Capital Depicting the Martyrdom of St. Andrew

Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2014

 

The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew

 

Glencairn is home to many unusual and arresting works of medieval art, and the limestone capital of the Martyrdom of St. Andrew is no exception. A rare twelfth-century example of a stone carving depicting a saint’s life, the capital reveals a new subject entering the repertoire of medieval sculptors, one that engages the viewer at the story’s dramatic climax.

 

Figure 1: Saint Andrew turns his face heavenward, calling out to God.

 

We must begin, however, at the story’s beginning. St. Andrew and his brother Simon Peter were both humble fishermen, but they would number among the first of the apostles to follow Christ. One day, while they were in their boat on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus called them to join his ministry, saying, “Come and follow me; I will make you into fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Andrew fulfilled this prophetic statement even after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, when he, along with the other apostles, traveled the known world to spread the word of Christianity. Accounts of Andrew’s missionary activity are apocryphal, but they tell us that he performed several miracles in his travels. In the end, however, he raised the suspicions of local authorities while preaching in Greece and died defending his beliefs. The Glencairn capital depicts the pivotal last moments of his life.

 

Figure 2: The Roman proconsul Aegeus, responsible for Andrew's crucifixion, witnesses the moment of his martyrdom.

 
 

Figure 3: Maximillia, the wife of proconsul Aegeus, was converted to Christianity by Saint Andrew. She is depicted here with a halo.

 

The death of St. Andrew took place in the Greek province of Achaia, then under Roman imperial rule. The proconsul Aegeus (who is depicted on the capital’s right-hand face; Figure 2) took notice of Andrew’s energetic and effective ministry—his own wife Maximillia (shown with a halo on the capital’s left-hand face; Figure 3) numbered among the many locals who had been converted to Christianity by Andrew’s teaching. Disapproving of this new religion’s popularity, Aegeus commanded Andrew to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. When Andrew refused and sought to convert the Roman official instead, Aegeus ordered his crucifixion. On the Glencairn capital, we see Andrew lashed to an X-shaped cross at his wrists and ankles (see lead photo). This unusual shape, called the “decussate cross,” is not described in written sources and may have been a medieval artistic invention—of which the Glencairn rendering is among the earliest.

Sources tell us that Andrew was left tied to the cross for two days and continued to preach to a large audience, which in turn begged for him to be released. On the third day, Aegeus relented under the people’s pressure and ordered him to be cut down from the cross. In response, Andrew called upon God to enable his death at the hands of his tormentors; by then, he welcomed the death of a martyr—someone who dies in the defense of his faith. Just as the governor’s henchmen approached to release Andrew from the cross, they suddenly found they were frozen in place (Figure 4). Shortly after this thwarted attempt to free him, Andrew died bathed in a brilliant light. The Glencairn capital eloquently chronicles all of this. On the front face of the capital, on either side of the saint, the governor’s two men stand stock still, unable to release the ropes at the saint’s wrists. Meanwhile, Andrew turns his face heavenward, calling out to God (Figure 1). Above, the Hand of God reaches down, enveloped in a halo that is inscribed with a cross, to release the saint from his suffering (Figure 5).

 

Figure 4: The two henchmen of proconsul Aegeus are frozen in place as they attempt to cut down Saint Andrew from the cross.

 

In capturing Andrew’s final moments, the Glencairn capital celebrates the saint’s valor in martyrdom. The act of dying for one’s beliefs was viewed as the greatest of Christian sacrifices, and during the first three centuries of Christianity, before its official acceptance by the Roman state, many fervent believers sacrificed themselves in defying pagan practices. The word “martyr” derives from the Greek word for “witness,” indicating that those who die for their faith are convinced of their beliefs beyond any doubt; through death, they testify to the truth of these beliefs. St. Andrew was also a witness in the sense that he had known Jesus and witnessed his life and works. Many early Christian martyrs were canonized, and as saints they were believed to be able to intercede on behalf of the living, facilitating their prayers. Medieval people revered martyrs for their great sacrifices, placing them among the most exalted of saints, and the depiction of saints’ martyrdoms in church decoration could inspire worshipers to carry out good works and make their own sacrifices. Moreover, though Christianity was the dominant religion of Western Europe by the Middle Ages, and persecution of Christians was no longer a part of life there, there is much evidence that Christian warriors who died fighting Muslims during the Crusades were considered martyrs by the Church. The contemporary relevance of martyrdom in the context of the Crusades may have provided an extra dimension of significance in the unknown French church from which the Glencairn capital came, since many French knights participated in the Crusades.

 

Figure 5: The hand of God, reaching down, enveloped in a halo inscribed with the cross.

 

Moreover, this capital’s early twelfth-century date coincides with a growing interest in the veneration of saints in Western Europe. Prayer in the presence of a saint’s relics—their physical remains—was understood to be more efficacious, while making a journey to a saint’s shrine was seen as an act of penance. At the same time, images played a powerful role in promoting and celebrating the cults of saints. The depiction of episodes from saints’ lives began to appear more frequently on the pages of illustrated manuscripts, as well as on the painted walls of church interiors. In recalling the principal events of what were generally well-known stories, pictures of saints’ lives could inspire or humble their viewers, while inciting positive action and moral behavior.

Despite the enthusiasm for painted images of saints’ stories during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, sculpted depictions were not to gain popularity until the later Middle Ages. This discrepancy raises many questions about the differences between painting and sculpture during the Middle Ages. The scarcity of saints’ lives’ depictions in sculpture may have had something to do with the fact that carvings of Christ – depicting his life, death, resurrection, and re-appearance at the end of time—generally took center stage in church decoration, since they communicated concepts central to Christian belief. On the other hand, it may have had something to do with the relative “newness” of stone carving in medieval art. Between the sixth century and the dawn of the eleventh century, stone carving—particularly the sculpting of figures and stories—took a back seat to painting, metalwork, and ivory carving. Over the course of the eleventh century, stone sculpture slowly came to be appreciated and accepted, though artists only gradually developed designs for a variety of different subjects. These are not, however, entirely satisfactory explanations, and the reasons for the limited interest in carving saints’ lives during the eleventh and twelfth centuries remain mysterious. It is clear, however, that the Glencairn capital is an unusual example of a saint’s martyrdom commemorated in stone, and the sculptor very capably handled what may have been an unfamiliar subject.

One of the great achievements of this capital lies in the evocation of great drama in a minimal space. Here the X-shaped cross is exploited for the dramatic potential of its diagonals, and in fact this key element in the story forms the basis for the entire composition. The saint’s body conforms exactly to its shape and size, while the bodies of the two figures on either side each bend backwards, away from the cross, to echo its form (see lead photo). The angled volutes crowning the composition—a common compositional element of capital carving that is reminiscent of the ancient Roman Corinthian capital—further emphasize the powerful diagonal lines governing the figures, and may have provided some inspiration for the sculptor.

Did the Glencairn capital originally decorate a church dedicated to St. Andrew? Did this church contain any relics of this much-loved saint? Did Crusaders’ families worship there? Though very little is known about this sculpture’s original location, exact date, or larger architectural and sculptural context, leaving these questions aside, the Glencairn capital still survives as an intriguing glimpse into medieval religious and artistic culture.

Julia Perratore, PhD
Mellon Curatorial Fellow
Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.