St Christopher has been calling me for a while now. I just haven’t really responded to the call. First he appeared on the facade of Madonna dell’ Orto in Venice. That was two years ago. Then a few days later he was part of a frescoed building in Southern Germany, near Mad King Ludwig’s Castle. Later I spotted him in a stained glass window in the Cathedral of Aachen. Then a month or so ago he popped up on a painted wall in a small church in San Daniele, in the north-eastern corner of Italy. So when a friend sent me a photo, just last weekend, of a painting by the famous artist Bellini – guess who featured in the left hand corner of the canvas? At that moment, it finally dawned on me that I had to write about St Christopher. After all he’s been sending me messages for a while now and I just couldn’t ignore him any longer!
St Christopher was an early Christian martyr killed in the 4th century, probably around 350 AD in the province of Lycia, which was once part of Greece and is now in Turkey. Nobody knows when he died exactly, which is unsurprising given that the history of the saints (known as hagiography) wasn’t written until medieval times. Legend says that Christopher was a Canaanite (a member of one of the Biblical tribes). He was very tall, more than seven feet in height (2.3 metres) and very strong. He worked for the King of Canaan and asked how he could best serve those around him. The King sent Christopher to consult a hermit, who lived in a cave, the hermit recommended fasting and prayer. That’s not going to work for me was the massive man’s response. The hermit then suggested that Christopher should help local people to cross a large and treacherous river that flowed through the region. A river, which flooded frequently and was notoriously dangerous to cross. Christopher settled into his new job helping people across the river. One day a young child approached him and asked to be carried across the river. Christopher agreed immediately. However as he waded across the river bed and the waters rose higher and higher around him the child seemed to get heavier and heavier. It was a struggle for Christopher to get to the other side. When he finally made his way out of the water, exhausted and panting, he laid the child down on the river bank and said ‘I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders’. The child responded by saying that in fact he was the Son of God, and that Christopher had indeed carried mankind safely from one side of the river to the other. The Greek name ‘Christophoros‘ means ‘Christ bearer’.
Christopher’s heroic deeds helping travellers meant that he soon became the patron saint of travellers. To this day it is common practise for travellers to wear a St Christopher necklace or bracelet or to carry an image of St Christopher in a wallet or handbag. As a regular traveller myself I often take my St Christopher pendant with me, especially on long and arduous journeys. St Christopher as the patron saint of travellers has become synonymous with safe journeys, strength of purpose and stalwart determination.
Archaeologists have discovered a corner stone from a church that was built and dedicated to St Christopher in the city of Chalcedon, dating back to the early 5th century. Chalcedon was an important religious centre in the formative days of the Christian church – located just across the Bosphorus from Byzantium (modern day Istanbul). By the 7th century numerous monasteries and churches were dedicated to St Christopher, including a nunnery in Galatia, Central Turkey.
A painting of St Christopher from Augsburg Cathedral (left) and St Christopher – painting by Hieronymus Bosch c.1490 (right)
Detail Giovanni Bellini – Polittico di St Vincenzo Ferreri.jpg, a polyptych, showing panels depicting Saint Christopher and Saint Sebastian c1464-1470 (above) and San Vincenzo Ferrer (centre) – SS Christopher and Sebastiano left and right (below)
- The Golden Legend is a collection of stories about the saints, written in the Middle Ages (c. 1250). These tales are usually constructed out of a mixture of folklore, legend and fable. These stories of the saints are known as hagiographies – the most famous of which was by Jacobus de Voragine. Hugely popular in the 13th and 14th centuries, at least a thousand manuscripts were painstakingly created. It was a best seller in medieval Europe.
- The rather beautiful image of St Christopher from the National Gallery (above and below), is rather long-windedly, attributed thus: ‘National Gallery – Workshop of the Master of the Female Half-Lengths Saint Christopher carrying the Infant Christ possibly about 1540 Oil on oak, 24.5 × 53.7 cm Presented by Queen Victoria at the Prince Consort’s wish, 1863 NG716
Other articles I’ve written about various saints:
- St Catherine of Alexandria
- The legend of St Lucy – that’s Santa Lucia in Italy
- Sant’ Apollinare in Classe
- Venice – Giudecca and Sant’Eufemia
24th July 2022
A new St Christopher painting – that I discovered in Ravenna last week – early 18th century. Once again good old St Christopher carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Perfect symbolism.
Updated: November 2022