Today is St Christopher’s feast day, so this week’s work of art is an extraordinary medieval sculpture of St Christopher carrying Christ across the waters, which can be seen at Norton Priory Museum, between Manchester and Liverpool, on the site of an ancient abbey that was dissolved in 1536. The work was carved by an artist whose name is unknown, probably some time between 1375 and 1400. I first came across it when it was loaned to Tate Britain a few years ago, for a wonderful exhibition of medieval art jointly curated by the art historian Philip Lindley and the sculptor Richard Deacon. I was struck by its impressive scale (this sturdy colossus of a saint is larger than life-size); by its imposing strength and solemnity; and perhaps above all by the fact that such a masterpiece should have been lurking for so long, almost unknown, in a former priory on Merseyside.
St Christopher became a particularly popular saint during the Middle Ages and after, so much so that Erasmus, in his Praise of Folly – a harbinger of the Reformation, in some respects – mocked “people who have adopted the foolish but pleasurable belief that if they see some carving or painting of that towering Polyphemus, Christopher, they are sure not to die that day.” The superstition ridiculed by Erasmus had its origins in the cult of St Christopher as the patron saint of travellers, which in turn had its origins in the saint’s myth, which dates to around the sixth century.
According to legend he was originally Offerus, the son of a heathen king in Canaan. As he grew older, the child developed into a man of phenomenal strength and swore to serve only the mightiest rulers. He served a mighty king and then Satan but decided that both lacked courage. He met a hermit who told him to serve Christ instead and baptized him. Christopher, as he was now called, would not fast or pray. He chose instead to carry people, for God’s sake, across a raging river. One day he carried a small child who grew progressively heavier in his arms, so much so that it seemed to Christopher that he was carrying the entire weight of the world on his shoulders. The child declared that he was Christ, redeemer of the world, and proved it by transforming Christopher’s staff into a flourishing palm tree. The miracle caused many conversions and the heathen ruler of the province where it took place had Christopher imprisoned, tortured and eventually beheaded.
Christopher’s cult was particularly strong in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, especially in alpine regions where travel was arduous and dangerous. In 1386 a brotherhood of St Christopher was founded in the Tyrol, to guide travellers over the Arlberg. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, “His statues were placed at the entrances of churches and dwellings, and frequently at bridges; these statues and his pictures often bore the inscription: ‘Whoever shall behold the image of St Christopher shall not fall or faint on that day.’'
St Christopher’s popularity in England received a great boost during the second half of the fourteenth century, when the ravages of the plague made people all the more eager to believe that images of the saint might have propitiatory, life-preserving qualities. His role as patron saint of travellers may also help to explain the presence of his statue at Norton Priory, a popular stopping-off place for pilgrims. The Priory happens to be close to a crossing point of the River Mersey between Birkenhead and Warrington, which must have made this appropriately gigantic image of the saint carrying Christ across the waters – a symbol, to the allegorically minded devout, of the true believer, who carries Christ in his heart – seem all the more appropriate in its original context.
The statue was carved from three pieces of local sandstone and would have been even more impressive when painted, as it once was. It is formed from an unusual combination of techniques, a mixture of monumental freestanding statuary – in the figures of saint and Christ child – and beautifully delicate bas-relief, the latter carved into the block of stone that encases the lower legs of Christopher. This bas-relief represents the waves of the river and exists so to speak in two dimensions at the same time, indicating both the depth of the water and suggesting its tip-tilted surface, beneath which some fish sinuously swim. The saint’s clothes are simple: flowing robes worn over breeches knotted at the knee. His face is extremely noble, giving him something of the character of an Old Testament prophet, with a long beard descending in elegant ringlets.
Just how the sculpture came to survive the almost complete destruction of medieval religious art that took place in England during the Reformation is not known, but it seems that the area around Norton Priory may have been a bit of a hotbed of Catholic recusancy. It seems probable that the statue was salvaged after the dissolution of the abbey in 1536 and saved against the day when “graven images” might once more become a part of Christian worship in England. This seems all the more likely because the head of the Christ child is not original, and has been identified on stylistic grounds as a seventeenth-century restoration. That is both very unusual and highly suggestive. It is probable that this work of art was secretly cherished and protected, by a particular group of people, for a very long time indeed. Just as Christopher had carried Christ across the waters, they were determined to carry their beloved sculpture through the storms of the Reformation.