Friday, January 17, 2020

Apostolic Symbols: The Sharpest Tools In The Shed

One of several symbols
for St. Bartholomew

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Let me preface this post by conceding the Apostles probably didn’t have a cushy life. I doubt any of them considered legal action when they were slandered. Or when they were thrown out of the synagogue. Or worse. Being given the title of “Sent one” in Jesus’ time meant that you also made Satan’s most-wanted list.

That being said, tradition sometimes gets out of hand, and this is true with the Apostles and their lives. I recently started work on a project for Ecclesiastical Sewing which will be based on the Apostles. My chief source for imagery is “Church Symbolism,” a book by the respected F.R. Webber, who was a Lutheran pastor of considerable artistic skill. His collection of recognizable symbols is well-rounded, and many more symbols not visually included are given mention in the pages.

What becomes clear is that, based on their symbols, the Apostles met some very sorry ends, indeed. Sure, you will see the crossed keys of St. Peter. You might see a rooster symbol for him, too. Then you see an upside down cross, and things get ugly.

One of St. James’ symbols is a sword. One of St. Philip’s symbols is a spear. St. Bartholomew has a scimitar – and flaying knives. St. Thomas has a carpenter’s square, but there is also a spear and a quiver of arrows. St. James the Less has a fuller’s bat (I had to look that one up, too), some stones, and a saw. Not to be outdone, St. Simon has a saw, a boat hook, a couple of oars, and a halberd. St. Matthias overkills things with a glaive, a battle ax, a spear, a sword, and some rocks. Overkill, indeed.

This unwieldy collection of sharp tools and weapons points to a rather convoluted history of the blessed Apostles. I was always under the impression that they were all martyred, save John. This view is probably the most popular, but by far the most unlikely. The apostolic symbols point to a collection of rather unreliable histories, legends, and hearsay. “Histories” were based on sometimes-dubious stories handed down through an oral tradition akin to a bad game of telephone. One might also surmise that some stories were invented to enhance the devotion of a given Apostle. No one, after all, wants to venerate a saint who dropped dead from high cholesterol. There is no symbol for that.

Hence, some histories relate that an apostle was thrown from a parapet, then stoned, then, after reviving, was run through with a spear, and finally was sawn in two for good measure.

In fact, Holy Scripture does not mention how most of the apostles met their ends. Only James the Greater is spoken of in the opening verses of Acts 12. Although counted with the original apostles, we simply won’t talk of Judas Iscariot.

Interestingly, the early Church recognized only Peter, Paul, and James the Greater as being martyred apostles. Perhaps even more interesting, some theologians place John the Baptist among the martyred apostles.

We needn’t get squeamish, however, if we spy a sinister saw in a stain-glassed window that commemorates an apostle. Inaccuracy has morphed, over the years, into identifying symbols for some of the most beloved saints in Scripture. And while Scripture itself may describe them as being "not many wise," yet the Church has counted them among the sharpest tools in the shed.

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