The Twelve Apostles in Art

The Twelve Apostles in Art

In this article I want to look at the twelve apostles in art.  Some while ago, someone who had watched one of my church tour videos on YouTube asked me how I can go into a church, take one look at a medieval image of a saint and know who that saint is – even when the saint’s name is not present and whether I would begin to talk through how I do that with you all. Like many aspects of medieval art and architecture, Christian iconography has a symbolic, visual language that can be learnt and then read. When literacy levels were low in the late Middle Ages, it was a language inherently understood by those who used and worshipped in our churches.

Apostles in Art

Who are the Twelve Apostles?

I will focus on one aspect of medieval iconography – how the twelve Apostles are portrayed in art in medieval England. Firstly, we should begin by clearing up who the Apostles are. Eleven of them are the people Jesus chose to be among his twelve disciples, his closest followers. The word apostle means a person who is ‘sent out’ – a messenger – and when Jesus gave his twelve disciples the role of spreading the Gospel, they stopped being his disciples only and became apostles. Jesus chose twelve close companions as his disciples and then as apostles for symbolic reasons. There are twelve tribes of Israel, and the job of the twelve apostles was to form a new nation of Israel drawn not only from the Jewish people but from everyone on earth – that new nation was called the Church. The apostles were to be the head of the Church, and Jesus said to them in Matthew’s gospel that at the end of all things, they would also sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.

Replacing Judas Isacariot

Of course, after the Crucifixion of Christ, the number of disciples was reduced to eleven due to the suicide of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer. Twelve were required, and we read in the Acts of the Apostles that the remaining eleven elected a replacement by lot – St Matthias, and he became the twelfth apostle.  Sometimes in Western medieval art, poor old Matthias is missed out and replaced with St Paul. Paul was not one of the original twelve disciples – he had been Saul, a persecutor of the Church, but he was converted by Jesus on the road to Damascus and given a particular mission to spread the gospel to the Gentiles, those outside the Jewish faith – so he became an apostle too.

Apostles in Art

The Apostles in art and their ‘Attributes’

So how do you tell which Apostle is which in art when they are not labelled? Well, I will take as an example the figures of the Apostles on the early 16th-century century painted rood screen at Beeston Regis in Norfolk. The figures are arranged in pairs, six on one side of the screen and six on the other – and you will notice that each of the figures is holding an object in their hands – these are their ‘attributes’, things associated with their own unique and story, they helped medieval people identify them and are how you and I can identify them today.  Now at Beeston, the figures are arranged with the four apostles, considered the most important surrounding the door. So, we will take those first.

Apostles in Art

St Peter

St Peter, the chief of the apostles, is shown on the right-hand side of the door, the most important spot – he is usually depicted as the eldest of the apostles. He holds in his hand a set of oversize church keys. These are, of course, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus renames Simon, as he was previously called, Peter, which means ‘the rock’ and tells him he will be the rock on which the Church is built. He gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven so that he can grant forgiveness to penitents or withhold it from those who are not.

Apostles in Art

St Andrew

St Andrew, Peter’s brother, is in the next most important spot to the left of the door. He holds a saltire, or x-shaped cross. St Andrew was crucified in Patras in the year AD60 – and tradition arose in the later Middle Ages that he had chosen to be crucified on an x-shaped cross, as he considered himself unworthy to be crucified precisely like Christ. A similar story is attached to the martyrdom of St Peter, who is said to have been crucified head down. The reason that the flag of Scotland is a saltire is due to that tradition; Andrew, of course, in the Middle Ages, became the patron saint of Scotland.

Apostles in Art

St John

Then we have two more saints who were brothers. Next to St Peter is St John, the beloved disciple. He is usually shown as the youngest of the twelve and is clean-shaven, while the rest have good beard growth. He was the only one of the twelve who did not suffer martyrdom, having been given the role by Christ of looking after his mother, Mary. Dying at a ripe old age, he spent time in Ephesus and was exiled to the island of Patmos for many years. His attribute is a chalice with a viper or demon coming out of it – this refers to an event that began as an oral tradition and was then recorded in the second-century text called the ‘Acts of John’, a text that was well known in medieval time. The tradition relates that in Ephesus, John gets into dialogue with a pagan priest, Aristodemus, who is hostile to Christianity. John asks him what would convince him of the truth of the Gospel, and Aristodemus says that he would believe if John were to drink a cup of poison and live. Handed the poison, John prays, makes the sign of the cross over it, asks God to make the poison flee as a serpent runs before him, and then crossing himself, he drinks it. John does survive – but sadly, that still does not convince Aristodemus. The crowd witnessing this are convinced and orders Aristodemus to keep his doubts to himself, threatening to burn his house down if he does not. We see John exorcising the poisoned cup with the sign of the cross and the poison in the form of a serpent fleeing.

Apostles in Art

St James the Great

St James the Great is next to St Andrew, he is the brother of St John – and he and his brother are referred to in the gospel as ‘Boanerges’ or the ‘Sons of Thunder’ as either they were a bit impetuous, or their father Zebedee had a reputation for that trait. James is curiously depicted in medieval English art, dressed as a pilgrim to his shrine at Santiago de Compostela. Many pilgrims from medieval England took what they called the and visited his shrine in Spain, and lots of churches along the route in England are dedicated to him. St James is shown wearing pilgrim’s garb. The rest of the apostles are all shown barefoot – but St James is wearing stout boots, holding a walking stick, and attached to it is what in Middle English is called a ‘scrip’ – a little bag that contains all the things you might need on route to deal with blisters. On his head is a hat to shade his eyes, and attached to that is a scallop shell, the badge pilgrims to his shrine pinned to their clothing.

The remaining apostles are not placed in any particular order, and we will work from the north, across the screen to the south – left to right, as we look at them.

Apostles in Art

St Simon

The far-left panel depicts St Simon, known in the gospels as Simon the Canaanite or Simon the Zealot – many countries claim him as a missionary, including Georgia. The mainstream Christian tradition is that St Simon was martyred in Asia Minor and died by being sawn in two down his middle – and in medieval England, he is usually shown iconographically holding the saw of his martyrdom. To confuse, elsewhere, such as at Ranworth, he is sometimes shown holding a gigantic fish – which is odd, as he is not known to have been a fisherman – perhaps they confused Simon with Simon Peter.

St Matthew

Next to him is St Matthew, perhaps the author of the Gospel of that name. By tradition, he undertook missionary work in Ethiopia, and he was martyred with a sword – the sword is usually his attribute, as it is here in Beeston. Elsewhere he is shown as the author of his gospel. On the rood screen at Cawston in Norfolk, he is shown reading his gospel wearing a fetching pair of spectacles – though some horrible iconoclast has poked his eyes out.

Apostles in Art

St James the Less

The next apostle is one that medieval people called St James the Less to differentiate him from St James the Great, the brother of John. In scripture, he is known as James, the son of Alphaeus and brother of Joseph – and by early tradition, he was the son of Mary Cleophas, one of the women who stood at the foot of the cross, who was a relative and in some traditions the sister of the Virgin Mary. He gets confused with another James who was not one of the twelve, St James the Just, the brother or kinsman of Christ – who in the Acts of the Apostles was the first bishop of Jerusalem. That confusion gets transmitted into Western medieval iconography. According to St Clement of Alexandria writing in the 2nd century, St James the Just was thrown from the top of the temple in Jerusalem and then beaten to death with a club, the sort of club fuller’s or felt makers used to beat wool into felt. Due to the confusion of the two, St James the Less, the apostle, ends up being shown in Western art holding a fuller’s club -as he is here at Beeston.

St Jude

Next, we have St Jude, also known in the gospels as Thaddeus or Judas Thaddeus – so that he is not confused with Judas Iscariot. He is said to have been martyred alongside St Simon in Asia Minor in most traditions. In late medieval English iconography, he is invariably shown holding a boat. We are unsure why that is – it may have referred to his many journeys as an apostle. In many cases, St Simon and St Jude are paired together, but not here in Beeston.

Apostles in Art

St Bartholomew

St Bartholomew, who is next, is sometimes identified with Nathaniel, the friend of St Philip, who in St John’s gospel is initially sceptical that Jesus is the Christ. By tradition, he had an apostolic ministry in India and perhaps Armenia. There are several traditions about his martyrdom – one that he was kidnapped, beaten, and drowned in the sea, another that, like St Peter, he was crucified upside down. The one that caught the popular imagination in the Middle Ages is that he was flayed alive, his skin was cut off and then beheaded somewhere in Asia Minor. He is usually shown in English medieval art holding, as he does here, a butcher’s flaying knife and sometimes, though it is not that common in this country, holding his skin.

Apostles in Art

St Matthias

Next to him is St Matthias, the apostle chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot – by tradition, he went to Cappadocia in Asia Minor to preach, and some traditions state that he was crucified there. In most traditions, he is said to have met his end in Jerusalem, being stoned to death and then beheaded, which is why he is shown holding an axe or a halberd.

Apostles in Art

St Philip

Then we have St Philip. In the Gospel of St John, before feeding the five thousand, Jesus asks Philip where bread could be found to feed so many people. He says that two hundred denarii would be insufficient to provide for them. Because of this episode in the gospels, St Philip is sometimes shown with a basket full of bread or holding a pile of penny loaves, as at Beeston.

Apostles in Art

St Thomas

Lastly, St Thomas called the twin and forever known as ‘doubting Thomas’ – though after seeing the Lord, he was full of faith, is said to have undertaken missionary work in India, being martyred there with a spear. He carries the attribute of his martyrdom.

The twelve apostles in art - reading images like a book.

So, you can read these images like a book; they each express the essence of the story of the individual apostle depicted. The expanded traditions associated with each apostle were circulating at the time that this screen was painted in the early 16th century and were well known – they were known orally, they were learned through mystery plays and for those who could read, through texts such as Jacobus de Voragine’s ‘Golden Legend’, which was translated into English and was flying off the printing press of William Caxton and his print master Wynkyn de Worde.

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