Where’s That in the Bible?

One of the fascinating little churches I poked my nose into on this past trip was St. Thomas in Tribsee. Although it is now Protestant (Lutheran), like every other church in the region, it began as Catholic and during the Reformation, the parishioners saved some of the artwork, including a fascinating altarpiece. The church was affiliated with a Cistercian Monastery. It was Cistercians who first moved into the area and developed farming and livestock-raising. You are in the swampy part of Germany, and the Cistercians looked for empty wilderness to move into. They found lots of it up in this area, between Hamburg and Rostock.

Focus on the central panels.


The four evangelists, left to right Mark, Matthew, John, and Luke, pouring the words of Jesus and the Old Testament into a mill (that’s a grindstone with a vertical handle to turn it.) Underneath are the four Doctors of the Church, Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, Thomas Aquinas, and Jerome, catching the theology of the Church (as shown by Baby Jesus in the chalice). On the upper left you have Adam and Eve in hell’s mouth, upper right is the Annunciation, together forming a bit of a play on the Latin “Ave fit ex Eva,” or “Hail {Mary} be from Eve.” The middle inner panels are the 12 Apostles, and the lower two are scenes from the life of Thomas A Beckett, for whom the church was first named, not St. Thomas the Apostle (as it is today). As an aside, you find a goodly number of churches and altars to St. Thomas A Beckett in this part of Germany because 1) very strong trade links to England and 2) he was a saint who put the church before obedience to the king.

If you are wondering just where in the Bible that idea comes from, it doesn’t. The “Gospel mill” was apparently popular with Cistercians, and so it was incorporated into the parish church’s altar piece. The animals as symbols of the Evangelists are also not in the Bible unless you go to the Book of Revelation. But you see the imagery, although not in this form, I assure you, all over Medieval churches and art. If someone is writing and he as an ox beside him, it is St. Luke. If he has a lion, he could be St. Mark or St. Jerome. If you do not see a cardinal’s hat, it is St. Mark.

St. Mary Magdalene – the original long hair?

Crivelli’s Mary Magdalene, before her repentance (per Church tradition).

There is nothing in the Gospels about Mary of Magdala having been a prostitute, although that was the story that became popular in the Middle Ages. The upper statue is from the Altar of St. Mary Magdalene in the St. Annen Museum in Lübeck. The lower part of the altar shows her out hunting with some of her “gentlemen friends” and is the only surviving mixed-media altar I’ve seen – the horse tails are real horse hair. The tradition, again not in the Bible, is that after she repented or her sins, she fled to the wilderness and her hair grew to cover her as she lived the rest of her days as a saintly hermit.

Another saint who was, if I might put it, retconned into the Gospels is St. Veronica. The woman who wipes Jesus’s face as he carried the cross to Golgotha is not named in the Gospels. However, she became Veronica, and the miraculous image of Christ that appeared on her cloth or veil performed miracles and converted Roman officials to Christianity.

During the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, stories from the Gospels and Acts were elaborated upon, enhanced, and interpreted to fill in all the parts the original authors had been too busy to add. There were also Psuedo-gospels, some of which were re-packagings of the original four, some of which are a bit head-scratching. There were also elaborations on the lives of saints, so that St. George no longer just killed a dragon, saved a princess, and converted her and her family and their entire kingdom to Christianity, but also was killed three times and came back twice here on earth. I’ve only seen that version once, but it may be part of why St. George is no longer in the official top tier of Roman Catholic Saints.

St. Margaret of Antioch and, um, dragon?

St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Ursula were other figures who became holy martyrs, with quite detailed stories attached to their lives, and amazing artwork carved and painted in their honor. There is now some question about St. Ursula and her 10,000 companions being murdered by the Huns, but that didn’t stop her from becoming popular with Medieval Christians.

For most Protestants who have not spent time studying art history and the odd bits of Church history, all this sounds rather unnecessary. But the saints, and the additional details about Biblical figures, brought the past to life for Medieval Christians. And if they were updated to Renaissance or Medieval fashion plates and kings and queens, why not? They were beautiful, and captured the essence and ideal of spiritual beauty.* That is what your soul could look like, if you were good and tried to follow the Church’s teachings.

I enjoy the extra-Biblical stories because they add a richness to our understanding of the Medieval and Renaissance world. Granted, today we roll our eyes at some of them, like when Charlemagne was sainted for a few years, or the King and Queen in what is now Austria “who lived celibate in marriage” and were canonized (probably a case of mutual infertility, but they founded several churches and monasteries and encouraged the re-conversion of that part of Europe). And St. Ursula’s 10,000 virgins, who probably stem from a copying error. And St. Margaret and her dragon. Then there are other images, with theology you don’t hear that much about any more, like the Gospel mill, or

The word of the Lord as a sword, piercing the heart. From the church in Hämeln.

Which would be easier for you to remember: a lecture on prevenient grace vs. justifying grace, or that picture of Jesus with the sword in his teeth? Me too.

*My mother has been known to mutter that the popularity of St. Sebastian and Susannah and the Elders was in part because that was the only way artists could slip nearly-nudes into church. Except Sebastian is a plague saint, so I’m tempted to tip the scales a little away from artistic interest. Susannah and the Elders? Hmmm. See Daniel: 13, for which you may need to go to the Vulgate and other Bibles that include the Apocrypha.


12 thoughts on “Where’s That in the Bible?

  1. Charlemagne is fun. He was, of course, declared a saint by his local Bishop, because that was the way things were done back then, long before Rome centralized the process. (There’s some question as to whether his heir ‘persuaded’ the Bishop to make his declaration by applying less-than-ecclesiastically-approved pressure. Ahem.)

    At any rate, one of the arguments advanced for Charlemagne’s canonization was his success as a missionary. You see, every time he conquered a Hun or a Goth or a Vandal tribe, he allegedly lined up the survivors next to the nearest body of water, and gave them a choice: be baptized in it, or be drowned in it. It’s said that the cries of “Hallelujah! Now I see it!” (in the vulgar tongue, of course) were positively deafening in their enthusiasm.

    Of course, whether or not his new converts stayed converted after Charlemagne had led his army back over the hill was a matter of some conjecture . . . but in those days, it was believed that once you were dunked, you stayed dunked. A bit fundamentalist, what?


  2. The things I’ve missed out on as a Baptist….

    This was very interesting. Thanks for the post.

    • You’re quite welcome. 🙂 There’s such an additional depth to the works of great Christian art and history when you know the stories associated with them, and why certain saints, and certain stories, are more common in one region as compared with another. For example, the Harrowing of Hell is something I’ve only seen once in Northern Europe, but it is comparatively popular in the south. The Fourteen Holy Helpers are northern, or are found where northerners traveled, while Mary, Star of the Sea is only found on the coast of southern France and Galicia down toward Campostelo, I’ve never seen Santiago Matamoros east of the Rhine, but St. Michael and St. George step in to take up the same role. Instead you see St. James the pilgrim.

  3. I’ve always (at least as long as I can remember) known that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, but now that you ask, danged if I can point to where in the bible that is written. 🙂

    • There was some conflation, and an assumption that several of the unnamed women later reappeared as this or that named individual. And so a tradition developed that became canon, but once you sit down and start really looking, you don’t see Mary of Magdala specifically named as a harlot or adulteress or prostitute.

      • I was taught she’s the woman who had demons cast out of her and formed a fan club/support group for Jesus and the Apostles– in modern terms, she was supporting the ministry via volunteering.

        Also that the route for her being the prostitute is conflating her with the lady who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.

        Honestly, from what I know of names then and there, there’s a good chance that the prostitute WAS named some variation of Mary!

Comments are closed.