Iconography, or the use of pictorial symbols for saints that gave it all up for Jesus, was a means of preserving their deeds in memory, so that as we read their words we also feel the impact of their commitment. Consider the importance of Jesus in two separate ways – his words, and deeds. Which of them is more essential? Without his death and resurrection, what ultimate value do his words possess?
So also with the teaching of the apostles. We have some of their words, but they have a reduced value and impact until we remember the price each one paid for his apostleship. Most were martyred, and all gave up any semblance of a normal life to spread the news about Jesus throughout the world.
Churches are sometimes decorated with shields or crests showing symbols representing the apostles, or depicting them in stained glass windows, or with icons. Historical sources give conflicting stories about what happened to several of them after the Book of Acts. Some say nine were martyred, while others say that all were except for Judas and John. Please forgive me if the sources I found conflict with better ones I have not yet seen.
Simon Peter “Cephas”
Peter’s crest shows a key, or two crossed keys overlaying an inverted cross. The keys are a reference to Jesus’ remark to him in Mt. 16:19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The inverted cross shows how he was crucified upside-down when he told his executioner in Rome that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.
Other iconography associated with Peter includes a fishing boat, rooster (“before the rooster crows” Matthew 26:34, Lk. 22:34), a pallium (papal scarf) or papal vestments, or a white-bearded man being crucified upside-down. He ministered in Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea, traveled with John to Samaria, and later moved his family to Antioch where he is called the founder of their first church. He and Paul were given credit by second-century writers for founding the churches at Corinth and Rome, where Peter remained as Bishop of Rome until his martyrdom.
His Brother, Andrew
Andrew’s crest has St. Andrew’s Cross – diagonal like the letter X – representing the type of cross on which he died. Some versions show a boat hook upon it for his profession, or two fish overlaying the diagonal cross. He preached in Russia, Asia Minor, and Greece where he was crucified.
James the Greater
James ben Zebidee has a scallop shell, or 3 shells for his three missionary journeys, because when he went to Spain he found the sea coast littered with them. He carried one to use as a cup for dipping water. Other symbols include salt, pilgrim’s staff, a pilgrim’s hat with brim curled upward in front, or the apostle seated astride a white charger, and a sword crossing the staff, by which he was beheaded in Jerusalem by Herod Agrippa. The ornate Santiago Cross is his symbol in Spain.
His Brother, John “Beloved”
John ben Zebidee’s symbol is a book and chalice with a serpent coiled within it, to represent the attempt on his life by poisoning, which he miraculously survived. He was also reportedly boiled in oil and survived, so a cauldron is sometimes substituted for the chalice. The ornate covers of altar editions of the Gospels represent John as the Cherub with an eagle’s face from Ezek. 10, or as an eagle, for John showed Christ as the All-Seeing Word of God. Although he suffered as much as any of the apostles, including a 5-6 year exile to Patmos, he lived to a great age and died in Ephesus. He approved the other Gospels, and wrote his to add what he thought was missing from them.
Philip’s sign is a basket from the miracle of the loaves and fish, containing one or both. He is also remembered with the spear and Tau Cross, a cross shaped like a capitol T, on which he was crucified upside-down and and speared. In other iconography, a column and elderly bearded saint holds a basket of loaves and Tau Cross. He preached in Carthage (Tunisia), then went to Asia minor where he converted the wife of a Proconsul, who had him brutally executed in Phrygia.
Bartholomew, Philip’s Friend
Bartholomew (or Nathaniel) was reportedly flayed alive and crucified upside-down in Armenia after ministering in Mesopotamia, Parthia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India with Thomas. His symbol is the flaying knife, or rarely, a bald and bloody man seated naked, holding his own skin.
Thomas Didymus (meaning a twin) went to Syria, Parthia, Southern India, and Armenia with Bartholomew – also to Southern Arabia without him. He is shown placing his finger into the wound in the side of Christ, or his crest is a carpenter’s square for the church he built in India, with the pine spears by which he was gored by soldiers in each of his limbs, and the stones and arrows by which he was killed afterward.
Matthew the Publican
Matthew Levi’s sign is three purses of gold, because he was a tax collector, and a battle axe or spear by which he was either beheaded in Parthia, or speared to death in Ethiopia. The oldest accounts say he was not martyred at all. The symbol for the Gospel of Matthew on altar editions of the gospels is the cherub with the face of a lion, or a lion, for he depicted our Lord as the Lion of Judah and coming King.
[Mark’s Gospel has the cherub with the face of a calf, for he showed Jesus as the Suffering Servant. Luke’s gospel has the cherub with the face of a man, for he highlighted the Lord’s humanity toward the poor, sick, elderly, and women.]
James the Less or the Just
James ben Alphaeus, the brother of Thaddeus/Jude, called James the Younger, or James the Less by Jerome and Papias, ministered in Syria and Judea, and was the first Bishop of Jerusalem. Some early sources say he and his brother Jude were cousins to Jesus, which is more likely than the literal interpretation of “brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19), which would require that their father was Joseph, and not Alphaeus. His crest has stones and a saw or club, as he was stoned unconscious in Jerusalem, and then clubbed or sawn in half. In less graphic iconography, he gets a square rule for his profession, with halberd or club for his martyrdom.
His Brother, Judas Thaddeus
Judas ben Alphaeus was surnamed Thaddeus (meaning warm-hearted) after the betrayal of Judas Iscariot because he did not want to be called by the same name as the traitor. Matthew calls him Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus for reasons unknown to me. Later writers called him Jude the Apostle, but perhaps not the same Jude who wrote the Epistle. His crest is a ship displaying a cross on the sail, for his journeys with Simon Zelotes, or some use a square rule for his profession and a sword or club for his martyrdom.
Simon “the Canaanite” or “Zelot” was Bishop of Jerusalem after James was executed. His crest is sometimes a fish on a Bible for his occupation and his profound knowledge of the scriptures. In other traditions his symbol is a cross and saw, as he was sawn in half, or the oar and saw for his profession and martyrdom. He went with Jude into Parthia.
Judas the traitor is usually replaced in iconography by Matthias, but when symbolized either has the 30 pieces of sliver he was paid for betraying Jesus, or a rope in the shape of the first letter of his name by which he hanged himself.
Chosen by lot to fill the position vacated by Judas Iscariot. His symbol is an open Bible, which he knew well, with either a scimitar or double-headed axe upon it, indicating beheading. A different tradition says he went to Syria with Andrew and was burnt to death. Yet another says he was stoned in Jerusalem. Whatever the case, he is remembered as a martyr for Christ.
Saul of Tarsus, surnamed Paul after his conversion, is symbolized with an open Bible and a sword, that is either interpreted as the “sword of the Spirit” he wrote about, or the one that beheaded him in Rome. Rarely his crest shows three circles of water, for it was said that when he was beheaded, the head bounced on the ground three times, leaving three indentations that filled with water. His missionary travels took him to Asia Minor, Croatia, Greece, Spain, and Italy.
In the next article, we’ll translate their names and see what they have to say.