The Twelve Apostles and their Attributes

Earlier this week someone who had watched one of my church tour videos on YouTube asked me how I am able to go into a church, take one look at an medieval image of a saint and know who that saint is – even when the saint’s name is not present and whether I would begin to talk through how I do that with you all. Well, like many aspects of medieval art and architecture, Christian iconography has a symbolic, visual language that can be learnt and then can be read. In the late Middle Ages when literacy levels were low, it was a language that was inherently understood by those who used and worshipped in our churches. In this video I am going to introduce you to some of that language and try de-mystify it.

I am going to focus on one aspect of medieval iconography – how the twelve Apostles are portrayed in art in medieval England. Firstly, I suppose we should begin by clearing up who the Apostles are. Eleven of them are the same people that Jesus chose to be among his twelve disciples, his closest followers. The word apostle means a person who is ‘sent out’ – a messenger – and when Jesus gave his twelve disciples the role of spreading the Gospel, they then stopped being his disciples only and became Apostles. Jesus chose twelve close companions as his disciples and then as apostles, for symbolic reasons. There are twelve tribes of Israel and the job of the twelve apostles was to form a new nation of Israel that was drawn not only from the Jewish people, but from everyone on earth – that new nation was called the Church. The apostles were to be the head of the Church, and Jesus said to them in Matthew’s gospel that at the end of all things they would also sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Of course, after the Crucifixion of Christ, the number of the disciples was reduced to eleven, due to the suicide of Judas Iscariot the Betrayer. Twelve were required, and we read in the Acts of the Apostles, that the remaining eleven elected a replacement by lot – St Matthias and he became the twelfth apostle.

Sometimes in western medieval art, poor old Matthias is missed out and is replaced instead with St Paul. Paul was not one of the original twelve disciples – he had been Saul a persecutor of the Church, but he was converted by Jesus on the road to Damascus and given a particular mission to spread the gospel to the Gentiles, those outside the Jewish faith – so he became an apostle too.

So how do you tell which Apostle is which in art when they are not labelled? Well, I am going to take as an example, the figures of the Apostles on the early 16th century painted rood screen at Beeston Regis in Norfolk. The figures are arranged in pairs, six on one side of the screen and six on the other – and you will notice that each of the figures is holding an object in their hands – these are their ‘attributes’, objects associated with their own unique and story, they helped medieval people identify them and are how you and I can identify them today. 

Now at Beeston the figures are arranged with the four apostles that were considered the most important surrounding the door. So, we will take those first.

St Peter, the chief of the apostles is shown on the right-hand side of the door, the most important spot – he is usually shown as the eldest of the apostles. He holds in his hand a set of oversize church keys. These are of course the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus renames Simon, as the was previously called, Peter, which means ‘the rock’ and tells him he will be the rock on which the Church is built and he gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that he would have the power to grant forgiveness to penitents, or to withhold it from those who are not.    

St Andrew, the brother of Peter is in the next most important spot to the left of the door. He holds a saltire, or x-shaped cross. St Andrew was crucified like in Patras in the year AD60 – and tradition arose in the later Middle Ages that he had chosen to be crucified on an x-shaped cross, as he considered himself unworthy to be crucified precisely like Christ. A similar story is attached to the martyrdom of St Peter, who is said to have been crucified head down. The reason that the flag of Scotland is a saltire is due that tradition.

Then we have two more saints who were brothers. Next to St Peter is St John, the beloved disciple. He is usually shown as the youngest of the twelve and is clean shaven, while the rest have a good beard growth. He was the only one of the twelve who did not suffer martyrdom, having been given the role by Christ of looking after his mother Mary. Dying at a ripe old age, he spends time in Ephesus and was for many years exiled on the island of Patmos. His attribute is a chalice with a viper or demon coming out of it – this is a reference to an event that began as an oral tradition and was then recorded in the 2nd century text called the ‘Acts of John’, a text that was well known in medieval time. The tradition relates that while in Ephesus, John gets into dialogue with a pagan priest called Aristodemus who is hostile to Christianity. John asks him what would convince him of the truth of Gospel and Aristodemus says that he would believe if John were to drink a cup of poison and live. Handed the poison, John prays, makes the sign of the cross over it, asks God to make the poison flee as a serpent flees before him and then crossing himself, he drinks it. John does survive – but sadly that still does not convince Aristodemus. The crowd witnessing this are convinced and order Aristodemus to keep his doubts to himself, threatening to burn his house down if he does not. What we see here is John exorcising the poisoned cup with the sign of the cross and the poison, as a serpent, fleeing.

St James the Great is next to St Andrew, he is the brother of St John – and he and his brother are referred to in the gospel as ‘Boanerges’ or the ‘Sons of Thunder’ as either they were a bit impetuous, or their father Zebedee had a reputation. James is curiously depicted in English medieval art, dressed as a pilgrim to his own shrine at Santiago de Compostela. Lots and lots of pilgrims from medieval England took what they called the ‘Way of St James’ what is nowadays called the Camino and visited his shrine in Spain and lots of churches along the route in England are dedicated to him. St James is shown wearing pilgrim’s garb. The rest of the apostles are all shown barefoot – but St James is wearing stout boots, holding a walking stick, and attached to it is what in Middle English is called a ‘scrip’ – a little bag that contains all the things you might need on route to deal with blisters. On his head is a hat to shade his eyes and attached to that is a scallop shell, which was the badge pilgrims to his shrine pinned to their clothing.

The remaining apostles are not placed in any particular order and we are going to work from the north, across the screen to the south – left to right, as we look at them.

The far-left panel depicts St Simon, who is known in the gospels as Simon the Canaanite or Simon the Zealot – many countries claim him as a missionary, including Georgia. The mainstream Christian tradition is that St Simon was martyred in Asia Minor and that he died by being sawn in two down his middle – and in medieval England he is usually shown iconographically holding the saw of his martyrdom. Just to cause confusion, elsewhere, such as at Ranworth, he is sometimes shown holding a gigantic fish – which is odd, as he is not known to have been a fisherman – perhaps they confused Simon with Simon Peter.

Next to him is St Matthew, was perhaps the author of the Gospel of that name. By tradition he undertook missionary work in Ethiopia, and he was martyred with a sword – the sword is usually his attribute, as it is here in Beeston. Elsewhere he is shown as the author of his gospel. On the rood screen at Cawston in Norfolk, he is shown reading his gospel wearing a fetching pair of spectacles – though some horrible iconoclast has poked his eyes out.   

The next apostle is one that medieval people called St James the Less, to simply differentiate him from St James the Great, the brother of John. In scripture, he is known as James the son of Alphaeus and brother of Joseph – and by early tradition he was the son of Mary Cleophas, one of the women who stood at the foot of the cross, who was a relative and in some traditions the sister of the Virgin Mary. He gets confused with another James who was not one of the twelve, St James the Just, the brother or kinsman of Christ – who in the Acts of the Apostles was the first bishop of Jerusalem. That confusion gets transmitted into western medieval iconography. St James the Just, according to St Clement of Alexandria writing in the 2nd century, was thrown from the top of the temple in Jerusalem and then beaten to death with a club, the sort of club fuller’s or felt makers used to beat wool into felt. Due to the confusion of the two, St James the Less, the apostle, ends up being shown in western art holding a fuller’s club -as he is here at Beeston.

Next along we have St Jude, who is also known in the gospels as Thaddeus or Judas Thaddeus – so that he is not confused with Judas Iscariot. In most traditions he is said to have been martyred alongside St Simon in Asia Minor. In late medieval English iconography, he is invariably shown holding a boat. We are not sure why that is – it may have referred to his many journeys as an apostle. In many cases St Simon and St Jude are paired together, but not here in Beeston.

St Bartholomew who is next is sometimes identified with Nathaniel, the friend of St Philip who in St John’s gospel is initially sceptical that Jesus is the Christ. By tradition he had an apostolic ministry in India and perhaps in Armenia too. There are a number of different traditions about his martyrdom – one that he was kidnapped, beaten, and drowned in the sea, another that like St Peter he was crucified upside down. The one that caught the popular imagination in the Middle Ages is that he was flayed alive, his skin was cut off and then beheaded, somewhere in Asia Minor. He is usually shown in English medieval art holding, as he does here, a butcher’s flaying knife, and sometimes, though it is not that common in this country holding his own skin.

Next to him is St Matthias, the apostle chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot – by tradition he went to Cappadocia in Asia Minor to preach and some traditions state that he was crucified there. In most traditions, he is said to have met his end in Jerusalem, being stoned to death and then beheaded, which is why he is shown holding an axe or a halberd.

Then we have St Philip. In the Gospel of St John before the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus asks Philip where bread could be found to feed so many people. He answers by saying that two hundred denarii would be insufficient to feed them. Because of this episode in the gospels, St Philip is sometimes show with a basket full of bread, or holding a pile of penny loaves, as here in Beeston.

Lastly, St Thomas, called the twin and forever known as ‘doubting Thomas’ – though after seeing the Lord he was full of faith, is said to have undertaken missionary work in India, being martyred there with a spear. He carries the attribute of his martyrdom.

So, you can read these images like a book, they each express the essence of the story of the individual apostle depicted. The expanded traditions associated with each apostle were circulating at the time that this screen as painted in the early 16th century – they were known orally, they were known through mystery plays and for those who could read, through texts such as Jacobus de Voragine’s ‘Golden Legend’, which was translated into English and was flying of the printing press of William Caxton and his print master Wynkyn de Worde.     

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