For All the Saints: A Post to Close All Hallowstide

This past Thursday, November 1, many Christians celebrated All Saints Day, also called the Feast of All Saints or All Hallows Day. It’s been one of my favorite holy days since I attended an All Saints Day chapel service many years ago where I first sang For all the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest (Hymn 463 in the Lutheran Hymnal) with rousing accompaniment by the trumpets and tympani in my Lutheran high school’s band.  I see now that the hymn’s fourth verse nicely summarizes the Protestant perspective on saints. It stresses solidarity over hierarchy:

O blest communion, fellowship divine; we feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!

For Lutherans and other Protestants, the main point is that all believers belong to a mystical communion of saints. Thus, the Feast of All Saints becomes a day to remember Christians past and present—Saints with a “big S” like Paul and John and those with a “little s” like mom, dad and my Sunday school teacher. I think that All Saints Day appeals to me because it’s a time to reflect on the unseen connections between the living and dead, and those near and far. It reminds me that I’m part of a big picture that looks a bit like a Diego Rivera mural where the lines between past and present poignantly blur.

In this post, after a brief overview of All Saints Day’s origins, I’ll present images of several saints in a decidedly un-Lutheran like way. Using categories in a Roman Catholic prayer called the Litany of Saints, I’ll offer background and photos on one or two saints who exemplify each group. The ancient prayer is significant for its beauty and because many Roman Catholic congregations sing or recite it on All Saints Day and at the Easter vigil. A lector invokes dozens of saints’ names and after each is spoken or sung, the congregation responds, “Pray for us” (Ora pro nobis in Latin).  The categories are:

  • Mary and the Angels
  • Patriarchs and Prophets
  • Apostles and Disciples
  • Martyrs
  • Bishops and Doctors of the Church
  • Priests and Members of Religious Orders
  • Lay Members

Origins of All Saints Day   Denominations in the Western church celebrate the holiday on November 1 while Eastern rite churches do so on the first Sunday after Pentecost.  The common theme among denominations is a desire to honor all saints, known and unknown, whose souls abide after earthly life with God. The liturgical practice of commemorating saints’ lives extends to the early days of Christianity when local communities recalled the martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths. Some speculate that the need for a day of remembrance for all martyrs—the saints in early usage—arose during the Diocletian persecutions of the early 300’s (photo 1, below) when so many Christians died that each could not have his or her own memorial day.  Scholars trace the first reference to a common saints’ day to a Syrian Christian community in the late 300’s.


2. Head of a Togate Statue of Emperor Diocletian (ca. 300), J. Paul Getty Musuem, Villa Collection, Malibu, CA

Two centuries later, on May 13, 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome as a church in honor of Mary and all martyrs, naming it the church of Santa Maria del Martiri.  Workers reportedly removed 28 cartloads of human remains from the catacombs where Christians buried their dead, and placed them beneath the converted church’s high altar as relics of the holy martyrs. Today, many cathedrals and churches are dedicated to All Saints including the Episcopal cathedral in my hometown (photo 2).

All Saints Cathedral

2. Cathedral Church of All Saints, Milwaukee, WI, by Architect E. Townsend Mix in 1868

According to the Encylopedia Brittanica, “the first evidence for the November 1 date … and broadening the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs occurred during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731–741), who dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, Rome, on November 1 in honor of all saints.” E.O. James asserts in Seasonal Feasts and Festivals that Pope Gregory IV officially established the annual commemoration of All Saints on November 1, 835 as part of an effort to curb the autumnal pagan rites that coincided with November 1 and still persisted in parts of northern Europe, Britain and Ireland.  About 150 years later, the Benedictine abbeys in Europe were celebrating All Souls Day on November 2, an observance to honor the faithful departed established by Odilo, the abbot of the Cluny monastery, in 988. The three day period between Halloween and All Souls Day has since been called “All Hallowstide.”

Spiritual Bonds   The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the theology of the All Saints Day feast emphasizes the bond of those Christians who are already with God and those who are still on the earth, and that it points to an ultimate goal—“to be with God.”  Consequently, artists sometimes depict the saints “in glory,” i.e., in heaven with God, as we’ll see below with Mary and some others. But in the stained glass and sculpture that appears in many churches and cathedrals, we usually find heroic images of saints holding an attribute, an identifying symbol. One sees martyrs holding a palm frond, a symbol of victory over death, along with the instrument(s) used to kill or torture them. Other images employ elements drawn from saints’ legends or biographies to help identify them. The evangelists and other writers often appear holding a pen or book.

Here, organized around the seven categories in the Litany of Saints, are photos I’ve taken of some noteworthy saints as they appear in the stained glass and sculpture of 11 cathedrals and churches in Europe, the United States, and Mexico.

DEN-Mary Coronation

3. Mary’s Coronation by Royal Bavarian Art Institute, Basilica Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO

Mary and the Angels   Aside from Jesus, Mary probably appears more often in Christian art than any other figure. She is central to scenes of the Nativity, Annunciation, and Pentecost. Artists also portray her as the Queen of Heaven, imaginatively interpreting a verse in the Book of Revelation that describes a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, who wears a crown of 12 stars. A 20th century Munich-style window in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Denver (photo 3, above) illustrates a traditional scene of God the Son and God the Father, both seated on a heavenly rainbow throne, crowning Mary as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, hovers above with two curious cherubs.  The Father’s triangular nimbus symbolizes the Christian belief in a Triune God.  A 14th century boss in the vaulting of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona condenses the scene with Jesus and Mary seated while two angels make heavenly music with a stringed instrument and flute (photo 4, below).

SMM-Mary Coronation

4. Mary’s Coronation, 14th century vaulting boss, Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona, Spain

Patriarchs and Prophets   Three Hebrew patriarchs and their wives—Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel—appear in the art of some cathedrals and churches. One of the more popular scenes shows Abraham’s “test of faith” described in  Genesis 22 where an angel of the Lord shows up in the nick of time to stop Abraham from sacrificing Issac, his son.  A stained glass panel at St. Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta captures the drama with Abraham heeding the angel as a worried Issac, hands bound with rope, observes the encounter with a heaven-sent messenger (photo 5).


ATL-Abraham & Isaac

5. Abraham & Issac, Hebrew Bible Lancet by Willet Studios, Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, GA

My favorite biblical account involving a patriarch, though, is Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28. In the dream Jacob sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven upon which angels ascend and descend, and then hears God declare, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go….” A sculpted ensemble at Bath Abbey in England famously conveys the essentials of the dream with sculpted angels scurrying up and down two ladders that flank the prominent window on the abbey’s west façade (photos 6 and 7).

Bath West Facade

6. Bath Abbey, Bath England

Bath-Ladder & Angels

7. Angels on Ladder, Bath Abbey, England

Apostles & Disciples    Stained glass images of the most famous apostles and disciples abound in the cathedrals and churches of many Christian denominations. Familiar ones include St. Peter holding the keys of the kingdom, St. Paul with a sword, and St. Mary Magdalene holding a box or jar containing ointment that, tradition tells us, she used to anoint Jesus’ feet (photo 8).  But what of disciples like St. James Minor (also called the Less) whose very name implies obscurity? As with other saints, when St. James Minor shows up in art he often holds the legendary instrument of his death, in his case a club or bat. But sometimes you’ll find him holding a leafy branch.  What does this attribute signify? It likely alludes to a pre-Christian May Day ritual. In the pre-dawn hours of May 1st,  St. James Minor’s saint’s day, the youth in some European towns would go off into the woods to cavort and later return with branches cut from young trees to use as Maypole decorations. A window at Conception Abbey in Missouri shows the saint (Jacobus in Latin) holding a branch in one hand a a book in the other (photo 9, below).

ALB-Mary & Christ

8. St. Mary Magdalene Anoints Jesus’ Foot, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

CON-St Jac Min.

9. St. James Minor, Conception Abbey, Conception, MO


Martyrs   An enterprising writer could devote an entire blog post (or voluminous book) to the many martyred saints and their attributes. But that’s not me. I’m going to focus on St. Catherine of Alexandria, one of the so-called “Virgin Martyrs.” As a group, the Virgin Martyrs were said to endure unspeakably cruel tortures in witness to their faith. According to the Golden Legend, Jacob of Voragine’s 13th century compilation of myths and legends about the lives of saints, Catherine lived during the persecution of Maxentius, the emperor who ruled Rome in the early 4th century after Diocletian. Catherine, an aristocrat and devout Christian, rejected marriage with the emperor because she was a “bride of Christ” and publicly protested the persecution. The Roman authorities punished her impertinence by breaking her body on a wheel, afterwards known as a “Catherine wheel.” Legend holds that the wheel broke during the torture, and Catherine was then beheaded.  A 13th century panel at Chartres Cathedral shows an angel dismantling the wheel as Catherine kneels in prayer before it (photo 10).

CHA-St Catherine

10. St. Catherine and the Broken Wheel, Chartres Cathedral, France

The Roman Catholic Church’s list of martyred saints recently grew with the addition of Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Abp. Romero, an outspoken critic of the El Salvadoran revolutionary government’s treatment of the poor, was assassinated by gunfire as he stood on the altar of a hospital chapel. Pope Francis canonized him three weeks ago on October 14th. A few years after Romero’s death in 1980, the Washington National Cathedral installed a statuette in his honor (photo 11).


11. Archbishop Romero Statuette, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Bishops and Doctors of the Church   I’ll feature a saint in this category who was both bishop and doctor. St. Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo (now Annaba in modern day Algeria), a coastal city in North Africa, in the early 5th century. After converting to Christianity in 386, Augustine became a brilliant and influential writer on theological topics ranging from grace and charity to the Trinity. The Roman Catholic Church has long regarded him as one of its original four great “doctors,” meaning teacher in Latin. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Doctor of the Church is a title given to saints who are recognized as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing. Augustine was a prolific writer who is probably best known in our time for works that include his Confessions and the City of God.

But in addition to his scholarship, in 397 Augustine wrote a set of rules to guide the common life of lay Christian communities.  The Augustinian Rule, which is likely the oldest monastic rule in the western church, is still followed today by monks (or friars) of the Augustinian Order.  A detailed bas-relief sculpture above the portal to the 18th century Augustinian monastery church in Oaxaca, Mexico (photos 12 and 13) shows the saint wearing a bishop’s mitre and vestments, standing as a heavenly giant above a host of kneeling clerics. A pair of angels lift and open his robe as Augustine holds a model of a church building and book, likely symbolizing his role as a foundational Christian author. He stands on the heads of three bearded men. Who do they represent?  Since Augustine surmounts them, the heads probably symbolize three heretical opponents—Mani, Pelagius, and Donatus Magnus—against whom Augustine argued and prevailed.

OAX-San Augustin Facade

12. Iglesia de San Agustin, Oaxaca, Mexico

OAX-St Augustine

13. St. Augustine Sculpture (18th century) by Tomás de Sigüenza, Oaxaca, Mexico

Priests & Religious   This category covers priests and the male and female members of religious orders such as the Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Sisters of Mercy.  I’m highlighting St. Rose of Lima because she’s the first saint of the Americas, canonized by Pope Clement IX in 1667.  Rose of Lima joined a Dominican community in her native Peru, snubbing marriage and vowing virginity in the face of her parents’ strong protests.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, she “lived as a recluse in a hut…and experienced both trials and consolations of an extraordinary kind.” Rose was known to help the sick and hungry by caring for them in her room, and by making and selling lace to help the poor. She also withstood extreme forms of self-inflicted penance to help her identify with Christ’s sufferings. This might have shortened her life. She died after a long illness in 1617, at age 31. St. Rose is regarded as the patron of South America and the Philippines, and today many Roman Catholic churches in South and North America are dedicated to her, including a parish church in Quincy, Illinois. A window there, designed by the Emil Frei Studios in St. Louis, shows her contemplating a crucifix as she wears her signature silver crown of thorns and holds a crown of roses (photo 14).

St. Rose of Lima 1

14. St. Rose of Lima by Emil Frei Studios, St. Rose of Lima Church, Quincy, IL

Lay Members of the Church   Occasionally men and women who were not members of the clergy have been seen as saintly and eventually canonized. In some cases, rulers have been honored for the role they played in Christianizing their realms. Bohemia’s good St. Wenceslas is a prime example.  Less frequently, the Church has recognized noblemen and noblewomen for lives devoted to the less fortunate. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a widowed princess, spent much of her fortune founding hospitals and caring for children who were orphaned by the Crusades in the 13th century. A panel in the Humanitarians Window at Washington National Cathedral shows her nursing a sick man (photo 15).

Eliz of Hungary

15. Elizabeth of Hungary Panel in the Humanitarians Window (1958) by Rowan & Irene LeCompte, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

But it probably comes as no great surprise that some saints in this category are largely forgotten. One of them is St. Henry who is known to historians and the Germans who settled in and around Austin, Texas in the 1800’s, as Emperor Heinrich II. Henry was a Bavarian duke who became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1014 and a saint in 1146. His claim to sainthood rests largely on efforts to restore property taken from the church during a long war between the German states and Poland. Henry also founded the diocese of Bamberg, one of his favorite cities, and built a cathedral there. He and Abbott Odilo of Cluny were good friends, and Henry is the only German king ever to be canonized. A window in Austin’s St. Mary’s Cathedral shows the saint in imperial garb holding a model of Bamberg’s renowned four-towered cathedral (photo 16).

AUS-Henry II & Bamberg Cath

St. Henry by F.X. Zettler Studios, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Austin, TX

Article and Photos Copyright 2018 by Michael Klug,, 11/4/2018





Iconography 101: Attributes in Scripture

If iconography is “writing with images,” then attributes are among the key words and phrases that constitute a legible script. What are attributes? I think of them as visual cues to a person’s identity in art. Dr. Beth Williamson in Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction defines attributes as “pictorial labels.” They typically refer to a well-known event or story by which someone—a prophet or king from the Hebrew Bible or a Christian saint—is identified. While a number of attributes have their origins in scripture, many others derive from legends about the saints. Occasionally attributes are linked to customs associated with a saint.

Today’s post features a small sampling of attributes that have a basis in scripture. We’ll find them in the sculpture and stained glass at three cathedrals in Europe and four churches in the U.S. Taken together they illustrate how the traditional iconography of the Church’s heroes has persisted over the years. The use of attributes in sacred art, however, predates Christianity by many centuries. So before we visit the churches, we’ll take a short detour to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where we find several outstanding examples of attributes as they appeared in antiquity.

Attributes in Antiquity   We don’t know exactly when sculptors and other artists began to use attributes as labels for their deities. It is evident, though, that early Egyptians associated the falcon with their sky god Horus more than a thousand years before Christ (photo 1). On the other side of the Mediterranean, Greeks in the classical period used attributes to distinguish among their panoply of gods and goddesses. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, holds an owl with her left hand in a sculpted procession of twelve gods that dates to the first century B.C.E (photo 2).

1. Falcon Reliquary, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

1. Falcon Reliquary (1st century, B.C.E.), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Athena and Owl Detail, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

2 Athena and Owl, Detail from Procession of 12 Gods, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

To the east, Assyrians in the ninth century, B.C.E., depicted their winged genies carrying a pine cone and pail (photos 3 & 4). The winged genies were benevolent protective deities akin to angels, and were probably related to the “winged man” that eventually came to symbolize the gospel writer Matthew (see my 7/21/14 post on the Tetramorph) . Some scholars assert that these attributes are tied to a belief that the winged genies tended the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Significantly, Christians later adopted the pine cone as a symbol for eternal life, most likely because its seeds produce a tree that is ever green. For more on how the pine cone became a Christian symbol, see the Daily Beagle’s informative article on the Vatican’s pigna [].

1. Winged Genie from Palace at Nimrud, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

2. Winged Genie from Palace at Nimrud, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

2. Winged Genie and Pine Cone Detail, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

3. Winged Genie with Pine Cone Detail, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Biblical Attributes   Many attributes in Christian art have their basis in scripture. St. Peter’s keys offer a prime example (photos 4 – 6). A key or set of keys refers to the verse at Matthew 16:19 where Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven….” For Roman Catholics, the keys symbolize Peter and his status as the first pope. In time, the keys also came to signify the papacy itself. Today, two keys, one gold and the other silver, adorn the Vatican’s coat of arms in an iconic reference to the verse in Matthew.

Peter (far right) with other Apostles; Chartres Cathedral's South Porch, France

4. St. Peter (far right) with other Apostles; Chartres Cathedral’s South Porch, France

St. Peter (left) and St. Paul, All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee

5. St. Peter (left) and St. Paul, All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee

Peter Receives the Keys of the Kingdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Church, Petersburg, Iowa

6. St. Peter Receives the Keys of the Kingdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Church, Petersburg, Iowa

King David’s harp is another familiar attribute with its origin in scripture. The image of Israel’s famed ruler holding a harp comes from the book of 1st Samuel where the writer recounts how a young David played a harp for King Saul to dispel the “evil spirit” that troubled the older man. The music of the harp, the Biblical account reports, “refreshed Saul” and made him well. The harp attribute also calls to mind David’s presumed authorship of many psalms (songs in Greek) that were set to harp or lyre music.  A deteriorated 13th or 14th century sculpture of King David at Rouen Cathedral shows him with a large harp (photo 7). Similarly, David is shown playing a harp in a post-Reformation stained glass window at Cologne Cathedral. He appears as one of Jesus’ royal ancestors in a “Jesse Tree,” dressed as a sixteenth century nobleman (photo 8). David’s harp shows up in North American churches as well. British artists incorporated it in a lovely late 19th century window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Philadelphia (photo 9).

King David with Harp, Rouen Cathedral, France

7. King David with Harp, Rouen Cathedral, France

King David (left) and Solomon, Jesse Tree Window, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

8. King David (left) and Solomon, Jesse Tree Window, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

King David, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

9. King David, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

St. John the Baptist’s garments provide our third example of an attribute with roots in the Bible. Artists typically depicted John dressed in clothing made of skins. A restored 13th century sculpture on the west facade of Reims Cathedral (photo 10) aptly conveys the description of John’s rough attire in Mark’s gospel: “And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins.” John wears a hairy, brown-colored, tunic in a stained glass baptism scene at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 11). You’ll also sometimes see him holding a lamb, or a medallion with a lamb, as a second attribute. This illustrates the verse at John 1:29 where the Baptist sees Jesus approaching the River Jordan and pronounces, “Behold the Lamb of God….”

John the Baptist, West Facade, Reims Cathedral, France

10. John the Baptist, Reims, France

John the Baptist and Jesus (top center), Baptism Window, Washington National Cathedral

11. Theology of Baptism Window (1954) by Burnham Studios, Washington National Cathedral (click to enlarge)

As noted above, there’s more to attributes than their references in scripture. My next post will take a look at attributes that grew out of the curious legends involving some of the saints. Paul, Hubert, Agatha and others will be in the spotlight.

Mike Klug,, November 22, 2014

Gabriel the Messenger

In today’s post we’ll examine the iconography of Gabriel, archangel and heavenly messenger, in the art of Chartres and Cologne Cathedrals in Europe (photos 1 & 2), and two museums and two churches in the United States. We’ll focus on the traditional attributes, or emblems, that identify Gabriel in scenes of the Annunciation, and then widen our field of vision to consider some less conventional representations of him that may point to a cross-cultural connection with the celestial messengers of ancient Greece.

Gabriel is known to many Christians as the angel who, in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, announces to Mary that she will bear a son whose name will be Jesus. The Bible also names Gabriel as the one who interprets two of Daniel’s dreams (Dan. 8:15, 9:21), and who informs elderly Zechariah, “Thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (Luke 1:13).  Neither the Hebrew Bible nor Christian New Testament, however, identifies Gabriel as an archangel.  He became known as one of four chief angels (along with Michael, Raphael, and Uriel or Phanuel) on the basis of passages in non-canonical writings like the Book of Enoch, written around 175 B.C.E. His name means “God is my strength” in Hebrew, and it might surprise some Christians to learn that the Quran also mentions Gabriel (or Jibril). It relates the story of his appearance to Mary in which the archangel declares, “I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you [news of] a pure boy.”

1. Chartres Cathedral, Choir and Apse, France

1. Chartres Cathedral, Choir and Apse, France

2. Cologne Cathedral, Nave and Choir

2. Cologne Cathedral, Nave and Choir

Gabriel and the Annunciation    According to Maurice Hassett, who wrote an article about angels for the Catholic Encyclopedia, the oldest known image of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel appears in a second century fresco in the Cemetery (or Catacomb?) of St. Priscilla in Rome. He appears there without wings presumably to avoid any associations with Rome’s “idolatrous” winged gods. It was only after Constantine’s reign in the fourth century that angels began to wear wings in Christian art. By the time medieval artists adorned the great Gothic cathedrals with stained glass scenes depicting Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, certain artistic conventions were well established. All angels had wings. But Gabriel alone carries a scepter that helps identify him while reminding us that a divine ruler sent him forth to deliver messages to certain mortals. A lily, symbolizing Mary’s purity, is another of Gabriel’s attributes. In some cases, Gabriel also wears a sash or carries a scroll inscribed in Latin with his memorable salutation: “Hail, thou that art highly favored….”

Two 13th century stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral display two of Gabriel’s emblems.  An Annunciation panel (photo 3) in the lower left corner of the large “Life of Christ” window (photo 4) above the cathedral’s main portal, seems to capture the exact moment that Gabriel appeared to Mary. He offers a benevolent greeting by extending two fingers on his right hand in blessing. Mary was evidently seated on the chair behind her when the angel entered the room. Her raised palm gives the sense that she stood up quickly in surprise. The lily is barely visible on the tip of Gabriel’s golden scepter.

3. Annunciation Panel in the Life of Christ Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

3. Annunciation Panel in the Life of Christ Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

4. Life of Christ Window, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

4. Life of Christ Window, Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

Likewise, the Annunciation scene in a lancet at the opposite end of the cathedral (photo 5) shows Gabriel holding a scepter with a gold fleur-de-lis at its tip. The gestures in this image appear to move the dialog forward to the point at which Mary wonders, “How can I conceive when I have not known a man?” Gabriel raises his index finger to stress the words that follow: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee….” (Luke 1: 34-35). Significantly, a white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit appears directly above Mary’s head to indicate that the moment of conception is imminent.

4. Annunciation Window, Apse Lancet, Chartres Cathedral, France

5. Annunciation Window, Apse Lancet, Chartres Cathedral, France

Medieval sculptors also worked hard to incorporate Gabriel’s attributes into their Annunciation scenes. Working with alabaster, artists in Nottingham, England carved many altarpieces that contained detailed scenes from accounts of Christ’s Passion and the Life of Mary. The Walters Museum in Baltimore has a few surviving panels from an altarpiece that probably graced a medieval Mary chapel. The Annunciation panel (photo 6), dating to the late 1400’s, shows Gabriel and Mary standing on either side of a large potted lily. Mary turns to face Gabriel from a prie-dieu, or prayer kneeler. A long scroll that was originally painted with Gabriel’s salutation encircles the flower. Above and to the left, God the Father exhales a dove that glides toward Mary. This detail creates a clever visual pun in that spiritus means both breath and spirit in Latin.

The Annunciation in Alabaster, Walters Museum, Baltimore, MDl

6. Annunciation in Alabaster, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (click to enlarge)

Modern sculptors carried this medieval tradition into the 20th century. An excellent example of a relatively new sculpted altarpiece stands in the Mary Chapel at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Roland Wanamaker, son of John Wanamaker and heir to the Wanamaker Department Store fortune, commissioned the English firm of Barkentin & Krall to fashion an altarpiece made of silver in memory of his wife, Fernanda, after she died in 1900. The “Wanamaker Altar” contains twelve panels which illustrate events in Mary’s life (photo 7). Its Annunciation panel shows Gabriel presenting a stemmed lily to Mary as she turns from her prie-dieu to receive the gift in humility. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends on Mary (photo 8).

7. Wanamaker Altarpiece, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

7. Wanamaker Altarpiece, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

8. Wanamaker Altarpiece, Annunciation Panel, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

8. Wanamaker Altarpiece, Annunciation Panel, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

Modern stained glass artists as well have extended Gabriel’s enduring iconography into our own times. The early 20th century Annunciation window at Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a case in point (photos 9 & 10). In it, Gabriel holds a golden scepter tipped with a fleur-de-lis in his left hand. He raises his right hand in the same gesture we saw in the Life of Christ window at Chartres. A scroll dangles from his scepter with the words “Ave Maria” painted on it. A potted lily stands to the left of Mary’s prie-dieu as she turns from her prayer book to face the angel. A dove hovers overhead.  Even though this window was designed by a German studio in a romantic style that has little in common with medieval France’s approach to art, it incorporates all the traditional attributes that we saw in the older stained glass and sculpture above. The connection between past and present is clear when seen in light of the symbols.

9. Annunciation Window designed by F.X. Zettler Studios, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver

9. Annunciation Window designed by F.X. Zettler Studios, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver

10. Annunciation Window Detail, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver

10. Annunciation Window Detail, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver

Ambiguous Angels   When it comes to angels, scripture is sometimes short on key details. Take, for example, the disturbing story in the book of Genesis about Abraham as he prepared to sacrifice Isaac. After Abraham has built an altar for a burnt offering and bound Isaac’s hands and feet, an angel suddenly appears at the very moment that Abraham is drawing a knife to kill his son. Abraham hears a voice. It’s an angel. But who was that angel? Nowhere in the Book of Genesis do we learn the angel’s name.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, a tradition developed among rabbis that God sent Gabriel to intercede on Isaac’s behalf. It makes sense, since Gabriel has long been known as a messenger or herald. Sculptors at Chartres created an exquisite rendering of the drama on the Cathedral’s north porch (photos 11 & 12). Abraham with knife in hand (the blade is missing) holds young Isaac’s head. The boy’s hands and feet are bound with rope. They look up. There, above and to their right, an angel peeks his head out of the heavenly city and commands, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him….”

11. Melchizadek (L) and Abraham & Issac (R), Chartres Cathedral, France

11. Melchizadek (L) and Abraham & Issac (R), Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

12. The Interceding Angel, Chartres Cathedral, France

12. The Interceding Angel, Chartres Cathedral, France

Gabriel and the Rainbow   As you visit churches and art museums you might occasionally come across an angel whose wings are painted in the colors of the rainbow.  Jan Van Eyck portrayed Gabriel with rainbow-colored wings in a renowned early 15th century painting of the Annunciation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (photo 13). What motivated Van Eyck to give Gabriel rainbow wings?

13. The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

13. The Annunciation (detail) by Jan Van Eyck, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

There are at least two possible explanations. First, he might have been making a reference to Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. She, along with Hermes (whom the Romans called Mercury) carried messages from the gods on Mt. Olympus to humans below. Iris is mentioned often in Homer’s Iliad, and it’s worth noting that the Spanish word for rainbow is arco iris, the “arc of Iris.”

But who knows if Van Eyck read the Iliad? It’s more likely that Gabriel’s rainbow wings were meant to spread a Christian message. In an article published in the March 1999 Art Bulletin, Dr. Carol Purtle wrote that many details in the painting “parallel elements of the narrative history of the Lord’s covenant promises to his people.” Through its allusion to the rainbow, Van Eyck’s Annunciation communicates the idea that God has made good on his promise to Noah by sending a Messiah (who is about to be conceived by the Holy Spirit descending on Mary) to redeem humankind. Gabriel’s wings recall the rainbow that appeared for Noah as a sign of God’s “everlasting covenant with every living creature that is upon the earth” (Genesis 9: 16).

The connection between the rainbow and covenant is also expressed at Chartres Cathedral. A window high above the apse, installed about a century before Van Eyck lived, displays a magnificent “angel of the covenant”(photo 14). The angel is a six-winged cherub whose feathers, collar, and halo cross the light spectrum in shades of purple, blue, green, yellow, reddish-orange, and red. In addition to these colors that symbolize the rainbow and its reminder of God’s promise to humanity, the artist conveys the idea that God’s promise never dies by placing purple peacock feathers on the cherub’s breast (note the “eyes” in the feathers). In olden times, people thought that peacock flesh does not decay, and so the elegant bird became a symbol of immortality.

14. Angel of the Covenant, Chartres Cathedral, France

14. Angel of the Covenant, Chartres Cathedral, France

But perhaps, as with many windows at Chartres, there is even more to this one than meets the eye. Bulfinch reports in his Mythology that the peacock is the Greek goddess Hera’s emblem. She was the wife of Zeus and patroness of mothers and marriage. Her personal messenger was none other than Iris. Did the artist intend to give a subtle nod to the gods of Greek antiquity? The question is open to debate because an abridged Latin translation of the Iliad called the Ilias Latina was, in the words of one source, “widely studied and read” in medieval schools. At that time, Chartres was home to one of the finest schools in Europe.  

Since I first saw Chartres’ Angel of the Covenant in 2010, I’ve been looking for images that employ the rainbow as an attribute for Gabriel. I found one two years ago in a modern Annunciation panel in the “Life of Christ” window at Cologne Cathedral (photo 15). Gabriel’s robe is purple and his wings contain the rainbow’s other colors. What was the artist’s intent? Does Gabriel’s rainbow mean messenger, covenant, or both? As we close this post, I think it’s worth noting that the rainbow has signified “divine presence” and cosmic benevolence for eons. The ancient Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, and Celts all sensed it, and the rainbow’s symbolism continues to evolve. If you are aware of any other examples of Gabriel with a rainbow attribute, please let me know. My email address is below. Thank you!

15. Annunciation Panel, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

15. Annunciation Panel, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

Michael Klug,, 10/25/14

Michael the Archangel

Because September 29 is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels (also called Michaelmas), this post focuses on Michael the Archangel, or “chief angel,” as he appears in stained glass and sculpture at two cathedrals in Europe and three churches in the U.S. Many Christian denominations regard Michael as a saint, and he was especially popular in the Middle Ages. His 11th century abbey shrine at Mont St. Michel in France still draws an estimated 3 million visitors each year (photo 1, below), and sacred structures on both sides of the Atlantic continue to bear his name. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints reports that no less than 686 churches in England were dedicated to Michael the Archangel by the end of the Middle Ages, and a quick Google search reveals that hundreds of Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox churches throughout the U.S. are named for him.

Mont St. Michel 21. Mont St. Michel, France 

The Bible and Koran both mention Michael. The Old Testament Book of Daniel describes him as “one of the chief princes” of the heavenly host, whose face had “the appearance of lightning” when he came to Daniel in a vision to offer encouragement. Michael said, “O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee, be strong, yea be strong” (Dan. 10:19).  Michael’s name in Hebrew means “Who is like unto God?” and in some cases viewers can identify him by the Latin translation of his name–“Quis ut Deus?”– inscribed on a shield or scroll, as in a modern sculpture at Cologne Cathedral (photos 2 & 3).

2. Portal with St. Michael Trumeau, Kolner Dom, Cologne, Germany (click to enlarge)

2. Portal with St. Michael Trumeau Sculpture, Kolner Dom, Cologne, Germany (click to enlarge)

St. Michael,

3. St. Michael’s Shield with “Quis ut Deus,” Kolner Dom, Cologne Germany

The New Testament’s Book of Revelation describes Michael as the leader of an army of angels who prevail in a celestial war against “the great dragon” and the forces of evil.  In this apocalyptic vision, Michael and his forces cast out the dragon—Satan—and his angels from heaven to the earth. Thus, one often sees Michael wielding a sword and sometimes wearing armor as he stands over a defeated dragon or subdued Satan to symbolize the triumph of good over evil.  Two statues at Brussels’ Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula, one with a dragon and the other with a horned Satan, provide good illustrations of the type (photos 4 – 8).

Sts. Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels (postcard)

4. Cathedral of Saints Michael & Gudula, Brussels (postcard)

St. Michael and Dragon, Late Middle Ages, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

5. St. Michael and Dragon, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

Defeated Dragon, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

6. Dragon Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

St. Michael and Satan, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

7. St. Michael and Satan, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

8. Satan Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

8. Satan Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

in the Middle Ages, Michael was the patron saint for chivalry, and he’s now deemed the patron of police officers, paramedics, firefighters, and the military. Modern stained glass artists continue the tradition of depicting him as a mighty warrior, and one of our “better angels,” in the perpetual struggle between good and evil. A 19th century window at Marquette University’s Gesu Church, made by the studios of F.X. Zettler in Germany, shows a brawny Michael driving Satan into the fires of hell (photo 9).

St. Michael & Satan, Church of the Gesu, Milwaukee, WI

9 St. Michael & Satan, Church of the Gesu, Milwaukee, WI

More recently, a “Freedom Window,” designed by Joseph G. Reynolds, Jr. and installed at the Washington National Cathedral in 1953, depicts St. Michael in good company with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Moses, Martin Luther and others who courageously confronted the evils of their day (photos 10-12).

St. Michael (center left) in the Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

10. St. Michael (center, left lancet) in the Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC (click to enlarge)

11. Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

11. Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

12. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

12. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, Freedom Window, Washington National Cathedral, DC

Though Michael appears most often as a protagonist in the fight against evil, he’s also prominent in scenes of the Last Judgment. He typically holds a set of scales in which souls are weighed before Christ issues everlasting judgment. The outstanding 13th century tympanum sculpture in the center portal at Amiens Cathedral (photos 13-15) shows Michael standing between two angels who blow their trumpets to announce Judgment Day as the dead rise from their graves. Christ is enthroned, seated above the saved and damned. Below and to his right, angels escort the faithful to heaven where they receive crowns. Below and to his left, demons prod the others into the open jaws of Leviathan, a symbol for hell.

West Facade, Amiens Cathedral, France

13. West Facade, Amiens Cathedral, France

Last Judgment Tympanum Sculpture, Amiens Cathedral, France

14. Last Judgment Tympanum Sculpture, Amiens Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

Last Judgment Detail, Amiens Cathedral, France

15. Last Judgment Detail, Amiens Cathedral, France

Stained glass artists also portrayed Michael in Judgment Day scenes. Michael hovers on the wings of a cherub in the vast 15th century Last Judgment Window at St. Michael & Gudula Cathedral in Brussels (photos 16 & 17). At Denver’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral, he commands a central position at Christ’s feet, standing at the ready in shimmering golden armor. The stained glass windows at the Cathedral in Denver were also designed by Germany’s F.X. Zettler studios, and installed around 1912 (photo 18).

Last Judgment Window, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

16. Last Judgment Window, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels (click to enlarge)

Michael with Scales Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

17. Michael with Scales Detail, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

Judgment Day Window, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO

18. Judgment Day Window, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO (click to enlarge)

Michael Klug,, 9/29/14

Attributes of the Apostles: Peter

If you’re not fluent in Latin, or if an inscribed or painted name has faded away, it might be difficult to tell one saint from another as they appear in stained glass and sculpture in a Gothic cathedral. That’s where “attributes” can help. Medieval artists enabled viewers to identify prophets, evangelists, and saints by adding an item associated with the subject to their works. Dr. Beth Williamson, a British art historian, observes in her book, Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction, that an attribute “acted as a pictorial label.” She goes on to explain that “attributes might make reference to a significant event in a saint’s life, or a particular achievement for which they are known.” In this way, attributes also served as teaching devices that pointed to key elements in important stories.

1. St. Peter Sculpture, 13th Century, Rouen Cathedral, France

1. St. Peter Sculpture, 13th Century, Rouen Cathedral, France

Unschooled medieval church-goers could easily identify a statue of St. Peter, for example, by the “keys of the kingdom” that he holds. The keys illustrate the verse in Matthew’s gospel where Christ says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”  The statue of Peter holding an over-sized key at Rouen Cathedral (photo 1, above) is one of many fine examples of this attribute put to good use. In this post, we’ll also visit Chartres Cathedral in France and four churches in the U.S. as we review Peter’s various attributes.

Peter, the impetuous fisherman who would come to be known as Rome’s first bishop, has been a popular subject for artists since Christianity’s early days. Churches throughout the world are named for him, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the seat of the papacy and legendary site of Peter’s burial. Many of those namesake cathedrals and churches, as well as dozens of sacred structures dedicated to other saints, contain an image of Peter with keys. A fine 13th century statue on the North Porch of Chartres Cathedral shows a set of keys dangling from Peter’s wrist (photo 2).

2. Peter (far right) with Simeon and John on Chartres Cathedral's North Porch. France

2. Peter (far right) with Simeon and John on Chartres Cathedral’s North Porch, France (click to enlarge)

But because Peter was involved in many “significant events” recorded in the gospels and Acts of the Apostles, artists often add other attributes to their representations of him. At Chartres, Peter wears a papal tiara and the pallium (Y-shaped sash), visual cues to his traditional designation among Roman Catholics as the first pope (photo 3). Observe also that he stands on a pedestal shaped like a small rock out-cropping (photo 4). The rocky pedestal recalls Christ’s words in Matthew’s gospel: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This speaks to the view among medieval theologians that Peter was preeminent, or had “primacy,” among Jesus’ disciples. Moreover, the sculptor probably knew that Peter’s name derives from petrus, the Greek word for “rock.”

St. Peter Detail, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

3. St. Peter Detail, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

3. Peter's Pedestal on Chartres Cathedral's North Porch, France

4. Peter’s Pedestal, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

Modern artists depict Peter in much the same way. A 20th century sculpture by John Angel at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City continues the “key tradition” with Peter clutching a large key to his chest (photo 5). But there’s a twist to the story in this sculpture. A crowing rooster stands at Peter’s feet (photo 6). In contrast to Chartres where the emphasis is on Peter’s primacy, the rooster reminds us of his human shortcomings and failings, as when he denied that he knew Christ three times before the rooster crowed. A scene on the pedestal shows Peter with his hands raised in denial as he maintains, “I do not know the man!”

4. St. Peter, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City

5. St. Peter Statue by John Angel, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City (click to enlarge)

5. Peter's Rooster and Pedestal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

6. Peter’s Rooster and Pedestal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

In many cases, saints are known by the instruments of their death. Legend has it that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, during Nero’s reign. The story probably has its origins in an apocryphal book, The Acts of Peter, which dates to the second century. Jacobus de Voragine, writing in the 1200’s, compiled this and many other stories and tales about the saints in a popular book called The Golden Legend.  The Golden Legend relates that Peter was uncomfortable with a regular crucifixion. He told his executioners, “Since I am not worthy of hanging on the cross as my Lord did, turn my cross around and crucify me upside down!” The Roman soldiers, who reportedly really did  amuse themselves by sometimes changing the position of the cross for executions, obliged him. An inverted Latin cross alludes to this legend on the pedestal for St. Peter’s statue at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC (photo 7), while a stained glass roundel at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Philadelphia actually depicts it (photo 8).

7. Inverted Cross and Heraldic Keys on Pedestal, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

7. Inverted Cross and Heraldic Keys of the Kingdom on St. Peter’s Pedestal, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

8. St. Peter's Martyrdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

8. St. Peter’s Martyrdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

Papal garb and upside down crosses notwithstanding, the key is Peter’s most common attribute. It shows up often in modern stained glass throughout North America. Two examples close this post on Peter’s attributes (photos 9 & 10). The window at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church shows Peter holding keys with his left hand and a book with his right. The book alludes to the two New Testament epistles attributed to the apostle, and is a common symbol used to identify authors of books in the Bible.

St. Peter, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

9. St. Peter, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

10. Peter Receives the Keys, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

10. Peter Receives the Keys, Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA

Michael Klug, 09/12/14,