Although St. Christopher is no longer on the Church’s official liturgical calendar, because of evidence that he may not have actually existed, he was popular in the Middle Ages for his strong protective powers. St. Christopher was a legendary Canaanite called Reprobus (or Offero) of gigantic stature and he wished to serve the most powerful ruler in the world. Christopher wandered the earth in search of such a man and eventually he came into service of the Devil. When he heard that even the Devil was fearful of Jesus Christ, Christopher decided that Jesus must be the most powerful ruler in the world, and he left the Devil in search of Jesus.
A nearby hermit told Christopher that he should better use his time by acting as a human-ferry across the river because there was no nearby bridge. One day a child came to him and asked to be taken across. As Christopher continued across the river the child pressed down on his shoulders and the weight became unbearable, Christopher exclaimed “You weighed so much that if I had had the whole world on my back, it could scarcely have felt heavier!” The child told him that indeed he not only had the weight of the world, but the weight of its creator on his shoulders and the child revealed himself to be Jesus Christ (The name “Christopher” is from the Greek, meaning “Christ-bearer”).
Jesus ordered Christopher to plant his staff in the ground and the next day it blossomed and bore fruit. Christopher converted to Christianity on the spot. Once converted, St. Christopher traveled preaching to others. Upon hearing this, the king of Lycia imprisoned and tormented him with instruments of iron and flames. When that had no effect, the king ordered arrows shot at him, and according to The Golden Legend:
The king had him tied to a stake and ordered four hundred archers to shoot at him. But their arrows all hung in mid-air, and not one of them could find its target. The king, thinking that Christopher had been killed by his archers, began to mock him when suddenly one of the arrows fell from the air, turned round in mid-flight, struck the king in the eye and blinded him.
Christopher told the king to use his blood to heal the king’s blinded eye. The king then ordered Christopher executed, and when his sight was restored, the king promptly converted. The scene with St. Christopher and the Christ-child on his shoulders is the most popular depiction of this saint. Even if the Christ-child is omitted, Christopher is easily recognizable in art by his sheer size, staff, and movement across a river.
Note: In 1969, the Church revised its liturgical calendar and removed saints that had “uncertain” historical proof of their existence. They still carry the title of saint, but are only venerated on a local level. Although St. Christopher was removed from the liturgical calendar, he remains one of the most popular Catholic saints.
- Clement, Clara Eskine. Saints in Art. New York: Snova, Nova Science Publishers, 2004.
- Giorgi, Rosa. Saints: A Year in Faith and Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2006.
- Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2008.
- Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend. Translated by Christopher Stace. London: Penguin, 1998.
- Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend vol. 4. Fordham University: Internet Medieval Sourcebook. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/index.asp