1823, a poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” attributed to Clement Clark Moore, appeared in the Troy, New York newspaper. It “twas the night before Christmas…” and the rest, as they say, is Santa Claus history. There were illustrations of Santa on magazine covers and eventually Santa ads in the 1930’s for Coca Cola. For more on the story about St. Nicholas and the origins of Santa Claus and about the Velikoretsky pilgrimage, visit the St. Nicholas Center’s informative website [].


14. St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

A Saintly Exemplar   One of the great ironies in Nicholas’ evolution from a saintly cleric to a rotund, red and white clad cultural icon who spends most of the year at the North Pole (now reportedly with an icy swimming hole in the vicinity), is that the German name for the character who supplanted him, Christkindl, has morphed in English to become “Kris Kringle,” a nickname for Santa Claus. It’s hard to keep a good man like Nicholas down! And why should we when the man took to heart Jesus’ call in Matthew’s gospel to treat “the least of these my brethren” with dignity?  St. Nicholas of Myra, legendary wonder worker and patron saint of children, personifies humane qualities that are no less pertinent—or essential—today than they were 1,673 years ago on the day he died.

Copyright 2016 by Michael Klug,, 12/5/2016.  

The Mirror of Nature

Sometime around the year 1240, at about the same time that workers were putting the finishing touches on Chartres Cathedral and masons were nearing the halfway mark on a new cathedral at Amiens (photo 1), an industrious Dominican friar named Vincent of Beauvais set out to write a “compendium of all theological knowledge” known to thirteenth century Europe. In time he would compile a vast array of facts, theories, and speculations on such subjects as astronomy, botany, zoology, mathematics, medicine, and history, all based on the authority of dozens of Greek, Roman, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian writers who preceded him. The compilation came to be called the Speculum Majus, or “Great Mirror.” Vincent organized his material in three expansive volumes called the Mirror of Nature, the Mirror of History, and the Mirror of Doctrine. Writers in the fourteenth century would add the Mirror of Morals to the original set.  


1. Amiens Cathedral, France

According to Hans Voorbij and Eva Albrecht, it took Vincent fifteen years to complete the first three volumes of the Speculum Majus.  (Visit their helpful “Vincent of Beauvais” website at for more background). The Great Mirror was copied many times over and, through the financial support and endorsement of King Louis IX (later St. Louis), it became a popular reference work for medieval theologians, philosophers, teachers, preachers, and cathedral builders.

Cathedral builders? Yes. Emile Male, the eminent French art historian, explained in The Gothic Image: Religious Art in the France of the Thirteenth Century that the clerics who commissioned the artwork and designed the iconography for many cathedrals did so with the idea of four divisions of knowledge in mind. Just as Vincent strove to summarize all knowledge in a comprehensive text, the church builders set out to do the same in the stone, wood, and glass of an all-encompassing sacred structure.  Male observes that “striking analogies are noticeable, for example, in the general economy of the Speculum Majus and the plan followed in the porches of the cathedral of Chartres (photo 2).”


2. North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

In this article, we’ll look at how creation, the main theme of Vincent’s Mirror of Nature, appears in the art and iconography of Chartres Cathedral in France and two cathedrals in the United States. In a future post, we’ll follow Mr. Male’s lead and consider the many ways in which medieval Christians regarded flora, fauna, and phantasms as symbols for their beliefs and ideals. But for now, we’ll focus on Vincent’s starting point: the Bible’s first book.

Images of Creation   Vincent of Beauvais grouped his commentaries on nature around the six day creation story in the Book of Genesis. The Biblical account starts with the creation of light and ends with the creation of humanity. Consequently, early chapters in the Mirror of Nature treat light and the four classical elements as subjects of God’s work on the first day. Later chapters deal with plants, often in terms of their medicinal properties, as topics for the third day when God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass and the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind….” The final chapters are devoted to human anatomy and psychology, along with entries on domestic and wild animals, as subjects of the sixth day.


3. Creation of Night & Day, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

One of the most intriguing illustrations of the Biblical creation account appears on the North Porch of Chartres Cathedral. Statuettes on one of the arches depict imaginative creation scenes based on verses in the first chapter of Genesis. In one, a boy and girl walk hand in hand. The boy, holding a lamp in his left hand, leads the blind-folded girl with his right. Together they symbolize the separation of day and night on the first day, as one walks in darkness and the other in light. To their right sits God in the person of Jesus, who appears to be resting after a hard day at work (photo 3, above).

A second  scene in the creation ensemble shows two angels creating the heavens on the second day by dividing the waters above from the waters below (photo 4, lower scene). It’s based on a curious verse that belies the ancient writer’s sense that the waters above the heavens give the sky its blue color. The sculpture shows the angels in an airy space between watery waves above and below them. It’s fun to contrast this scene with an image in a modern stained glass Creation window at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City (photo 5).  It shows angels working between two fields of blue. Perhaps the statuettes at Chartres inspired the artist who designed the window in New York.


4. Creation of the Heavens (below) and Plants (above), North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France


5. Creation of the Heavens, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

A third sculpture at Chartres symbolizes the creation of the “two great lights” in the heavens on the fourth day (photo 6). In the bottom half of the photo, you’ll see an angel holding a swirling disc. It represents the sun. To the angel’s right, Jesus sits in apparent contentment as he holds a smaller disc representing the moon in his hands. The top half of the composition shows sea creatures and fowl created on the fifth day. On the left, Jesus appears to be chatting with a man who has two small protrusions jutting from his forehead. Who was with God at creation? The devil? Nope, it’s Moses! The little “horns” on his head represent rays of supernatural light. The artist saw fit to include him in this scene because tradition has it that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, including Genesis. The window representing the fifth day of creation at St. John the Divine similarly contains images of birds in flight, a school of fish, and a whale. But instead of Moses, a dove representing the Holy Spirit as the source of inspiration for scripture descends on the scene (photo 7).


6. Creation of Moon & Sun (below); Sea Creatures and Fowl (above), North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France


7. Creation of Fish & Fowl, Creation Window, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

The theme of the cosmos’ creation continues to inspire artists in modern times, including sculptor Frederick Hart. Mr. Hart conceived the three creation tympana at the Washington National Cathedral. They depict the creation of the moon, sun, and humanity out of the formless void (photos 8, 9, 10), and by their positioning above the main doorways on the cathedral’s west façade present a fundamental tenet in a core belief that cuts across denominational lines: God is with us throughout time, from the beginning.


8. Creation of the Sun, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC


9. Creation of the Moon, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Why did Vincent call his compendium a “mirror?” I think one of his goals was to recount some of the innumerable ways in which creation reflects the plans and purpose of the Creator. What do we know of the divine plan for creation? Emile Male observed in Chartres, his book about the cathedral, that the tender images of God drawing creatures out of the void and blessing their goodness expresses the hopeful notion that “the world was created through love.”  My prayer, as  Advent and a new year approach, is that we experience deeply the love that infuses the world and reflect it fully in the way we care for creation and the creatures with whom we share it.


10. Creation of Humanity, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Copyright 2016, by Michael Klug, 11/30/2016,


The Iconography of Independence

With July 4 and Independence Day in the United States in mind, this post features images that honor George Washington and two other American patriots in stained glass and sculpture at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. At first it might seem odd that images of secular figures stand alongside those of saints and clerics in a church. But taking a broader view, it makes sense.  George Washington, for example, has come to symbolize the virtues of courage and humility: courage for leading an ill-equipped army into battle and humility for submitting to the authority of a civilian government when he could have been made a king. These same virtues found a place long ago in the iconography of Europe’s gothic cathedrals.  Allegorical maidens at Chartres Cathedral are paired with attributes that symbolize several virtues associated with an exemplary Christian life. Fortitude holds a shield displaying a lion rampant, symbol of bravery and strength. Humility holds a dove, symbolizing the absence of hubris (photos 1 and 2).

Fortitude (Strength)

1. Fortitude, Chartres Cathedral, France


2. Humility, Chartres Cathedral, France

A National Cathedral   While serving as president in 1791, George Washington appointed Pierre L’Enfant—a French-born architect who was with the Continental Army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78 and who later served on Washington’s general staff as a Captain of Engineers—to create a plan for the new nation’s capital city. The plan included a “great church for national purposes.” As the White House and Capitol Building rose along the banks of the Potomac River, however, L’Enfant’s original plan for a “great church” situated nearby fell by the wayside, due mainly to concerns about creating too close a symbolic link between church and state.

The idea for such a church was taken up again in the late 1800’s by a group of civic and spiritually-minded men who set out to build an Episcopal cathedral as a “House of Prayer for All People” on Mount St. Alban, the highest point in the District of Columbia.  The foundation stone for the Washington National Cathedral, as the church came to be known, was set on September 29, 1907. The cathedral was completed 83 years later when a finial stone was set in place high atop the southwest tower (photos 3 and 4) on September 29, 1990. Officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, the National Cathedral’s construction was financed entirely through donations. Despite its “national” designation, it never received government funding for construction or maintenance. Nonetheless, given its location overlooking the seat of American government, its designers saw fit to incorporate both religious and secular themes in its art.

Washington National Cathedral

3. Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

WNC from South at Sunset

4. Washington National Cathedral at Sunset, Washington, DC

The Washington Bay  An entire bay in the cathedral nave’s southwest corner is dedicated to George Washington. The Washington Bay’s abstract window, Founding of a New Nation (photo 5), honors Washington as a founding father. The colors in its center lancet symbolize the nation’s early growth in the spring-like greenery that rises from splatters of red which bring to mind the blood shed for American independence. At the top of the lancets, pieces of red, white, and blue glass represent the colors of the new nation’s flag. On a sunny day, the bay’s limestone walls glow with the colored light passing through the stained glass (photo 6).

Founding of a New Nation

5. Founding of a New Nation by Robert Pinart (1976), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC


Washington Bay Colors

6. Washington Bay Colors, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

A statue in the center of the Washington Bay (photo 7) depicts George as he might have looked when entering his parish church on Sunday, with a solemn mien and tricorne hat held respectfully in hand. Inscriptions on the statue’s base proclaim Washington as a “Freemason,” “First Citizen,” and “Churchman.” A circle on the floor in front of the statue contains thirteen stars representing the original colonies and states.

George Washington

7. George Washington Statue, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Corbel sculpture in the Washington Bay also reminds us that the life of this secular saint had rich domestic and social aspects. One carving depicts Washington’s Mt. Vernon home framed by the lush foliage of a dogwood tree (photo 8), and another portrays the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in nearby Alexandria, Virginia (photo 9). Washington belonged to the local Masonic lodge in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Mt. Vernon

8. Mt. Vernon Corbel, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Masonic Memorial

9. Masonic Memorial Corbel, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Courage and Sacrifice   Separate windows in the cathedral’s War Memorial Chapel honor two other American patriots whose stories of courage and sacrifice became inspired legends. Paul Revere and his brave Midnight Ride on April 18, 1775 is memorialized in a panel (photo 10) that shows him waking a concerned member of the colonial militia (a “minuteman” wearing a night cap and holding a musket).  There were no loud cries of, “The British are coming!”  Eyewitnesses wrote that Revere discretely warned militia members that “The Regulars are coming out” to avoid alerting loyalists to the patriots’ plan to mobilize. A small image of Boston’s Old North Church, from whose tower Robert Newman hung two lamps to signal that British troops were moving in boats on the Charles River, appears in the scene to Revere’s left. Compare it to a photo of the  Old North Church’s tower and spire as they appeared in 2012 (photo 11).[As a quick aside, troops of the Gloucestershire Regiment were among the British Regulars, aka “redcoats,” who fought in the Revolutionary War. Some were veterans of the French and Indian War and other campaigns. My daughter and I visited the Regiment Museum in Gloucester, England in 2015 and found its perspective on the American rebellion fascinating.] (See photo 12 and )

Paul Revere Snip

10. Paul Revere in Freedom I Window by Joseph G. Reynolds, Jr. (1953), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Tower & Spire

11. Old North Church, Boston, MA

Losing the Americas

12. “Gaining & Losing in the Americas,” Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, Gloucester, England, UK (click to enlarge)

Another window in the National Cathedral, dedicated to Architects and Sculptors, honors Daniel Chester French who sculpted the Minuteman Statue which stands in Concord, Massachusetts (photo 13). French created the statue in 1874.

Minuteman Snip

13. Minuteman Statue, Architects & Sculptors Window by Albert Birkle, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Finally, the cathedral’s Sacrifice for Freedom window commemorates Nathan Hale who, at the age of 21, volunteered to go behind enemy lines to gather intelligence while the British were preparing in September 1776 to invade Manhattan. According to one account, a British officer recognized Hale as he sat in a tavern. Shortly thereafter, British troops apprehended Hale near Flushing Meadows, in Queens. Considered a spy and traitor, the British hanged him on September 22, 1776. The stained glass depicts Hale’s capture and execution (photo 14).  Before he died, Nathan Hale uttered words that still resonate with those who believe in securing the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for which the nation stands. John Montresor, a British officer who witnessed the event, said that as Hale faced the hanging tree he calmly and boldly declared, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” As I watch fireworks on July 4th, I’ll say a prayer of thanks for Nathan Hale and his belief in a nation dedicated to the principle of liberty and justice for all. Shine on, Nathan Hale. Shine on.

Nathan Hale Snip

14. Nathan Hale panel in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window by Joseph G. Reynolds, Jr. (1952), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Copyright 2016, Michael Klug,, Iowa City, IA

Good King Wenceslas

December 26, the second day of Christmas, is St. Stephen’s day. John Mason Neale, an English hymn writer, used the day as the wintry setting for a Christmas carol titled Good King Wenceslas. He wrote, “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen; when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even….”  Neale’s popular carol, written in 1853, just ten years after the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, recounts a legend in which Wenceslas and his page trudge through deep snow to take a meal of meat and wine to a poor peasant who lives three miles away on the edge of a forest. The last verse encapsulates the moral of the story: “Therefore Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” Like Dickens’ novella, it reminds those in power that compassion will find favor in the present life and beyond.

Wenceslas (907-935), or Vaclav in Czech, offers a good role model for those who have authority. He was widely known in his day as an alms-giving ruler who genuinely cared for his less fortunate subjects.  His reputation for charity and justice led to his canonization shortly after his politically motivated murder. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Czechs who immigrated to the United States dedicated dozens of parish churches, particularly in the upper Midwestern states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (photos 1 & 2), to St. Wenceslas. Who was this “good king?”

St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, Iowa

1. St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church; Iowa City, Iowa

St. Wenceslaus Church, New Prague, Minnesota

2. St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church; New Prague, Minnesota

Duke Wenceslas I   What we know about Wenceslas comes mainly from the hagiographies, accounts of the saint’s life, written after his death. We know from these and other sources that Wenceslas was a duke, not a king. He briefly ruled the Duchy of Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) during its turbulent transition from traditional Slavic religion to Christianity. Images of the saint typically show him wearing a crown and holding a shield bearing insignia from a coat of arms. The stylized eagle in a 19th century stained glass window at Iowa City’s St. Wenceslaus Church (photo 3) signifies the Premyslid dynasty, Bohemia’s first ruling family. The lion appearing on Wenceslas’ shield at the church bearing his name in New Prague, Minnesota is emblematic of the later Kingdom of Bohemia which was part of the Holy Roman Empire (photo 4).

3. St. Wenceslas and Eagle, St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

3. St. Wenceslas and Eagle Shield; St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

4. St. Wenceslas (L) and St. John Nepomuk (R); St. Wenceslauds Church, New Prague, MN

4. St. Wenceslas (L) and St. John Nepomuk (R); St. Wenceslaus Church, New Prague, MN

We also know that Wenceslas’ father was a convert to Christianity and that his mother, Drahomina, was baptized on her wedding day, probably as a condition of marriage in the church. It seems that she never fully embraced the new religion. The discord within the royal family evidently mirrored the situation in Czech society. Some members of the nobility adopted Christianity while others did not.   When Wenceslas was 13, his father died. Ludmila, the boy’s grandmother, raised him in the Christian faith. She was also appointed as regent to rule in Wenceslas’ place until he was old enough to take the throne. None of this sat very well with Drahomina. She reportedly resented Ludmila’s influence over her son so much that she conspired with two noblemen to kill her mother-in-law. Legend has it that they strangled Ludmila with her own veil when Wenceslas was 14. Ludmila was later canonized for her role as a martyr and contributor to Bohemia’s Christianization. Her image sometimes appears in churches dedicated to St. Wenceslas, as at Iowa City where the artist alludes to her martyrdom with the palm branch she holds in her right hand (photo 5).

5. St. Ludmila; St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

5. St. Ludmila; St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

The Bad Brother  When Wenceslas attained the throne around 925, he placed his mother in exile and then set out to protect and govern his duchy. He’s credited with founding Prague’s first church dedicated to St. Vitus in 930. It’s not clear if Drahomina played a part in what came next. But in 935, Wenceslas’ younger brother, Boleslav, and several disgruntled nobles plotted to assassinate Wenceslas. One account says that Boleslav invited his older brother to a dinner to celebrate the consecration of a new church. When Wenceslas was leaving the ceremony, three co-conspirators stabbed him to death.  As he fell to the church’s front steps, Wenceslas forgave his brother with his last words.

After the dreadful deed was done, Boleslav felt remorse. The upstart Duke of Bohemia repented of his murderous sin and had Wenceslas’ remains placed in St. Vitus Cathedral, which quickly became a pilgrimage destination.  About twenty years later, Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, posthumously declared Wenceslas to be a king of Bohemia, hence the appellation “Good King Wenceslas” in Mr. Neale’s Christmas carol. The present day St. Vitus cathedral, constructed in the 14th century (photos 6 & 7), houses the saint’s relics in the St. Wenceslas Chapel, constructed in the 1340’s. The upper reaches of its walls display scenes from the good king’s life.

6. St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic

6. St. Vitus Cathedral; Prague, Czech Republic

7. St. Vitus Cathedral Facade; Prague, Czech Republic

7. St. Vitus Cathedral Facade; Prague, Czech Republic

Patron Saints  It did not take long before the Czech people regarded Wenceslaus and Ludmila as patron saints. Ludmila has additional designations as the patron of duchesses, widows and, perhaps most significantly, people who have problems with their in-laws. Wenceslas is remembered as the epitome of a just ruler, and an exemplar for those in high office—and perhaps equally for those who aspire to such office—to act charitably on behalf of the poor. His story is no less relevant today than it was nearly 700 years ago when the chapel that holds his remains was consecrated (photo 8).

8. St. Wenceslas Chapel in St. Vitus Cathedral; Prague, Czech Republic

8. St. Wenceslas’ Chapel in St. Vitus Cathedral; Prague, Czech Republic

I want to thank Vicki Clyde and Mike Vruno for sharing the photos they took of St. Vitus Cathedral and St. Wenceslas’ Chapel.  Copyright 2015. Michael Klug,, 12/26/15

Isaiah & Advent

I’m posting this article on the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, the ecclesiastical season that precedes Christmas. It’s a period during which Christians prepare for and commemorate the coming of Jesus at his nativity in Bethlehem. Some celebrate the season by attending performances of Handel’s Messiah. Others light the four candles on an Advent wreath, the tapers representing the four Sundays in the season. Meanwhile, many children open one of the small windows on Advent calendars in a daily count-down to December 25th.

Advent is also the time when attentive church goers hear a series of readings from a book in the Hebrew Bible (Christians call it the Old Testament) attributed to the prophet Isaiah. Scholars believe that multiple authors contributed to its 66 chapters and that they wrote the book in three sections over a 300 year span starting in the eighth century, BCE. Some of Isaiah’s writings are so integral to the theology of Jesus as the long hoped for Messiah that they prompted St. John Chrysostom, one of the early church fathers, to call Isaiah “the prophet with the loudest voice.” Isaiah’s stature among the medieval theologians at Chartres led them to set a stained glass image of the prophet in a place of honor in the window next to Mary and the Christ child, high in the cathedral’s glistening apse (photos 1 and 2, click to enlarge).

1. Central Apse Lancets, Chartres Cathedral, France

1. Central Apse Lancets, Chartres Cathedral, France

2. Isaiah (top) & Moses in Apse Lancet, Chartres Cathedral, France

2. Isaiah (top) & Moses in Apse Lancet, Chartres Cathedral, France

It is worth noting that, on no less than half the days in Advent, lectors read excerpts from the Book of Isaiah at daily worship services precisely because Christians believe that they foretell something significant about Jesus; his lineage, the circumstances of his birth, and his meaning for all humanity. In today’s post, we’ll look at one of Isaiah’s common attributes and explore how medieval and modern artists have rendered four of Isaiah’s prophetic texts in sculpture and stained glass at cathedrals and churches in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.

Isaiah’s Attributes Without a caption bearing his name, it can be difficult to distinguish Isaiah from other prophets in cathedral art. The Old Testament prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others—tend to look alike. They wear robes and have beards. But artists sometimes depict Isaiah with a hot coal touching his mouth. This identifying attribute derives from a verse in the Book of Isaiah, chapter six, where the prophet describes an encounter with a six-winged angel: “Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar, and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, ‘Lo, this hath touched thy lips, and thine iniquity is taken away….”  A 20th century stained glass quatrefoil at Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral in Brussels captures the scene (Photo 3). The angel holds the tongs in his right hand and raises his left hand in a gesture of blessing. Isaiah’s right hand holds a quill with which he is writing his book. A circular halo appears about his head, a sign normally used to identify Christian saints.

2. Isaiah & Angel, Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels

3. Isaiah & Angel, Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels, Belgium

Isaiah & John the Baptist  The first words sung in the Messiah, Handel’s majestic oratorio about Jesus’ nativity and passion, are, “Comfort ye my people, saith your God.” The words, from the first verse of Isaiah, chapter 40, begin a passage that Christians believe refers to Jesus’ precursor and cousin, John the Baptist. Verse three reads, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Matthew’s gospel relates that John the Baptist preached and baptized “in the wilderness of Judea” and identifies John specifically as the one to whom Isaiah’s words refer. Matthew wrote, “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He goes on to say that John wore garments made of camel’s hair with a leather girdle on his loins, and that his meager diet consisted of locusts and honey. Like Isaiah, John spoke with a prophetic voice about Jesus when he declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

3. L-R, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Simeon, John the Baptist, St. Peter, Chartres Cathedral, France

4. L-R, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Simeon, John the Baptist, St. Peter, Chartres Cathedral, France

Thirteenth century sculptors at Chartres Cathedral illustrated this link between Isaiah and John the Baptist by placing them in a group of five Biblical figures who reputedly foresaw that Jesus would (or had) come to save a fallen world (photo 4 above, click to enlarge). Isaiah and Jeremiah were among the first and John, along with Simeon and Peter, were the last.  An emaciated John the Baptist holds a disc that encircles a lamb clutching a cross with an oriflamme at its top. The lamb alludes to John’s recognition of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” while the oriflamme symbolizes Jesus’ eventual victory over death. A wingless dragon (photo 5) appears on the sculpted pedestal beneath John’s feet to indicate that John has surmounted evil.  Nineteenth century Victorian artists acknowledged the connection between Isaiah and John by placing them in a pair of adjacent windows at Gloucester Cathedral in England (photo 6).

John the Baptist's Dragon Pedestal, Chartres Cathedral, France

5. John the Baptist’s Dragon Pedestal, Chartres Cathedral, France

Isaiah & John the Baptist

6. Isaiah & John the Baptist Windows, Gloucester Cathedral, England

Isaiah and the Virgin Birth   The Christian belief in Jesus as both God and Man rests largely on the premise that Mary, Jesus’ mother, conceived a child through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Matthew’s gospel tells how an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to inform him that Mary, a virgin, would bear a child of God. Matthew explains that this improbable occurrence was foretold long ago. He wrote, “Now all of this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is God with us.’”  Isaiah is the prophet Matthew cites.  A 20th century mosaic to the right of the altar at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal depicts the messenger angel descending on Joseph as he sleeps (photos 7 & 8).

St. Joseph Oratory Altar, Montreal, Quebec

7. St. Joseph Oratory, Altar and Mosaics, Montreal, Quebec

9. Joseph's Dream, St. Joseph Oratory, Montreal, Quebec

8. Joseph’s Dream, St. Joseph Oratory, Montreal, Quebec

The close link between Isaiah’s prophetic texts and Matthew’s nativity narrative probably explains why medieval artists at Chartres designed a stained glass scene with Matthew perched on Isaiah’s shoulders, implying that the New Testament writer sits atop an Old Testament giant (photo 9).  Modern glass at the Washington National Cathedral follows a similar pattern in which gospel writers and apostles are paired with Old Testament figures including Elijah, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others (photo 10).

Lancet with Isaiah and Matthew, South Transept, Chartres Cathedral, France

9. Lancet with Isaiah and Matthew, South Transept, Chartres Cathedral, France

11. Sts. Luke and Thomas with x and Elijah, Washington National Cathedral; Washington, DC

10. St. Luke and St. Thomas with Abraham and Elijah, Washington National Cathedral; Washington, DC

Isaiah and Jesus’ Lineage   The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel establishes Jesus’ royal heritage with a detailed genealogy that extends back to King David and beyond to the Hebrew patriarchs. Matthew stressed Jesus’ connection to King David because it’s essential to establishing Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ. People believed that the Messiah would grow from a branch on David’s family tree. The primary source for this belief was the prophet Isaiah who wrote in chapter eleven, verse one, that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse (King David’s father), and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, knowledge and of the fear of the Lord….”

Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

11. Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

Around the year 1100, German artists began to display Isaiah’s root, rod, and stem metaphors in miniature paintings of what came to be called “Jesse Trees.” Within fifty years, massive stained glass Jesse trees were installed at the Abbey Church of St. Denis near Paris, York Minster in England, and at Chartres Cathedral in France (photo 11, above, and see my blog post for 12/23/14 on “The Jesse Tree”).  A Jesse tree depicts its namesake lying asleep at the base of the tree. The trunk rises from Jesse’s groin and spreads into branches from which Kings David, Solomon and other royal offspring sprout. Mary and Jesus are the blossoms atop the tree (photos 12 & 13).

13. Mary in Jesse Tree, Chartres Cathedral, France

12. Mary in Jesse Tree, Chartres Cathedral, France

13. Jesus in Jesse Tree, Chartres Cathedral, France

13. Jesus in Jesse Tree, Chartres Cathedral, France

The Jesse Tree also influenced representations of Isaiah. At Chartres, for example, the sculpted pedestal beneath Isaiah’s feet on the cathedral’s north porch shows Jesse sleeping (photo 14). It mirrors the colorful glass image of the dormant Jesse that’s located above the cathedral’s main doorways (photo 15).

Jesse Sleeping in Isaiah's Pedestal, Chartres Cathedral, France

14. Jesse Sleeping in Isaiah’s Pedestal, Chartres Cathedral, France

Jesse Sleeping, Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

15. Jesse Sleeping in Jesse Tree Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Initially, Chartres’ Isaiah statue held a blossoming branch whose stem extended downward from the prophet’s hand to the sleeping Jesse pedestal. Sadly, the stem is missing. But across the Atlantic, one finds the blossom and stem in Isaiah’s hand in a bas relief sculpture on the west façade of Washington’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (photos 16 & 17), carved 700 years after the statuary at Chartres.

Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; Washington, DC

16. Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; Washington, DC

18. Isaiah (left) and Bartholomew; Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

17. Isaiah (left) and Bartholomew; Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

Isaiah and the Messianic Age   Christians maintain that Jesus’ nativity ushered in a new age in which a Prince of Peace would bring light and love to a darkened world. Harmony and tranquility would characterize the Prince’s reign. This notion stems in large part from another verse in Isaiah chapter eleven that quickly follows the passage about the rod of Jesse. At verse six, Isaiah describes a transformed world in which animal instinct itself is amazingly suppressed. He writes, “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.”

It’s a compelling statement about the future. We’ll close this post with photos of two modern windows that tenderly depict Isaiah’s hopeful perspective on the Messianic age (photos 18 & 19), along with my own prayer that we find a way to make his inspired vision of a kingdom of peace a reality in our own time, at this Christmas and in the New Year.

Universal Peace Window Detail, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

18. Universal Peace Window Detail, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

20. Prophets Window Detail, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Iowa City, IA

19. Prophets Window Detail, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Iowa City, IA

Copyright 2015 Michael Klug,, 12/20/15

Sacred Symbols: The Peacock

At first blush, the peacock might seem an unlikely candidate as a sacred symbol in Christianity or any other world religion. After all, its showy tail feathers and mating dance strut inspired the phrase “proud as a peacock” to describe a vain, self-centered, person. Pride, it so happens, is one of the seven deadly sins according to Prudentius who established the seven Christian virtues and their opposing vices in his allegorical poem, the Psychomachia  (Battle of Spirits), written around 400 CE.  Pride is the antithesis of humility. Yet despite these seemingly negative connotations, the peacock appears as a sacred symbol in Rome’s catacombs, in medieval illuminated manuscripts, in paintings of Jesus’ nativity by Renaissance masters, and in stained glass windows in a Gothic cathedral in France and an art deco church on the shores of Lake Michigan (photo 1). What is the peacock doing there?

Loyola University Chapel, Chicago, IL 1. Loyola University Chapel, Chicago

In this post, we’ll examine the peacock’s peculiar career as a Christian symbol with visits to two museums in the United States (the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City), Chartres Cathedral in France, Loyola University Chapel in Chicago, and Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

About the Peacock  The peacock, a cousin of the pheasant, is technically a male “peafowl.”  The female is a peahen. The iridescent blue peacock with which many people in Europe and North America are familiar, originated in India and Sri Lanka. Two less familiar species come from Java and central Africa. It is not clear when the first peafowl pair arrived in Europe from India. Some say that Alexander the Great first brought peafowl to Greece after his military campaign in Persia, around 330 BCE. The Bible suggests, however, that the birds were known to the Mediterranean world by early in the first Millennium BCE. The Book of Kings, written around 900 BCE, reports that King Solomon’s fleet came from Tarshish in three year cycles “bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.”  Peacocks, it appears, were deemed precious by the wisest of ancient Israel’s kings (photo 2).

Queen of Sheba & King Solomon, Chartres Cathedral, France 2. King Solomon (r.) Chartres Cathedral

The peacock enjoys a connection with the divine that spans centuries, predates Christianity, and crosses cultural and religious frontiers. In Hindu tradition, the bird is an emblem of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, music, and poetry. In east Asia, the peacock is an attribute of Guanyin whom Taoists regard as the goddess of mercy and compassion. In ancient Greece, the peacock was the emblem of Hera, whom the Romans called Juno.

Resurrection Symbol  Hera was the wife and consort of Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods. A Roman sarcophagus at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts features Hera’s peacock (photo 3) and Zeus’ eagle on opposite ends of the elaborately sculpted coffin. The peacock holds a wreath of olive leaves in its beak, signifying peace and victory. The overturned basket at the bird’s feet appears to hold pomegranates, a second attribute of Hera and also a reference to the Greek myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, with its theme of regeneration. The pomegranate came to symbolize the earth’s seasonal rebirth through the myth. This along with the fruit’s red color may explain why Christians later appropriated it as a symbol for Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Peacock on Sarcophagus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 3. Peacock on Sarcophagus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As for the peacock, early Christians took a different approach to the bird than the Hindus and Greeks did. Rather than use it directly as an attribute for an individual–an apostle or gospel writer as they did with John and the eagle–Christians employed the peacock as a symbol for theological concepts, particularly their beliefs about resurrection, immortality, and the nature of God.

As mentioned, the peacock connoted the idea of rebirth among the Greeks and Hellenized Romans well before the first Easter Sunday. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naturalist who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, hinted at a reason for this in Natural History, his wide-ranging compilation of information (and speculation) on the habits of creatures of all sorts. He wrote that the “peacock loses its tail every year at the fall of the leaf, and a new one shoots forth in its place at the flower season; between these periods the bird is abashed and moping, and seeks retired spots.” In other words, when spring arrives and the peacock’s tail feathers grow back, the creature is revitalized. Perhaps it was hope for renewal in a world beyond that motivated a wealthy Greek who lived in the fourth century BCE, to place a a delicate, gold funerary crown bearing the images of two peacocks on the head of a departed loved one (photos 4 & 5).

Funerary Crown with Peacocks, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 4. Funerary Crown with Peacocks, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Peacock Detail on Funerary Crown, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 5. Peacock Detail on Funerary Crown, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Christians were quick to re-purpose the peacock as a symbol for their own beliefs about rebirth. The bird appears in very early Christian art, notably in a group of frescoes that date to around 240 CE in Rome’s “Catacombs of Priscilla” (photo 6). A blue peacock with a purplish train stands above an Orant fresco in which a female priest lifts her arms in prayer, apparently during a worship service. Here, the peacock’s presence may allude to the anticipated resurrection of those who are buried nearby. A 2013 article in the Daily Mail is informative about the fresco’s recent restoration and ensuing controversy about what appears to be the image of a woman priest [].

Peacock above Orant Fresco, Rome (photo courtesy of Reuters) 6. Peacock above Orant Fresco, Rome (photo courtesy of Reuters)

The peacock’s resurrection connection is even more evident in the art of an anonymous Benedictine monk who worked at the Weingarten Abbey in Germany around the year 1200. Two scenes in the Berthold Sacramentary, an illuminated manuscript now at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, portray legendary events in the life of St. Martin of Tours (photo 7, click to enlarge).  The artist used geese and peacocks to tell the “back stories” for the images. On the top half of the left page, St. Martin divides and gives half his cloak to a shivering beggar. Below this famed scene of saintly charity, a second painting shows Martin standing among three lifeless bodies.

Two Legends of St. Martin in the Berthold Sacramentary, Morgan Library & Museum, NYC 7. Two Legends of St. Martin in the Berthold Sacramentary, Morgan Library & Museum, NYC

The two geese atop the right page remind viewers that Martin was extremely reluctant, despite popular acclaim, to become the bishop of Tours. The story, according to George Ferguson in Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, is that a goose “revealed Martin’s hiding place to the inhabitants of Tours, who had come to call the saint to be their bishop.” The townspeople eventually persuaded Martin to take the post. The peacocks at the bottom of the right page (photo 8) refer to resurrection stories recorded in the Golden Legend where St. Martin, on three separate occasions, raised men from the dead including one who had been hanged! The inscription between the peacocks appears to be a Latinized form of the Greek word that means both “souled” and “alive.”

Peacocks in Berthold Sacramentary, Morgan Library & Museum, NYC 8. Peacocks in Berthold Sacramentary, Morgan Library & Museum, NYC

The link between compassion and human revitalization, evident in these stories about Martin, perhaps motivated an American artist to incorporate a small image of the peacock in the border of a stained glass window honoring the Social Work profession (photos 9 & 10) at Loyola University’s Chapel on Chicago’s lakefront. The window features a large image of St. Vincent Depaul who, like St. Martin, was known for helping the poor.

Social Work Window, Loyola University Chapel, Chicago 9. Social Work Window, Loyola University Chapel, Chicago
Peacock in Social Work Window, Loyola University Chapel, Chicago 10. Peacock in Social Work Window, Loyola University Chapel, Chicago

Immortality Symbol  The peacock’s association with rebirth took an expansive turn among certain philosophers in pre-Christian Greece. Members of the Platonic school of thought reportedly believed that the peacock plays a part in the transmigration of souls. Tertullian, a second century CE Christian theologian and author of On the Resurrection of the Flesh, wrote critically of Platonists who asserted that Homer’s soul passed to Pythagoras, the great mathematician, and to others through a peacock.

At a later and indefinite point, the idea that peacock flesh does not decay gained a footing among Christian theologians and writers. Those who wrote the medieval bestiaries found allegorical and moral significance in the characteristics and behavior of various animals, including the peacock. The Aberdeen Bestiary, written around 1200, reported that the “peacock has hard flesh, resistant to decay, which can only with difficulty be cooked over a fire by a cook, or can scarcely be digested in the stomach….”  []. Consequently, since the middle ages the peacock has pointed to the Christian belief in the soul’s immortality.

It’s with these ideas about resurrection and immortality in mind that the peacock appears in modern Christian art. A prime example is found in the richly symbolic 20th century stained glass “Resurrection Window” (photo 9, click to enlarge) at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Designed by the Minneapolis firm of Weston & Leighton, it shows the risen Christ standing as a central figure between Mary, his mother, in blue robes, and Mary Magdalene in red. A small peacock is visible atop the lancet window on the extreme right (photo 10). A butterfly, another symbol of resurrection and rebirth, appears opposite in the leftmost lancet. And hearkening back to Persephone in the underworld, an open pomegranate reveals its seeds in a quatrefoil above and to the left of Mary (photo 11).

Resurrection Window, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis 9. Resurrection Window, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
Peacock in Resurrection Window, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis 10. Peacock in Resurrection Window, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
Pomegranate in Resurrection Window, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis 11. Pomegranate in Resurrection Window, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis

For more on the peacock and the “eye” in its feathers as a symbol for an all-seeing God, see my post for October 25, 2014 on Gabriel the Messenger and its section on the “Angel of the Covenant” (photo 12).

14. Angel of the Covenant, Chartres Cathedral, France 12. Angel of the Covenant, Chartres Cathedral, France

Copyright 2015, Michael Klug,, 9/17/2015

Sacred Symbols: Apples & Pears

As I walked toward downtown Iowa City last week, I passed dozens of ornamental apple and pear trees in full bloom. Their flowers reminded me that I’m due to produce a post about the connection between apples, pears, and Mary, Jesus’ mother. I first noticed a potential link between them when I visited the Washington National Cathedral about five years ago. As I stood admiring the stained glass windows in the Cathedral’s north transept, I spotted clusters of sculpted apples and pears near the archways that lead to the outside porch (photos 1 and 2). I recalled that the Cathedral’s north porch is dedicated to Mary and holy women, just as it is in Europe’s Gothic cathedrals.

1. Apple Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

1. Apple Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

2. Pear Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

2. Pear Cluster, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

I suspected that the apples and pears have something to do with Mary, but what?  I’d never read about the pear being one of her emblems. As far as I knew, the only written references to Mary and fruit are two legends recorded in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In one tale, as Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, the unborn Jesus commands a cherry tree to yield its fruit to his mother. In the other, baby Jesus orders a palm tree to bend down to “refresh my mother with your fruit” as the Holy Family is en route to Egypt to escape Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents.”  As I left the National Cathedral, I carried two new questions with me. Are apples and pears attributes of Mary and, what do they mean if they are?

Apples and Pears in Christian Iconography  I didn’t have to go very far to establish that a connection exists between Mary and the fruit. The National Gallery of Art, only three miles from the Cathedral, displays two early Renaissance paintings by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli in which apples and pears appear with Mary. In the earlier painting, apples and pears dangle alongside Mary’s head as Jesus holds what looks like a large golden delicious in his hands (photo 3). In the later painting, the infant Jesus admires a ripening pear that Mary holds in her left hand (photo 4). Crivelli worked in the late 1400’s. About twenty years later and 150 miles to the west in Parma, Corregio painted what appears to be a trellis with apples as the backdrop for his famous Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist, now at Chicago’s Art Institute (photo 5).

Madonna & Child, Crivelli (1490), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

3. Crivelli, Madonna & Child Enthroned with Donor Detail (1470), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Virgin & Child, Crivelli (1490), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

4. Crivelli, Madonna & Child Detail (1490), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Corregio, Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist (1515), Art Institute of Chicago

5. Corregio, Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist (1515), Art Institute of Chicago

An Italian connection for the National Cathedral’s apple and pear clusters makes sense. Roger Morigi, the National Cathedral’s chief stone carver for decades, was a native of Milan who moved to the Washington, DC area in 1932 and lived there until his death in 1995. Perhaps Mr. Morigi went to the National Gallery from time to time to seek inspiration in the works of the Italian masters for some of his own creations; or maybe he already knew when he left Italy that apples and pears belong to Mary’s traditional iconography. But when and where did that tradition start?

I’ll go out on a limb. I think its origins are in Western Europe and that it dates to the mid-13th century if not earlier. A small bit of evidence for this proposition appears in the exquisite Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere (Our Lady of the Beautiful Glass), Chartres Cathedral’s most famous stained glass window (photo 6). The lancet comprises a 12th century representation of the Virgin and Christ Child in the central panels with eight angels in 13th century glass around them. We’ll focus on the angels in the “newer” glass.

6. Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Chatres Cathedral, France

6. Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

The two topmost angels look down from the clouds. The pair on either side of Jesus hold candlesticks, probably to signify the Christian belief that Jesus is the light of the world. The other four angels swing censers at Mary’s feet and above her head as if to envelop the scene in fragrant smoke. On close inspection, you’ll see that the four censing angels also hold baskets or bowls filled with small, round objects. Could they be red apples and yellowish pears (photos 7 and 8)? It’s not clear. If they are apples and pears, it’s important for us to ask if they uniquely symbolize a belief about Mary’s character.

7. Angel with Red Fruit? Chartres Cathedral, France

7. Angel with Red Fruit? Chartres Cathedral, France

Angel with Basket, Chartres Cathedral, France

8. Angel with Yellow Fruit? Chartres Cathedral, France

Apples and Pears as Symbols   J.C. Cooper, in the introduction to his helpful Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, writes that “the symbol differs from the emblem and allegory in that it expresses, or crystallizes, some aspect or direct experience of life and truth and thus leads beyond itself.”  The white lily, for example, symbolizes the Roman Catholic belief that Mary was born and remained sinless. The flower expresses her essential purity. What does the apple express? It’s a mixed bag with at least one bad apple in it. Because the same Latin word, malum, means both apple and evil, many people have come to think of it as the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. According to legend, a piece of it stuck in Adam’s throat and became known as “Adam’s apple.” But the apple obviously has positive connotations as well. George Ferguson wrote in his Signs & Symbols in Christian Art that an apple held by Christ symbolizes the “fruit of salvation.” He observes that an apple held by Mary means pretty much the same thing.

Ferguson’s explanation might satisfy me if it were not for the combination of apples and pears at the National Cathedral and in Crivelli’s paintings. What do these two fruits have in common besides the fact that they both grow on trees?  A window in Chartres Cathedral’s north transept may point to the answer. Mary and her mother, Anna, appear enthroned in the center of five lancets directly below the stunning rose window called the “Rose of France” (photo 9).

9. Rose of France Window  and Lancets in Chartres Cathedral's North Transept, France

9. Rose of France Window and Lancets in Chartres Cathedral’s North Transept, France (click to enlarge)

The artist portrayed Mary as a young girl, seated on her mother’s lap, in a manner similar to the Belle Verriere composition. Notice that Anna holds a scepter in her right hand with three white flowers sprouting from it (photo 10). Each flower has five petals.

10. Anna and Mary, Chartres Cathedral, France

10. Anna and Mary, Chartres Cathedral, France

The number five is significant on many levels. For the ancient Hebrews it meant, among other things, “radical intelligence.” For Pythagorean Greeks, it symbolized the sacred marriage of gods with humans. For Aristotle and subsequent Greek and Roman philosophers, it represented “quintessence,” the substance of the heavenly spheres. Any of these could apply to Mary since she is variously known as the “Seat of Wisdom,” “Mother of God,” and “Queen of Heaven.” Which of them best explains the link between five, apples, pears, and Mary? I think Aristotle’s quintessence theory does.

Mary and Quintessence   Aristotle’s conception of the cosmos continued to influence thinkers during the medieval period when Chartres Cathedral and the other great Gothic cathedrals were being built, and into the Renaissance. Greek philosophers before him posited that the physical world consists of four essential elements: air, earth, water, and fire. To these, Aristotle added a fifth element to explain the apparent changelessness of the heavens. According to Sir Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd, Aristotle reasoned that the stars are immutable and therefore can’t be made of the same corruptible elements that comprise the material world. The stars must consist of a heavenly substance. Aristotle called it aether or “quintessence.”

It only takes of a short stretch of the imagination to connect an incorruptible heavenly substance with the glorious image of an incorruptible Queen of Heaven whose cult was at its height in the Middle Ages. Medieval alchemists probably helped forge the link. J.C. Cooper also points out that alchemists saw the five-petalled flower and five-pointed star as symbols of the quintessence.

This may explain the unique design of the rose window in the north transept at Amiens Cathedral, about 70 miles north of Paris (photo 11). The vast window encircles an inverted five-point star. The star’s presence in a Christian cathedral surprises and confuses many people. They see it as a sign of the devil. But the inverted star’s satanic connotations are fairly recent. They began in the 1850’s through the writing of Eliphas Levi, long after Amiens’ Cathedral of Notre Dame was completed in the 1200’s. The devil has nothing to do with the star in this rose window.

11. Star Rose Window, Amiens Cathedral, France

11. Star Rose Window, Amiens Cathedral, France

Amiens’ five-pointed star, through its placement in the north transept and its intricate design, is all about Mary. It almost certainly symbolizes the belief that her essence is of earth and heaven or, put another way, that she embodies the substance of the incorruptible heavens. The window’s structure is absolutely ingenious. The inverted star enabled the architect to place a pentagon—and more—in the window’s center. Look closely. Two five-petalled “flowers” are nestled in the pentagon, one within the other (photo 12). The two flowers’ petals add up to ten, the symbolic number of completion and perfection. Brilliant!

12. Star and Pentagon, Amiens Cathedral, France (photo by Vassil from Wikimedia Commons)

12. Star and Pentagon, Amiens Cathedral, France (photo by Vassil from Wikimedia Commons, click to enlarge)

Modern artists continue the tradition of using the five-point star in Mary’s iconography. A nice example of this is on view at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Storm Lake, Iowa (photo 13). The window portrays the vision described in Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation of a woman “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet….”

13. Queen of Heaven Window, St. Mary's Church, Storm Lake, IA

13. Queen of the Universe Window, St. Mary’s Church, Storm Lake, IA

This finally brings us back to apples and pears. What do they have to do with Mary’s quintessential nature? As with the window at Amiens, a five-pointed star is embedded in them! Slice an apple or pear laterally to reveal the little star and ponder the meaning of the old adage that “it’s what’s inside that counts!” (photos 14 and 15)

13. Sliced Apple

14. Sliced Apple

13. Apple Blossom, Iowa City, IA

15. Apple Blossom, Iowa City, IA

Copyright 2015, Michael Klug,, April 29, 2015

Saints Patrick and Joseph: the Patrons of Nations

When I was growing up on Milwaukee’s south side in the 1960’s, I learned an entire litany of saints’ names as I rode my bike past churches named for Adalbert, Hyacinth, Patrick, Sava, Wenceslaus, and many more. While I knew that my Polish friends went to mass at St. Hyacinth’s, I didn’t realize that the immigrants who founded the congregation had named it for one of Poland’s patron saints. Similarly, I didn’t know that Sava is the patron saint for Serbia or that Wenceslaus is one of Bohemia’s patrons. The only exception to my ignorance about national saints was Patrick who is, I learned with thanks to St. Patrick’s Day parades and the greening of the nearby Chicago River, Ireland’s patron saint. Even my German-Lutheran mother who often cooked corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes on March 17, helped reinforce the connection.

Shamrock Floor Tile, St. Colman's Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland 1. Shamrock Floor Tile, St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland

So, with St. Patrick’s Day just behind us and St. Joseph’s Day upon us, one of my goals for this post is to contrast these two saints as national patrons. I think it’s probably fair to say that most Americans can identify the tie between Patrick and the Irish people. But how many would know that St. Joseph, Mary’s faithful husband and Jesus’ kindly father (or foster father), is a patron saint for no less than 14 nations including Canada and Mexico in North America, and Austria and Belgium in Europe? St. Joseph, as a national patron saint, seems to have fallen off the map! What accounts for it? We’ll consider some of the possibilities below. But first, let’s look at St. Patrick’s story and legend as it appears in stained glass and sculpture.

St. Patrick  St. Patrick is perhaps one of the easiest figures to recognize in church art because his attributes (identifying emblems) are familiar in popular culture. He often appears with a shamrock or a snake. You’ll find a curious example of the latter at St. Mary’s church in Iowa City. There, a smiling green snake coils beneath the saint’s feet at the base of a plaster statue (photo #2). The snake refers, of course, to the legend that Patrick miraculously drove all the snakes out of Ireland.The story is more apocryphal than factual in the sense that many Christians associate snakes with evil and St. Patrick was long regarded as the first to drive the “evil of paganism” off the provincial island that Rome called Hibernia. Scientists offer a slightly different explanation. They credit the last Ice Age for the absence of snakes in Ireland, so it’s safe to assume there were no serpents underfoot when Patrick first stepped on Irish soil as a slave in the early 400’s.

2. Smiling Snake, St. Mary's Church, Iowa City, IA 2. Smiling Snake, St. Mary’s Church, Iowa City, IA (click to enlarge)

The story of Patrick’s bondage and escape from slavery and eventual return to Ireland is the stuff of drama. Artists at the Washington National Cathedral uniquely captured some key scenes from Patrick’s account of his life in a niche sculpture above an archway in the south aisle (photo #3).

St. Patrick Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC 3. St. Patrick, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

St. Patrick wrote in his Confessio that he grew up in a Roman town called Bannavem Taburniae in western Britain. When he was about 16, Irish pirates captured the future saint and sold him into slavery. The scene on the left side of the sculpture’s base shows Patrick being led into captivity, bound with a rope (photo #4). Patrick reported that he worked as a shepherd during his six years in bondage. The  scene on the right side of the base shows him tending sheep or other farm animals. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Patrick also “used the time to pray, in contrast to his earlier years in Britain when he ‘knew not the true God’ and did not heed clerical ‘admonitions for our salvation.'” Patrick eventually escaped, returned to his family in Britain, and trained for the priesthood. Around the year 435, he returned to Ireland, standing in the prow of the boat you see in photo 3, and established himself as Ireland’s bishop. His rustic cathedral at Armagh in modern day Northern Ireland appears at the center of the base in photo 4.

4. Base of St. Patrick Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC 4. Base of St. Patrick Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC (click to enlarge)

At the bottom of the base a snake slithers through a ground cover comprising a tangle of shamrocks. The presence of the three-leafed plant alludes to another popular legend about St. Patrick in which he used a shamrock to teach the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity, a three-in-one God, to the pagan Celts. Like the snake, a shamrock often appears with images of Patrick, as in the bishop’s crosier that Patrick holds in a window at Milwaukee’s All Saints Cathedral (photo #5). Note that Patrick is paired with St. Columba, founder of the renowned medieval monastery on Iona. Columba and St. Brigid, abbess of Kildare, are Ireland’s two other patron saints.

St. Patrick (L) and St. Columba (R), All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee, WI 5. St. Patrick (L) and St. Columba (R), All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee, WI

You’ll also find St. Patrick holding a shamrock sprig in a statue at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (photo #6), and in stained glass at St. Wenceslaus Church in Iowa City (photo #7) where the congregation originally consisted of both Bohemian and Irish parishioners.

St. Patrick Statue, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, NY 6. St. Patrick Statue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, NY
7. St. Patrick Window, St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA 7. St. Patrick Window, St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

This window also shows how St. Patrick is often shown wearing green to associate him with the “Emerald Isle.” His robe and mitre are entirely green. Contrast this with a window at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in which Patrick wears green and blue (photo #8). Is the color combination more than a mere fashion statement? It probably is. Irish patriots fought against the British under different flags. The green harp flag was first used by the Catholic Confederation in the 1640’s during its bloody conflict with the English parliamentary government led by Oliver Cromwell. Little more than a century later, the chivalric Order of St. Patrick adopted blue as its color. But green prevailed. By the end of the 18th century, green was forever linked with Irish nationalism through its association with the Society of United Irishmen in their 1798 rebellion. The window in Albany subtly symbolizes this history by combining shades of green and blue in  St. Patrick robes (photo #8).

St. Anthony of Padua (L) and St. Patrick (R), Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Albany, NY 8. St. Anthony of Padua (L) and St. Patrick (R), Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Albany, NY

St. Joseph  Today, March 19, is St. Joseph’s Day. In times past, it was a holy day of obligation during which practicing Christians dutifully attended Mass where they would be reminded of Joseph’s fidelity as a husband and father. It follows then that he is the patron saint of fathers and, for that reason, people in Spain, Portugal, and Italy celebrate a version of Father’s Day on St. Joseph’s Day. A statue of Joseph at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota honors Joseph as the head of the Holy Family (photo #9).

St. Joseph, St. Paul's Cathedral, St. Paul, MN 9. St. Joseph, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, MN

Owing to his occupation as a carpenter, Joseph is moreover the patron saint of cabinetmakers, carpenters, craftsmen, laborers, and working people in general. But in a sense Joseph’s patronage knows no bounds. That’s because, in 1870, Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), declared him to be the “Patron of the Universal Church.” In other words, he’s the patron saint for all Christians!  So, why aren’t a hundred thousand people parading today through the streets of Boston, Chicago, and New York in St. Joseph’s honor?

I suspect that there are many reasons. The most obvious one, perhaps, is that all those people are still recovering from the recent St. Patrick’s Day parades. Another (more serious) reason is that nations like Belgium and Croatia–where Joseph is a patron saint for the nation–didn’t send as many immigrants to the U.S. as Ireland. It might also be that Patrick is so popular in Ireland because he actually lived and worked there. As far as we know, Joseph never made it to central Europe. His only recorded international travel took him in the opposite direction to Egypt.

But I think it goes deeper than all of that. When we visited Belgium a few years ago, I noticed that its cities all have a different patron or patrons. Saints Michael and Gudula, for example, are the patron saints of Brussels (photo #10). Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent (photo #11, below), Walburga is Antwerp’s patron, and so on. As far as I know, none of Belgium’s major cities named Joseph as its patron saint.

Why not?

St. Gudula Statue, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels 10. St. Gudula Statue, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

I think the answer boils down to politics. Austria acquired Belgium in 1714 after the War of the Spanish Succession. Belgium and the Dutch Low Countries then formed a region called the Austrian Netherlands. It was part of the larger Austrian Empire that comprised Austria, Bohemia (modern Czech Republic), Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The empire’s capital city was Vienna from which the Hapsburg family ruled for hundreds of years. The royal family’s patron saint happened to be Joseph.

In 1717, a girl named Maria Theresa was born into that family. She acceded to the empire’s throne in 1740 when she was only 23 and unprepared to rule a far flung empire that had no common ethnicity, no common language and, following the Protestant Reformation, no common religion. The empress believed that she could promote unity in the realm by imposing her Roman Catholic faith on her subjects. In the process, many Jews and Protestants faced a choice between conversion or banishment and confiscation of their property.

St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium 11. St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

In 1771, Maria Theresa took her quest for national cohesion an odd step further. She decreed that instead of celebrating local patron saints on their feast days, only the feast of a joint national patron saint would be celebrated. Predictably, the bishops agreed to name Joseph as Austria’s patron saint. As members of the Austrian empire, Belgium, Croatia, and Slovenia perhaps reluctantly followed suit. It’s probably no big surprise then, that Joseph lost some of his appeal in reaction to Maria Theresa’s effort to force her family’s patron saint on her subjects. In the end, true devotion can’t be coerced.

I’m dedicating this blog post to the memory of Joey Scoblic, my nephew, who died on his birthday in December 1998.

Copyright 2015, Michael Klug,, March 19, 2015

The Greatest Virtue

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m writing this post with love in mind; not the romantic type that most people associate with February 14, but instead the kind of love that St. Paul described in his first epistle to the Corinthians as “patient and kind,” that “does not insist on its own way,” and that “does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” Latin translators called it “caritas,” the root of the English word charity. Over the years, theologians have written at length about charity and its centrality to spiritual life.

St. Ambrose (photo 1, below), writing in the fourth century, identified seven virtues: faith, hope, charity, temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. The first three are based on Paul’s famous passage in 1st Corinthians and are called “theological virtues.” St. Paul said of them that “the greatest of these is charity.” The remaining four, drawn from Plato’s Republic, are known as the “cardinal virtues.”  By the 1200’s when the great Gothic cathedrals were under construction in Europe, the number had grown to an even dozen with the addition of chastity, humility, patience, obedience, and perseverance.

1. St. Ambrose, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

1. St. Ambrose, Cologne Cathedral

On the exteriors of the French Gothic cathedrals, medieval sculptors often fashioned allegorical figures of the virtues in the guise of maidens. They paired each virtue with an opposing vice. Charity, for example, appears with avarice (greed) and faith stands opposite idolatry. In photo 2, taken at Notre Dame in Paris, we see an example with Humility holding a shield with a humble dove carved on it. She appears above a sculpted medallion where a cocky rider, representing Pride, tumbles off his bucking horse.

2. Humility & Pride, Allegorical Figures, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

2. Humility & Pride, Allegorical Figures at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France (click to enlarge)

As for Charity, the eminent art historian Emile Male observes in The Gothic Image that 13th century French craftsmen were not quite as imaginative as their Italian counterparts in sculpting the allegorical figures. The sculptures of Charity in France tend to depict scenes of simple alms-giving which is, Male says, “an effect of charity and moreover a wholly outward effect.” He points to a “still finer conception” at the church of Or San Michele in Florence where, in Ortagna’s renowned Tabernacle and in a marble plaque sculpted by Giovanni di Balduccio (photos 3 & 4), Charity cares for two toddlers, who may have been seen as orphans, and “presents her flaming heart to God.” The artist seemed to be trying to capture theologian Peter Lombard’s notion that charity is “love of God and love of one’s neighbor for the sake of God and in God.” The close-up in photo 4 clearly shows the tongue of flame and milk flowing from Charity’s left breast.

3. Charitas by Giovanni di Balduccio (1317-1349), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

3. Charitas by Giovanni di Balduccio (1317-1349), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

4. Charitas Detail, Giovanni di Balduccio,   National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

4. Charitas Detail, Giovanni di Balduccio, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Thirteenth century sculptors and stained glass artists were not content, of course, to depict core Christian principles such as faith and charity only through allegorical figures. They memorialized in art many individuals who were role models and inspirations for the nobles, clergy, and common folk of the day. We’ll turn now to consider the lives of a man and two women whose names are (nearly) synonymous with various aspects of charity and whose stories appear in cathedral art. They are Martin of Tours, Elizabeth of Hungary, and Elizabeth Fry of England.  We’ll find them at Chartres Cathedral in France and the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

5. Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Help for the Poor  Martin of Tours lived in the fourth century, shortly after Emperor Constantine decided to end the persecution of Christians. Martin later became one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 500 villages and 4,000 parish churches in France are dedicated to him. What made him so popular? Martin was a man of conviction and compassion. As a young soldier in the Roman army, he came to believe that his Christian faith was at odds with military service. He protested his assignment in combat in one of the first recorded examples of “conscientious objection,” and was promptly put in jail for it. When hostilities ended, he was discharged and went on to become a monk and later the bishop of Tours in 372.

The impetus for his turn from the military to a life in the church was a famous episode that took place while Martin’s legion was stationed in Amiens, about 70 miles north of Paris. Upon entering the city, Martin saw a half-naked beggar sitting near one of the gates. Feeling compassion for the shivering man, Martin cut his military cape in half to help clothe him. Later, Martin had a dream in which Christ appeared wearing the cloak he had given away. Afterwards, Martin resolved to be baptized and take a different path.

South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

6. South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

Tympanum, St. Martin (left) and St. Nicholas (right), Chartres Cathedral, France

7. Tympanum, St. Martin (left) and St. Nicholas (right), Chartres Cathedral, France

The story of Martin’s charity appears in sculpture on the south porch of Chartres Cathedral (photo 6). In a tympanum above the doorway on the far right of the porch, we find St. Martin on the left and a legend about St. Nicholas on the right (photo 7). On the lower level of the tympanum, near the center, Martin knocks at the gate in Amiens. To the left, he sits on his mount as the (headless) beggar wraps himself in half of the cape. Martin’s attendant looks on from behind the horse (photo 8).  In the scene immediately above, Martin sleeps in a bed while his footman sleeps on the ground. A piece of the cloak hovers above Martin to connote his compelling dream about Christ and the cloak (photo 9).

St. Martin, the Beggar, and the Cloak, Chartres Cathedral, France

8. St. Martin, the Beggar, and the Cape, Chartres Cathedral, France

9. St. Martin's Dream, Chartres Cathedral, France

9. St. Martin’s Dream, Chartres Cathedral, France

Martin’s cape has had an impact on language as well as art. After he became a saint, the Merovingian kings of France preserved Martin’s half of the cape as a relic in a small room used for private worship in Marmoutier Abbey. Later, the cloak (cappa in Italian) was often kept in small temporary churches when it accompanied the French armies into battle. The small churches and prayer rooms came to be known as cappella, or “chapels,” and the priests who tended the cape in service with the military were called “chaplains.” A Caribbean island (Martinique) and countless men and women (Martine, Martina) have been named for Martin of Tours including the sixteenth century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. The Lutheran church in Milwaukee where I was baptized and confirmed is dedicated to “St. Martini.”

Help for the Sick   Elizabeth of Hungary lived from 1207 to 1231. She was a princess, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary.  Elizabeth married at the age of 14 and was widowed six years later when her husband, Louis, succumbed to the plague while he was on a Crusade. Elizabeth emerged from her mourning determined to live simply and austerely as a lay-person but in line with Franciscan principles. She managed to reclaim her dowry and used it to build a small hospital near her house in Marburg. She tended the sick and infirm for the remainder of her brief life. Pope Gregory IX canonized her in 1235.  The Humanitarians Windows at the Washington National Cathedral, designed by Rowan and Irene LeCompte, portray Elizabeth in her role as a nurse to an ailing man and two children (photo 11). To the right of the sickbed scene, the stylized steeples of a church most likely allude to the saint’s shrine at the Elizabethkirche in Marburg, Germany. Churches dedicated to Elizabeth of Hungary appear in both Europe and North America.

10. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

10. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

Help for Prisoners   Elizabeth Fry was born in Norwich, England in 1780 to a Quaker family whose relatives included some members of the Barclay’s bank. She was moved by the preaching of an American Quaker to take an interest, at the age of 18, in the plight of England’s poor, sick, and imprisoned people. That interest would last a lifetime and take her to the Houses of Parliament where she became the first woman, in 1818, to testify before a parliamentary committee as she presented evidence on the deplorable conditions in England’s prisons. Working with influential friends and family, she organized societies for “the Reformation of Female Prisoners.”  She also established a “nightly shelter” for the homeless in London after she reportedly saw the body of a young boy frozen to death on a London street in the winter of 1819-20. Her example still inspires many others to advocate for incarcerated women. Elizabeth Fry Societies work throughout Canada “to support criminalized and marginalized women, girls, and children….” [See the mission statement for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver at].

Like her saintly medieval namesake, Elizabeth Fry’s charitable efforts are commemorated in the Humanitarians Windows at the Washington National Cathedral.  Wearing Quaker garb, she gazes downward at the pleading faces of disembodied women whose torsos are concealed by the stonework of prison walls. Chains interlace the scene (photo 11). The Bank of England has also seen fit to honor Elizabeth Fry’s humanitarian work by placing an image of her on the back of the £5 British note [].

Elizabeth Fry, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

11. Elizabeth Fry, Humanitarians Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

St. Paul’s words—“and the greatest of these is love”—appear across the bottom of the Humanitarians Windows to remind us that the greatest virtue goes hand in glove with the great commandment, that is, to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and our neighbor as ourselves.  Finally, in a minor concession to the inveterate romantics among you, here’s a photo of the “Heart of Yorkshire,” a thoroughly unique stained glass window at York Minster in England (photo 12). Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

Heart of Yorkshire from a slide, York Minster, York, England

12. Heart of Yorkshire Window from a slide, York Minster, England

Mike Klug,, 02-14-2015