The Twelve (Thirteen) Disciples [Part 1]

The following was originally written for Gants Hill United Reformed Church in June 2020.

According to the New Testament Bible, Jesus appointed twelve primary apostles or disciples during his ministry in the 1st century AD. The three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, record the commissioning of the Twelve Apostles. They are as follows:

1. Saint Peter

Saint Peter, also called Simon Peter, Simeon, Simon, Sham’un al-Safa, Cephas, or Peter the Apostle, was one of the first of the disciples Jesus called during his ministry. Born in around 1 AD to a man called either John or Jonah, Simon, as he was originally named, was a fisherman from the town of Bethsaida. Most of what we know about Simon/Peter is inferred from the Bible. We know, for example, that he was married because the Synoptic Gospels record Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law:

“When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.” (Matthew 8:14-15)

Peter/Simon is first mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew when he is called to be Jesus’ disciple. “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’” (Matthew 4:18-19) According to Matthew, the brothers left their nets and followed Jesus, no questions asked. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, contains a more detailed story.  

“One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.” (Luke 5:1-3)

After speaking to the crowd, Jesus told Simon to cast the fishing nets. Simon revealed they had been fishing all night yet did not catch a single fish, yet, he obeyed Jesus’ instruction. The nets were soon full, and Simon was astonished and afraid, but Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” (Luke 5:10)

The Gospel of John adds a few more details to the story. Simon and Andrew were both disciples of John the Baptist before they met Jesus. They had heard about the Messiah from John, which is why they followed Jesus when they first met him. It is then that Jesus renamed Simon. “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter).” (John 1:42)

Despite becoming a disciple, Peter continued to use fishing boats, such as the one he and the other disciples were in when they saw Jesus walking on water. Naturally, the sight terrified the disciples, who believed Jesus to be a ghost. Once realising it was Jesus, Peter decided he too would walk on water. “Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matthew 14:29-30)

During the Last Supper, Peter is mentioned by name more times than any other disciple. According to the Gospel of John, Peter initially refused to let Jesus wash his feet. “He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’” (John 13:6-8)

When Jesus predicted his betrayal, it was Peter who asked who Jesus thought was going to betray him, or at least he told another disciple to ask. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” (John 13:24) Shortly after this, Peter claimed he would lay down his life for Jesus, to whom Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” (John 13:38) 

Just as Jesus had predicted, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times after his arrest. Before this, Peter made one final attempt to prevent Jesus’ arrest and inevitable death. When the soldiers and chief priests arrived, “Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)” (John 18:10)

Peter frequently features in the Acts of the Apostles. After Jesus had risen from the dead, the Disciples began to spread the Christian message throughout the Roman Empire. The Book of Acts records:

  • Acts 3: Peter healed a lame beggar.
  • Acts 4: The Sanhedrin “seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day” for speaking to the crowds.
  • Acts 9: Peter took a missionary journey to Lydda where he healed a man named Aeneas, then travelled to Joppa where he raised a woman named Dorcas from the dead.
  • Acts 10: Peter had a vision from God telling him that there were no “unclean” foods.
  • Acts 12: Peter was arrested by King Herod Agrippa and imprisoned, however, during the night, an angel helped him to escape.

Peter is largely regarded as the most prominent Disciple and the first leader of the early Church. He is often referred to as “the rock” upon which the Church was built. Peter is always listed first among the Disciples and was present and appeared to be the spokesman on most occasions. Peter’s importance is also suggested by Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, in which he lists Peter as the first person (or man) to see the risen Christ. Before this, Peter had been the first disciple to enter the empty tomb. “So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.” (John 20:3-8)

In the final chapter of the Gospel of John, it is to Peter that Jesus asks, “do you love me?” three times. This balances out the three times Peter had previously denied Jesus. Jesus instructed Peter to “Feed my lambs”“Take care of my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep”. He also foretold Peter’s death by saying, “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

Some scholars interpret John 21:18 as a sign that Peter was crucified (“stretch out your hands”). His death was not recorded in the Bible, although some believe the angel releasing Peter from prison in Acts 12 was a metaphor for his crucifixion. Traditionally, some Christians believe Peter was sentenced to death at the age of 64 during the reign of Emperor Nero. It is said he was crucified upside-down. The Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican is said to have been built on the location of Peter’s burial site.

In 1950, human bones were discovered under St Peter’s Basilica. After forensic examination, they have been identified as belonging to a man of roughly 61 years of age from the 1stcentury AD. In 1968, Pope Paul VI announced they were most likely the remains of the Apostle Peter.

Since no one knows the date of Peter’s death, the Roman Catholic Church has assigned the 29th June as the Feast of Saint Peter. The day is celebrated as a public holiday in Rome, where Peter is one of the patron saints as well as in parts of Switzerland, Peru, Malta and the Philippines. As well as being the patron saint of Rome, Saint Peter is the saint of bakers, bridge builders, butchers, fishermen, harvesters, cordwainers, horologists, locksmiths, cobblers, net makers, shipwrights and stationers.

2. Andrew

Andrew the Apostle or Saint Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter. It is estimated Andrew was born in Bethsaida, Galilee, between 5 and 10 AD and died around 62 AD in Greece. His name is neither Hebrew nor Aramaic but Greek, meaning “brave”.

In some traditions, Andrew is known as “the First Called” (Prōtoklētos) due to the Gospel of John’s version of Jesus calling his first disciples. Matthew and Mark tell us, “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.” (Matthew 4:18) John, on the other hand, provides more detail. 

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.” (John 1:40-42)

The Gospel of John explains that Simon and Andrew were originally disciples of John the Baptist. Although the other Gospels suggest Jesus spoke to Simon first, John claims Andrew led his brother to the Messiah; hence the Orthodox churches argue Andrew was the first to be called.

The Gospels suggest Andrew and his brother were very close since they lived together. “As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew.” (Mark 1:29) Not only that, they lived with Simon’s mother-in-law and presumably his wife. When Jesus and the disciples arrived at their house, they found Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever, which Jesus immediately healed.

Unlike his brother, Andrew is mentioned less frequently in the Bible, although his presence is recorded at the most important occasions, including the Last Supper. Andrew played a prominent role in the Feeding of the Five Thousand. A great crowd had come to visit Jesus, but the disciples did not have any food to feed them. One of the disciples exclaimed that it would take half a year’s wages to provide enough food, yet Andrew spoke up, saying, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:9) Nevertheless, it was more than enough for everyone.

Andrew was one of the disciples present when Jesus predicted his death. The other was Philip, who had been approached by some Greeks asking to see Jesus. Rather than going straight to Jesus, “Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip, in turn, told Jesus.” (John 12:22) What this signified is uncertain. Perhaps Philip and Andrew were close friends, or Philip did not want to go alone. 

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple and the signs of the End Times. “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’” (Mark 13:3-4) 

The final time Andrew is mentioned in the Bible is in the Acts of the Apostles. “When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.” (Acts 1:13) By this time, Jesus had died, risen and been taken up into heaven, and the disciples had returned to Jerusalem. They were about to make an important decision about who to elect as the twelfth apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. After casting lots, a man named Matthias was chosen.

Unlike Peter, whose movements are recorded, it is not certain what Andrew did next. Origen of Alexandria (184-253 AD) claims Andrew preached in the Central Eurasian region of Scythia. The Chronicle of Nestor, written in 1113, suggests Andrew also preached along the Black Sea and parts of Eastern Europe, resulting in him becoming the patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) mentioned Andrew preaching in Thrace and Byzantium, where he set up the See of Byzantium, which later became the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The Acts of Andrew is an uncompleted testimony of the acts and miracles supposedly conducted by Andrew. Located in the New Testament Apocrypha with other books of the Acts of various disciples, the manuscript claims Andrew raised the dead, healed the blind, calmed storms and defeated armies simply by making the sign of the cross. Allegedly, Andrew caused the death of an embryo that would have resulted in an illegitimate child, and he rescued a boy from an incestuous mother. The latter act landed Andrew in trouble when the mother began accusing him of false claims, but God caused an earthquake to free Andrew and the boy.

Everything written in the Acts of Andrew is open to speculation, and many believe it is heretical and absurd. One person went as far as to claim it was a Christian retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. Regardless of whether the manuscript is reliable, it has led to the general belief that Andrew was crucified in the city of Patras in modern-day Greece. Rather than being crucified on a cross with similar proportions to the cross of Jesus, Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross. Today, the X is a symbol of Saint Andrew and is found on the Scottish flag of whom he is the patron saint. Less accepted is the claim that Andrew was able to preach for three days whilst on the cross before he eventually died.

Due to the lack of verifiable knowledge about Andrew’s life, many cultures have developed myths and traditions. In Georgia, for example, Andrew is considered the first preacher of Christianity and the founder of the Georgian church. The people of Cyprus claim Andrew’s boat ran aground on their shores, where he caused springs of healing water to gush out of a rock, which restored the sight of the ship’s half-blind captain.

Legends state Andrew’s relics were brought by divine guidance from Constantinople to a town in Scotland, now known as St Andrews. Reports of X shapes in the sky during battles in the 9th century AD led people to believe Andrew was on their side. King Óengus II of the Picts said he would appoint Saint Andrew as the patron saint of Scotland if they won a battle, which they did. Later, the X symbol was used as a hex sign in fireplaces to prevent witches from flying down the chimney. The National Day of Scotland, 30th November, is celebrated as the feast of Andrew within the church. 

3. James the Great

James the Great became the third (or fourth) disciple alongside his brother John. He is known as James the Great to distinguish himself from James the Less, although it is believed “great” meant older or taller rather than more important. James was born in around 3 AD to Zebedee and Salome in Bethsaida, Galilee, and died in 44 AD.

“Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.” (Matthew 4:21) After calling Simon Peter and Andrew to discipleship, Jesus came across James and John fishing with their father. All three Synoptic Gospels mention Zebedee was their father, but only Luke indicates that they were also Simon’s fishing partners. Jesus called to them, saying, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” (Luke 5:10) So, they returned to shore and went with Jesus.

The Gospels record the names of all twelve of the disciples, but Mark goes a step further, revealing that Jesus gave James and John a nickname. James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’)” (Mark 3:17) This is indicative of their hot-headed temper as evidenced in Luke 9:54 “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’” Jesus had sent his disciples to a Samaritan village to prepare them for his arrival, yet the villagers did not want to welcome him. James and John’s immediate response was total destruction, but Jesus rebuked them and went to a different village instead.  

James and John are always mentioned as a pair in the Bible, so they must have been very close as brothers. They also experienced things that some of the other disciples did not, for example, the Transfiguration. “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:1-2) Afterwards, Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

“He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James.” (Mark 5:37) The same three disciples were the only ones who were allowed to come with Jesus to the home of Jairus, the Synagogue leader whose child had just died. In front of Peter, James and John, Jesus raised the girl to life but told them not to let anyone know what he had done. 

“As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’” (Mark 13:3-4) Once again, it was the same trio, James, John and Peter, who approached Jesus on the Mount of Olives. They wished to know when the destruction of the Temple would occur and how to read the signs for the End Times. 

“He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” (Mark 14:33) Finally, Jesus called the same three disciples to follow him after the Last Supper, asking them to keep guard whilst he prayed. Peter, James and John fell asleep and were woken by Jesus on his return. He asked them twice more to keep guard, and they fell asleep both times.

On one occasion, James and John approached Jesus without Peter, saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (Mark 10:35) They wanted Jesus to “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (10:37). Jesus informed them that it was not for him to grant who sat in those places. When the other ten disciples heard about their request, “they became indignant with James and John.” (Mark 10:41) To them, it may have appeared James and John thought they were better than them and more worthy of a place by Jesus’ side. Jesus kept the peace by saying that anyone who wishes to be great must first be a servant. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (10:45)

James’ impertinence and fiery temper may have led to his downfall. According to the Acts of the Apostles, “King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2) It does not mention why James was killed, but we know Peter had a different fate, imprisonment, suggesting Herod had not intended to kill them all. King Herod has been identified as Herod Agrippa, who was King of Judea from 41 to 44 AD. James’ date of death is estimated as 44 AD since the Bible reports Herod died soon after.  

According to legend, James’ remains are held in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, northwestern Spain. Santiago means Saint James in Spanish, and James is the patron saint of Spain. Yet, as the Bible tells us, James was martyred “with the sword” in Jerusalem. Many believe he had been beheaded, and a legend states his head is buried under the altar of the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of St. James in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. So, if James was killed in Jerusalem, how and why did he end up in Spain?

The 12th-century bishop Diego Gelmírez claimed James once preached in Spain and, after his death, the disciples carried his body by sea to the coast of Galicia, where they buried him. An ancient Galician tradition says the Virgin Mary appeared to James when he was preaching the Gospel on the banks of the Ebro River in Spain. Mary was still alive and living in Jerusalem, and the reason for the supernatural visitation is either lost or unknown. Following this, James returned to Jerusalem and his death.

Other traditions claim James’ link to Spain to be false. According to the history of the early Church, James never left Jerusalem. In the book of Romans, which was written after 44 AD, Paul visited Spain or “Illyricum”, where he claimed Christ was not known, thus suggesting James had never been there.

Another legend states James appeared to fight during the legendary battle of Clavijo, which took place 800 years after his death. He was subsequently named Saint James the Moor-slayer and made Spain’s patron and protector. In the 12th century, the military Order of Santiago was founded in his name and is recognised by its insignia, which represents a sword. The sword symbolises James’ death, but his emblem is also a scallop shell, which is represented by the shape of a fleur-de-lis on the insignia. Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela often wore scallop shell symbols on their clothing. In French, a scallop shell is known as coquille St. Jacques (cockle of St. James), and in German, Jakobsmuschel (mussel of St. James).  

As well as Spain, James the Great is the patron saint of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Guayaquil, the second-largest city in Ecuador. His feast day changes depending on whether you are part of the Western Church (25th July), Eastern Church (30th April) or Hispanic Church (30th December). Several professions also claim James the Great as their patron, including veterinarians, equestrians, furriers (people who make fur clothing), tanners (leather producers), pharmacists, oyster fishers, and woodcarvers.

4. John

John the Apostle was the brother of James and the youngest of the disciples. Scholars continue to debate whether this is the same John who wrote several of the books of the New Testament, and others have tried to identify him as John of Patmos, John the Evangelist and John the Elder. The Bible claims John was a fisherman and became a disciple at the same time as his brother. According to the Gospel of John (1:35-39), James and John were originally the disciples of John the Baptist, but the other Gospels do not record this.

“Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.” (Matthew 4:21)

John and James were the sons of Zebedee and Salome, although some churches call her Joanna. Presumably, Zebedee was a fisherman because he was in the boat where John and James were preparing their nets. When they left to follow Jesus, “they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men”. (Mark 1:20) The fact they could afford hired men implied Zebedee had some wealth, but little else is known about their father.

Salome, like her sons, was a follower of Jesus. She is recorded as one of the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion. “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.” (Mark 15:40). According to medieval tradition, Salome’s full name was Mary Salome and was one of the three daughters of Saint Anne. This would make her Jesus’ aunt and John and James his cousin. This legend is based upon the Gospel of John’s version of the crucifixion, which substitutes the name Salome with Mary, the wife of Clopas. “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25)

As previously mentioned, John and James asked Jesus to let them sit on either side of him in the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10). The Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, records Salome making this request. “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’” (Matthew 20:20-21)  

Throughout the Gospels, John and James are often mentioned together. They were present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, a witness of the Agony in the Gethsemane, and given the nickname “son of Thunder” after suggesting Jesus call down heavenly fire on an inhospitable town. There were times when John was mentioned without his brother; for example, on the day of Unleavened Bread, “Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’” (Luke 22:8)

In the Gospel of John, the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is used at least five times but does not appear in the other Gospels. As a result, the scholars who believe John the disciple wrote John’s Gospel also believe John was the disciple Jesus loved. “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them…This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” (John 21:20-24)

The references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” are as follows:

  • John 13:23-25: One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”
  • John 19:26-27: When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
  • John 20:2: So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
  • John 21:7: Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.
  • John 21:20: “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is going to betray you?’)”

John was born around 6 AD and died around 100 AD, almost a generation after the death of his brother James, the first disciple to die a martyr’s death. A remark made by Jesus about the disciple he loved, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22), led to rumours that he would never die. This turned out to be untrue, although he did outlive all the other disciples, dying at Ephesus in old age. 

John’s activities after his brother’s death are not mentioned in the Bible, but it is assumed he was forced to leave Judea due to Herod Agrippa’s persecution of the Christians. Tradition says John went to Ephesus where looked after a church founded by Paul. If scholars are correct in assuming John was the same John who wrote three epistles, then it is likely he wrote them at this time. Allegedly, John was then banished to the Greek island of Patmos after being plunged into a vat of boiling oil and suffering no consequences.

According to the theological work Against Heresies by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyon in France) written in 180 AD, John taught Polycarp, the future Bishop of Smyrna, about Jesus. In turn, Polycarp taught Irenaeus about Jesus and John. It is claimed Ignatius of Antioch was also a student of John.

The Feast Day of Saint John the Apostle is traditionally celebrated on 27th December, but there was once another feast on the 6th May, Saint John Before the Latin Gate. This celebrated the legend that he was miraculously preserved from the vat of boiling oil during the reign of the anti-Christian Emperor Domitian. A legend from the apocryphal Acts of John claims he was challenged to drink a cup of poison to demonstrate the power of his faith, from which he survived unharmed. As a result, he is the patron saint of burn and poison victims. John is also the patron saint of love, loyalty, friendship, authors, booksellers, art dealers, editors, publishers, scribes, examinations, scholars and theologians.

5. Philip

“The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 1:43) Not much is known about Philip’s origins other than he came from Bethsaida in Galilee, the same place as Andrew and Peter. Having a Greek name, Philippos, suggests Philip may have originally come from Greece. Although there is no evidence to support this, when a group of Greeks wanted to visit Jesus, it was Philip they approached. “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’” (John 12:21)

Philip only gets a brief mention in the Synoptic Gospels, and it is only in the Gospel of John that his presence is recorded at certain events. Not only was Philip present at the feeding of the 5000, but it was also Philip Jesus turned to ask, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5) Philip thought the task was impossible, replying, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (6:6) John’s Gospel reveals Jesus already had a plan and was testing Philip’s faith. 

At the last supper, Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8) Jesus’ response suggests he was not pleased with Philip’s request: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?” (14:9) Yet, this prompted Jesus to teach his disciples about the unity of the Father and the Son: “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” (John 14:11)

The final time Philip is mentioned in the Bible is in the Acts of the Apostles, shortly after Jesus had been taken up to heaven. The apostles met up to talk, pray and decide who would replace Judas Iscariot as the twelfth disciple. After this, Philip is never mentioned again by name, but in Acts 6, “the twelve” came together to appoint seven men to help spread the ministry of the word of God. Whenever the apostles are referred to as “the twelve”, it is safe to assume Philip was amongst them. Confusingly, one of the men chosen was also called Philip (the Evangelist), who continues to feature in the Book of Acts.

Some extra-canonical texts mention Philip, but scholars have difficulty differentiating between Philip the Apostle and Philip the Evangelist. Some historians even suggested they were the same person, so many texts cannot be fully trusted. The non-canonical Acts of Philip is allegedly an account of the preaching and miracles of Philip after the resurrection of Jesus. The text claims Philip and Bartholomew, one of the other twelve, were sent to preach in Greece, Phrygia and Syria. It also says Philip’s sister Mariamne went with them. The name Mariamne was commonly used in the Herodian royal house, so the author may have confused Philip the Apostle with Philip the Tetrarch (26 BC-34 AD).

Whilst Philip was preaching in Hierapolis in Phrygia, he converted the wife of the proconsul. The act angered the proconsul, who ordered Philip to be tortured and killed. There are two versions of his death. One is he was beheaded and the other, according to the Acts of Philip, claims Philip was crucified upside-down. He continued preaching whilst nailed to the cross, which converted a few more people who tried to release him. Philip insisted they leave him and eventually died. His year of death is recorded as 80 AD. 

Due to his crucifixion, Philip is associated with the symbol of the Latin Cross. He is also symbolised by two loaves of bread or a basket filled with bread because of his role in the feeding of the 5000.

Another extra-biblical text, known as the Letter from Peter to Philip, suggests Philip departed on a solo mission at some point between Jesus’ resurrection and being taken up into heaven. The letter from Peter asks Philip to re-join the disciples at the Mount of Olives, presumably so they could appoint a new disciple.

In 2011, Turkish archaeologists claimed to have discovered the tomb of Saint Philip in the ancient town of Hierapolis, near the modern town of Denizli. Writings on the wall of the tomb provided enough evidence for other archaeologists to agree that it was the final resting place of the apostle. Saint Philip’s relics are kept in the crypt of the Basilica Santi Apostoli in Rome.

The Roman Church venerated Philip, and 1st May was designated as his feast day, although this has now changed to 3rd May. Eastern Orthodox churches, on the other hand, celebrate Saint Philip on 14th November. Saint Philip is listed as the patron of Cape Verde, hatters, pastry chefs, San Felipe Pueblo in New Mexico, and Uruguay.

6. Bartholomew

Bartholomew became a disciple at the same time as Philip, although he is named Nathanael in the Gospel of John. “Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’” (John 1:45) Little is known about Bartholomew/Nathanael, except at the end of John’s Gospel, he is referred to as Nathanael from Cana in Galilee” (John 21:2), implying he lived fairly locally to Jesus.  

It is not certain why Bartholomew has two names, but the meaning of the names may give us some indication. Bartholomew is an anglicised version of Bar Talmai, which means either “Son of Talmai” or “Son of Furrows”. Possibly, Bartholomew’s father was called Talmai, which was an Aramaic form of the name Ptolemy. Nathanael, on the other hand, means “God has given”. Whether he had this name before he met Jesus is unknown, and why it was only John’s Gospel that used it is another mystery.

When Bartholomew/Nathanael was first called to be a disciple, he was sceptical, asking, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46) Nazareth was not a particularly well-off place at the time, and Nathanael could not believe the true Messiah would come from such a place.  

“When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’” (John 1:47) Nathanael was surprised that Jesus knew him, so Jesus clarified, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (1:48) At that moment, Nathanael believed Jesus was the Messiah, but Jesus told him, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that … Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (1:50-51) 

Bartholomew’s life after the death and resurrection of Jesus has been pieced together by a variety of sources, none of which are completely reliable. The Christian historian Eusebius (c.260-340) claims Bartholomew went on a missionary trip to India, where he left a copy of the Gospel of Matthew. Saint Jerome (347-420) agrees with this claim, but other sources record Bartholomew serving as a missionary in Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia (Iran), Lycaonia (Asia Minor), and Armenia.

Popular legend says Bartholomew travelled to Armenia with the apostle Jude where they preached about the life of Jesus. It was also in Armenia where he met his death, either being flayed alive and beheaded, or crucified upside down. Bartholomew had reportedly converted Polymius, the king of Armenia, to Christianity which enraged his brother Prince Astyages. Yet, this does not match historical records of Armenian kings; there was no King Polymius. Yet, in India, there was an official named Polymius, and some scholars state Bartholomew most likely died there in the town of Kalyan.

A few texts record the miracles Bartholomew may have performed before and after his death. The two most popular post-death miracles occurred on the Aeolian island, Lipari. On Bartholomew’s feast day (24th August), the people of Lipari were taking part in an annual procession from the Cathedral of St Bartholomew to the main part of the town, carrying a golden statue of the saint. The statue was usually easy to carry, but on this occasion, it was too heavy, and the bearers had to stop and rest a couple of times, delaying the procession. Whilst resting at the top of a hill, the walls of the town downhill started to collapse. If the people of Lipari had been in the town at the time, they would all have been killed. They believed Saint Bartholomew had saved their lives by making the statue too heavy to carry.

The second miracle on Lipari occurred much later during the Second World War. Fascist leaders needed money, so ordered a silver statue of Saint Bartholomew to be melted down. When it was weighed, they discovered it was only a few grams and not worth the effort. The statue was returned to the cathedral, but locals knew it weighed several kilograms. Once again, they believed Saint Bartholomew had altered the weight of the statue.

Despite not much being known about Bartholomew, he has become a popular figure in art. In a biography of the disciple by Jacobus de Varagine (1230-1299), Bartholomew’s supposed appearance was described in detail. “His hair is black and crisped, his skin fair, his eyes wide, his nose even and straight, his beard thick and with few grey hairs; he is of medium stature…” Many artists have since used this description when depicting Bartholomew in their paintings. He is also often depicted as being flayed alive. Contemporary artists have been inspired by Bartholomew’s fate, including Damien Hurst and Gunther Von Hagen, the developer of the exhibition Body Worlds.  

Due to the legends, Bartholomew became the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He was also celebrated in England at the Bartholomew Fair, which was held in Smithfield, London, during the middle ages. St Bartholomew’s Street Fair continues to be held annually in Crewkerne, Somerset and is believed to date back to Saxon times.

The nature of Bartholomew’s death led him to become the patron saint of tanners, plasterers, tailors, leatherworkers, bookbinders, farmers, house painters, butchers and glove makers. Other things and places that have claimed him as their saint include Florentine cheese and salt merchants; Gambatesa, a commune in Italy; Catbalogan, the capital of Samar in the Philippines; Magalang, a province in Pampanga, Philippines; Metro Manila, the National Capital Region of the Philippines; Nagcarlan, a municipality in Laguna, Philippines; San Leonardo, Nueva Ecija, Philippines; Gharghur, Malta; Neurological diseases; Shoemakers; and Los Cerricos, Spain.

To be continued…


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Bible By Colour – Part 2

Two years ago, the former minister of Gants Hill United Reformed Church asked me to write a series of articles about the importance of certain colours in the Christian Bible. I posted about the colours red, crimson, scarlet and green two weeks ago. Here are the remaining colours in the original series.

Blue

Blue is the third primary colour, along with red and yellow. The word comes from the Middle English bleu, which means shimmering or lustrous. Of the colours on the visible spectrum of light, blue has one of the shortest wavelengths. As a result, when sunlight passes through our atmosphere, the blue waves are scattered more widely than other colours, making the sky appear blue. It would take a scientist to explain this theory, but as Einstein said it was true, we can accept it as thus. 

Apart from naturally occurring blues, blue was not used in art or referenced in literature until much later than the other colours. This is because it was much harder to produce a blue dye, and the minerals from which it was made were much more expensive, for example, indigo, lapis lazuli and azurite. No ancient cave paintings contain blue pigment. One of the earliest uses is thought to be on the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun (1323 BC).

The Ancient Egyptians associated the colour blue with the sky and divinity. They believed the god Amun could turn his skin blue to fly, invisible, across the sky. They also believed blue could protect against evil, which is why many people in the Mediterranean wear blue amulets to protect them from misfortune.

The Romans often used blue for decorations. The walls of Pompeii were reportedly decorated with frescoes of blue skies. Later, in the Byzantine era, blue was often used in churches, and the Virgin Mary was usually depicted in dark blue clothing in artworks. In Islam, blue is Muhammad’s favourite colour.

In the Middle Ages, blue became the colour of poor people who used poor-quality dyes made from the woad plant to colour their clothes. In the western world, blue did not appear in churches until the 1130s, when the Saint-Denis Basilica installed a cobalt coloured stained glass window. This colour became known as bleu de Saint-Denis. Although the Byzantine Empire had depicted Mary in blue, the western church did not take up this practice until the 12th century. Before that, the Virgin wore blacks, greys and greens. 

King Louis IX of France (1214-70), now known as Saint Louis, was the first king to dress in blue. After this, many nobles followed suit. As a result, paintings of the legendary King Arthur show him dressed in blue. In the years to follow, blue became a sign of the wealthy and powerful in Europe.

During the Renaissance, merchants devised a way to produce blue dyes more cheaply. This led to several blue dye industries in cities across Europe. Eventually, blue pigments became widely available, and the colour began to appear regularly in paintings. By the 18th and 19th centuries, blue had become a popular colour amongst artists, particularly impressionists.

In contemporary English, blue represents sadness, for example, “She was feeling blue.” Alternatively, blue can represent happiness or optimism, for instance, blue skies. On the other hand, in Germany, to be blue means to be drunk. Also, in Germany, a naïve person is said to look upon the world with a blue eye.

In Turkey and some parts of Asia, blue represents mourning. In China, blue is the colour of ghosts, torment and death. It is common in Chinese opera for the villain to wear blue face paint. In Thailand, the colour blue represents Friday. 

Although some societies are trying to eradicate gender stereotypes, it is common to associate blue with boys and pink with girls. Yet, before the 1900s, it was the other way around. Blue was the colour for girls because it corresponded with the blue of the Virgin Mary’s clothes. Boys were pink due to its closeness to red, a masculine colour.

Many countries throughout the world use the colour blue on their flags. Countries include Scotland, Finland, Greece, Israel, Argentina, Uruguay, Estonia, Romania, Barbados, Russia, Serbia, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Thailand and the United Kingdom. In politics, blue represents the Conservative Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the USA.

In Christianity, blue is associated with the Virgin Mary, although there is no evidence she wore this colour in the Bible. In Hinduism, many of the gods have blue skin, including Vishnu, the preserver of the world. In the Bible, the colour blue is mentioned several times, mostly in verses related to the Tabernacle. In Judaism, the colour blue represents God’s glory.

The colour blue first appears in Exodus 25:4, in which the Lord asks Moses to tell the Israelites to give him a gift of gold, silver and bronze; “blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair,” rams skins and so on. After this, between chapters 26 and 39, there are a further 33 mentions of the colour blue.

Exodus 26 contains God’s instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle. In the first verse, He requests ten linen curtains made from blue, purple and scarlet yarn, which have loops of blue material along the bottom (verse 4). Another curtain containing blue yarn is instructed in verse 31 and one more for the entrance to the tent in verse 36. Exodus 27 continues God’s instructions for the Tabernacle. The entrance to the courtyard of the tabernacle required “a curtain twenty cubits long, of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen.” (verse 16)

Exodus 28 records God’s wishes for the priestly garments. These include a breast piece, an ephod, a robe, a tunic and a sash, all made from gold and blue, and purple and scarlet yarn. The breast piece and ephod were tied together with a blue cord, and the robe was made entirely from blue cloth but decorated with balls of blue, purple and scarlet yarn. A blue cord attached a seal onto the priest’s turban, which read, “Holy to the Lord”.

Exodus 35 requests the Israelites to donate gold, silver and bronze, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen for the construction of the Tabernacle. The actual building of the Tabernacle commences in chapter 36. The Lord chose Bezalel, son of Uri, for the task of constructing the gold, silver and bronze elements, and Oholiab, son of Ahisamak, for the ability to teach others to work with the yarn and linen. The chapter goes on to record the production of the curtains mentioned earlier in the book.

Next, Exodus 38 records the construction of the courtyard, complete with a blue, purple and scarlet curtain for the entrance. Finally, Exodus 39 explains how the Israelites made priestly garments. The chapters are all rather repetitive, but they emphasise the importance of the colour blue, as well as purple and scarlet.

Blue continues to be important to the Israelites in the Book of Numbers. Chapter four records God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron to take a census of all the Levite clans. The Kohathite clan is responsible for covering the Tabernacle curtain with a “durable leather” and to “spread a cloth of solid blue over that and put the poles in place.” (verse 6). They are also instructed to lay a blue cloth over plates, dishes and bowls, the lampstand, the gold altar and any articles used for ministering in the sanctuary. 

Finally, we move away from the Tabernacle when we reach Numbers 15:38: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel.’” The tassels, or tzitzit, are still worn by orthodox Jews today. There have been several opinions about the significance of this blue cord (tekhelet), including representing the noonday sky and that it is the colour of God’s glory. 

The next mention of the colour blue occurs in 2 Chronicles. A large part of the book focuses on the construction of Solomon’s Temple. 2 Chronicles 2:7 states, “Send me, therefore, a man skilled to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, and in purple, crimson and blue yarn, and experienced in the art of engraving, to work in Judah and Jerusalem with my skilled workers, whom my father David provided.” These are the same colours (except crimson instead of scarlet) used for the Tabernacle. 

A man named Huram-Abi was sent to work on the Temple by Hiram. He was “trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen.” (verse 14) In the following chapter, a curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarn is recorded. 

The next book of the Bible to feature the colour blue is Esther. Chapter one, which focuses on the deposition of Queen Vashti, also describes the citadel of Susa. Verse 6 tells us, “The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.”

The book of Esther contains the story of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. By chapter 8, he has been defeated, and King Xerxes gives Queen Esther Haman’s estate. Mordecai was also rewarded by the king, and “When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration.” (Esther 8:15) 

The book of Jeremiah mentions the colour once. On this occasion, the blue does not reference God as it may have done in the curtains of the Tabernacle. Instead, in chapter ten, God warns the Israelites of the dangers of false gods and idols. He reports that skilled workers hammer gold and silver, then “What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple”. (Jeremiah 10:9) God tells them that he is the true God and any other god or idol will perish. 

Ezekiel 23 talks about Assyrian warriors “clothed in blue, governors and commanders, all of them handsome young men, and mounted horsemen.” (verse 6) In this instance, the colour blue has moved away from representing God’s glory and become an indication of importance – similar, in a way, to Mordecai’s garments in the book of Esther. 

Yet, Ezekiel 27 reveals that clothing yourself in blue fabric does not give you the same status as God. In a lament, God reminds the people of Tyre that “Fine embroidered linen from Egypt was your sail and served as your banner; your awnings were of blue and purple from the coasts of Elishah.” (verse 7) Yet, Tyre has now fallen. “In your marketplace they traded with you beautiful garments, blue fabric, embroidered work and multicoloured rugs with cords twisted and tightly knotted.” (verse 24) Still, Tyre was destroyed. 

This leaves one final mention of the colour blue. “The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulphur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulphur.” (Revelation 9:17)

Except for the latter, all fifty-odd references to the colour blue relate to God, the service to God and godly living. The building of the Tabernacle and construction of the Temple occurred when blue dyes were harder to come across, so they were only used for something special, and what is more special than God? As time went on, people began to use the colour blue to signify their rank and importance, but God put them back in their place.

With this meaning in mind, it is clear why artists chose to use blue for Mary’s clothing in the Nativity Scene. She was chosen by God to be the mother of his son and is, therefore, important in his eyes.

Today, the colour blue has lost this sacredness. No one looks at blue paint, blue curtains, blue books or a blue football shirt and thinks of God. Fortunately, unlike the people of Tyre, we are not attempting to elevate ourselves to God’s level by using this colour. We use it because it is now readily available.

Purple

Purple is a secondary colour made by combining red and blue. The word was first used in English in the year 975 AD, although it was spelt purpul. Many shades get confused as purple, for example, violet and lilac, but purple has its place on the traditional colour wheel. The confusion arises from the term Tyrian purple, which ranged from crimson to bluish purple. To make things more confusing, each country tends to have a different definition of purple, resulting in a variety of shades. In France, purple is described as “a dark red, inclined toward violet,” and in German, the word Purpurrot means “purple-red”. 

Confusion aside, it is generally agreed that purple is the colour of kings, nobles, priests and magistrates. This idea formed as early as 950 BC, and it is believed the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt wore purple, as did Alexander the Great. The Roman custom of wearing purple togas may have stemmed from this or may have been introduced by the Etruscans. An Etruscan tomb painting from the 4th century BC shows a nobleman wearing deep purple.

The Byzantine Empire continued to use purple as the imperial colour. In Western Europe, Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, was buried in a purple shroud. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, the colour lost its imperial status and was replaced with scarlet.

Throughout the medieval and Renaissance eras, purple was phased out of royal clothing and cardinals were no longer allowed to wear the colour on the orders of Pope Paul II (1417-71). On the other hand, purple robes became the standard among students of divinity. 

The colour purple regained its popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries. Paintings of Catherine the Great (1729-96) show her wearing a light purple dress, although some may call this mauve. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) wore a gown of a similar colour to the Royal Exhibition of 1862, which encouraged factories to produce purple dyes, making them readily available to everyone and not just royalty.

Purple became a popular choice of colour amongst Pre-Raphaelite artists, and it was said to be the favourite colour of the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). George VI (1895-1952) wore purple for his official portrait, and his daughter, Elizabeth II (b. 1926), used the colour on the invitations to her coronation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Suffragettes adopted purple, white and green as the colours of women’s liberation. On a less positive note, in Nazi concentration camps, non-conformist religious groups were required to wear a purple triangle.

Purple is less naturally occurring than other colours, but there are a few animals described as purple. These include purple frogs, purple queenfish, purple sea urchins, purple herons, purple finches, purple honeycreepers and one of the colours of the imperial amazon parrot. The latter is the national bird of Dominica and appears on their flag, making it the only flag to contain the colour purple. Purple plants include hydrangeas, pansies, copper beech trees, irises, alfalfa, alpine asters, wisteria and lavender.

There are several “Purple Mountains” around the world, some of which are so named due to the colour of the rock, and others because of the shade the clouds form at dawn and dusk. These mountains can be found in Nanjing (China), Ireland, Wyoming, Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Colorado.

Although the colour purple had been phased out of imperial families, the British Royal Family continues to use the colour on ceremonial and special occasions. In Roman Catholic Liturgy, purple symbolises penitence, and priests may wear a purple stole when they hear a confession. They also wear a purple stole or chasuble during the periods of Lent and Advent.

In other traditions, purple is associated with vanity and extravagance. This is because it is a colour that attracts attention. It is a colour associated with the artificial and unconventional due to the infrequency of its appearance in nature. It was also the first colour to be synthesised.

In the past, purple was a sign of mourning in Britain. The first year after a death, mourners traditionally wore black, and in the second year, they wore purple. This may have stopped being common practice after Queen Victoria decided to wear black for the rest of her widowhood.

In China, purple represents awareness, physical and mental wellbeing, strength, and abundance. In some cases, it also symbolises luck. In Japan, it is the colour of wealth and privilege. On the Thai solar calendar, it is associated with Saturday. Grieving widows in Thailand wear purple as a sign of mourning.

The colour purple is also significant in the Bible. It appears roughly thirty times in the book of Exodus when describing the decoration of the tabernacle. The Israelites were instructed to make several curtains “twenty cubits long, of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen.” (Exodus 27:16) 

Later, in the book of Numbers, the Kohathite tribe are instructed to “remove the ashes from the bronze altar and spread a purple cloth over it” (Numbers 4:13) every time the tabernacle is moved. 

Purple also appears in the books of Esther and Jeremiah. The garden of the palace of Susa was decorated with blue linen and cords of white and purple. (Esther 1:6) When King Xerxes rewarded Mordecai after the death of Haman, Mordecai was dressed in royal garments of blue and a purple robe of fine linen. (Esther 8:15) In Jeremiah, we are told that people had started to dress in blue and purple, believing themselves to be as important as God, but God put them back in their place.

In the book of Judges, we are told that purple garments are the clothing of kings. In the book of Daniel, King Belshazzar announces that whoever interprets the strange writing on the wall will be awarded purple clothing.

  • Judges 8:26: The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks. 
  • Daniel 5:7: The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”
  • Daniel 5:29: Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.

The epilogue of Proverbs 31 tells of the wife of a noble character. The chapter tells us she is worth more than rubies and should be honoured. She provides for her husband and looks after her household. She makes sure there is always something for her family to eat, but also, “she is clothed in fine linen and purple,” (Proverbs 31:22), a noble, respected colour. 

On the other hand, the poem in Lamentations 4 reveals that wearing purple does not equate to godly status. The colour does not protect people from God’s wrath or entitle them to sin without punishment. “Those brought up in royal purple now lie on ash heaps.” (Lamentations 4:5) These self-important people, clothed in royal colours, have become the victims of God’s anger.

The most noteworthy use of purple occurs in two of the Gospels, Mark and John. Although purple is a royal colour, it is used negatively in these books. After Jesus was arrested, he was crowned with thorns and mocked for being the “King of the Jews.” What is often missed out of this story is the purple robe in which they dress him.

  • Mark 15:17: They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him.
  • Mark 15:20: And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
  • John 19:2: The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe
  • John 19:5: When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

Purple was the colour of kings, the colour of important people, but the Romans used the colour as a way to mock and torment Jesus.

Purple is also mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, however, not in relation to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” (Luke 16:19) This is the opening line of one of Jesus’ teachings. A beggar named Lazarus died outside the rich man’s home. Later, the rich man died, but in the afterlife, or Hades, as the NIV states, the rich man notices Lazarus has been honoured with a place next to Abraham. When questioning why he did not also receive this honour, the rich man was told, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” (Luke 16:25) This is an example of the colour purple representing extravagance and vanity.

There are four more mentions of the colour purple in the Bible. They each indicate someone’s wealth and status, but only one has positive connotations:

  • Acts 16:14: One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
  • Revelations 17:4: The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.
  • Revelation 18:12: fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble
  • Revelation 18:16: Woe! Woe to you, great city,dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!

Overall, the colour purple is symbolic of God. Although bad things happened to some people who wore purple, it is not the colour that was the cause but their actions. Purple is a colour that represents royalty, wealth and nobility, but unless we put God first, it does not matter what we wear.

Black

Some may argue that black is not a colour, but Wikipedia describes it as the darkest colour. It is an achromatic colour, which means it has no colour hue. White and grey are two other achromatic colours. Symbolically, black is used to represent darkness, but there are several other meanings associated with the colour.

Black was the first colour used in cave paintings. Palaeolithic cave paintings produced between 18,000 and 17,000 years ago used charcoal or burnt bones to produce the colour black. The ancient Latin and Greek words for black also translate as “to burn”.

The Ancient Egyptians believed black was the colour of fertility due to the colour of the soil that had once been flooded by the River Nile. The Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, associated black with death and the underworld because they believed the waters of the River Acheron, that separated Hades from the living world, were black. 

Initially, in Ancient Rome, craftsmen and artisans wore the colour black, but by the second century, the colour had been adopted by Roman magistrates when attending funeral ceremonies. Thus, black became a symbol of death and mourning.

By the 12th century, black was the traditional colour of Benedictine monks as a sign of humility and penitence. Yet, two centuries later, the meaning of black changed once again. Due to more expensive processes of producing black dyes, the colour became common amongst the wealthy and signified their importance and position in society. This change spread from Italy to France, eventually reaching England during the reign of Richard II (1367-1400). By the end of the 16th century, almost all monarchs and royal courts in Europe wore black.

Although black was the colour worn by members of the Catholic clergy, it later became the colour of the Protestant Reformation and the English Puritans. John Calvin (1509-64), amongst other Protestant theologians, denounced the richly coloured interiors of Catholic churches, claiming they represented luxury and sin. Ironically, around the same period, the colour became associated with witchcraft and the devil. People feared that the devil would appear at midnight during a ceremony known as Black Mass or Black Sabbath in the form of a goat, dog, wolf or bear, accompanied by black creatures, such as cats or snakes.

During the Industrial Revolution, black became associated with the colour of dirt, coal and smog. In literature, it became the colour of melancholy, and in politics, the colour of anarchism. In the 20th century, it was adopted by fascism and intellectual and social rebellion. On the other hand, it had an alternative meaning in fashion. Black became the colour of evening dress for men, and Coco Chanel popularized the little black dress.

The Black Power movement and the slogan “Black is Beautiful” fought for equal rights for African Americans during the 1950s. In the 1990s, the Black Standard became the banner of many Islamic extremists groups. Black is also associated with subcultures, such as Goths.

Today, the colour black has different meanings all over the world. In China, it represents water, which is one of their five fundamental elements. It also represents the direction north, which is symbolised by a black tortoise. In Japan, black means mystery, the night, the supernatural, the invisible and death. A black belt in Japanese martial arts symbolises experience. In Indonesia, black represents demons, disaster and the left hand.

In Islam, Muhammad’s soldiers carried a black banner, hence, the Black Standard of some Islamic groups. In Hinduism, the goddess of time and change is called Kali, which means “the black one”. According to mythology, she destroys anger and passion.

With so many variants on the meaning of the colour black, what does it represent in the Bible? In Christian mythology, black was the colour of the universe before God created light. Occasionally, the devil is known as “the prince of darkness”, a term that was used in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s King Lear

The colour black appears less than twenty times in the Bible, and, on some occasions, the NIV translates the word as “dark” or “darkness”. These Bible verses tend to refer to famines, wars and sorrow. An example of this is Job 30:30: “My skin grows black and peels”. Job is lamenting his fate and refers to “blackness” many times throughout the book; however, it is only in reference to the colour of his skin as a result of lack of nourishment that he uses the word “black”. 

The colour black also represents the deceitful treatment of Job’s friends, although the NIV quotes “darkness”. Similarly, black or darkness symbolises God’s judgement and punishment of sins. A handful of times, black horses were used as a symbol of sorrow and famine. In Zechariah 6, four chariots are pulled by different coloured horses. Each travels in a different direction, the black one going north, i.e. Babylon, where punishment will be given out. Verses involving black horses include:

  • Zechariah 6:2: The first chariot had red horses, the second black.
  • Zechariah 6:6: The one with the black horses is going toward the north country, the one with the white horses toward the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward the south.
  • Revelation 6:5: When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.

Another symbol of God’s judgement is the darkening of the sky.

  • Deuteronomy 4:11: You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness.
  • 1 Kings 18:45: Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.
  • Revelation 6:12: I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red.

In the latter example, the black sun would result in total darkness, like the universe before God created light. It is an absence of God. 

Not all references to the colour black have negative connotations. In some instances, black represents good health. Whilst, yellow hair in a wound was a sign of uncleanliness or leprosy, a black hair, i.e. a natural coloured hair, gave the afflicted a clean bill of health. “If, however, the sore is unchanged so far as the priest can see, and if black hair has grown in it, the affected person is healed. They are clean, and the priest shall pronounce them clean.” (Leviticus 13:37)

If a wound contains no black hair, the priests were instructed to isolate the person in case an illness developed. “But if, when the priest examines the sore, it does not seem to be more than skin deep and there is no black hair in it, then the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days.” (Leviticus 13:31) Deuteronomy 14:12-13 states the same virtually word for word. 

There are many black animals in the world, including, bears, spiders, snakes, panthers and birds. Two black birds are listed as unclean animals that the Israelites were unable to eat. “These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite.” (Leviticus 11:13-14) Another black bird is mentioned in Song of Songs as a simile to describe the hair colour of “the beloved”. (Song of Songs 5:11)

A final mention of black hair occurs during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus warns people not to break an oath or even make an oath in the first place. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” It is wrong to swear things on heaven for it belongs to God. Jesus also instructs people to not swear by their head. “And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.” (Matthew 5:36)

So, what does black represent in the Bible? Most examples relate to sin, judgement and “dark times”. There is no getting away from the fact that black has negative connotations. On the other hand, the other verses show that not all black things are bad. There are naturally occurring black things in the world that have not come about due to sin, for example, ravens and hair. We must not be quick to judge something by its colour; we should not be so black and white (pardon the pun) about the world. This way of thinking can debunk many thoughts, ideas and stereotypes about the world, for instance, assumptions about a Goth’s choice of clothing, and no one should ever be judged by their skin colour.

White

Like black, white is an achromatic colour. The word derives from the same roots as “bright” and “light”, which describe the colour white. Along with black, white was one of the first colours used in cave paintings. Palaeolithic artists used chalk or calcite to produce white markings.

In Ancient Egypt, white was connected with the goddess Isis who, according to myth, resurrected her dead husband. The priestesses of Isis dressed only in white linen, and Egyptians used the same material to wrap mummies. In Ancient Greece, white represented life and nourishment, particularly concerning a mother’s milk. The Ancient Greeks and other civilisations also saw white as a counterpart to black in terms of light and darkness.

In Ancient Roman, Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and family, was said to wear white linen robes. Thus, white became a symbol of purity, loyalty and chastity. White was also worn at ceremonial occasions by Roman citizens between the ages of 14 and 18. A man who wished to be elected to public office wore a white toga known as a toga candida. This is from where the word candidate originates.

The early Christian church adopted the Roman concept of white representing purity and virtue. Priests were expected to wear white during mass, and it became the colour of the Cistercian Order and the official colour worn by the Pope. Similarly, in the secular world, a white unicorn was used as a symbol of purity, chastity and grace. Legend said only a virgin could capture a unicorn.

Whereas black is the traditional colour of mourning today, before the 16th century, widows commonly wore white. Later, in the 18th century, white became a fashionable colour for both men and ladies. White wigs and stockings became a typical part of male dress for the upper classes. There was also an unwritten rule that all underwear and bed linen must be white. These items were washed more than others, so more likely to fade and wear out.

According to science, we see the colour white when an object reflects all light and colour wavelengths. Snow is white because the ice reflects the sunlight. Clouds are white because the water droplets do not absorb any wavelengths. The White Cliffs of Dover are white because they are made of limestone, which reflects lights. White beaches occur when the sand is made up of limestone or quartz particles, from which light is reflected.

Many animals use the colour of their skin, fur or feathers as a means of camouflage. White animals are particularly good at hiding in the winter when the land is covered in snow. White animals include ermine, stoats, polar bears, the Beluga whale, and white doves. The latter have become an international symbol of peace.

There are many interpretations of the meaning and symbolism of the colour white. In Western cultures, white usually represents innocence and purity. It is also associated with beginnings and is why babies and children are usually baptised wearing white. Queen Elizabeth II wears white at the opening of each British Parliament session. Debutantes wear white at their first ball. White has been the traditional colour of wedding dresses since the 19th century.

White is a sign of cleanliness. Objects to be kept clean are typically white, for example, dishes, refrigerators, toilets, sinks, bed linen, towels, doctors’ coats and chefs’ outfits. White can also mean peace or surrender. Originating during the Hundred Years’ War, a white flag is used to request a truce or indicate surrender.

In the Bible, white is also a symbol of purity, innocence, honesty and cleanliness; but there are other meanings. One repeated representation is illness, particularly concerning skin disease. When someone is ill, they usually look pale or white, particularly in the hands and face. Verses that refer to this idea include:

  • Exodus 4:6: Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.
  • Leviticus 13:4: If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days.
  • Leviticus 13:10-26: (10) The priest is to examine them, and if there is a white swelling in the skin that has turned the hair white and if there is raw flesh in the swelling… (13) the priest is to examine them, and if the disease has covered their whole body, he shall pronounce them clean. Since it has all turned white, they are clean… (16-17) If the raw flesh changes and turns white, they must go to the priest. The priest is to examine them, and if the sores have turned white, the priest shall pronounce the affected person clean; then they will be clean… (19-21) and in the place where the boil was, a white swelling or reddish-white spot appears, they must present themselves to the priest. The priest is to examine it, and if it appears to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has turned white, the priest shall pronounce that person unclean. It is a defiling skin disease that has broken out where the boil was.  But if, when the priest examines it, there is no white hair in it and it is not more than skin deep and has faded, then the priest is to isolate them for seven days.
  • Leviticus 13:38-43: (38-39) When a man or woman has white spots on the skin, the priest is to examine them, and if the spots are dull white, it is a harmless rash that has broken out on the skin; they are clean… (42-43) But if he has a reddish-white sore on his bald head or forehead, it is a defiling disease breaking out on his head or forehead. The priest is to examine him, and if the swollen sore on his head or forehead is reddish-white like a defiling skin disease.
  • Numbers 12:10: When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease.
  • 2 Kings 5:27: Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.
  • Joel 1:7: It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white.

The example from Joel talks about plants rather than humans. Joel speaks about a plague of locusts that have destroyed his vines and fig trees, stripping them of their bark. The inner layers of many trees are white, as mentioned in the book of Genesis: “Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches.” (Genesis 30:37)

Sometimes, the writers of the Bible used the colour white to describe something’s appearance. In these cases, they may not contain hidden meanings but rather a way of helping the reader picture the scene.

  • Genesis 49:12: His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth white from milk.
  • Exodus 16:31: The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.
  • Leviticus 11:18: the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey
  • Deuteronomy 14:16: the little owl, the great owl, the white owl
  • Judges 5:10: You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road.

There are many examples of white as a symbol of purity. A couple of these refer to the repentance of sin, for example:

  • Ecclesiastes 9:8: Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.
  • Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson,they shall be like wool.”
Angel of the Annunciation (Gabriel) – Titian

Other references to white as a symbol of purity appear in verses about Jesus, particularly after his resurrection or during his transfiguration.

  • Matthew 17:2: There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
  • Matthew 28:3: His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
  • Mark 9:3: His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
  • Mark 16:5: As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
  • John 20:12: and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
  • Acts 1:10: They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.

In the Book of Esther, the gardens of the palace of Susa contained white hangings and, later, Mordecai was clothed in blue and white. This also refers to purity as well as peace.

  • Esther 1:6: The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.
  • Esther 8:15: When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration.

The remaining examples of the colour white all relate to prophesy. White horses symbolise truth and righteousness. The other prophetic uses of the colour likely refer to similar things, although scholars have debated at length over their exact meaning. The majority appear in the book of Revelation.

  • Daniel 7:9: As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool.
  • Zechariah 1:8: During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses. 
  • Zechariah 6:3: the third white, and the fourth dappled—all of them powerful.
  • Revelation 1:14: The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
  • Revelation 2:17: Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
  • Revelation 3:4-5: Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.
  • Revelation 3:18: I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
  • Revelation 4:4: Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.
  • Revelation 6:2: I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
  • Revelation 7:9: After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
  • Revelation 7:13-14: Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
  • Revelation 14:14:  I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand.
  • Revelation 19:14: The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.
  • Revelation 20:11: Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.

So ends the brief introduction to The Importance of Colours in the Bible.


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Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City is one of the most visited chapels in the world due to its impressive fresco paintings by the Renaissance painter Michelangelo Buonarroti (1474-1564). In 1505 Pope Julius II (1443-1513) asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, which at 68ft high was a daunting task. Initially, Michelangelo refused. He wanted to be known as a sculptor rather than a painter but eventually agreed to the job in 1508. For four years, Michelangelo stood on high platforms, painting the ceiling above his head with Biblical scenes and characters. After completion, Michelangelo happily returned to his sculptures, only returning to the chapel to paint a fresco above the altar in 1536.

For a limited time, people in London can see a life-sized, close-up of Michelangelo’s paintings. Those who have visited the Sistine Chapel will know that it is impossible to study the ceiling in detail because of the height of the building. This unique exhibition brings copies of the paintings down to ground level, where visitors can appreciate them for their unique features and grandeur. Located at the Cannon Factory near Tottenham Hale, London, the COVID-safe experience provides a never-before-seen perspective of Michelangelo’s timeless masterpieces.

The central section of the ceiling is made up of nine paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. Whilst they are not in chronological order, the paintings are grouped into three themes: Creation, Downfall, and Fate of Humanity. The exhibition positioned the paintings in the order they appear when entering the chapel, meaning the Book of Genesis appears to read backwards. Some historians suggest Michelangelo chose to paint them in this order to symbolise a return to a state of grace as people approach the altar.

The first three ceiling panels closest to the entrance of the chapel (and exhibition) tell the story of Noah, from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis. Noah was the 10th and final patriarch of the Bible before the Great Flood. God wanted to return the Earth to “its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation.” All except Noah and his family were corrupt and violent, so God instructed Noah to build an Ark to save themselves and two of every animal from the oncoming deluge.

The scene nearest the door depicts Noah after the flood. According to Genesis 9, Noah grew drunk on the wine produced from the newly cultivated vines. As a result, he passed out and exposed his nakedness. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, discreetly covered their father with a cloak to protect his modesty. Ham, the third son, mocked his father instead. When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham, saying that Ham’s descendants would serve Shem and Japheth’s descendants forever. Some Christian theologians interpret Ham’s mockery of Noah as a projection of the mockery of Jesus in the New Testament.

The second panel concerning Noah depicts the Great Flood, which is the largest punishment God inflicted on man. After instructing Noah to build an Ark, God sent 40 days of rain to flood the earth, destroying all life in the process. Michelangelo’s painting illustrates the onset of the flood. Noah’s ark is floating away in the background, where a single white dove sits in one of the hatches. Noah later sent out the dove to search for land, and it returned holding an olive branch. Since then, the dove has symbolised peace and hope. While Noah and his family sail away, the people in the foreground frantically search in vain for shelter as the flood levels rise.

The third scene comes chronologically after the flood but before the drunkenness of Noah. When Noah and his family eventually found land, the first thing Noah did was build an altar and sacrifice some of the animals to the Lord. Seeing this, God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Christian Theologians suggest all three panels forecast events of the New Testament – the mockery of Christ (Noah’s drunkenness), baptism (Great Flood), and Christ’s death on the cross (Noah’s sacrifice).

The second group of paintings tell the story of Adam and Eve, from their creation until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When approaching the middle of the chapel from the entrance, the first panel is the last chronologically and combines two scenes: the fall of man and the expulsion from paradise. On the left-hand side, Eve reaches up to take the fruit of knowledge from the serpent. When God created the first man and woman, He told them they could eat the fruit of any trees, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By accepting the fruit from the serpent, depicted as Lilith, Eve is going against God’s will. According to Genesis 3, Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, but in Michelangelo’s depiction, Adam reached out to take the fruit from the tree. Most Western Christian artists use an apple tree to symbolise the forbidden fruit, but Michelangelo chose a fig tree instead.

On the right-hand side, the archangel Michael expels Adam and Eve from Eden. His sword represents the flaming sword that prevented the couple from returning to the garden. Michael is not mentioned in the account in Genesis, but Michelangelo included the angel to emphasise the man and woman were banished from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were forced to fend for themselves and eventually die in the wilderness.

In the centre of the chapel ceiling is a panel depicting the creation of Eve. Due to its position, the composition is smaller than the rest of the scenes from Genesis. Using inspiration from paintings by other Italian artists, Michelangelo portrayed Adam in a deep sleep, whilst Eve stands up and reaches towards her God and creator, who Michelangelo represents as an elderly man. According to Genesis 2:21-22, “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”

The third scene in the Adam and Eve story is perhaps the most famous painting in the Sistine chapel and art history. Once again, God is depicted as an elderly man, who reaches out to touch Adam to impart the spark of life. Surrounding God are twelve figures about whose identities are often argued. The woman under God’s left arm is generally accepted as Eve due to her resemblance to Eve in Michelangelo’s other paintings and her gaze toward Adam.

Christian theologians have analysed The Creation of Adam in great depth. As a sculptor, Michelangelo was familiar with human anatomy. When discussing the painting in a medical journal, someone pointed out that the proportions of Adam’s torso were slightly off to encompass an extra rib – the rib God later used to create Eve. Others suggest the red cloak surrounding God represents the human womb and the twelve figures, the future human race. Another medical hypothesis concerns the shape of God’s head in comparison to Adam’s smoother brow. The shape of the head Michelangelo gave God is more anatomically accurate to house a brain. This means Adam, who had not yet eaten from the tree of knowledge, did not have a fully formed brain.

The last three scenes before reaching the altar come from the first chapter of Genesis, during which God created the world in six days. In the first painting, Michelangelo depicts God breaking through the background to represent the separation of the waters from the heavens – the second day of creation. The movement of God’s body and his outstretched hands suggest His elemental powers and strength.

The next scene illustrates days three and four of creation. On the left, God faces away from the viewer, pointing His hand towards some green plants. On the third day, God created dry land and commanded, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” On the right, God’s outstretched arms point towards the sun and moon, which He placed in the sky on the fourth day “to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” The way Michelangelo paints God’s robe and hair suggest God is moving at speed across the sky.

Despite being the last scene displayed on the ceiling, the final painting depicts the first stage of the creation narrative. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’.” Michelangelo depicts God from below amidst swirling black and white clouds to demonstrate the separation of night and day. Some theologians liken the image to the Last Judgement, with the light representing God’s chosen people and the dark, the condemned.

As well as the nine scenes from Genesis, the Sistine Chapel ceiling contains pendentives (triangular sections) featuring figures from the Bible and mythology. Twelve of these are categorised as prophetic figures, twelve people who prophesied the coming of a Messiah. Seven are male prophets from the Bible, and the remaining five are female prophetesses or Sibyls from classical mythology.

Above the altar sits Jonah, a reluctant prophet famously swallowed by a large fish. Some Bible scholars believe the Book of Jonah is fictional, but whether it is a story or not, Jonah is considered a foreshadowing of Christ. Between the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, He spent three days in the tomb. This is the same length of time that Jonah spent in the belly of the fish. Michelangelo includes the image of a large fish beside the sitting figure of Jonah, although it does not look large enough to swallow a man whole.

The prophet Jeremiah sits on the left side of the altar with his head bowed in anguished meditation. Known as the “weeping prophet”, Jeremiah was called by God to proclaim Jerusalem’s coming destruction. According to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah wrote the Book of Jeremiah, the Books of Kings and the Book of Lamentations. The latter is a collection of his laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Michelangelo captures Jeremiah’s emotional pain and reflects the same emotions in the two figures standing behind the prophet. It is suggested that Jeremiah is a self-portrait of Michelangelo lamenting his fate as a painter when he would rather earn a reputation as a sculptor.

Michelangelo depicts the prophet Ezekiel as an elderly man. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, but he also spoke of the restoration of the land of Israel. The figure of Ezekiel twists in his seat to look at a smaller figure, who is pointing upwards, either towards God or at the painting of the fall of man. Art historians suggest Ezekiel’s open hand demonstrates his amazement and readiness to receive a message from God.

Joel is also represented as an elderly man. The prophet is only mentioned once by name in the Hebrew Bible, in the introduction to the Book of Joel. No one knows for sure when Joel lived and what events he witnessed. In his writings, Joel told people to repent of their sins and promised their safety on “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Michelangelo painted Joel with his brow furrowed as he concentrates on his words of wisdom. Some believe Michelangelo based the prophet’s face on the Italian architect Donato Bramante (1445-1514), who helped Michelangelo design the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.

Sitting above the entrance to the chapel is the prophet Zechariah, who proclaimed, “Behold, your King is coming to you … Lowly and riding on a donkey…”(Zechariah 9:9). This prophesied the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, which is celebrated annually on Palm Sunday. His position over the door is symbolic of the entrance the Pope enters in the Palm Sunday procession. Traditionally, Zechariah is portrayed as a young man, but Michelangelo chose to depict him in his old age. This helps to emphasise Zechariah’s profound prophetic abilities.

Isaiah is portrayed as a younger figure who has just been disturbed from his reading by two small figures. Each painting of the prophets features two figures that may represent the conveyors of God’s message. Isaiah foretold the death of the coming Messiah. Many of his prophecies are repeated in the New Testament, particularly concerning the death and resurrection of the “Suffering Servant”. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Even younger in appearance is Daniel, who spent many years working as a scribe for King Nebuchadnezzar (642-562 BC). The open book on Daniel’s lap may reference his career or allude to his ability to interpret dreams. Michelangelo used scrolls and books to highlight the prophets’ intellect, but Daniel is the only one who appears to be writing, as though recording his interpretations and prophecies for future generations. Unlike Jonah, whose famous encounter with a giant fish is documented in the painting, there is no reference to Daniel’s experience in the lion’s den, where he was thrown after disobeying the rule that forbade prayer.

Michelangelo included five Sibyls from classical mythology to emphasise the Messiah came for both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). The Persian Sibyl, also known as the Babylonian, Hebrew or Egyptian Sibyl, may have authored the Sibylline Oracle, although some scholars believe the Persian Sibil was more than one person. Michelangelo alluded to this theory by portraying the Sibyl with a book in her hands. The Sibylline Oracles contained information about pagan mythology and Old Testament events, including the Garden of Eden, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Fragments surviving from the 7th century AD also contain details about the Roman Empire and early Christian writings.

The Erythraean Sibyl came from modern-day Turkey, where she prophesied the coming of the Messiah through an acrostic, which read “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, Cross” in Greek. The Sibyl forecast other events in the life of Jesus, and St. Augustine (354-430), the bishop of Hippo, referenced her prophecies in his book The City of God. Michelangelo acknowledged the Sibyl’s wisdom by portraying her reading a book. He also depicted divine enlightenment by including a small figure lighting an oil lamp above her head.

The Delphic Sibyl looks up from her scroll with a slightly worried look upon her face, as though she has just envisioned an unpleasant future event. The Delphic Sibyl predated the Trojan War (11th century BC) and made several prophecies about events written about in classical mythology. She also foresaw that the Messiah would be mocked with a crown of thorns.

Michelangelo depicted the Cumaean Sibyl as an elderly lady. She presided over a Greek colony located near Naples, Italy. According to the poet Ovid, she lived for at least 1000 years. Ovid claimed the god Apollo offered her longevity in exchange for her virginity. She agreed, and taking a handful of sand, asked to live for as many years as the grains she held. Unfortunately, eternal youth did not come as part of the bargain. During her long life, the Cumaean Sibyl foretold the coming of a Messiah.

The Libyan Sibyl may not have mentioned Christ directly when presiding over the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert, but the Church has interpreted many of her prophesies as connected to the Messiah. For instance, she foretold the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.” The ancient Greeks claimed the Libyan Sibyl, sometimes known as Phemonoe, was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, and Lamia, a daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea. According to Plutarch (46-119 AD), she also told Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) that he was a divine individual and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.

In each corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a triangular pendentive depicting Biblical stories associated with the salvation of Israel. These are four examples of the more violent ways the People of Israel were saved from their enemies and sinful ways. One illustrated the story of The Brazen Serpent as told in Numbers 21:4–9. Moses had rescued the Israelites from Egypt, but it was a long journey to the Promised Land. They began to complain and turn against God, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” As punishment, God sent venomous snakes to attack and kill many of the Israelites. Michelangelo depicted the Israelites’ frantic battle with the serpents. In the background, he included an image of a bronze serpent on a pole. To save the Israelites’, God instructed Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” This spectacle, whilst violent, taught the Israelites to trust and obey Moses and the Lord.

Another pendentive illustrates three scenes from the Book of Esther. Rather than telling the story chronologically from left to right, Michelangelo placed the final scene in the middle of the triangle. Esther was the wife of a Persian king who did not know that she came from a Jewish background. The king’s chief vizier, Haman the Agagite, hated the Jews and proposed a massacre to rid Persia of all people of Jewish descent. Haman particularly hated Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, who refused to bow down to the vizier. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to have Mordecai hanged. This part of the narrative is illustrated on the righthand side of the painting. Mordecai begged Esther to intervene by talking to the king, which she is seen doing on the lefthand side. Realising Haman’s plan would also result in Esther’s death, the king hanged Haman instead, as shown in the centre of the pendentive. Thus, the people of Israel were saved from death.

Michelangelo’s painting of David and Goliath only illustrates one scene: Goliath’s death. David, an unlikely hero, defeated the giant warrior of the Philistine army with a slingshot, which ended the war between the Israelites and the Philistines. According to the Book of Samuel, chapter 17, after David knocked Goliath out, he “took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.” Michelangelo’s interpretation is slightly different, with Goliath trying to scramble to his feet while David methodically carries out his task in the name of the Lord. David appears much stronger than the little shepherd boy written about in the Bible and more like the powerful king he later became.

The fourth story comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith, which is not included in most Bibles. Judith was a Jewish woman living in Bethulia around 600 BC. At the time, the city was under attack by King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, led by the Assyrian general, Holofernes. To protect her city and the Israelites who lived there, Judith tricked her way into the enemy encampment where she seduced and intoxicated Holofernes. While he lay in a drunken stupor, Judith cut off his head. Michelangelo’s painting shows Judith and her maid carrying the severed head out of the tent where the headless body of Holofernes remains sprawled on the bed. Having lost their leader, the army dispersed, and the Israelites were saved.

In between the paintings of prophets and Sibyls are eight spandrels (triangular spaces) featuring small families. These are known collectively as the Ancestors of Christ. Whilst Michelangelo labelled each one with a name from the genealogy of Christ mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is not clear which figure in each artwork is the named individual. Some suggest the ancestor is the child because the scenes are reminiscent of paintings of the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The woman or mother in each spandrel is more noticeable than the man or father, which also reflects the order of importance within the Holy Family, at least within the Catholic faith.

It is generally accepted that both Jesus’ parents descended from King David, whose father was Jesse, also known as Ishai. Jesse is one of the eight ancestors Michelangelo chose to depict. Jesse was a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Another ancestor is Asa, the third King of Judah and the fifth king of the House of David, who ruled between 913 and 873 BC. Michelangelo also portrayed Asa’s father, Rehoboam, the grandson of King David. Rehoboam became king after the death of his father, King Solomon. He ruled between 932 and 915 BC, during which the kingdom was divided into northern and southern tribes.

Josiah became King of Judah in 640 BC at the age of eight following the assassination of his father, Amon. Josiah was killed in 609 BC during a battle against the Egyptians. According to 2 Chronicles 35:25, the prophet Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, although there is no mention of the king in the Book of Lamentations. There are other connections between Jesus’ ancestors and the prophets, such as Ezechias, also known as Hezekiah, who often consulted the prophet Isaiah for advice. During Ezechias’ reign as King of Judah between 752 and 687 BC, he witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BC) and the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, the king of the Neo-Assyrians (701 BC).

Jeremiah stated that no offspring of “Coniah” would sit on the throne of Judah. Scholars assume the prophet meant King Jeconiah, who was taken into captivity in Babylon. His grandson, Zerubbabel was one of the first Jews who returned from this exile and began rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Michelangelo may have chosen to depict Zerubbabel because the Sistine Chapel bore a resemblance to the Temple in size and dimensions. The other two ancestors Michelangelo chose were Uzziah and Salmon. Uzziah was the tenth king of Judah who often sought the advice of the prophet Zechariah. Salmon, on the other hand, was the great-great-grandfather of David. He was the father of Boaz and potentially the husband of Rahab, who famously assisted the Israelites in capturing the city of Jericho.

Twenty-five years after completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a reluctant Michelangelo returned to paint the altar wall. He began painting in 1536, by which time Michelangelo was in his early sixties. Despite his age, Michelangelo spent five years painting 390 individual figures to depict the last judgement and second coming of Christ. According to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, Christ will appear and judge the living and dead. The “chosen” people will enter heaven to live eternally with God, and the sinners will be sent to the fires of Hell.

In the centre of the fresco is Christ, whose crucifixion wounds are still visible. His face is turned towards the damned, who are destined for Hell. His mother, the Virgin Mary, stands on his right with her face turned towards the Saved. Positioned around Christ are some of His disciples, such as Peter, who holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Opposite Peter is John the Baptist, recognised by his animal skin cape.

Some of the disciples are recognisable from their attributes or deaths. Saint Thomas, for instance, holds a carpenter’s square, referencing his profession. Saint Bartholomew, on the other hand, holds his old skin, alluding to being skinned alive. Some believe the face on the skin is a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo included a group of angels on clouds. Seven are blowing trumpets, as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Other angels hold books in which to record the names of the Saved and Damned. Rather than depicting Satan, Michelangelo turned to Classical mythology for his representation of Hell. Charon, the ferryman of Hades, transports the Damned across the river to Hell, where they are received by King Minos, a judge of the Underworld.

In the bottom left corner, the resurrected dead arise from their graves and float up towards the angels and Heaven. Some of the Damned struggle against the devils who pull them towards Hell and others are paralyzed with horror.

On completion, Catholics were divided over the suitability of the painting. Whilst The Last Judgement often appeared in churches, it was unusual to see it over the altar. Others took offence at the nudity of the figures and accused Michelangelo of being insensitive to proper decorum. The Vatican council quickly hired the Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra (1509-66) to paint discrete drapery over the exposed genitalia. These additions were added after the original paint had dried, so fifteen of them were easy to remove during restoration work between 1990 and 1994. Today, the fresco is a combination of Michelangelo’s intended design and Volterra’s alterations.

Whilst it is no replacement for the real thing, the Sistine Chapel exhibition allows people to look at each section of the ceiling in detail and learn about the history and Biblical significance of each figure and scene. At a time when travel is uncertain due to COVID-19, the exhibition brings the Sistine Chapel to those who cannot visit the Vatican. London is one of the first cities to host Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition and Londoners only have until 2nd January 2022 to visit before it jets off to another location around the world. Cities currently on the waiting list include Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Sydney, Singapore, New York and São Paulo. Book now to avoid disappointment.

Tickets are available online starting at £11 per adult and £8 per child. Whilst it is open to children, some paintings contain nudity which may be unsuitable for younger visitors.


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Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

1024px-indus_civilisation_seal_unicorn_at_indian_museum_kolkata

Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song

Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

NPG 212; William Blake by Thomas Phillips

William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

For years, Tate Britain has had a small room dedicated to the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Now until 2nd February 2020, Tate Britain is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation. Detailing his life chronologically, 300 original works illustrate Blake’s talents, personal struggles, innovation and vision.

Blake’s art and poetry continue to influence and inspire many people regardless of profession, religion and nationality. Although produced during a period of unrest involving war, the British Empire and industrialisation, Blake’s work resonates with the present world and the struggles people face today.

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Portrait of William Blake, 1802

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, London, the third of seven children to James and Catherine (née Wright). His father, a hosier, and mother thoroughly encouraged Blake’s aspiration to become an artist. Although he attended school long enough to learn to read and write, he was educated from home by his mother after the age of ten. The Bible was an important aspect of his studies, which remained a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.

Blake was encouraged to practise his drawing ability by producing engravings of well-known artworks for his father. Alongside this, he attended classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand and explored the art of poetry, reading works by Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Edmund Spencer (1552-99) as well as the Book of Psalms. In August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire (1730-1802), a significant British engraver, for seven years. By the age of 21, Blake was working as a professional.

In 1779, Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was situated in Old Somerset House. He may have attended with one of his brothers, Robert, whose illustrations are briefly featured in the exhibition. The Royal Academy taught its students to draw by studying and copying classical sculptures, prints, live models and paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Blake, on the other hand, rejected these teachings, preferring to use artworks by classical artists, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).

Despite rebelling against the traditional teaching methods, Blake participated in six exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, since he did not conform to the typical oil paint-format the Academy expected, Blake’s watercolours were often consigned to a smaller room.

Students were encouraged to paint serious subject matters, often resulting in portraits and landscapes. Blake, on the other hand, chose to focus on Biblical stories, for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Written in the Book of Genesis, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The series of events that follow result in Joseph having significant authority in the land of Egypt and, during a famine, his brothers end up begging him for help.

Blake produced three watercolours that express the latter part of the story of Joseph. In the first, the brothers, unaware who Joseph is, bow down before him, pleading for help to survive the famine. The second, Joseph Ordering Simeon to be bound, shows one of Joseph’s older brothers willingly being arrested for a crime he did not commit to spare the life of another brother. Noting that the attitudes of his brothers have changed since they sold him into slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity and welcomes his brothers with open arms, as shown in Blake’s third painting.

Similar to his Joseph paintings, Blake’s early work typically involved sweeping lines of ink or watercolour, revealing dainty characters full of grand gestures. These tended to have a strong visual impact, evoking emotion and communicating a message or story. Subjects were often drawn from Bible passages, although not necessary the well-known ones, and other literature, such as Shakespeare. As time went on, however, Blake’s works became more obscure and harder to decipher.

Shortly after Blake’s time at the Royal Academy, he met Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), the daughter of a market gardener in Battersea on the south side of the River Thames. At the time, Blake was suffering from a rejection of a previous attempt at love and Catherine proved to be a good ear to listen to his tales of heartbreak. This led to the pair falling in love and marrying on 18th August 1782 in St Mary’s Church in southwest London. The couple had a long, invaluable marriage with Catherine helping her husband to print some of his later works and Blake teaching his wife to read and write.

As well as illustrating existing stories, Blake began to write and illustrate his own, for example, the epic poem Tiriel, although this was never published. Blake borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and Gaelic stories to pen the narrative of an aged king, Tiriel, who had been exiled from his land. In the past, Tiriel enslaved one of his brothers and cursed his children and now seeks solace from his misrule and arrogance. Frail and blind, Tiriel tries and fails to make amends for what he has done, thus receiving his comeuppance for his acts of tyranny.

The illustrations Blake produced to accompany the poem Tiriel were engravings rather than paintings. Having trained as an engraver before joining the Royal Academy, Blake found this technique a preferable way of earning an income. Engravings involved copying or drawing an image with fine cuts onto a metal plate, which could then be inked, printed and reproduced several times. This was a technique Blake used for many commissions, such as those delivered to the print shop he temporarily opened with his friend James Parker in 1784. He also worked for a range of London publishers, including the radical Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published works by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) amongst other feminists and religious dissenters.

Etching and engraving were time-consuming and limited, which Blake found frustrating. In 1788, Blake developed what he termed “relief etching”, which allowed him to print in colour and combine text and images. Over time, Blake printed numerous books in this manner, many of which he had written himself and continue to be some of his most famous work. This style of engraving combined “both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was also a cheap and efficient method of printing, although the stories and poetry the illustrations accompanied often baffled Blake’s readers and supporters.

From 1790 to 1800, Blake and Catherine lived in North Lambeth, less than twenty minutes from his childhood home. Although the property has been demolished, a nearby tunnel of Waterloo Station is decorated with a series of 70 mosaics resembling illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books. These books reflect Blake’s thoughts during a turbulent time in Britain. Both French and American revolutions occurred during Blake’s lifetime, leading him to become vocal about freedom and liberty, and argue against slavery and the empire.

Despite his strong views, Blake was rather cryptic in how he portrayed his thoughts in his poetry and illustrations. Had his views been expressed more clearly, Blake would have been at risk of arrest, however, his symbolism was too obscure to attract the attention of the authorities.

Tate Britain displays a range of examples from Blake’s radical illuminated books including Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which condemns forced marriage and defends the rights of women. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell expressed Blake’s revolutionary beliefs using biblical prophecy as a basis. Rather than Hell being a place of punishment, Blake depicts it as a place of chaos and irrationality.

Blake also created his own mythology, for instance, The Book of Urizen, from which his recognisable illustration The Ancient of Days comes. Urizen, depicted as a bearded old man, is the personification of reason and law. Considering himself to be god-like and holy, Urizen traps people in webs of law and conventional society. He is often shown with some form of architectural tool, such as a compass, with which he creates his universe. Urizen’s only opposition is Los, who can be likened to a fallen angel, representing imagination. Blake’s myth is almost a reversal of Christian beliefs, with Urizen serving as a Satanic force.

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Little Girl Lost – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Amongst all the books represented in the exhibition is one of his most well-known works Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the famous poem The Tyger. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…” Published in 1794, the book of poems is a combination of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793). Although the illustrations are suggestive of children’s books and the poems deal with themes of childhood, they also tackle morality, suffering and injustice, which are topics usually deemed unsuitable for that demographic.

Although Songs of Innocence and Experience is famous today, Blake only sold about 30 copies during his lifetime. For income, he relied heavily upon commissions and patronage, including fellow artists. John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and draughtsman Blake met at the Royal Academy. Flaxman supported Blake’s publication of Poetical Sketches in 1783 and his wife, Ann, commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-71).

A civil servant, Thomas Butts was one of Blake’s biggest patrons, purchasing over 200 different works. Many of these were watercolours on biblical themes. Whilst typical scenes involving Jesus, the crucifixion and well-known Old and New Testament characters were popular, Butts was also interested in Blake’s more imaginative works, representing the prophecies of Ezekiel or the Book of Revelation.

The Reverend Joseph Thomas (1765-1811) of Epsom, Surrey was another keen purchaser of Blake’s biblical work. He was also interested in the works of Shakespeare and John Milton and commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for various plays and poems. For Milton’s hymn On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Thomas paid Blake two pounds for each drawing – a total of six – which was more than Butts paid for individual watercolours.

Thomas Butts also purchased a series of large coloured prints that Blake produced by experimenting with monotype. This involved using thick, tacky ink on the metal etching plates, which was then transferred onto paper by applying pressure. Once printed, Blake added watercolour and ink washes to finish the illustration. This gave the prints the initial appearance of a painting, however, many elements are impossible to achieve by hand.

The twelve large prints included in the exhibition relate to a range of themes. As usual, Blake depicted biblical scenes, for example, the madness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose humiliating suffering was predicted in the Book of Daniel. Blake produced an illustration of God judging Adam, whereas most artists focus on Eve’s sin. Other biblical images include Lamech and his Two Wives and Noami Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab.

Amongst the prints is a portrayal of the famous English mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), albeit a rather young and muscular one. Unlike the older figure most people imagine when thinking of Newton, Blake drew Newton as a Michelangelo-esque character crouched naked on a rock. The figure’s attention is fully focused on a piece of parchment at his feet on which he draws a diagram with a compass.

Blake chose to illustrate Newton as a reproach rather than praise. The artist was critical of Newton’s scientific approach, which followed precise rules rather than taking in the bigger picture. The figure’s focus on the compass represent’s Newton’s methods, which makes him oblivious to the beauty in the colour of the rocks on which he is sitting.

In 1800, Blake and his wife moved to a cottage in Felpham, (West) Sussex, where he illustrated works for the poet William Hayley (1745-1820) until 1804. Hayley is best known for his biography of his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) whose work was among the poems Hayley wished Blake to illustrate. Mostly, however, Hayley expected Blake to produce miniature portraits, which was something Blake was not keen on due to the lack of inventiveness.

Hayley had recently established a new library in The Turret, his house in Felpham, and commissioned Blake to produce long canvases to decorate the room. Each canvas represented a famous poet, including William Cowper. In the centre, Blake reproduced a likeness of the poets based on existing portraits and engravings and used the remains of the canvas to be more creative. Other poets included William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) and Edmund Spenser (1552-99).

As time went on, Blake began to resent Hayley, who he believed did not appreciate art. Fortunately, Hayley was still on Blake’s side and able to bail him out when he was arrested following a physical altercation with a soldier. After his acquittal, Blake returned to London.

In 1806, Blake began planning pictures for Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of 24 short stories written by the “father of English literature”. Mostly written in verse like Blake’s own work, the tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-70). Blake envisioned a frieze-like composition, which he completed in 1808 and published as an etching in 1810.

Unfortunately, Blake could not enjoy his work on The Canterbury Tales because he felt he was competing against two friends who were also producing work for the same book. He felt betrayed by these friends, believing that their work would overshadow his artistic vision. He claimed his so-called friends were more interested in making money than producing great art.

Around the same time, Blake was working on illustrations for the 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s (1699-1746) poem The Grave. The commission came from the newly established publisher Robert Cromek (1770-1812), and not wanting to let Cromek’s new career flounder, Blake took the project very seriously.

Blake was attracted to the poem’s themes of death and the afterlife, which were often topics of his own writings. He quickly produced twenty drawings for Cromek, which the publisher began to promote widely in public places, touring London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst this gave Blake the attention he deserved, he felt betrayed when Cromek employed someone else to print the illustrations.

The disappointments and supposed betrayals of the early 1800s led Blake to break contact with some of his friends and set up an independent exhibition in 1809. Using the upper rooms of his childhood home, now belonging to his brother James who used the lower rooms for his hosiery shop, Blake displayed several of his paintings, which were accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue. It was a rather strange location for an exhibition – rather modest in comparison to Blake’s gigantic ambitions – and only a handful of visitors attended. In the only public review written about the exhibition, Blake was branded “an unfortunate lunatic”.

Tate Britain excels itself by recreating one of the rooms in the Blake family home, complete with fake flooring, ceiling, windows and walls, upon which a handful of paintings are hung. Many of Blake’s original paintings have been damaged over time, losing their colour and becoming dark and difficult to decipher. Every 20 minutes, two of the paintings are illuminated to appear as they would have done in 1809 and a disembodied voice reads out Blake’s words from the Descriptive Catalogue.

“The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age.”

Blake’s solo exhibition took place during a period of war and upheaval. Although his paintings appear to be disconnected from politics, featuring allegorical and spiritual elements, they are full of hidden meaning. Two paintings are based on national figures who had both led Britain in the war against France. These figures, the late Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) and naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), are shown alongside biblical monsters, bringing chaos and destruction to the world. Blake likens these heroes to mythological and biblical characters, for instance, Hercules and cherubim. Although the paintings are representing destruction, Blake is hinting at the potential new freedoms and spiritual rebirth that could follow.

In the next room, a projection shows close up details of these two paintings. He had once dreamt that they would be executed on a large scale and displayed on public walls. After the failure of his solo exhibition, Blake knew this dream would never come to fruition and became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. Tate Britain tries to do Blake’s aspirations justice by showing the paintings at such a large scale.

Having withdrawn from society for a few years, Blake returned with a burst of creativity for the final decade of his life. In 1818, he met the artist John Linnell who provided him with moral and material support. During this time, Blake produced relief-etchings for new and old books for a variety of purchasers, including engravings for the Book of Job.

Throughout his life, Blake reportedly had visions of spirits with whom he conversed. Encouraged by a friend, Blake began to draw these spirits for a series he titled “Visionary Heads”. Over six years, Blake drew more than a hundred of these vision, often attending séance-like sessions to study the details of these characters. Whilst, on the one hand, some people believed in Blake’s visions, others debated whether they were real or a sign of mental ill-health.

One of Blake’s most bizarre characters was The Ghost of a Flea. Depicted as a muscular, nude figure – part-man, part-vampire, part-reptile – the Flea is using its tongue to drink out of a bowl of blood. In its left hand is a thorn and acorn, which are typical icons of fairies and similar mythical characters. Whether or not Blake saw this figure, his painting magnified a flea, which is usually associated with uncleanliness, into a monstrous, bloodthirsty creature.

As well as his personal monsters, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to illustrate the creatures in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem, which describes a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, leant itself to Blake’s typical style of illustration and preference of theme. Blake used dark, menacing colours to illustrate the depths of Hell, contrasting it with the luminous shades of Paradise.

Although he intended to illustrate the poem in its entirety, Blake passed away before he could finish. Another unfinished work was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was a popular religious text during Blake’s lifetime. Again, it suited Blake’s style, dealing with the realms of dreams, destruction, sins and heaven.

Before Blake’s death in 1827, he managed to complete and illustrate one final epic poem, which is probably his best-known work today. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is the longest of Blake’s prophetic books and tells the story of the fall of Albion – Blake’s personification of Britain and the western world. The narrative, however, can be confusing and does not have a linear plot.

Jerusalem is not to be confused with the famous hymn of the same name with music written by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), which was used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1917. Although Blake wrote the words of this hymn, it comes from the preface of his epic poem Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

Blake’s magnum opus, on the other hand, is a 4500 lined poem that his first biographer called “a chaos of words, names and images.” Albion (England) has been infected by “soul disease” and her “mountains run with blood” as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Religion is being used to exploit the lower classes and those in charge of the country are full of greed. If Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem once more, then all humanity will survive and be bound together in love.

Jerusalem, like some of Blake’s previous works, summed up his philosophical thoughts, particularly concerning the Age of Enlightenment, which dominated Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment focuses on ideals of rationalism and empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes from experience), which went against Blake’s beliefs that imagination was the most important human element. Previous paintings showed that Blake was opposed to the Newtonian view of the universe and unimpressed by the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Royal Academy who looked at art with a “vegetative eye”. Jerusalem was Blake’s final attempt at expressing his strong views.

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”
– Excerpt from Jerusalem

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William Blake Wearing a Hat – John Linnell

Blake spent his final years living with his wife at Fountain Court off the Strand, near to where the Savoy Hotel is situated today. It is reported that on 12th August 1827 Blake was working on his Dante series when he stopped, turned to his wife and insisted he drew her portrait. Afterwards, he sang hymns and recited verses of poetry until 6 pm when, after promising Catherine he would always be with her, he died. Five days later, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Catherine buried her husband in Bunhill Fields, the same burial ground as his parents.

Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work until her death in October 1831 when an acquaintance took up the job. Although only a mere handful of his works sold during his lifetime, William Blake became posthumously famous and in 1949, the Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour. He is also recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and, in 1957, a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey for both him and his wife.

William Blake is the type of figure whose name is recognised worldwide and yet very few know much about him. His name is associated with various titles of books and poems but knowledge of his private life is less common. Tate Britain rectifies this by providing a chronological timeline of Blake’s life alongside his works. We learn who he was, how he lived, how he thought and what he believed. Although many will disagree with his philosophies and controversial ideas, Blake is an interesting character who is worth knowing about.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is open until 2nd February 2020. Prices are £18 for adults, £17 for concessions and £5 for 12-18 years olds. Whilst under 12s may visit for free when accompanied by an adult, some of Blake’s work is unsuitable for younger children.


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Jewish Britain

Founded in 1932 by Professor Cecil Roth (1899-1970), Alfred Rubens (1903-98) and Wilfred Samuel (1886-1958), The Jewish Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Judaica. Featuring objects from all areas of Jewish life, the museum in Camden, London explores the public and private lives of communities throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. With both temporary and permanent exhibitions, the museum focuses on Jewish traditions and ceremonies, and the history of Jewish life in Britain: Judaism: A Living Faith and Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects.

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Mikveh

Before visitors reach either of the two main galleries, they are introduced to the oldest exhibit in the museum. Built into the floor is a mid-13th-century mikveh, which had been discovered by archaeologists on a London building site in 2001. A mikveh is a type of bath used for ritual cleansing as part of many ceremonies and Jewish traditions. For instance, in Judaism, menstruation is regarded as unclean, therefore, women must visit the mikvah once a month. Men, on the other hand, can have a ritual cleansing before holy occasions, e.g. the Sabbath or an annual festival. The bath is also used prior to marriage, after childbirth and as the closing stage of converting to Judaism.

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world that is still practised today. The religion can be traced back over 4000 years, as far as the biblical land of Israel. Jewish societies consider themselves to be descendants of Abraham, who established the belief in one God – a belief now shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As recorded in the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon (c.990-c.931 BCE) built the First Temple in Jerusalem in approximately 960 BCE, which became a religious centre for Jewish people. Centuries later in 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into captivity. For the first time, the Jews were moved out of Israel.

Eventually, the Jewish population returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, however, it resulted in a similar fate. In 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans who were in power at the time, resulting in many Jews fleeing the land of Israel in search of safe homes elsewhere. Thus, Judaism began to spread around the world.

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The main teachings of Judaism can be found in the Torah, the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Bible: Genesis (Bəreshit), Exodus (Shəmot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bəmidbar), and Deuteronomy (Dəvarim). These contain 613 commandments that form the basis of the religion. Although Jewish customs have altered over time as they spread themselves out over the world, all Jewish communities use the Hebrew language of the Torah during prayers and celebrations.

On entering Judaism: A Living Faith gallery, visitors come face to face with a Torah scroll attached to 19th-century silver rollers. Scrolls such as these are the most precious object within any Jewish community and are used regularly during services in the synagogue. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the parchment scroll reads from right to left and would have been written by a scribe with a special quill and ink. After production, the scroll is considered to be holy and must not be touched with bare hands. In order to help people read the tiny script, they may use a yad (pointer) to keep their place.

The Jewish Museum owns a large number of Jewish objects from various locations and centuries, however, many of them are used for the same purposes despite the variation in their design. Take, for example, the ornaments that decorate the tops of the Torah rollers. These rimmonim, which literally means pomegranates, are all styled to resemble the fruit. Pomegranates are an important symbol in Judaism due to the misconception in rabbinic tradition that the fruit contains 613 seeds – the same number of commandments. Despite being inspired by the pomegranate, the designers have interpreted this in unique, contrasting ways. Whilst a 19th-century rimmonim from North Africa may be made of wood and decorated with paint, another may be silver and contain a number of bells.

Other objects of various design include spice containers and kiddush cups. Spices, which are used during ceremonies on the Sabbath, are kept in special, decorative containers that are shaped to resemble towers, often inspired by local architecture. An example from Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany contains illustrations and gems as well as elaborate silver metal work. Similarly, the kiddush cups are also used on the Sabbath and are usually made from silver. An example from 19th-century England, however, was made from the shell of a coconut and carved with biblical scenes and Hebrew verses.

The life of an Observant Jew involves praying three times a day, including the Shema, the most important prayer. In order to say the Shema, which takes place in the morning and evening, a tzitzit (tassels) and tefillin (small boxes) must be worn, and a mezuzah (decorative scroll case) attached to the doorpost. These are items that remind the Jews of God’s presence and examples can be found in the museum.

When a male child is born, he is circumcised at eight days old and named during the ceremony. Baby girls, however, are given their names during a ceremony at the synagogue. The children are brought up to follow strict Jewish rules, for instance, only eating food that is kosher (fit to eat) and to attend the synagogue for the main Sabbath service on a Saturday morning. Later, at the age of thirteen, boys celebrate their barmitzvah (son of the commandment) and, at twelve, girls become batmitzvah. After these ceremonies, they are considered adults and, therefore, are expected to take responsibility for their own faiths.

Marriage ceremonies must also be performed as written in Jewish law. Wedding ceremonies take place under a huppah (canopy), a sheet supported by four poles, and the ketubah (“written thing”; marriage contract) is read and signed. This outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom in relation to his bride.

Even with death, rules must be followed precisely. The body must be buried as soon as possible – cremation is a big no-no because the body is the “temple of the soul” – and relations must remain at home for a mourning period of seven days (shiva). Due to Jewish customs, the dead are never forgotten. Every year on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) a memorial prayer is said and a candle is lit.

The main Jewish community centre in the synagogue is where not only prayer and worship occur, but education, celebrations and social events too. Originally based on the Temple in Jerusalem, the architectural appearances of synagogues have altered over time and vary from place to place, however, some things remain consistent. In Britain, synagogues should be built facing east towards Jerusalem and it is forbidden to display images of God within the building.

Another common feature is an Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls, and a ner tamid (eternal light), which hangs above it. The Jewish Museum owns a beautiful example of 17th-century Ark that is believed to have come from a synagogue in Venice. Made from walnut, it is decorated with marbled paintwork and Jewish symbols. A Hebrew inscription at the top reads, “Know before whom you stand.”

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A model of the interior of a synagogue helps visitors visualise Jewish services. This exhibit is child-friendly and people are encouraged to find the Ark, the ner tamid and the bimah (a desk that the Torah scrolls are read from).

Within Judaism, there are different religious groups who follow a mix of traditions. In Orthodox synagogues, the rules are strict: men and women are not allowed to sit together and may be separated by a mechitza (screen); the rabbi is always male. In Reform and Liberal synagogues, however, people are free to sit wherever they choose and, in some instances, the rabbi is female.

Whilst it is the centre of Jewish religion, not all worship takes place in the synagogue. According to the Hebrew Bible, God created the world in six days and “on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2 NIV). The Jews call the seventh day Shabbat (the Sabbath) and believe it is a time of rest for everyone. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating what he had done.” (Genesis 2:3 NIV)

The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday night. During this time, families and friends come together to relax and pray, often sharing a meal. The museum has set up a table with important objects and place settings so that non-Jewish visitors can get a sense of the peaceful atmosphere that is felt during this time of worship.

As with any religion, there are several Jewish festivals throughout the year. Most of them, at least by name, will be familiar to visitors, however, what they involve and the objects used may not. In the winter, while the majority of the world is preparing for Christmas – a holiday Observant Jews do not partake – Jewish societies are celebrating Hanukah, the winter festival of light. This festival observes the spiritual survival of the Jews under Syrian Greek rule in 165 BCE. Jewish practices were banned and the Greeks began worshipping their own idols in the Temple. In retaliation, a group of Jewish rebel warriors known as the Maccabees fought back and reclaimed the Temple. Naturally, much of the Temple had been damaged, however, the Maccabees were able to find enough oil to keep the menorah (candelabrum) alight for one day. Yet the menorah did not burn out as expected; it lasted for eight days by which time more oil had been sourced.

The Jews remember this miracle by celebrating an eight-day annual festival, which involves candle lighting and prayers every evening. Hanukah lamps, similar in style to the seven-branched menorah in the synagogue, have eight candles to represent the eight days the Maccabee’s menorah stayed alight. Also at this time, children receive gifts and everyone feasts on oily food, for instance, doughnuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes).

In the early spring, the Jewish celebrate Purim in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue followed by fancy dress parties, plays and plenty of food and drink.

One of the most important Jewish festivals of the year is Pesach (Passover), which celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery, as told in the Book of Exodus. The well-known story recounts the experience of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt then, after God sent ten plagues to persuade Pharaoh to free them, were led across the Red Sea by the prophet Moses. The Torah states that this story must be told to each generation, therefore, an eight-day festival is given annually for this purpose. During this time, people eat matzah, a form of unleavened bread, as a reminder of the flatbread the Israelites ate on their journey out of Egypt. During this period, leavened bread (hametz) or any food containing yeast is forbidden.

The history of Jews in Britain begins in roughly 1066 following the Norman invasion, which put William the Conqueror (1028-87) on the throne. The largest Jewish community settled in London, however, the law forbade them from owning land. Many Jews became moneylenders, which was a position that was forbidden to Christians at the time. Despite this, a Jewish name, Manasses, appears in the Domesday Book, a land survey commissioned in 1086.

More Jews arrived in England after the first Crusade, which took place between 1095 and 1099. This was the first attempt by Christians to reclaim the Holy Land. As a result, the Jewish community in London grew and by 1130, the Great Synagogue was founded in the Jewish quarter of London. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jewish population and in 1144 the first European blood libel occurred in Norwich. By 1190, Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity, however, many decided to commit suicide instead.

Despite King John (1166-1216) granting Jews the right to live in England, he made their lives difficult by imposing huge taxes on their communities. In 1218, Henry III (1207-72) ordered that all Jews should wear a badge (sound familiar?) and attempted to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. Then, in 1278, hundreds of Jews were accused of coin clipping resulting in the execution of more than 200 people.

By 1290, Edward I (1239-1307) had decreed that all Jews should leave England and have all their property confiscated. Nonetheless, there were still Jews in the country by the time the Tudor monarchs were on the throne. In fact, Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) most trusted physician was Rodrigo Lopez (1517-94), a Portuguese Jew (although he had converted to Catholicism). Unfortunately, he was later accused of treason and hung, drawn and quartered in 1594, an execution that was witnessed by a massive crowd who mocked him for being a Jew. It is believed that Lopez was Shakespeare‘s inspiration for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

It was not until 1656, with England being ruled by parliament, that Jews began to be welcomed back by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), although more for economic reasons than anything else. Nonetheless, the Jewish community once again began to grow, first with an influx of Sephardim Jews (from Spain and Portugal), shortly followed by Ashkenazim Jews (from Germany and Poland).

The end of the 18th-century saw Jews spread over all areas of society. They were particularly popular within the theatres as both performers and managers. Plays were often performed in Yiddish, a language spoken by most Central and Eastern European Jews. Plays ranged from comedies to tragedies, featuring folk tales, stories based on true life and adaptations of Shakespeare. The museum has a number of theatre posters on display as well as the opportunity to dress up in some of the clothing worn at the time, including a top hat.

Of course, Jews still faced discrimination, as did anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. In 1753, the “Jew Bill” allowing Jewish immigrants to become British subjects was repealed due to public outcry, however, protests during the 19th-century changed this. By 1874, Britain had its first Jewish-born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), although he had converted to Christianity as a child.

Although Jews were finding acceptance in Britain, they were not so lucky in other European countries. In Russia and Poland, Jews were severely restricted in terms of occupation and housing, therefore, many were living in poverty. Due to the violence targetted at them, over two million Jews left their homes to seek a better life, 150,000 of whom arrived on British soil.

Those who already had relatives in Britain were able to move in with their families, however, the majority of the migrants were complete strangers, starving and penniless. As a result, the Jew’s Temporary Shelter was set up in London to provide food and a safe shelter for the immigrants whilst they searched for jobs and homes. The museum has an example of a deed box that Jews were invited to place their valuables for safekeeping.

The Jewish Museum explains how the new arrivals gradually began to fit into British society. Jewish schools and hospitals were set up as well as synagogues, which helped to make the Jews feel more at home in this foreign country. By the outbreak of World War One, the Jewish communities were as patriotic as the rest of the country and as many as 50,000 Jews served within the British armed forces.

War is difficult for everyone, but the Jews who joined the British ranks had another challenge on their hands. Britain was on the same side as Russia, the country many Jews had fled from. This caused friction within Jewish communities, however, the soldiers were welcomed back as heroes. Some of the Jews who fought in the war also received the Victoria Cross for their gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

The 1930s brought more European Jews to England due to the growing power of Nazism in Germany. 10,000 children arrived via Kindertransport, which the Museum had a temporary exhibition about at the beginning of the year (2019). As everyone should know, thousands of Jews lost their lives in Nazi Germany due to the policies of party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Holocaust caused the death of 6 million European Jews and it is estimated that in total, 17,000 million people fell victim to the Second World War. A survivor’s account of his time in a concentration camp is the main focus of a small exhibition within the museum.

“We are all human beings, whatever colour or race we are, everybody deserves respect.”
Ann Kirk, Kindertransport refugee

The Jewish Museum may not be on many people’s radar, however, it is an important museum to have in London. Non-religious people tend to shy away from things labelled “Jewish”, not due to discrimination, but because they think it is something only for Jewish people. This museum, however, is for everyone. It provides an eye-opening history of the Jewish religion as well as a shocking record of Jewish life in Britain. Whilst the Holocaust plays a large part in Jewish history, there is so much prior to that of which the majority of the British population will be unaware. There is information in this Museum that will never be taught in schools. After all, it is the winners that write the history books and the Jewish rarely were.

The Jewish Museum can be found in the heart of Camden Town, a mere 3 minutes walk from the underground station in Raymond Burton House, Albert Street. Opening hours are between 10am and 5pm on weekdays, except Friday, which closes at 2pm ready for the Jewish Sabbath. The entry fee is £7.50 for adults, £5.50 concessions and £3.50 for children between the ages of 5 and 16.

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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

It is not often that people of the past are able to tell their story in their own words, however, thanks to over 180 surviving treasures, predominantly of a written nature, the people of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms narrate their history in an exhibition at the British Library. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War explores over 600 years through surviving books and remarkable finds from excavations around the country. Although many items have not survived the passing of time, beautifully illuminated manuscripts illustrate the ways of life, wars, religions and the beginnings of the English language.

The Anglo-Saxons were migrants from Northern Europe who arrived in England during the 5th and 6th centuries. These Germanic-speaking people arrived in stages and are now combined into three groups: the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. The term “Anglo-Saxon” did not actually appear until the late 8th century when the bishop of Ostia, travelled to England to attend a church meeting, reporting back to the Pope that he had been to ‘Angul Saxnia’.

 

 

The exhibition begins with two of the earliest remnants of the early settlers of the 5th century. Rather than exposing the way they lived, it explains how they dealt with their dead. Referred to as a Spong Man, an anthropomorphic urn lid reveals that cremation was their predominant custom for disposing of bodies, as does the cremation urn displayed beside it. Found during excavations at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, Spong Man is one of many pieces of pottery from the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. The urn, however, was one of over 1800 found in an early medieval cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire. It is believed that some of the runes carved into the surface spell out a female name, however, it is unknown as to whether this was a woman of high status. Also, it cannot be sure that the Spong Man indicates the wealth or importance of the owner.

It is likely that these cremation objects would have been a part of a pagan ceremony. Although the Romans had introduced Christianity to England prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the new settlers brought their pagan gods with them, for example, Woden, who may be synonymous with the chief Norse god Odin. Christianity returned to Britain in the 7th century with missionaries from Rome visiting with the intention of converting kings. England was made up of several smaller kingdoms and it is believed that King Æthelberht of Kent was the first to be converted.

 

 

The British Library displays some of the oldest, handwritten documents in existence, including the earliest letter sent from England and the earliest English charter. In the beginning rooms of the exhibition, however, the majority of the documents and manuscripts are religious. Along with Christianity came religious books, which were copied numerous times, each area having its own version. To begin with, only the Gospels were copied, which, although there are only four, would have taken a long time to write out by hand. On display are the St Augustine Gospels, the earliest Durham Gospel Book, the Echternach Gospels, the St Chad Gospels, the Bury Gospels, the Trinity Gospels and the Grimbald Gospels, to name a few.

All of these Gospels are rare and it is lucky that they have survived as far as the 21st century. Many have been lost during wars and invasions or during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Others have been destroyed by fire, for example, during the Cotton Library fire in 1731 once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631), to whom the British Library collection is indebted. In some instances, parts of books were salvaged, as can be seen in the exhibition, although rather singed at the edges.

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s library was the richest private collection of manuscripts ever accumulated, surpassing even the Royal Library. One of the most well-known treasures in his collection, at least by name, was the Lindisfarne Gospels, now owned by the British Library. It is believed that these were the first English translation of the Gospels and remain to be the most spectacular manuscript to survive. It is believed that they were written and illustrated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, off the northeast coast of England between 698-721 AD. It contains all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; as well as other traditional sections included in medieval texts, such as letters of St Jerome. As well as being an example of Anglo-Saxon religious texts, it is a phenomenal work of art with numerous illuminations, illustrations and coloured patterns on every page.

Another notable manuscript that may hail from Lindisfarne is the St Cuthbert Gospel. This was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert (d. 687) the bishop of Lindisfarne when it was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. It is the oldest European book with its original binding intact and is thought to have been produced during the 8th century. Containing only the Gospel of St John, the small book has a wooden cover wrapped in red goats skin, decorated with a geometric pattern. In the centre of the front cover, a motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice, which mirrors Mediterranean Christian imagery, represents the well-known verse “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5)

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Codex Amiatinus

Of all the religious texts in the exhibition, there is none as impressive as the Codex Amiatinus. This is the first complete Bible to be written in Latin, containing both the Old and New Testaments. Originally, three were produced in the early 8th century but only one survives in full.

Those who see the Codex Amiatinus on display at the British Library will be impressed by its remarkable size. Made from 1030 pages, 515 of which have been identified as animal skin, it is over 1 and a half feet (49cm) high with a weight of over 75 pounds (34 kg). Historians initially believed it was an Italian book, however, it has since been proven to have been produced in England during the 8th century. In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith took this volume to Rome, intending it as a gift to the shrine of Peter the Apostle. Since then, until this exhibition, it has been looked after at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

 

 

For knowledge about the first half of the Anglo-Saxon period in England, historians rely strongly upon one particular manuscript. This is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Venerable Bede in 731. Bede (673-735), also known as St Bede, was the greatest scholar of the time, who produced a number of works on a variety of subjects. Due to this particular publication, of which the British Library has a few examples, Bede is often regarded as the father of English history.

Modelled on the Ecclesiastical History by the Greek Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340 CE), Bede tells the story of the development of Christianity in England beginning with the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597. He also explains the attempts to convert the kings of other areas, including Mercia, Sussex and Northumbria, thus painting a picture of the landscape and kingdoms of Britain.

Bede acknowledges that he referred to other sources (now lost) to write about the years long before he was born, however, no one can be certain of the accuracy of his account. Whilst Bede was ahead of his time in stating that the world was not flat but rather a globe, he also assumed the Earth was the centre of the universe. Nonetheless, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is one of the only written evidence of life during the Anglo-Saxon period, and it is thanks to the survival of his work that knowledge of that era can be ascertained.

 

 

 

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History also notes the changes in fortunes of the English kingdoms. By the mid-600s, Northumbria, which encompassed a large part of northern England, was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This period of time is referred to by the British Library as Northumbria’s “Golden Age”, however, by the early 8th century, things were beginning to change. With an aspirational king, Æthelbald, the kingdom of Mercia displaced Northumbria from its position as most powerful. Æthelbald went as far as to name himself “king of Britain”, although he did not have control of the whole of the British isle.

Mercia continued to sustain its supremacy throughout the 8th century, particularly during the reign of King Offa from 757 until 796. Offa was responsible for the building of a dyke fortification along the border of Wales, to keep the Welsh tribes out of England plus conquered other parts of the country, including Kent, Sussex and East Anglia. He also reintroduced the coinage system to Britain, such as the gold dinar and silver penny the Library has on display.

Unfortunately, the great efforts of King Offa were threatened by rival kingdoms and the hostile Vikings from Scandinavia who had begun raiding England in the 790s. As a result, much of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland became under the rule of Guthrum, the leader of the Danes. Nevertheless, the West and South Saxons consolidated their power under the leadership of King Alfred, perhaps one of the most recognised of the Anglo-Saxon kings – mostly due to the legend that he burnt some cakes! A jewel belonging to the king is on display in the exhibition. It is inscribed “ÆFLRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN” which translates as “Alfred ordered me to be made.”

During Alfred the Great’s reign (871-899), a peace treaty was agreed with the Vikings that England would be divided into two parts: the north and east would belong to them and the south and west to the Anglo-Saxons. At this time, Guthrum was persuaded to convert to Christianity and took the name Æthelstan at his baptism.

Æthelstan was also the name of Alfred’s grandson who reigned from 924-939. Initially, he was the king of the Anglo-Saxon section of the country, however, after the death of the Viking ruler in 927, he took back Northumbria and claimed land in south Scotland, making him the first “king of the English”. In Bede’s manuscript Life of Saint Cuthbert, Æthelstan is illustrated presenting a book to the saint. This is the earliest surviving representation of a king, thus the first royal portrait.

 

 

Whilst the Codex Amiatinus mentioned earlier is the most impressive manuscript in the exhibition, it is without a doubt that the Ruthwell Cross is the most remarkable non-book object. Although some may be disappointed that it is a digitally cut replica rather than the real thing, it is one of the best examples of Hiberno-Saxon art – a style that thrived after the departure of the Romans.

The original, found in the village of Ruthwell, Scotland, is a stone cross that reaches over five metres in height and is elaborately carved with scenes from the life of Christ. Although there are some debates about what these scenes are, most agree that they show characters such as Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself. One carving may represent one of Jesus’ miracles, the healing of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52).

Believed to have been made in the 8th century, the cross features an unusual mix of Latin and Old English runes. Whilst it is odd to find both languages on the stone, the use of runes on a Christian monument was extremely rare. The runes spell out of a version of The Dream of the Rood, one of the oldest surviving Old English poems, which tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the tree cut down to make the cross to which Christ was nailed. A written copy of this can be found in the late-10th-century Vercelli Book displayed nearby.

 

 

“At the present moment, there are the languages of five peoples in Britain … English, British, Irish and Pictish, as well as Latin.”
– Bede

Religious books were not the only genre written during the Anglo-Saxon period. As the English language developed, more people were learning to read and write. Poetry was inspired by the multicultural and multilingual societies and made easier to write with the introduction of the Roman alphabet. Although parchment was expensive, people were able to practice writing on whale-bone tablets. These were covered in wax and scratched into with a bone stylus.

In one display cabinet is an example of an Anglo-Saxon glossary, a precursor of the modern dictionary. Unlike the older books in the collection, the Old English language is written in the new alphabet and is, therefore, legible. The first word on the opened page is “anser”, which is the Old English for “goose”. This is followed by “anguila” meaning “eel”.

Surviving in full, although undated, Beowulf is the longest epic poem written in Old English. Judging by the handwriting, it is thought to have been written in the late-10th or early-11th century, however, its author remains unknown. Consisting of more than 3000 lines, Beowulf tells the story of its eponymous hero as he battles with a monster named Grendel and a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure. The manuscript in the British Library is extremely fragile as a result of being exposed to the flames of the fire at Cottons Library and poor handling during the following years. A brief audio clip of Beowulf is available to listen to during the exhibition.

As well as literature, there was a growing interest in the natural sciences, although no Old English word exists for this topic. It was a branch of scholarship that combined religion with the order of the universe. As early as the 7th century, people were looking up at the stars and contemplating what was out there. In De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things),  Isidore of Seville (d. 636) sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena, for instance, the planets of the solar system, as shown in one manuscript. This shows the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks’ – the moon, Mercury, Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’, Vesper (or Mars), Foeton, ‘which they call Jupiter’, and Saturn – which all rotate around the Earth.

Most scientific texts were not written in England but imported from the continent and translated into Old English. These included books of remedies, particularly herbal remedies, which was the basis of medieval medicine. An example shown in the exhibition is lavishly illustrated with paintings of plants and animals, although these are not accurate enough to identify specific species.

“Books are glorious … they gladden every man’s soul.”
Solomon and Saturn, 10th Century

Naturally, books are the prominent feature of exhibitions at the British Library and it is through these that the major changes of Anglo-Saxon Britain can be determined. Religion remained a key theme throughout the exhibition, starting with the various versions of the Gospels as previously mentioned. After the conversion of the kings in the 7th century, the country became a deeply religious area, which helped to influence and strengthen the power of future kings.

King Edgar (959-75), the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, used the rising religious standards to his benefit. In control of the entire kingdom of the English, Edgar took the opportunity to reform and improve religious standards. Adopting the Rule of Saint Benedict written in the 6th century by Benedict of Nursia (480–550), Edgar reformed the way abbeys and monasteries functioned, for instance, separating monks and nuns into different establishments. As a result, the monasteries and nunneries began to prosper and become quite powerful.

“Nothing has gone well for a long time now … there has been harrying and hunger, burning and bloodshed.”
– Archbishop Wulfton

Whilst England was a wealthy and organised kingdom during the reign of King Edgar, its time of prosperity was not to last. The 980s brought more Viking raiders to the country and warfare was once again underway. As Archbishop Wulfton noted in The Sermon of the Wulf (1009), of which an audio excerpt is available, things were not going well for the Anglo-Saxons. By 1016, England had been conquered by Cnut (990-1035), the King of Denmark, who expanded his empire to include Norway and parts of Sweden. Cnut was a ruthless ruler and disposed of many of the aristocrats and governors of England, however, he allowed previous English laws to continue and supported the Church. He is most famous for the disputed tale that he set his throne on the seashore and commanded the tide to turn, which, of course, it did not.

After Cnut’s death in 1035, two of his sons, Harold and Harthacnut, had short reigns, eventually leading to the return of the royal English bloodline in the form of Edward the Confessor (1003-1066), the son of Aethelred II. Most people will know about the reign of King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror (1028-1087), and the Library mentions very little about the period.

 

The Coronation of William the Conqueror brought the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons to an end, however, the exhibition could not close without the inclusion of one of the most famous books in history. At the end of 1085, William ordered a detailed survey of his kingdom, which, completed seven months later, revealed the names of landholders, settlements and assets of England. Titled the Domesday Book, a total of 31 counties were accounted for and 13,418 settlements recorded. A brief video provided by the British Library explains the importance of this book and how it offers a snapshot of the wealth and landscape of the late Anglo-Saxons.

The British Library has made excellent use of all the surviving books to paint a mental picture of English life between the 6th and 12th century. Amongst the books are remains of ancient artefacts discovered during excavations, for instance, the Burnham and the Staffordshire hoards.

Dubbed “by some distance, the most significant exhibition in London,” by the Evening Standard, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms surpasses expectations. Rather than being a display of books that most people can’t read due to the Old English language, it is a concise history of the Anglo-Saxons and an insight into how the world we experience today stems from the events of so many centuries ago.  The exhibition will appeal to a wide range of people from academics to those with a little interest in English history, although, it may not be overly exciting for young children.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will remain open until Tuesday 19th February 2019. Full price tickets cost £16, however, concessions are available. Members of the British Library can view the exhibition for free.

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Christian Angelology​

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: “Glory in the heights above to God, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.
Luke 2:13-14

What are angels? A supernatural being found in various religions and mythologies? A humanoid of extraordinary beauty? A creature with wings and a halo? Something that is only seen at Christmas time in Nativity plays, cards and decorations? A guardian? A myth? The term angel has become so commonplace in the English language that it has almost lost its religious heritage. Today, the term “you’re an angel,” is often heard when someone performs a favour, whereas, in reality, they are merely human. So, what are angels?

The word angel derives from the Late Latin word angelusliterally meaning messenger, which in turn had derived from the Greek aggelos. In religion, particularly Christianity, the term was used to describe the celestial beings who acted as emissaries between God or Heaven and mankind.

The Christian idea of angels was inherited from Judaism, with Michael (who is like God), Gabriel (God is my strength) and Raphael (it is God who heals) being the most well-known in both the Abrahamic religious and secular world. Angels also appear in Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Neoplatonism, although, with slightly different manifestations.

“Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.”
– Christina Rossetti

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The Assumption of the Virgin – Francesco Botticini

Angels in Judaism are categorised into ten hierarchies, the more important being in the top ranks. Likewise, Christianity has adopted this idea of a hierarchy, splitting the angels into three groups of three. This Christian angelic hierarchy was initially put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th-6th century), an ancient theologian and philosopher, in his book De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy). This work inspired many scholars throughout the middle ages and medieval period to expand upon the idea of angel orders or “Angelic Choirs”, suggesting alternative classifications.

When writing De Coelesti Hierarchia, Pseudo-Dionysius referred to passages from the New Testament, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), an Italian Dominican friar and Catholic priest, when tackling the same subject in his work Summa Theologica. Whilst the New Testament is fairly quiet on the hierarchy of angels, both writers used passages, such as Colossians 1:16, to develop a schema of three Spheres of angels, each comprising of three Orders or Choirs.

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
– Colossians 1:16 (NIV)

Due to the subject of angelology coming from sources outside of the Bible, not all Churches believe or accept Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas’ proposed hierarchy. It is viewed on a similar level to the communio sanctorum or the communion of saints, which is mostly associated with Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, the nine orders of angels are generally agreed upon, as recognised by Pope Gregory I (540-604) at the end of the 6th century:

  1. Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

Naturally, the first sphere contains the angels who are closest to God – those who serve as his heavenly servants. The first two orders, Seraphim and Cherubim are the most recognised titles throughout Christianity and beyond, mostly thanks to the popular Christmas poem-cum-carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Yet, what these terms mean remains a mystery to many.

Seraphim, meaning burning ones, are the highest order of angels and serve as caretakers of the Throne of God. The Seraphim or Seraphs are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible in Isaiah 6:1-7. In a vision of the Lord, the prophet saw the Seraphim hovering above God chanting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Interestingly, Isaiah’s description of their appearance goes against contemporary manifestations of the heavenly beings. “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” (Isaiah 6:2 NIV)

Pseudo-Dyonisius maintained that Seraphim aided God to sustain perfect order, purifying those on Earth with their ” burning and all-consuming flame”. Around the throne of God, there is no day or night, the light comes from God himself and his Seraphim whose “radiant and enlightening power” dispell and destroy the “shadows of darkness”.

Another early Christian scholar and theologian, Origen of Alexandria (184-253), also wrote on the topic of Seraphim. In his treatise, On First Principles, Origen argues that the angels described in the Book of Isaiah are in fact physical representations of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. As a result, he concludes the Seraphim are privy to the knowledge of God, thus elevating them to the top tier of angels.

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Putto on building in Ptuj, Slovenia

Whereas Cherubim are ranked ninth (second from bottom) in Jewish angelic hierarchy, Christianity places them directly below the Seraphim. Of all heavenly beings, Cherubs are mentioned the most in the Hebrew Bible and are traditionally believed to be the guardians of the Garden of Eden. “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24 NIV)

Cherubim are highly revered throughout the Bible, for instance, God considered them important enough to feature as gold statuettes on either side of the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17-22). Carvings and statues of cherubim feature in the “Most Holy Place” mentioned in 2 Chronicles 3:7-14 (NIV) as well as in the sanctuary described in 1 Kings 6:23-28. It is also believed that Satan came from the Cherubim order before his fall from grace.

The physical appearance of Cherubim is written in the Book of Ezekiel and, similarly to Seraphim, go against contemporary conceptions. According to Ezekiel, the Cherubim were completely covered in eyes, both on their bodies and their wings, of which they have six, as Revelation 4:8 suggests.

“Each creature had four faces. The first was the face of a bull, the second a human face, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 10:12-14 GNT) Whilst this sounds rather grotesque, it is said that each face has a particular purpose to represent the four dominions of God’s rule: domestic animals, humanity, wild animals and birds. These faces have since been adopted as symbols of the four Gospels: Luke, Matthew, Mark and John respectively.

In the western world, Cherubim have incorrectly become associated with putti or “baby angels”. Putti also derived from the classical Roman god Cupid, who was traditionally portrayed with a slender, youthful body. Putti can be typically found in figurative art, both with and without wings, in the form of small, plump male baby- or toddler-like beings.

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The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne – William Blake

The third order in the first sphere are the Thrones, however, there is some discrepancy as to who or what they are. Christian theologians describe them as adoring elder men who listen to the will of God and the prayers of men. These same theologians believe that the twenty-four men mentioned in the final book of the Bible come from the order of Thrones: “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” (Revelation 4:4 NIV)

Not including this verse in the book of Revelation, there is only one direct mention of Thrones in the Bible. Paul the Apostle writes about the Thrones in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). There is, however, no physical description.

The idea that the twenty-four elders are Thrones has become generally accepted, however, some writers have other views. Rosemary Ellen Guiley (b.1950) is one of a handful who associates Thrones with Ophanim or Wheels mentioned in Ezekiel 10:16: “When the cherubim moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the cherubim spread their wings to rise from the ground, the wheels did not leave their side.” (NIV)

“The ‘thrones’; also known as ‘ophanim’ (offanim) and ‘galgallin’, are creatures that function as the actual chariots of God driven by the cherubs. They are characterized by peace and submission; God rests upon them. Thrones are depicted as great wheels containing many eyes, and reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape. They chant glorias to God and remain forever in his presence. They mete out divine justice and maintain the cosmic harmony of all universal laws.”
– Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Encyclopedia of Angels (1996)

There is, however, very little evidence to support this argument, the strongest being that the Cherubim and their wheels carry the throne of God according to chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel. As a result, tradition states that Thrones are a separate body of angels from the Cherubim and are not purely material beings.

The angels in the Second Sphere, who work as heavenly governors of God’s creation, are much more difficult to comprehend and find Biblical evidence for their existence. The first of this trio is known as both Dominions or Lordships, which is also mentioned in Colossians 1:16 alongside Thrones: “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (ESV) The only other Biblical reference is in Ephesians: “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.” (1:21 KJV)

Depending on the translation of the Bible, Dominions or Lordships are sometimes not mentioned at all but when they are, their title depends on whether the text was derived from the Latin or Greek version. Dominions derive from the Latin dominationes, whereas Lordships stem from the Greek term kyriotēs.

Some theologians claim that Dominions look like divinely beautiful humans with a pair of feathered wings, much like the kind seen on Christmas cards, however, they rarely make themselves physically known to humans. Some claim the Dominions or Lords carry glowing orbs on the end of their sceptres or the pommels of their swords, but where this suggestion came from is unknown.

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The Virtues, late 15th century stained glass panels

The second order in the Second Sphere is Virtues or Strongholds. These also appear in chapter 1 verse 21 of Ephesians, however, in some translations are also referred to as powers. Aquinas opted to use the term Virtues in his Summa Theologica. 

Pseudo-Dionysius also wrote about the Virtues, stating that they signify “a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies.” They are strong in character and never succumb to weakness, always having their sights set on the “Source of Virtue.” Little else has been recorded about this angelic order.

The final order in the Second Sphere is Powers or Authorities, not to be confused with the powers mentioned in some translations of Ephesians 21:1. Stemming from the Latin potestates and Greek exousiathis order is introduced briefly in Ephesians 3:10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (NIV)

It is thought that the purpose of the Powers is to maintain order throughout the cosmos, supervising the movements of celestial bodies and making sure everything remains in order. Represented as soldiers wearing full armour and helmets, the Powers or Authorities use their shields, spears or chains to fight off evil spirits, particularly ones that threaten the equilibrium of God’s creation.

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The Principalities, late 15th century stained glass panels

The third and final sphere of angels contains those that act as heavenly guides, protectors, and messengers to humans. Whilst these are the lower ranks of angels, at least two of the orders are more familiar in today’s world.

The first, however, is as obscure as those of the Second Sphere. These are the Principalities or Rulers, sometimes referred to as Princedoms. Biblical acknowledgement of the order appears in both Ephesians 1:21 and Ephesians 3:10, along with those previously mentioned.

Principalities are responsible for the protection and guidance of nations or large groups of people, for instance, the Church. They are depicted wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre and follow instructions given to them by the upper sphere angels. As well as overseeing groups of people, these tasks involve bequeathing blessings upon the Earth. The Principalities or Rulers are also known as the educators and guardians of the people on Earth, often inspiring the study of the arts or sciences.

The second order of angels in the Third Sphere is perhaps the most famous: the Archangels. The name comes from the Greek archangelos, which translates into English as chief angel, which considering they come so low down the ranks, is a rather peculiar title.  The word only appears twice in the New Testament and, despite what many believe, only one archangel is named.

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16

The named Archangel is Michael who appears in Jude 1:9, Revelation 12:7-9 and Daniel 12:1. In the latter, Daniel is informed that Michael will appear at the “time of the end”, i.e. the apocalypse, and in Revelation, Michael’s fight with Satan is recorded in a description of a war in heaven. In Jude, Michael is also recorded confronting Satan:  “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'” (NIV)

Another named Archangel is Raphael, who is written about in the Book of Enoch. This book, however, is not included in Christian canons and, therefore, Raphael is not officially a Biblical character. He also appears in the Book of Tobit, however, since this book is deuterocanonical, it also does not count as a Biblical reference.

In Enoch 10:4-6, Raphael is recorded defeating the fallen angel Azazel: “And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert …'”

The most famous story about Raphael is recorded in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. The Archangel appears to Tobiah, the son of Tobit disguised in the human form of “Azarias the son of the great Ananias.” Tobiah is on an errand for his blind father and Raphael keeps him company on the journey, protecting him in many ways, including defeating a demon in an Egyptian desert. The archangel only reveals himself as “the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord,” (Tobit 12:15) after healing the blind Tobit later in the story.

Uriel is another of the named Archangels, however, is only mentioned in the second apocryphal book of Esdras, therefore, most Christians dismiss him as a Biblical angel. Uriel, whose name means Light of God, is sometimes listed as a Cherub and, according to Abbot Anscar Vonier (1875-1938) stands at the Gate of Eden with a fiery sword.

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Virgin of the Rocks – Leonardo da Vinci

The angel in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) painting Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6), which shows Christ and his mother being reunited with John the Baptist after their flight to Egypt, is thought to be Archangel Uriel. Some Christian sources claim that Uriel rescued Jesus’ cousin John and his mother, Elizabeth, from the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod.

Some Christians may argue that Michael is not the only Archangel mentioned in the Bible. The other is Gabriel, meaning God is my Strength, however, he is never referred to as an Archangel in the passages in which he features.

The most famous reference to Gabriel occurs in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament making him a fundamental character in the Christmas story – and, therefore, the key reason for the cute, white-winged angels on Christmas cards. The angel Gabriel first appears to Zechariah, revealing the prophecy that he will have a son: John the Baptist. The second appearance occurs in Luke 1:26-38, in which similar news is delivered to Mary, telling her that she will have a baby.

“And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women … thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”
Luke 1:28-31 KJV

Due to the lack of the word Archangel in reference to Gabriel, some people believe he is only an Angel, the lowest of the ranks and the final order of the Third Sphere. Frustratingly, it is not certain why this order is named Angels, also the umbrella term for the entire three spheres, which can make explaining Christian Angelology rather confusing.

These Angels, or malakhim as they are known in Hebrew, whilst the “plain” angels, are the most recognised in the Bible. They are mentioned in numerous book of the Bible, including Psalms, Colossians and Hebrews. “Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 GNT)

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Kristus i Getsemane – Carl Bloch

Angels of the third sphere variety are the ones who have the most contact with the affairs of men. Often, they are sent to Earth with messages, hence the belief that Gabriel is not an Archangel. They are also sent to guide and support people, for example, the angel who comforted Jesus in Luke 22:43 during the Agony in the Garden.

It is from this realm of angels that the idea of Guardian Angels has arisen. Those who believe in Guardian Angels claim that everyone has been assigned one, regardless of their religious affiliations. Although belief in Guardian Angels can be traced back to antiquity, there is no Biblical evidence of their existence.

So, in answer to the opening question – what are angels? – they are a lot of things. So many things that it requires around 3000 words to fully explain. There is no straightforward answer. One thing for certain is that they are not all the white-robed, feathery-winged, halo-wearing creatures in paintings, literature, Christmas ornaments, and so forth, however, it is much easier to imagine them as such, particularly at this time of year – Merry Christmas.

Christmas Card 2018
Christmas Card designed by me

Barking Abbey

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!”
– Genesis 28:16

Citing from Bishop John Inge’s book A Christian Theology of Place, the Right Reverend Dr Trevor Mwamba opens his Barking Abbey guidebook welcome letter with “The place in which we stand is often taken for granted and ignored in our increasingly mobile society.” Over recent years, the demographics of London areas, particularly the East End, has rapidly evolved from locally-born people to a population made up of people from all areas of the world. As a result, the history of the towns and cities of Britain are gradually fading into obscurity. An example of this can be found in the ethnically diverse town Barking; once home to one of the most important nunneries in the country, Barking Abbey, the commercialised town has almost forgotten its former roots.

Situated at one end of Barking Town Centre Market, St Margaret’s Church, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch (289-304 AD), was originally built within the grounds of the former royal monastery, Barking Abbey. It originated as a chapel for the local people, its oldest section being the chancel built during the reign of King John (1166-1216), eventually becoming a parish church in approximately 1300. The abbey itself, however, is thought to have been founded as far back as 666 AD.

Most of what remains of Barking Abbey is the buried layout on the north side of the church, now named Abbey Green, some of which has been reconstructed. Fortunately, one part of the abbey survives intact. This is the Curfew Tower that was once one of the abbey’s three gateways. Built in 1460, many repairs have kept the Grade II listed building standing, a remnant of the past. On the upper storey, a small chapel can be accessed up a set of stairs, although, this is not used so often nowadays.

Historically, Barking was once a fishing and farming area, as remembered in many of St Margaret’s stained glass windows. A window on the east side, however, depicts a traditional Crucifixion scene flanked by two saints, St Cedd (right) and St Erkenwald, the founder of the abbey (left). In the 7th century, Erkenwald founded two monasteries, one for himself in Surrey and one for his sister Ethelburga. These abbeys were intended to re-introduce Christianity to the British Isles. Whilst Christianity had been made legal during Roman rule in the 4th century, it had begun to fall out of favour.

Ethelburga, later Saint Ethelburga, became the first abbess of Barking Abbey with the intention “to be a mother and nurse of devout women.” (Bede, 731 AD) Ethelburga was a holy, upright woman, constantly concerned for those under her care. Later, she founded the church All Hallows Berkyngechirche (now known as All Hallows by the Tower) in 675.

Barking Abbey was initially a double monastery of nuns and monks who shared the church whilst living in separate quarters. Later, in the 10th century, all double houses were reformed into single-sex abbeys. For the next couple of centuries, many abbesses were appointed by the kings of England, for instance, Matilda of Boulogne (1105-52), wife of King Stephen (c1092-1154), and King Henry II’s (1133-89) daughter, Matilda (1156-89). This ended in 1214 when the Pope insisted the nuns should be allowed to elect their own abbess.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror (1028-87) took refuge at Barking Abbey whilst he constructed the Tower of London. It is thought the king may have fled here after unfortunate misunderstandings during his coronation. Later, the abbey also became the holding place of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), who was forced to surrender some of her property to Hugh Despenser the younger (1286-1326).

As with all abbeys, monasteries and so forth, Barking Abbey succumbed to Henry VIII’s (1419-1547) Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Following this, the abbey was gradually demolished until only the Curfew Tower remained standing.  A lot of the building’s material was reused, for instance, to repair the roof of Greenwich Palace and to construct a new manor for the king in Dartford, Kent.

ees11608Due to its almost complete destruction, it is not altogether certain what the layout of Barking Abbey was, however, many rooms have been identified during recent excavations. The abbey’s main church sat at the heart of the site, its size similar to a cathedral: 103 x 30.5 metres (337 x 100 feet).

As well as the church, various chapels would have been found in the abbey, including the one that has been developed into St Margaret’s Church. Three grave slabs, attributed to the abbesses St Etherlburga, St Hildelith and St Wulfhilda, mark the position of the Saints Chapel. Other rooms, including cloisters, parlours, dormitories and the Reredorter have also been identified.

There are so many buildings that have not been excavated and have since been built upon. It is thought that the land belonging to Barking Abbey stretched as far as the River Roding, a tributary of the Thames, as shown in a drawing by Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949) based upon an original sketch produced in 1500.

St Margaret’s Church was fortunate to survive the Reformation and remained a parish church when the abbey was dissolved. Throughout the years, changes have been made to the building, including the plastering of the ceilings during the 18th century. The building was grade I listed in 1954 and has since been extended to house an office and refectory.

45150956_250210462310684_4637149440711327744_nWithin the church are a number of items that help to preserve the memory of the abbey and the history of the land and building since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Remnants of floor tiles from the original abbey are conserved in a glass display cabinet. From these, the quality and appearance of the masonry can be appreciated.

Other discoveries are also kept in this case, for instance, a Breeches Bible, which predates the King James Bible by approximately 50 years. This was a variation of the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and would have been read and used by people such as Shakespeare (1565-1616) and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). It was the first mechanically printed, mass-produced Bible in England, thus the first made available to the general public. The reason for its name, Breeches Bible, is the wording of verse 7 in Genesis 3:

“Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”

The King James Bible, printed in 1611, changed the word “breeches” to “apron”.

dsc00485Also within the display cabinet are examples of more recent histories and gifts given to the church. One of these is a book of paintings presented in 2004 by local artist George Emmerson. For a decade, Emmerson had been producing watercolours of St Margaret’s Church, the Curfew Tower and grounds, of which this was the final result. He gave it as a gift to the church as a means of saying thank you for the kindness and help shown to him and it “is a tribute to the clergy and the many people who do voluntary work to keep the church alive and prosperous.”

St Margaret’s also pays tribute to the explorer Captain James Cook (1728-99) who was married to his wife, Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835) in the church on 21st December 1762. This year, 2018, has been a significant year for remembering Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Pacific Ocean upon HMS Endeavour, which set sail 250 years ago. The church holds copies of newspapers about Cook’s demise in Hawaii and copies of the Marriage Register showing James and Elizabeth’s entry.

The church building itself is crammed full of history, from architecture to objects within the sanctuary. Although many renovations and extensions have occurred over the years, remnants of old decor can be seen in one corner of the ceiling where little cherub faces peer down at the congregation.

The timber beams and design of the roof over the North Aisle, which was built around the late 15th or 16th century, suggests the involvement of local ship-wrights. The Norman pillars in this section may have been taken from the abbey and the windows would have once been a traditional medieval style. In 1771, the windows were replaced with Georgian versions but the ones in place today were added in the 20th century.

Many bodies have been interred under the flagstones, which, unfortunately, are inevitably becoming illegible the more they are walked over. Some are now covered up by carpets and it is impossible to tell how many people are buried in total, nor their names. There are records of some of the people, for instance, William Pownsett whose tomb is more prominent. In his will, he asked, “to be buryed yn our lady chaple next unto my pew at Barking.”

On the walls around the building are monuments to those who had significant connections with the church. Some are more elaborate than others, a few including busts of the deceased. An impressive monument to Captain John Bennett (d.1716) remembers a wealthy man who became a captain in the Royal Navy at a young age. Another, featuring a skull, remembers the life of Sarah Fleming (d. 1715). Francis Fuller (d.1637), an official of the Exchequer who owned a number of estates in the parish of Barking is remembered in a monument featuring his bust in an oval niche.

During excavations of the abbey in 1912, an incised stone slab was unearthed in the Nun’s Cemetery. As well as words, it features an etching of a man named Martinus who was the first vicar of Barking from 1315 to 1328. This memorial stone is now kept in the sanctuary safe from the effects of harsh weather conditions that could permanently damage the inscription.

When renovations began in the late 1920s and 30s, George Jack (1855-1931) an architect, wood carver, stained glass artist and furniture designer for Morris & Co, became involved with the repair work. Jack was responsible for the fisherman’s stained glass window as well as a couple of memorial tablets and a pair of candelabra. For the Youth Chapel, Jack carved eight wooden figures of people with some association to the church. As well as two fishermen, these include James Cook, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), St Ethelburga, St Nicholas, St James and St John. They are still in remarkable condition today.

dsc00465On the Youth Chapel screen below the wooden figures is a contemporary painting by the artist Alan Stewart, which was unveiled by the Bishop of Barking in 2005. Titled Early in the Morning, the painting shows a black Christ in 21st-century clothing surrounded by disciples from a range of ethnic origins. This is to reflect on the diverse population of Barking and those who worship at St Margaret’s Church. The scene depicts Jesus serving breakfast to his disciples by the side of Lake Galilee as told in John 21 after his resurrection.

At the rear of the church is an octagonal stone font with a decorated wooden lid. This was painted during the renovations in the early 20th century. George Jack employed his daughter Jessie to help to paint his design onto the cover. Each of the eight segments features a bird and flowers on a blue background. Around the rim, carefully painted letters spell out the phrase “God hath given to us eternal life and this life is in his son”.

45192226_188526105356556_497570805895397376_nThe font, stained glass windows and wooden figurines are some of the most attractive objects in St Margaret’s Church, however, one carving often gets overlooked. In fact, people who attend services for years do not always notice it unless it has been deliberately pointed out.

At the end of each wooden pew is a distinctive carved design that, in some way, resemble leaves or a plant. Due to the similarities between each one, it is easy to miss the intriguing design at the end of one particular pew. Taking the same shape as all the others, this one features the heads of two dogs. The meaning of the carving is unknown but it is thought it could be a family’s coat of arms. This suggests that at one time wealthy members of the congregation may have paid to have their own pew where they would sit during every service they attended.

Although St Margaret’s Church may be tiny in comparison to the original Barking Abbey, its elaborate decor, architecture and age make it stand out from other churches in the area, particularly the more contemporary. It has also had a large share of notable clergymen, many of whom eventually became bishops. Even today’s vicar was once the Bishop of Botswana.

The Right Reverend Hensley Henson (1863-1947) was one of the many significant clergymen associated with St Margaret’s. Ordained in 1888, Henson was the vicar until 1895 when he became chaplain of an ancient hospice in Ilford. He was only 25, the youngest vicar in the country, when he joined the church, putting him in charge of an ever-growing working-class parish, whose population then stood at 12,000. Undaunted, Henson made a favourable impression on the congregation, a colleague later stating: “He came six months ago to a parish dead – 250 a good congregation in the church; and now, when he preaches, every seat is filled – 1100!”

St Margaret’s was only the beginning of Henson’s career; by 1900 he was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey. In 1917, he became Bishop of Hereford and it was only another three years before he also became the Bishop of Durham. During his final years, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) persuaded Henson out of retirement to resume his position as Canon of Westminster Abbey. It is said that Churchill was impressed with Henson’s strong views on ecclesiastical matters and his support of the Church of England.

Other vicars of St Margaret’s have gone on to be bishops including the Scottish Painter George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), who went on to become Bishop of Sheffield, and William Chadwick (1905-1991) and James Roxburgh (1921-2007) who were both Bishop of Barking.

Today, St Margaret’s Church continues to welcome friends and strangers, inviting everyone to various services throughout the week and on Sundays. Visitors and regulars are also encouraged to enjoy tea, coffee, cakes and lunches in their cafe. Surrounded by a graveyard and the remains of Barking Abbey, the church is a beautiful, peaceful place to visit, both outside and within. It truly is a place of history and religion worthy of being used and remembered. It is thanks to places such as St Margaret’s that local history is recognised and commemorated.

Sunday Services:
8:30am – Said Eucharist
11am – Sung Eucharist
6:30pm – Evensong


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