Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hits and Highlights from Christian Iconography

A few fun bits from class...

If you see a picture of a saintly figure with a dog's head, don't worry: it's not an attempted Christianization of the Egyptian god Anubis, nor a hagiographical depiction of the Wolfman, nor an early rendering of Chewbacca. It's actually... St. Christopher! No, seriously! See, apparently some translators at some point mistook the word that was describing him as a "Canaanite" (i.e. someone from the land of Canaan) to be calling him a "canine" (i.e. a cute little pooch). So, naturally, instead of thinking, "Hmm, did I translate that word correctly?" they concluded that St. Christopher was an overgrown Ewok. Other depictions of St. Christopher portray him more akin to Andre the Giant (or maybe Hillbilly Jim)....

Have you ever seen the pawnbrokers' symbol? Do you know where that comes from? St. Nicholas! According to the legend, there was a man who was too poor to be able to give his daughters in marriage (i.e. he had no money to provide a dowry for them). He was going to send them into prostitution. St. Nicholas, to prevent this, on three successive nights, dropped a bag of gold through the man's window, providing him the money to let his daughters get married. I think the connection with pawnbrokers is that, by doing this, St. Nicholas sort of "bought back" the daughters from prostitution. This also explains why St. Nicholas is the patron saint of prostitutes. No, seriously. Hey, everybody needs a patron saint, right? ....

You may have noticed that a fair number of saints are depicted together with weaponry of various kinds: swords, flaying knives, spears, arrows, etc. Not exactly the peaceful image of holiness, is it? Are they "soldiers for Christ"? Is this what we mean by the "Church Militant"? Ought we to picture roving bands of saints, armed to the teeth like a 19th-century street gang, laying the smackdown on all the pagans and sinners within arms' reach? No! They aren't showed with these instruments because they used them, but because they suffered by them. Martyrs are often shown with the instruments of their martyrdom, as a visible display of what they suffered for the name of Christ. St. Paul was beheaded by a sword. St. Thomas was killed by a spear. St. Bartholomew was skinned alive with a flaying knife. St. Sebastian was shot with arrows. These are the symbols of their victory over death in Christ. Actually, Christ himself is often depicted with the instruments of his torture: the scourge, the nails, the crown of thorns, etc. These are called the arma Christi, or "arms of Christ," because the serve as his coat of arms, his royal banner, displaying the weaponry by which he conquered Satan--not by using them, but by undergoing their torment. They remind us of the horror of the Passion, which makes the glory of the Resurrection that much more glorious.


  1. I just discovered your blog. I remember Rick from Pawn Stars mentioning St. Nicholas as the patron saint of pawn brokers. I plan to visit your blog often, it's very enjoyable and informative.

    1. Thank you! I'll try to keep it up. :)