It’s that time again: ArtSmart Roundtable! Though I missed January’s due to work craziness, I’m back for this month’s theme of iconography. What is that? Basically the symbolism of a particular figure, animal, or object in art. Since I focused on mostly western art, I chose a figure who is rather fitting for this series: St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers and transportation.If you look at western art, particularly Christian art, you usually need some context to tell you who you’re looking at. If you spot a giant, he’s usually one of three people: Goliath, Samson (in a very local tradition of certain eastern synagogues), or St. Christopher. Throw in a child on his shoulders or a dog’s head, and you’ve definitely got St. Christopher.
Why the dog head? It comes from a couple of things. People from far-flung lands in ancient times were given strange attributes to account for their “otherness”. Herodotus, an ancient Greek history (and “travel”) writer said the people living in India and in other eastern areas had the heads of dogs. This “fact” was continued into early Christian writings and copied in medieval monasteries where classical texts were preserved. Another reason is just bad Latin. Canaanite turned into canine, and the mistake was copied again and again. Basically, the figure who became the St. Christopher of legend got a dog’s head because he was from the East or from Canaan.
Either way, Christopher was the named assigned to him because of the legend that he was a giant who carried people across a deep river. According to the story, he carried a child across the river one day who became incredibly heavy as the river became rough. That child revealed himself as the Christ Child on the shore and disappeared, and Christopher is Greek from Christ Bearer.
Because of this legend, he became the patron from travelers. You’ll often see depictions of him on the portals of churches on medieval pilgrimage routes. In Canterbury Tales, one of the pilgrims has a Christopher medal.
St. Christopher is a western appropriation of the Coptic St. Menas. St. Menas was a soldier in North Africa and martyred in Antioch. The Greek and Roman churches added him to their saints list under the name of Christopher and the legend spun from his foreign origin into a giant fording rivers. In the 1960s, St. Christopher was “demoted” from the Roman feast day calendar due to his late addition to the calendar and shaky history, but local churches can still celebrate his feast day (such as the cities that named him as their patron saint or churches named St. Christopher).
You’ll see him in pilgrimage churches, especially in England and Germany, but if you’re interested in more fantastical creatures, check out medieval maps of the world. You’ll see cyclops, dog-heads, and more. I particularly like the Hereford Map. Try The Hereford Map: Transcription and Translation of the Legends by Scott Westrem.
What is ArtSmart? A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling. At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers. Interested in joining the Roundtable? Check out our Facebook page or email me.
This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:
Lesley of CultureTripper: Is That a Buddha in Your Backpack?
Christina of Daydream Tourist: Mary Magdalene