Tag Archives: Saints

Allegorical Arrows

Historical imagery often contains symbols and emblems that we don’t understand:  we must learn to read them; whereas a contemporary audience could simply see them and understand the message within. I enjoy teasing out the meanings behind images from the past both here and in class–though here I’ve got a bit more creative freedom, and can chart the evolution of images all the way up to the present, when they have often lost their associations and exist simply as images. A great case in point (literally) is the simple and straightforward arrow: once I’ve swept away my seasonal decorations at home I’m often left with a bunch of arrows here and there as they are seasonless, timeless, and largely meaningless: I simply like their form. This is an Americana week for several auction houses, and yesterday as I was perusing the digital catalog for an important auction of folk art at Sotheby’s (The History of Now: The Important American Folk Art Collection of David Teiger|Sold to Benefit Teiger Foundation for the Support of Contemporary Art) all I could see was arrows, which for the most part had assumed their modern directional meaning on myriad weathervanes.

artful arrows horse weathervane

artful arrows diana the huntress sothebys

artful arrows soaring bird sothebys

artful arrows goddess of liberty sothebysPrancing Horse, Diana the Huntress, Soaring Bird, and the Goddess of Liberty weathervanes from the Teiger collection, Sotheby’s.

Another lot in this same auction is an incredible later nineteenth-century Chinese wall plaque representing the Great Seal of the United States, with the emblazoned bald eagle clutching a cluster of arrows in his left talon—thirteen to be exact, representing the thirteen colonies, but also strength through unity. There is an explicit sense of martial strength on display as well, projected through the contrast with the olive branch in the eagle’s right talon. The Great Seal’s designer, Charles Thompson, was influenced in his use of arrows by other confederations such as the Iroquois (with their five nations) and the Dutch Republic (with its seven provinces) as well as by early modern emblem books such as Joachim Camerarius’s Symbola et Emblemata (1590-1604), merely substituting them for the more classical lightening bolts.

artful arrows chinese eagle sotheby's folk art auction 20 jan

Obverse Great Seal.tif

arrows symbols 16th c.The Chinese Great Seal and Charles Thompson’s original sketch, US National Archives; Joachim Camerarius, Symbola et Emblemata.

Emblem books are one of the rabbit holes of early modern literature, as you will see if you go here: but you can also find many arrows, representing not only military force, but also time and inevitable mortality, flight, children (Psalm 127), punishment, and of course love, when in one of the countless cupids’ bows. Medieval arrows are never ambiguous: they represent force and violent death in general, and martyrdom in particular. Saint Sebastian (died 288) and King Edmund the Martyr (d. 869) were both attacked by hordes of pagan/heathen archers, and so often depicted as shot so full of arrows they resemble porcupines; arrows remained their essential attributes as their cults developed over the medieval era. In the later medieval era, Sebastian re-emerged as the most popular plague saint, as the arrow came to symbolize the plague itself: the most dramatic expression of this motif is a fourteenth-century fresco on the wall of the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint-André-de-Lavauadieu in France, depicting a faceless woman armed with the arrows of plague and her pierced victims all around her.

arrow 2 collage

love removed

arrows of black death

arrows pub

Some early modern arrow emblems: “Ich fliehe sehr schnell”– Fly far and fast; “Vis nescia vinci”–force cannot be overcome with force; “Supplicio laus tuta semel”—he that was worthy of praise was one free from punishment; Cupid holds up the world: “Sublato Amore Omnia Ruunt“–When Love is Removed, All things tumble down; the Lavaudieu fresco, and a street sign in Bury St. Edmunds, bearing the three arrow-crossed crowns that have come to symbolize the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund the Martyr.

Back to the future: I guess arrows are just arrows, or mundane symbols telling us where to go, BUT who knew there was a hidden arrow in the FedEx logo? Not me.

arrows collage

arrow fed ex

Mid-century textile design by Tommi Parzinger, Cooper-Hewitt Museum.


Three Golden Balls

In Salem, December 5 has been celebrated as krampusnacht more often than St. Nicholas’s Eve over the past few years, but I’m following up on a post about the latter today. I want to connect the forerunner of Santa Klaus to pawnbrokers, through the symbolism of three golden balls. This is not an original association, but a reader referenced it several years ago, and I always wanted to connect the dots, so this day seems like a perfect time to do it! I think that the traditional pawnbrokers’ sign of three golden balls attached to a (straight or curved) bar is recognized universally in the west, or at least in Europe: here’s a John Crowther watercolor of Aldersgate Street in London in 1886 with both a traditional symbolic trade sign and a sign of the trade sign, and a photograph from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York of an old pawnbroker’s sign that is apparently about to vanish—it might be already gone.

Three Golden Balls John Crowther

Pawnbroker sign NYC John Crowther, Aldersgate Street, London, 1886, Guildhall Library; the trade signs of the defunct S&G Gross Pawnbrokers in New York City from Vanishing New York.

Nearly everyone traces the origins of the three balls back to the Medici family for several reasons: the Medici crest features balls (palle) prominently, their financial roles in Renaissance Europe, which can somehow (not at all clear to me) serve as a predecessor for pawnbroking, and the fact that they were Italian, like the Lombards who became the first Christian moneylenders in medieval Europe, when usury (charging interest for a loan of money) was expressly against canon law. There is also an old yarn about a monster, Charlemagne, and the balls representing defensive dings in a shield, adopted by the Medici as proof of their valor, but I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into that tale. The Medici had as many as twelve balls on their crests before the fifteenth century, when they finally settled on six. Not three.

Three Golden Balls Medici MS 15th CThe Medici Crest with its distinctive six palle on the leaf of a 15th Century MS of Propertius, Elegies, Oxford University Bodleian Library MS Canon. Class. Lat 31.

Raymond de Roover, a prominent mid-century medieval economic historian, wrote a short article just after World War II in which he asserted a general connection between the heraldry of all of the moneylending families of late medieval Europe, each and every one featuring spheres on their crest to symbolize coins, and modern pawnbrokers’ signs. He discounts a distinct Medici connection, but also the St. Nicholas one that I favor, with the argument that such a marginal occupation as moneylending (and by association, pawnbroking) could not possibly be associated with as esteemed a saint as St. Nicholas of Bari (or more correctly, Myra), who was known, even beyond the expectations of your average saint, for his charity. But I believe that Professor de Roover is incorrect: perceptions of St. Nicholas clearly focus on the ball symbolism later associated with pawnbrokers, and one of the key links between these two disparate entities is the dowry, an absolute requirement for every Renaissance bride. The most famous example of St. Nicholas’s generosity, depicted time and time again by nearly every Renaissance artist, is the aid he gave to an impoverished family of three daughters of marriageable age: under cover of darkness he threw three purses (increasingly depicted as golden balls) through the window so that the girls would have dowries and avoid destitution or even worse, prostitution. From the mid-fourteenth century through the sixteenth, this scene is played out again and again on canvas: the paintings below represent the beginning and the end of this era–during which St. Nicholas was always pictured with his identifying attribute: the three golden balls.

Three Golden Balls SCALA_ARCHIVES_10310197649 1340s

Three Golden Balls ANGLIG_10313766773

Three Golden Balls AGETTYIG_10313913291Crivelli 1469

Three Golden Balls ANGAIG_10313967631 Paolo Veneziano, The Charity of St. Nicholas, 1430-45, Galleria degli Uffizi; Girolamo Macchietti, The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari, c. 1555-1560; National Gallery of Art, London; Taddeo Crivelli, St. Nicholas, 1469, J. Paul Getty Museum; Sebald Beham, Saint Nicholas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This same period is also one in which public institutional charitable funds emerged, first the famous Monte delle doti, which enabled Florentine fathers to invest in the city’s public-funded debt and ensure a sufficient dowry when their daughters were of marriageable age, and later in the fifteenth century the Monte di pietà, a form of public-administered pawnbroking designed to provide an alternative to avaricious private moneylending. The Florentine state, and other states as well, were quite willing to engage in official lending, especially if it could finance its public debt and alleviate a pressing social concern at the same time. With its system of collateralized lending and low interest rates, the Monte di pietà, in particular, represented a beneficial Christian form of lending in contrast to the old Lombard system, inspired and reflected by all those images of the three-ball-bearing St. Nicholas, who eventually became the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

Three Golden Balls HGP 342650 (1) Canterbury

Three Golden Balls Boston Leslie JonesCoat of St. Nicholas on the Christ Church gate of Canterbury Cathedral, @Neil Holmes; Leslie Jones photograph of Boston pawn shop signs in the 1920s, Boston Public Library.

The Eyes of Saint Lucia

The astronomical winter solstice will not occur for a week or so, but the shortest day on the Christian calendar is that associated with the Feast of Saint Lucia or Lucy, occurring on December 13. John Donne referenced this connection in his poem A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day: ‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,/ Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;/ The sun is spent, and now his flasks/ Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;/ The world’s whole sap is sunk;/ The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,/Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,/ Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,/ Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Lucia’s story is part late antique and part late medieval: the earliest accounts depict her as a young virgin martyr from Sicily who was put to death in the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. She had devoted herself to Christ following the miraculous recovery of her mother from chronic “bloody flux” (dysentery) and afterwards devoted herself to distributing her not-inconsiderable dowry to the poor of the island. Her spurned betrothed turned her over to the Roman authorities, and she was tortured and threatened with “fouling” in a brothel. Her virtue and virginity were maintained by another miraculous intervention which rendered her body immovable, but she was martyred by a sword to her throat (after burning also failed). Her veneration seems almost immediate, and by the sixth century Lucy’s story had spread through much of Europe. Her association with “light” (lux in Latin) seems to come principally from her name, but in the later medieval era she also became a patron saint to the blind and those with eye diseases: we increasingly see her with attributes of eyes (generally on a plate) from the fourteenth century on, and this depiction becomes standard with the Renaissance.

Lucy's Eyes BL

Lucy Francesco_del_Cossa


British Library MS Additional 22310 (Venice, 1460-70); Francesco del Cossa, Saint Lucy, 1473-74, National Gallery of Art (and detail); Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Lucy, 1625-30, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Once Lucy became associated with both light and sight, the eyes appear in her depictions and then a story is constructed and grafted onto her hagiography–but it has variations: sometimes Lucy is punished for her vision of the end of Roman rule by the gouging out of her eyes before her martyrdom; in other accounts she gouges them out herself to repel her pagan fiance. Each tales develops its own embellishments: Lucy’s eye’s were so beautiful that both the emperor Maxentius (whose reign would soon end according to her “vision”) and her evil and equally pagan betrothed wanted them gone; Lucy’s faith was so strong that she sacrificed her most beautiful feature so that she could “see” in only that way.

The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy, Watercolor, n.d., Wellcome Library and Images, London.

The equation of “light” with “sight” in these ways, over time, is just one interesting aspect of Lucy’s veneration. Another is its durability–and its range: even after the Reformation she maintained her stature in Protestant Europe and even increased it in largely Lutheran Scandinavia. Lucy/Lucia is venerated in parts of Italy and eastern Europe too, but it’s the Scandinavian rituals that really interest me, because I can’t quite figure out whether they are a continuation or “invention” of tradition. As the first references to Lucia rituals are in the eighteenth century and the first national processions in the twentieth, I’m guessing the latter, but clearly they had a cultural basis that was rooted in both the Christian and pre-Christian past. On December 13, white-clad, red-sashed “Lucias” lead singing processions out onto the streets wearing head wreaths made of lit (by wax or battery) candles; in the home, the household Lucia serves her family a substantial breakfast of special saffron buns (lussekatter–with raisin “eyes”!) after the long winter’s night. These Lucias bring light into their world on the darkest day of the year, when there is none.

Lucia Christmas Morning 1923


Photogravure of St. Lucia’s Day, 1898, Wellcome Library; The crowned Lucia at this year’s Festival of  St. Lucia at York Minster, sponsored by the York Anglo-Scandinavian Society (© Ian Forsyth/Getty Images); Carl Larsson’s Christmas Morning, published in “Lasst Licht Hinin”; St. Lucia’s Day Saffron Buns at Simply Recipes.

Krampus Cards

Krampus, that dark monstrous creature, cloven-hoofed, horned, hairy, and long-tongued, the antithesis of Saint Nicholas but also his companion, somehow did not make it across the pond with Old St. Nick’s descendant, Santa Claus–actually, he didn’t even make it across the English Channel. I’m not sure why not, except for the fact that he is a repulsive creature, who constrains mischievous children in his basket and carries them off to somewhere bad. So who wants him? Well apparently we do now, with the new Krampus film opening tonight and Krampusnacht festivals on the rise both in the old world (especially his native Austria, Switzerland and Germany) and the new on December 5th, the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas. He’s big in Los Angeles now, and Philadelphia, and also apparently Salem: can you imagine a better environment for Krampus than modern Salem?

Krampusnacht Austria

Saint Nicholas and Krampas

Krampus in the drawing room 1812-13

Krampuses getting reading for Krampusnacht in Stubaital, Austria, 2013, photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images; St. Nicholas bearing gifts and Krampus carting children away, two cards from the Christmas pictures by Raschka series by Raphael Kirchner, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Krampus sneaking into the drawing room behind St. Nicholas, from The Journal of Carl Baumann written 1813-25 by Franz Paumgarrten.

In his latest incarnation, Krampus seems a lot scarier now than he did a century or so ago, when he appeared regularly on Krampuscarten, holiday postcards issued in much of central and eastern Europe. He’s always been a beast, but he was a comical and/or polite one (almost knocking on the parlor door above!) at that time. His origins are somewhat obscure: his appearance mirrors the pagan or Neo-Pagan horned god but also the Christian devil. He seems like the embodiment of assimilated and dualistic Christianity to me, chained to remind everyone that as demonic as he may be, he is still under the command of God. According to all the “sources”, which cite one another but never the primary source, he becomes the companion of St. Nicholas at some point in the seventeenth century, and with the “invention of Christmas” and all of its “traditions” in the nineteenth century he assumes a major role in the festivities. Given his alpine origins, the most creative Krampuscarten are those created in Austria, in particular by the artists working for the Wiener Werkstätte before the First World War. These art nouveau Krampuses are a bit more stylized and whimsical than many of their more generic postcard counterparts, and they tangle with adults as well as children. Once men in Krampus masks begin to appear at the doors of their sweethearts on interwar cards, you know the Krampus has lost his sway.

Krampus and St. Nicholas WW 3

Krampus Koehler MFA

Krampuscarten by Wiener Werstätte artists Mela Koehler (1911), Arnold Nechanksy (1912) from the Neue Galerie and Josef Diveky (1909), Jutta Sika (1912) and Dora Suppantschitsch (1907), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Appendix: A “Krampus versus Kringle” window at the Gulu-Gulu Cafe here in Salem snapped by my friend Lance Eaton—he’s going to put it on his own blog, but I’ve got it up first!

Krampus versus Kringle Eaton

Hats off to Saint Catherine

There is a holiday more feminine than Thanksgiving and it is today: the feast day of St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose hagiography established her as the patron saint of philosophers and students in the Middle Ages, and of unmarried women and milliners in the modern era. An interesting evolution from the spiritual to the secular, like many medieval saints, with librarians and all penitents in need representing the transitional beneficiaries. According to her Legend, Catherine was a lovely young woman of noble birth in the early fourth century who converted to Christianity following a vision. She caught the eye of the Emperor Maxentius (r. 306-312) and her refusal to marry him resulted in her martyrdom: after she shattered the first instrument of her torture and execution, a spiked wheel, with a mere touch, she was put to the sword and beheaded. Catherine is seldom seen without these attributes as reminders of the strength of her faith, but there is also a genre of Renaissance depictions which show her rising above them and vanquishing the evil emperor.

Saint Catherine Pacher

Saint Catherine withe the Defeated Emperor

Friedrich Pacher, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 15th-16th century, deYoung/Legion of Honor Museums, San Francisco; Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with the Defeated Emperor (c. 1482), Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I’m not sure of the precise transition, but at some point in the later eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, Catherine evolved in a patron saint for spinsters, or more precisely unmarried women over the age of 25. This was particularly a French development, and young women began to commemorate the day by praying to Saint Catherine for a husband, donning hats specially made for the occasion, and sending notes and cards to each other as a form of comfort and companionship. The emphasis on hats led to another evolution of Catherine’s patronage, and she became associated more specifically with unmarried women who worked in the fashion and millinery trades of Paris, where large “Catherinette” celebrations occurred on this day in the 1920s and 1930s, a “tradition” that was revived after World War II and apparently continues to this day. As would only be fitting for the women who worked in these creative industries, the hats worn by the Catherinettes were often (but not always) confined to Catherine’s colors of yellow (for faith) and green (for wisdom), but also exemplified unlimited forms of structure, substance and style. And still do.

Catherinets Paris Flammarion

Catherinettes 1950s

Catherinettes Etsy

Catherinette PC

Catherinette Paris 2013

Catherinettes in the 1930s (from Ernest Flammarion’s Paris (1931)) and 1950s; a modern print of vintage Catherinettes; a St. Catherine’s Day card from the 1940s, and a Chanel Catherinette creation, 2013.

From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.


Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

%d bloggers like this: