The Twelve (Thirteen) Disciples [Part 2]

The following was originally written for Gants Hill United Reformed Church in June 2020. For part one, click here.

7. Thomas

Thomas, most commonly known as “Doubting Thomas”, is one of the disciples with a speaking part in the Bible, and yet, he is barely mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18 and Luke 6:15 list him as one of the Twelve Disciples, but nothing is said about how he became an apostle and what came after. For that, we have to turn to the Gospel of John.

Thomas is believed to have come from Galilee and is listed as having two names. Thomas was his Aramaic name, and Didymus was his Greek name, both of which mean “twin”. Although there is no explanation for the choice of names, it is most likely Thomas was born a twin. In the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, the author gives his name as Judas Thomas. 

The first time Thomas’ name appears in John’s Gospel is John 11:16: “Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” Jesus had learnt that his friend Lazarus was sick and had decided to visit him. The disciples were shocked by this decision. Lazarus lived in Judea, where the Jewish population had tried to stone Jesus. Yet, Jesus was adamant, and Thomas encouraged the disciples to go with him.  

Thomas next speaks in John 14:5: Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’” Jesus had explained that he was going to prepare a place for them in heaven and that one day they would join him there. Thomas spoke on behalf of the disciples, explaining that they did not know where that place was or how to get there. Jesus responded to this with one of the most famous sayings in the Bible: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6)

Of course, the most famous exchange between Thomas and Jesus took place after the resurrection. This scene forever branded him as “Doubting Thomas.” “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.” (John 20:24) To prove he had risen from the dead, Jesus visited the disciples in a locked room where they were hiding from the Jewish leaders, but Thomas was not there. Unable to imagine someone coming back to life, Thomas doubted the disciples’ claim that they had seen the Lord. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (20:25)

The following week, Jesus visited the disciples again. This time, Thomas was with them, and Jesus showed Thomas the nail marks and wound in his side. At once, Thomas believed, declaring, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) Unfortunately, it was too late for Thomas to redeem himself. Thomas is still referred to as the doubter, giving his name to sceptics who refuse to believe without direct personal experience. “Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” (20:29) 

Apart from these brief episodes in the Gospel of John, the Bible reveals nothing else about Thomas’ life. Scholars have turned to other literature to ascertain what happened to Thomas after Jesus was taken up into heaven. One belief is Thomas travelled to India in AD 52 to spread the Christian faith to the Jewish community that lived there at the time. Tradition claims he established seven churches while he was there and baptised many families. 

The theologian, Origen of Alexandria (184-253), stated Thomas was the apostle of the Parthians, a historical region located in north-eastern Iran. Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260-340) recorded that Thomas and Bartholomew were assigned to Parthia and India. The Christian treatise Didascalia Apostolorum corroborates Thomas’ presence: “India and all countries considering it, even to the farthest seas… received the apostolic ordinances from Judas Thomas, who was a guide and ruler in the church which he built.”

Traditions of the Saint Thomas Church in India claim Thomas briefly visited China. The Office of St. Thomas for the Second Nocturn written by Gaza of the Church of St. Thomas of Malabar claims the following: 

1. Through St. Thomas the error of idolatry vanished from India.
2. Through St. Thomas the Chinese and Ethiopians were converted to the truth.
3. Through St. Thomas they accepted the sacrament of baptism and the adoption of sons.
4. Through St. Thomas they believed in and confessed to the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.
5. Through St. Thomas they preserved the accepted faith of the one God.
6. Through St. Thomas the life-giving splendours rose in all of India.
7. Through St. Thomas the Kingdom of Heaven took wing and ascended to China.

Regardless of whether Thomas visited China or not, it was in India where he was allegedly martyred. It is recorded that Thomas died in Chennai on a small hillock now known as St. Thomas Mount. Syrian Christian tradition believes his body was buried in Mylapore, and Ephram the Syrian (306-373) adds that Thomas’ relics were then taken to Edessa. The Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa (1480-1521), who served as an officer in India, recorded that Thomas’ tomb was maintained by a Muslim, and a lamp was always burning. Today, the San Thome Basilica sits on the site of Thomas’ tomb.

Saint Thomas has been made patron of a handful of things, including India and Sri Lanka. Other claims about Thomas include:

  • He was martyred by a spear
  • He was a builder by trade
  • Thomas was the only witness of the Assumption of Mary
  • Thomas met the biblical Magi on his way to India
  • Finger bones of Saint Thomas were discovered during restoration work at the Church of Saint Thomas in Modul, Iraq in 1964
  • He worked as a builder and architect for King Gondophares, the ruler of the Indo-Parthian Kingdom

8. Matthew

Matthew, later Saint Matthew, is another of the Galilean disciples. Traditionally, he is also the author of the Gospel of Matthew, one of the four evangelists. Of all the disciples, he is one of the least likely candidates chosen by Jesus since he was Matthew the tax collector” (Matthew 10:30) and not liked by the public. 

Tax collectors or publicans, as they were also called, collected unpaid taxes for the Roman occupiers. It was not their job that caused people to dislike them but rather their fraudulent behaviour. Rather than collecting the amount owed, the tax collectors demanded more money, keeping the excess for themselves. Tax collectors were seen as both greedy and collaborators with the Romans.

“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” (Matthew 9:9) Jesus came across Matthew after healing a paralysed man in Capernaum. Matthew invited Jesus to his house for a meal, an invitation that did not go unnoticed by the Pharisees. Always trying to find fault with Jesus, the Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (9:11) Before they could respond, Jesus answered them, explaining, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (9:12-13) 

Not much is recorded about Matthew’s early life other than his career, although one Bible verse mentions the name of his father. “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.” (Mark 2:14) Matthew was also known by the name Levi. The Bible also records the father of the Apostle James the Less as Alphaeus, but there is no evidence they are the same person. A man of the same name is also said to be the father of Joseph/Joses, a potential brother of Jesus. In the Catholic Church, Saints Abercius and Helena also have a father called Alphaeus. 

Matthew’s call to discipleship is recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but he is never mentioned in John. The final reference to the disciple is in Acts 1:10–14, where the apostles had withdrawn to a room after the Ascension of Jesus. To begin with, the disciples remained in the Jewish communities in Judea, preaching the Gospel before moving to other countries. Unfortunately, scholars have not been able to determine which countries Matthew visited. It is traditionally believed he died a martyr, but there is no evidence of this. Writers have suggested Hierapolis in Greece or Ethiopia as Matthew’s place of death.

The early Christian bishop Papias of Hierapolis (c. AD 60–163) was the first person to propose Matthew the Apostle and Matthew the Evangelist were the same. The Gospel was written in Hebrew near Jerusalem for Hebrew Christians before being translated into Greek. As a tax collector, Matthew would have been literate in Aramaic, Greek and his native tongue. To begin with, Matthew’s Gospel was known as Gospel according to the Hebrews and Gospel of the Apostles. An argument against Matthew’s authorship points out the text was written anonymously, and at no point does the author imply he was an eyewitness to the events. 

Matthew is supposedly buried in the crypt of Salerno Cathedral in southern Italy. He is recognised as a saint in Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican churches, and his feast day is celebrated on 21st September. In art, Matthew is usually shown with a book, implying he wrote the Gospel, and an angel. Matthew is listed as the patron saint of accountants, bankers, tax collectors, perfumers, civil servants and Salerno, Italy.

9. James, son of Alpheus

James, son of Alpheus, not to be confused with James, son of Zebedee, is a disciple mentioned in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. He is also identified as James the Less, the Minor, or the Younger, depending on the translation. “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 NIV)

The word “less” does not imply James was less worthy than James the Greater. Instead, it may refer to his age or his height. Although there are very few mentions of James the Less in the Bible, his importance is equal to that of the other disciples. “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28)

Like most of the other disciples, James came from Galilee, which at the time was part of the Roman Empire. How he came to be Jesus’ disciple is missing from the Bible. There is also confusion about who James was since some scholars debate he may also have been Jesus’ brother, James the Just. The consensus is they were two separate people.

Very little is known about James. After King Herod killed James the Greater, Peter, who had been arrested, escaped and said to Mary, the mother of John, “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this.” (Acts 12:17) Since James the Greater was dead, this James could either be James the Less or James the Just. Unfortunately, there is no clarification in the Bible.

James the Less’s death was recorded by the 2nd-century theologian Hippolytus. “And James the son of Alphaeus, when preaching in Jerusalem was stoned to death by the Jews, and was buried there beside the temple.” James the Just, the brother of Jesus, is also believed to have died the same way, thus adding confusion about their identity. On the other hand, James the Less is traditionally thought to have preached at Ostrakine in Lower Egypt. Many people claim he was crucified there.

In Art, James is usually depicted with a fuller’s club, implying he may have worked in woollen clothmaking before becoming an apostle. Occasionally, he is portrayed with a carpenter’s saw, suggesting an alternative trade.

Saint James the Less is recorded as the patron saint of apothecaries, druggists, dying people and pharmacists, suggesting another potential career. He is also the patron saint of fullers, milliners, Frascati and Monterotondo in Italy, and Uruguay.

10. Jude

Jude, Judas Thaddaeus, Thaddeus, Jude of James, Lebbaeus, or whatever you wish to call him, was an apostle and martyr from 1st century Galilee. The use of multiple names in the Bible makes it difficult to determine whether they are one person or several. Cross-referencing the four Gospels, most scholars have agreed that the Thaddaeus in Matthew and Mark is the same person as Judas in Luke and John. Matthew also refers to the apostle as Lebbaeus and Judas the Zealot, whereas Luke and the Acts of the Apostles record him as Judas, son of James. One thing for sure is this disciple should not be confused with Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus.

Not including Judas Iscariot, the name Judas or Jude is mentioned six times in the Bible. In Luke, both Judas, son of James, and Judas Iscariot are recorded in a list of the twelve disciples. The same is recorded in Acts, minus the latter, of course. Similar lists in Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, state his name as Thaddeus. It has been suggested this may have been a nickname. Thaddeus means “courageous of heart”.

John makes an effort to differentiate between the similarly named disciples. “Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, ‘But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?’” (John 14:22) In response to this, Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (14:23-24, 27)

There is debate as to whether Judas was the brother of Jesus because Matthew 13:55 says, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” The same is said in the Gospel of Mark, but there is no clarification as to whether this Judas was also the disciple. Protestant churches tend to believe they were different people, whereas Catholics usually argue the opposite. 

The author of the Book of Jude is also widely debated. The book begins with the author’s introduction: Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James.” (Jude 1:1) We know from Matthew that both Judas and James were brothers of Jesus, but is Jude the same person? Also, we know Judas was the name of a disciple of Jesus, therefore, he may identify himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ.” From this, it could be inferred that Judas/Thaddaeus, Judas the brother of Jesus and Jude the author are all one person, but no one has been able to find solid proof.

A collection of biographies compiled by Jacobus de Varagine in the 13th-century attempts to clarify the mixture of names used in the Gospels:

“This Judas was called by many names. He was said Judas James, for he was brother to James the Less, and he was called Thaddeus, which is as much to say as taking a prince; or Thadee is said of Thadea, that is a vesture, and of Deus, that is God, for he was vesture royal of God by ornament of virtues, by which he took Christ the prince. He is said also in the History Ecclesiastic, Lebbæus, which is as much to say as heart, or worshipper of heart. Or he is said Lebbæus of lebes, that is a vessel of heart by great hardiness, or a worshipper of heart by purity, a vessel by plenitude of grace, for he deserved to be a vessel of virtues and a caldron of grace.” 

Putting aside the confusion of names and identity, tradition tells us Jude the Disciple continued to spread the word of Christ after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jude preached the gospel firstly in Judea before travelling through Samaria, Edom, Syria, Mesopotamia and Libya. Jude, along with Bartholomew, is also credited as the first people to bring Christianity to Armenia.

Jude’s life before becoming a disciple is unknown. Over time, theories and ideas suggest he may have been a farmer by trade. Growing up in Galilee, Jude would probably have spoken both Greek and Aramaic, which would have been beneficial when preaching to people of other areas. The 14th-century historian Nicephorus Callistus believed Jude was the bridegroom at the wedding at Cana recorded in the Gospel of John. This was the event that saw Jesus perform his first miracle.

Tradition states Jude was martyred around 65 AD in Beirut. Although Beirut is now the capital of Lebanon, it was then part of the Roman Province of Syria. Abdias, the first bishop of Babylon, recorded Jude’s death in the Acts of Simon and Jude, along with the death of a fellow disciple, Simon the Zealot. It is thought the pair were killed with an axe, possibly beheaded.  

Many years after his death, Jude’s bones were brought to Rome and buried in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica. His resting place became a popular destination for pilgrims, giving him the title, “The Saint for the Hopeless and the Despaired”. He is also known as “The Patron Saint of the Impossible.” Shrines and churches have been erected all over the world in Jude’s honour, such as in Australia, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Cuba, India, Iran, the Philippines, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Lebanon. The most recent shrine is the National Shrine of Saint Jude in Faversham, Kent, built in 1955.

The Feast of St Jude is traditionally celebrated on 28th October. He is the patron saint of several places and people, including Armenia; St Petersburg in Florida, Lucena, Quezon, Sibalom, Antique, Trece Mártires, and Cavite in the Philippines; Sinajana in Guam; Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, a sports club in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the Chicago Police Department; lost causes; desperate situations; and hospitals.

11. Simon the Zealot

Simon the Zealot or Simon the Canaanite/Cananaean is possibly the most obscure disciple. Although his name appears on a list of the disciples mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John and the Book of Acts, he does not play a named role elsewhere.

To distinguish Simon from Simon Peter, Matthew and Mark use the term “Simon the Canaanite” (Matthew 10:4; Mark 3:18 KJV). Luke and Acts, on the other hand, call him “Simon Zelotes” (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13 KJV) or “Simon the Zealot” (NIV), depending on the translation. The term “Canaanite” has led people to assume Simon was from Canaan or Cana, but the Hebrew text proves this to be a mistranslation. In Hebrew, Simon was referred to as “qanai”, which means “zealous”. The reason for the Canaanite confusion is easy to forgive since the term stems from the same Hebrew word. Unfortunately, no one knows why Simon was singled out as being zealous. Although, in contemporary English zealous means enthusiastic or to have a strong passion, in Greek, it was also a synonym for “jealous”. 

Catholic scholars have attempted to identify Simon the Zealot with both Simon the brother of Jesus and Simeon of Jerusalem, despite no evidence in the Bible for either claim. The names of Jesus’ brothers are mentioned in Mark 6:3, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” Simeon of Jerusalem or Saint Simeon does not appear in the Bible.  

According to tradition, Saint Simeon was the second Bishop of Jerusalem, appointed by the Apostles Peter, James and John. He is also said to be the son of Clopas and, therefore, potentially a cousin of Jesus. “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25) 

As mentioned above, the “Judas” mentioned in Mark 6:3 may have been the disciple Jude, also known as Judas Thaddeus, and the “James” was potentially James the Less. So, it is possible, as it says in the Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Varagine (1230-1299), “Simon the Cananaean and Judas Thaddeus were brethren of James the Less and sons of Mary Cleophas, which was married to Alpheus.” The names Clopas and Cleophas refer to the same person depending on the Bible translation.

The Bible does not record how Simon was called to be a disciple, but a book of the Apocrypha, if it is to be believed, may shed some light on this. The Syriac Infancy Gospel, which supposedly records the childhood of Jesus, contains a story about a boy named Simon who was bitten by a snake. Jesus, who was only a child himself, healed the boy and said, “you shall be my disciple.” The story is concluded with “this is Simon the Cananite, of whom mention is made in the Gospel.”

There are various speculations about Simon’s actions after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some say he visited the Middle East and Africa. Another tradition claims he visited Roman Britain during the Boadicea rebellion in 60 AD. Likewise, there is more than one version of his death. Stories tell of Simon being crucified in Samaria, sawn in half in Persia, martyred in Iberia, crucified in Lincolnshire and dying peacefully in Edessa. In art, Simon is portrayed with a saw, suggesting he was sawn in half.

Simon the Zealot, like all the apostles, is regarded as a saint. He shares a feast day with Saint Jude on 28th October. He is the patron saint of curriers, sawyers and tanners, perhaps alluding to his profession.

12. Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot, the most infamous of the Twelve Disciples, betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin in the Garden of Gethsemane, which led to Jesus’ death and crucifixion. Due to this notorious role, Judas is a controversial figure in the Bible. On the one hand, he betrayed Jesus, and on the other, he set in motion the events that led to the resurrection, which was necessary to bring salvation to humanity.

The name Judas was a Greek version of the Hebrew name Judah and, therefore, was popular in Biblical times. We have already looked at the disciple Jude, also known as Judas Thaddeus. To distinguish between the two disciples, the Gospel writers used epithets, such as “Judas, son of James” for Jude, and “Iscariot” for Judas. It is not certain what ‘Iscariot’ meant, but some scholars have linked it to a Hebrew phrase meaning “the man from Kerioth.” Other suggestions are “liar”, “red colour”, and “to deliver”. There is also the theory Judas was connected with the Sicarii group, who carried daggers under their cloaks, but there is no evidence they were around during Judas’ lifetime.

“Kerioth Hezron (that is, Hazor)” (Joshua 15:25) was a town in the south of Judea. Judas may have been born there, but there is no direct reference to this in the Bible. All we know about Judas’ life before he met Jesus is his father’s name. Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.” (John 6:71) 

Judas Iscariot features in all four Gospels, although not always named. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus sent out the Twelve in pairs to preach and gave them authority over impure spirits. Other than the twelve, most of Jesus’ disciples had been unable to accept his teachings, which is why they are not named in the Bible. In the Gospel of John, Jesus emphasised that he had chosen the Twelve deliberately because Jesus knew he could rely on them. Yet, he also shocked them by saying, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70) The “devil” refers to Judas Iscariot. 

Despite Jesus knowing Judas would eventually betray him, he promised all the disciples, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28) This suggests Judas was chosen specifically for the role he would play in the crucifixion and resurrection, and God would not punish him.

Judas’ act of betrayal is portrayed from different angles in each Gospel. In Matthew, we are told that Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matthew 26:15) The priests gave Judas thirty pieces of silver. The Gospel of Mark also says the chief priests promised to give Judas money for handing over Jesus, but Mark does not indicate how much. After the Last Supper, Judas found the opportunity to hand Jesus to the chief priests. Whilst Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas arrived with a large, armed crowd and said, “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” (Matthew 26:48) 

The Gospel of Luke provides a similar account to Matthew and Mark but includes further detail. Luke suggests Judas did not go to see the chief priests of his own free will but says, “Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.” (Luke 22:3)

The Gospel of John is the only Gospel that does not state Judas betrayed Jesus in return for money. Nonetheless, it is implied Judas was greedy and a thief, so it is likely Judas would have asked the priests for something in return for delivering Jesus to them. “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6) 

John also directly indicates that Judas would be the one to betray Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper that one of them would betray him. In the Gospel of John, it is more obvious who this disciple is: “‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.” (John 13:26-27)

Jesus then told Judas to go and do what he had to do quickly, but the other disciples were unaware of what this meant. “Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor.” (John 13:29) 

Judas’ betrayal is mentioned in all four Gospels. The other eleven disciples are either involved with events recorded in a couple of the Gospels, or they are barely mentioned at all. The New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman (b.1955) states this is evidence that Judas’ actions truly happened. Whilst Christians believe everything in the Gospels is fact, it is strange not every Gospel writer thought certain events were worth recording.

It is generally believed Judas was overcome by remorse after the arrest of Jesus and committed suicide. The Gospel of Matthew records Judas tried to return the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, saying, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.” (Matthew 27:3) The chief priests would not accept the coins, “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)

The chief priests could not accept the money because it was “blood money.” Therefore, they used the money to buy a plot of land where foreigners (non-Jews) could be buried. “That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (Matthew 27:8) This supposedly fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” (Matthew 27:9-10) Yet, there is no such prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah, although there is in Zechariah. 

The Book of Acts, on the other hand, claims Judas bought the field with the money. “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.” (Acts 1:18-19) In this verse, there is no suggestion that Judas was remorseful, and his death could have been an accident rather than suicide.  

The two differing accounts of Judas’ death have caused consternation amongst scholars. St. Augustine of Hippo suggested the account in Acts was a continuation of Matthew. The field bought by the chief priests with Judas’ money may have been the same field in which Judas hanged himself. The rope may have eventually broken, causing his body to burst open on impact with the ground. Other writers have suggested the version in Acts was metaphorical rather than factual. “Falling prostrate” represented Judas in anguish, and the “bursting out of the bowels” is pouring out emotion.

A couple of Apocryphal books add more to the account of Judas’ death. The Gospel of Nicodemus, written in the 4th century AD, relates that Judas went home to his wife and told her he was going to kill himself because he knew Jesus would punish him after the resurrection. His wife laughed and said Jesus is as unlikely to rise from the dead as the chicken carcass she was preparing for dinner. At that very moment, the chicken was restored to life. The Gospel of Judas reveals Judas’ worries that the other disciples would persecute him, so he preferred to commit suicide than face that fate.

Just as the term “Doubting Thomas” has entered the common language, the name “Judas” has come to mean “betrayer” or “traitor”. In Spain, Judas is usually depicted with red hair, which during the renaissance era was regarded as a negative trait. As a result, red hair, alongside greed, became a way of portraying Jewish people in literature. In traditional art, Judas is often portrayed with a dark-coloured halo, which contrasts with the lighter colour of the other disciples.

Unlike the other disciples, Judas was not made a saint. Saint Matthias quickly filled his place among the twelve disciples. Nevertheless, Judas will not be forgotten. His betrayal is remembered annually in churches across the world.

13. Matthias

According to the Acts of the Apostle, written between 80 and 90 AD, the Apostles chose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. Matthias is different from the other disciples in that Jesus, who had already ascended into heaven, did not choose him.

In Acts 1, Peter announced to the other disciples, “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.” (1:21-22) Two men were nominated: Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias. Lots were drawn, and Matthias was added to the eleven apostles.

Nothing else about Matthias features in the canonical New Testament, but it can be inferred that Matthias had been a follower of Jesus for the past few years. Nonetheless, non-canonical documents report that Matthias, like the other disciples, travelled from place to place, preaching the Gospel. Traditionally, Matthias is associated with the arrival of Christianity in Cappadocia and the countries bordering the Caspian Sea.

According to the 14th-century Greek ecclesiastical historian, Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, Matthias began preaching in his home region of Judea before travelling to modern-day Georgia, where he was stoned to death. A marker within the ruins of a Roman fortress claims Matthias was buried there.

Other sources record Matthias preaching in Ethiopia. The Coptic book Acts of Andrew and Matthias claims the disciples were “in the city of the cannibals in Aethiopia.” The Synopsis of Dorotheus corroborates this, saying, “Matthias preached the Gospel to barbarians and meat-eaters in the interior of Ethiopia, where the sea harbour of Hyssus is, at the mouth of the river Phasis. He died at Sebastopolis, and was buried there, near the Temple of the Sun.” Sebastopolis is in modern-day Turkey, which means this statement goes against the theory that Matthias died in Georgia. 

A third theory suggests Matthias was stoned in Jerusalem, perhaps taking on Judas’ punishment, and then beheaded. On the other hand, Hippolytus of Rome believed Matthias died of old age.

Fragments of the apocryphal Gospel of Matthias survive, which suggests Matthias believed in a life of abstinence. “We must combat our flesh, set no value upon it, and concede to it nothing that can flatter it, but rather increase the growth of our soul by faith and knowledge.” 

Similar to the other disciples, minus Judas, Matthias was venerated by the Roman Church in the 11th Century. He was given the 24th February as his feast day (25th in Leap Years), but this was later changed to 14th May, so that it would not coincide with Lent. Legend claims Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, brought Matthias’ remains to Italy, where they were interred in the Abbey of Santa Giustina, Padua, with some sent to the Abbey of Matthias in Germany. Again, this goes against the claim that Matthias is buried in Georgia.

Following his death, Saint Matthias became the patron saint of alcoholics, carpenters, tailors, smallpox, hope and perseverance. He is also listed as the patron saint of the United States town Gary in Indiana and Great Falls-Billings in Montana.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Advertisement

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…


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

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.


My blogs are available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

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.


My blogs are available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

The Virgin of the Rocks

expanders-leonardo_2-002

The 500th anniversary year of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) death has come to an end but not before the National Gallery jumped on the bandwagon and ended the year with the exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece. Unlike the Queen’s Gallery, which focused on Leonardo’s life, and the British Library, which displayed examples of his notebooks, the National Gallery chose to focus on just one of the artist’s paintings: The Virgin of the Rocks.

The exhibition was split into four sections, each exploring a different aspect. Firstly, by reading quotes from Leonardo’s notebooks in a mirror (he always wrote backwards) visitors learnt about his fascination with rocks and landscapes, which feature in the background of many of his works. Secondly, visitors were introduced to a mock-modern studio, which revealed the secrets that science and conservation have revealed about The Virgin of the Rocks, for example, the colours used and the discarded composition hidden under the paint. The third room allowed visitors to experiment with shadows, discovering the dramatic effects light has on an object. Finally, visitors came face to face with the original painting, hanging on the wall of an imagined chapel to contemplate how the masterpiece looked in its original setting.

The Virgin of the Rocks, sometimes known as Madonna of the Rocks, is the title of two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. They both depict the same scene: the Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky setting; however, there are a few significant differences, for example, the direction of the angel’s gaze. The original version, or at least the version considered to be the eldest, hangs in the Louvre in Paris, the other, hangs in the National Gallery and was the subject of the Leonardo exhibition.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Virgin of the Rocks shortly after his move to Milan in the early 1480s. Having established his painting career in Florence, Leonardo had moved to search for new opportunities, which he found at the church of S. Francesco Grande. On 25th April 1483, Prior Bartolomeo Scoreline contracted Leonardo to produce painted panels for the new altarpiece in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception that was attached to the church. Leonardo was contracted as the “master” of the project with brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis as his assistants.

The artists were instructed on the colours and subject of the paintings. The central panel was to be of the Virgin Mary and Christ child with two prophets, perhaps David and Isaiah, surrounded by angels. Another panel was to show the Virgin Mary with God the panels to the side of the main painting were to contain angelic musicians. The job was to be completed by 8th December 1483, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

As can be seen when looking at both versions of the painting, Leonardo did not stick to the instructions. Only one angel is present in the scene and there are no prophets except for the child John the Baptist. The church was not happy with the work Leonardo had produced by the completion deadline, therefore, he continued to work on it for a further five years until they were satisfied. Unfortunately, there was a dispute over payment so Leonardo, whether from spite or the need for money, sold the painting, which has eventually found itself in the Louvre. Leonardo was allowed to begin a second version, which was installed in the chapel in 1508.

The subject of the two paintings, which was not what the church had originally requested, is the adoration of the Christ child by the infant John the Baptist. Although it depicts Biblical characters, the scene is not an event that features in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew reports that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was warned by an angel in a dream about King Herod the Great who had ordered that “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” were to be killed. (Matthew 2:16 ESV) Therefore, Joseph fled to Egypt with his wife and Jesus.

Several non-Biblical stories explain the flight to Egypt in more detail. One such story claims John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was also staying with his family in Bethlehem where the Massacre of the Innocents was about to take place. Whilst the Holy Family made their way to Egypt after the angel’s warning, John the Baptist was escorted there by the Archangel Uriel, where he met his aunt and cousin on the road. It is this scene that Leonardo painted, therefore, it is assumed the angel he depicted is Uriel. Similar stories, however, claim the angel was Gabriel.

It is not certain whose idea it was to deviate from the original contract but Leonardo had just come from Florence, whose patron saint was John the Baptist. Many religious artworks produced in Renaissance Florence involved the Christ child with John the Baptist, therefore, it may have only been natural for Leonardo to include the future preacher in his painting.

Both paintings contain the same subject matter and similar background of rocks and distant mountains. The Christ child sits on the right of the painting, being supported by the angel, raising his hand as a sign of Benediction towards his cousin. John, on the opposite side of the painting, kneels with his hands together as though in prayer, whilst gazing at Jesus. This, however, is where the similarities end.

The figures in the second painting are slightly larger than the original and everything is more defined. In the first, the angel’s hand is raised as though pointing at John, whereas in the second, he rests his hand on his lap. The pointing angel also looks out towards the viewer, almost as though it is saying, “Look, it is John!” Leonardo’s second angel, on the other hand, looks down in a contemplative manner. Other notable differences include the halos, which are omited in the first painting, and the cross held by John, which only features in the second.

rct-collection-1

A study of the fall of light on a face, about 1488

The style of the second painting appears to be remarkably different from the former. The sharpness of the outlines is one thing but there is also a lot of attention to shadow and shade. Notebooks belonging to Leonardo reveal he approached his paintings in a scientific way. Being a polymath, Leonardo was interested in the natural world and human anatomy, therefore, paid great attention to detail. He was aware of the effects light had on an image. When lit from above, shadows fall in a different direction to when lit from below, which can create a vastly different appearance. In the first painting, there is a distinct lack of shadow, however, it features heavily in the second.

The effect of contrasting light and shadow in art is known as chiaroscuro, which is derived from the Latin words for clear/bright and dark/obscure. The term was first used during the Renaissance period, coinciding with Leonardo’s career. Since it was a new idea, Leonardo may not have been educated in chiaroscuro painting but rather developed the style himself. This could explain the difference in style between version one and two, however, some people also suggest the second was painted by someone else under Leonardo’s instruction.

The rocky background blocks out a lot of the natural light, the only daylight coming through a small gap to the left of Mary. As a result, the opposite corner is in shadow and only parts of the four figures are lit by the light. Rather than making it difficult to view the characters, the gloomy light creates an unnatural illumination, which highlights and emphasises their features.

Another technique Leonardo used is sfumato, which means “shaded off”. This is a method for softening the transition between colours and tones, making parts of the painting appear out of focus. It is also useful when painting backgrounds, mimicking an area beyond what the human eye can see. Leonardo described sfumato as blending colours, without the use of lines or borders “in the manner of smoke”.

Leonardo used sfumato around the edges of delicate forms, such as the Virgin Mary’s facial features. Rather than drawing the nose, eyes and mouth with stark outlines, Leonardo made them seem to emerge gradually from the darkness. By using graduated smoky tones, the figures appear three-dimensional.

Leonardo also used sfumato in the background where the tips of the mountain reached the sky, creating the illusion that the land continues on further than the eye can see. Just as he had studied how the light fell on the human figures, Leonardo concentrated on the shadows on the rocks that framed the light source, making the background as interesting to look at as the figures in the foreground.

As well as being a prolific painter and biologist, Leonardo had a lifelong passion for the natural world. Many of his surviving sketches feature his observations of nature, including rivers, rock formations, trees and plants, including a star-of-Bethlehem, which features in the foreground of Virgin of the Rocks. The majority of these drawings were observations of the areas he lived or travelled through. It may be due to this fascination that Leonardo used a dramatic rock formation for the background of both versions of the painting. It certainly does not represent the Egyptian deserts of the land to which the Holy Family fled.

Although the rock formation is a natural landscape, it creates an other-worldly landscape when placed behind the Virgin Mary. The broken rocks thrust upwards from the ground and downwards from the roof of a cave, creating energy that contrasts with the peaceful meeting of John and Jesus as well as the calm water between the rocks and the mountains in the distance.

The landscape feels primaeval, as though it had remained untouched since God created it thousands of years before Christ’s birth. The presence of the Holy Family makes the environment come alive, plants blooming beneath John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Although one plant appears to be a star-of-Bethlehem, the other plants have been invented by Leonardo.

Whilst The Virgin of the Rocks (second version) is impressive to look at, science and technology have revealed hidden details that create a mystery about the painting and commission. Many paintings have underdrawings, showing the preliminary sketches of the artist before they began applying paint to the canvas. When conservators examined The Virgin of the Rocks in 2005 for the underdrawing, they were surprised to find a different sketch to the final composition.

Infrared reflectography (IRR) revealed Leonardo had begun a drawing of the Virgin Mary then abandoned it. A detailed eye could be seen on the scans but little was thought of it at the time other than the artist had not been happy and started again.

More recently, the painting has been examined again with new technologies and more details have been discovered. Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning showed up elements under the painting that had been drawn in a material that contained zinc. This showed up an alternative composition of the angel and Christ child. With wings slightly open, the angel appears to be looking tenderly down at the baby, holding him in a tight embrace.

Hyperspectral imaging (HSI) provided clearer images of the angel and baby, revealing that the Christ child’s arm is raised. Whether Jesus was interacting with the angel or reaching for his mother or John is unclear.

When examining the rest of the painting, an entirely different scene was revealed. The angel appears to be holding the Christ child on his lap, who is reaching out for his mother. Rather than sitting comfortably as she is in the finished version, Mary is on her knees in mid-movement, facing her son with one arm thrown out and the other on her chest as though in adoration. John the Baptist does not appear at all.

No one knows why Leonardo changed his original composition so drastically. Perhaps there was an intervention from the church who may have wanted Leonardo to paint a replica of the first painting. Nonetheless, this second version is by no means a reproduction. The use of lighting and attention to detail shows Leonardo had conducted more research into optics and human physiology, resulting in a more realistic interpretation of the Holy Family.

There may be more hidden under the painted layers of The Virgin of the Rocks, however, until technology is enhanced further, there is no way of knowing. Unfortunately, it is 500 years since the artist died, therefore, it is impossible to answer the many questions these revelations provoke.

Using lights and animation, the National Gallery recreated how Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks would have looked in its original setting. Today, Leonardo’s work hangs as a stand-alone painting in the gallery, however, it was originally made to be inserted into a pre-existing sculpted altarpiece, carved by Giacomo del Maino (1469-1505), in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Over the following centuries, the altar was modified several times and eventually dismantled in 1780. The chapel in which the altar stood had also been demolished, and the rest of the church was torn down by Napoleon (1769-1821) to make way for barracks in 1806.

Following the dismantling of the altar, the Scottish painter and antiquarian Gavin Hamilton (1723-98) purchased Leonardo’s painting and brought it to England. Two paintings of angels that featured on the altar, although not painted by Leonardo, were also sold, however, the rest of the altarpiece is now lost.

1483-contract

The Contract

Some evidence remains that helps us picture what the chapel once looked like. The commission for a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin can be traced to the spring of 1475 when the Franciscan friar and theologian Stefano da Oleggio proposed the idea during one of his sermons. Italian painters Francesco Zavattari (active 1417-1453) and Giorgio della Chiesa were commissioned to paint the decorative touches to the dome of the chapel, which included stars and the images of God, seraphim and the four Evangelists.

The contract states that the chosen sculptor of the altar had previously produced altarpieces in other churches in places such as Ponte, Sernio, Morbegno and Ardenno to the north of Milan. It is likely the church requested something similar from the sculptor.

As well as the paintings, Leonardo and his two assistants were contracted to paint and guild the entire altarpiece. In total, sixteen items were included in the contract. A statue of “Our Lady” was to have an outer coat of gold and ultramarine blue brocade and a dress of gold and crimson. The seraphim were to be painted red, but the other angels were to be decorated “in the Greek manner, painted in oils.” The place where the Christ child lay was to be painted to resemble a straw basket. “All the faces, hands and legs that are bare should be painted in oil to perfection.”

It is from the description of the contract and the existing examples of altarpieces from other churches in the area that the National Gallery managed to recreate an interactive version of the altar at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Of course, no one can ever be certain how it looked but to see The Virgin of the Rocks in situ was a breathtaking experience.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece has been extended until 26th January 2020, therefore, there is one week remaining in which to view The Virgin of the Rocks in a unique setting. Tickets are £18 and it is recommended that a timed ticket is purchased in advance of the visit.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Michelangelo and the Risen Christ

The current exhibition at the National Gallery, Michelangelo & Sebastiano (I wrote about this a few weeks back) emphasises the impact Christianity – mostly Catholicism – had on artists of the early Renaissance. The Renaissance era itself, a word that means rebirth, was a European movement that brought about the rediscovery of Classical Greek Philosophy, thus painters began refocusing on mythological stories. However, Florentine art during the years of Michelangelo (1475-1564) was still greatly influenced by the Church and papacy.

Whether as a result from commissions, or his own personal preferences, Michelangelo’s artwork suggests a fascination with the resurrection of Christ. Naturally, other biblical scenes were also popular, the birth of Christ for instance, but it is the death and resurrection that was most prominent in the choice of artwork exhibited.

The way Michelangelo chose to depict the body of Christ goes against all logic. Putting cultural misrepresentation aside, the paintings portraying the crucifixion are far too pure and clean, diminishing the pain and horror of death. Rather than presenting a realistic account of events, Michelangelo painted an impression of the immortal soul, rather than flawed, damaged physique. Instead of blood, sweat and tears, Christ is a symbol of celestial beauty and grace.

3e5d026300000578-4317406-m_the_risen_christ_the_giustiniani_christ_-a-39_1489776306067

As well as paintings, Michelangelo turned to sculpture to demonstrate his version of the Risen Lord. At the beginning of the 16th century, Michelangelo produced two marble statues of The Risen Christ (The Giustiniani Christ). The first attempt was abandoned after a vein of black marble became visible in Christ’s face, thus making it less than perfect. An unknown artist finished the job in the early 17th century.

The second version, located in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, is slightly different. Christ is positioned in a different stance, stepping forward on one foot, suggesting a continuation of the Easter story, rather than concluding it with the resurrection.

 

In both statues, Christ is portrayed nude – presumably because he has only that moment risen from the tomb – clutching a linen cloth and holding up the cross, as if posing in triumph over death.

Michelangelo was not trying to be provocative in his decision to sculpt Jesus nude, he wanted to give the impression of perfection by using this classical form. Unfortunately, this has resulted in unintentionally making Christ appear like a pagan god.

Primarily known for his solo work, Michelangelo held great influence over his Italian contemporary Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). As a result, Sebastiano shares Michelangelo’s aesthetic visions and almost replicates the exact same style. Often the pair would collaborate on a commission, Michelangelo providing initial sketches, and Sebastiano executing the final outcome.

The Borgherini Chapel Project (1516-24) is a significant example of the work produced when the two joined forces. Pierfrancesco Borgherini commissioned Sebastiano to decorate the chapel located in the San Pietro in Montorio church in Rome, however Michelangelo also contributed toward the masterpiece.

50854859_9b53780fde_zThe plan was for Michelangelo to provide Sebastiano with sketches of the design, however due to another commission, Sebastiano was largely left to his own devices. Michelangelo only provided drawings for the lower section, The Flagellation of Christ, but Sebastiano was just as capable of tackling the remaining sections alone.

The resulting artwork has been labelled as the most influential of their joint works, and has resulted in countless interpretations. The National Gallery has recreated the masterpiece through means of 3D printing, which successfully conveys the atmospheric effect of the original.

As with Michelangelo’s statues and paintings of Christ, Sebastiano has retained the god-like aura when painting Jesus’ body. The idea of the artwork is that Christ appears twice, thus telling parts of his death and resurrection: the Flagellation and Transfiguration. In the upper dome, Christ is depicted in a dazzling white, symbolising his purity and flawlessness of character. His disciples look on in awestruck wonder, whilst Moses and Elijah, prophets of the Old Testament, regard the event from either side.

In contrast, the version of Christ in the lower half, the Flagellation, is much darker and distressing. Shown here is Jesus chained to a pillar, being flogged by Romans. Stripped of clothing and in evident pain, his suffering is distinctly illustrated. Yet, Christ is still represented as a superhuman character. His toned body and strong muscles betray Michelangelo’s visualisation of Christ in the same vein as an Ancient Greek or Roman god. Although this is an inaccurate portrayal of the biblical record, it does help to emphasise the primary intention of the artwork. The Flagellation emphasises the corrupt state of Christianity in the early 16th century, whilst the Transfiguration provides hope for a more glorious future.

Were Michelangelo and Sebastiano right to depict Christ in such god-like proportions? Some would argue yes, for he was the son of God. Others would be less inclined to agree. With the latest versions of technology at our disposal, artists and film makers of the 21st century have created more realistic imagery of the New Testament, going as far as to show a convincing amount of blood and emotion. Unlike the angelic Christ of the Renaissance, Jesus has been shown as human, like each and every one of us.

Whether or not you agree with Michelangelo’s unblemished form of the son of God, or you prefer to witness the blood, sweat and tears, it goes without saying that the paintings of the past are shrouded with awe and reverence. It is definitely worth seeing the artworks for yourself – nothing compares to standing directly in front of an original masterpiece.

WARNING: the exhibition closes on 25th June 2017

PS, Happy Easter!

Merry Christmas

2016-copyHave a Cool Yule!

What do reindeer hang on their Christmas trees?

Horn-aments!

Did Rudolph go to school?
No. He was Elf-taught!

What do you call a bunch of chess players bragging about their games in a hotel lobby?
Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer!

A Politically Correct Christmas 
Anon

Twas the night before Christmas and Santa’s a wreck…
How to live in a world that’s politically correct?
His workers no longer would answer to “Elves”,
“Vertically Challenged” they were calling themselves.
And labor conditions at the North Pole,
were alleged by the union, to stifle the soul.

Four reindeer had vanished without much propriety,
released to the wilds, by the Humane Society.
And equal employment had made it quite clear,
that Santa had better not use just reindeer.
So Dancer and Donner, Comet and Cupid,
were replaced with 4 pigs, and you know that looked stupid!

The runners had been removed from his beautiful sleigh,
because the ruts were deemed dangerous by the EPA,
And millions of people were calling the Cops,
when they heard sled noises upon their roof tops.
Second-hand smoke from his pipe, had his workers quite frightened,
and his fur trimmed red suit was called “unenlightened”.

To show you the strangeness of today’s ebbs and flows,
Rudolf was suing over unauthorized use of his nose.
He went to Geraldo, in front of the Nation,
demanding millions in over-due workers compensation.

So…half of the reindeer were gone, and his wife
who suddenly said she’d had enough of this life,
joined a self help group, packed and left in a whiz,
demanding from now on that her title was Ms.

And as for gifts…why, he’d never had the notion
that making a choice could cause such commotion.
Nothing of leather, nothing of fur…
Which meant nothing for him or nothing for her.
Nothing to aim, Nothing to shoot,
Nothing that clamored or made lots of noise.
Nothing for just girls and nothing for just boys.
Nothing that claimed to be gender specific,
Nothing that’s warlike or non-pacifistic.

No candy or sweets…they were bad for the tooth.
Nothing that seemed to embellish upon the truth.
And fairy tales…while not yet forbidden,
were like Ken and Barbie, better off hidden,
for they raised the hackles of those psychological,
who claimed the only good gift was one ecological.

No baseball, no football…someone might get hurt,
besides – playing sports exposed kids to dirt.
Dolls were said to be sexist and should be passe.
and Nintendo would rot your entire brain away.

So Santa just stood there, disheveled and perplexed,
he just couldn’t figure out what to do next?
He tried to be merry he tried to be gay,
but you must have to admit he was having a very bad day.
His sack was quite empty, it was flat on the ground,
nothing fully acceptable was anywhere to be found.

Something special was needed, a gift that he might,
give to us all, without angering the left or the right.
A gift that would satisfy – with no indecision,
each group of people in every religion.
Every race, every hue,
everyone, everywhere…even you!
So here is that gift, it’s price beyond worth…
“May you and your loved ones enjoy peace on Earth.”