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Saint Christopher and Atlas

Saint Christopher and Atlas

“The World On Your Shoulders”

Today July 25 is the day of Saint Christopher, since the dark Middle Ages the patron saint of travellers and nowadays also the protector of motorists. He is a popular saint, but there is no certainty that he really existed. In 1969 his name was dropped from the official calendar of the Catholic Church. The calendar was getting crowded with many secondary saints and some clean-up was needed to make space for the more important ones. There are hardly any historical data about Christopher, but he became super popular over the centuries. And on top of that, images of Christopher arose, bigger in size than Christ’s, and belief in Saint Christopher became close to superstition. Although Christopher’s day is no longer official and obligatory, he is still recognised as saint. Villages and cities that carry his name celebrate the feast of their saint. And there are many places with his name (Spanish: San Cristobál, Italian: San Cristoforo, Dutch: Sint Christoffel, French: Saint Christofe), even up to the island country of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, officially the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis.

Images of Saint Christopher depict him as a giant man standing in water, holding a staff in his hand and with a child on shoulder who sometimes holds a terrestrial globe in his hand. This image tells the story of Christopher carrying a child across a raging river, and the child revealed himself as Christ.

Benvenuto Tisi “Il Garofalo” (1481 – 1559), “Saint Christopher” (c.1535), 33x37cm, Liechtenstein, The Princely Collections, Vaduz – Vienna.

According to the legendary account of his life, Christopher was a man of significant physical stature: 7.5 feet (2.3 m) tall, full of muscle and with a fearsome face. He took it into his head to serve the mightiest king on earth. He went to the king who was reputed to be so, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. On thus learning that the king feared the devil, Christopher decided that the devil was even mightier and departed to look for him. He came across a gang of robbers, whose leader referred to himself as “The Devil”. But when this leader avoided a wayside cross out of fear of Christ, Christopher learned there was someone even more powerful than the devil. He left the gang of thieves and asked around where to find Christ. He met a hermit (often also depicted with Christopher, see hereunder the Joachim Patinir painting) who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked the hermit how he could serve Christ. The hermit suggested that because of his size and strength, Christopher could serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where many people with less strength had drowned.

Joachim Patinir (c.1480 – 1524), “Saint Christopher” (c.1522), 125x170cm), Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid.

After Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked to take him across the river. During the crossing, the river became swollen and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. When he finally reached the other side, he said to the child: “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”

It is because of this experience that Christopher got his name, for Christopher in Greek is Χριστό-φορος (Christó-foros), which literally translate as “Christ-bearer.”

Jheronimus Bosch (c.1450 – 1516), “Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child” (c.1500), 113x72cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

So, the child revealed himself to be the Christ Child, and that the weight Christopher felt was the weight of the entire world he was carrying on his shoulders. Then the Christ Child told Christopher to fix his staff in the bank of the river and come back tomorrow to see what had occurred. This would be the sign to Christopher that the child was truly Christ. The child then vanished. When Christopher returned the next day, the staff had become a palm tree, bearing fruit. On some paintings we may see the staff already replaced by a palm branch or even an entire palm tree. On the Garofalo painting above and the Ghirlandaio one hereunder, the staff is growing into a palm tree.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (c.1448 – 1494), “Saint Christopher and the Infant Christ” (c.1473), Fresco, 285x150cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Saint Christopher is still today valued by travellers. Small devotional medals with Saint Christopher’s name and image are commonly carried in a pocket or placed in vehicles by more religious (or superstitious?) travellers. Pilgrims who looked upon an image of St. Christopher were believed to gain a special blessing. Many medieval and later churches put up huge images that no pilgrim could miss, either on a prominent interior wall or on the outside of the building. Although condemned as superstitious, it appears this belief has endured. See the Ghirlandaio fresco, it measures almost 3 x 1.5 meters. Not to miss by any traveller or pilgrim.

Jusepe de Ribera “Lo Spagnoletto” (1591 – 1652), “Saint Christopher” (1637) ,127x100cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Joseph de Ribera stripped the story of all the side elements, and kept it to the giant Christopher carrying the child and a terrestrial globe, juxtaposing the colossal size of the saint with the delicacy of the child, creating an image of great expressive power. Like a new Atlas, Saint Christopher crosses the river carrying a child, who is in fact Christ bearing the world. It’s a devotional image of a Christian story, but comparable to the Greek mythological story of Atlas carrying the celestial globe on his shoulders.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri “Guercino” (1591 – 1666), “Atlas” (c.1545), 127×101cm, Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence.

In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned by the Olympian god Zeus to hold upon his shoulders the heavens or sky, for eternity and while standing at the western edge of the earth which in those ancient days was northwest Africa. Zeus ultimately felt sorry for Atlas carrying the celestial globe and turned him into an entire mountain range, reaching up to the sky. That’s how Atlas became commonly identified with the “Atlas Mountains”. Also, “Atlantic Ocean” is derived from “Sea of Atlas”. 

The term Atlas has been used to describe a collection of maps since the 16th century when Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published his work in honour of the mythological figure of Atlas.

Bernard Picart (1673 – 1733), “Atlas Turned Into A Mountain” (1731), engraving, 35x25cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

What to learn from the giants Christopher and Atlas? Apparently it will give eternal fame when you carry the world or the sky on your shoulders. But that’s not what we want, when dealing with our nowadays problems. Look at Christopher, he could carry a child so light, but once he started to overthink this burden, it became heavier and heavier. Stick to your sorrows as they are and do not make it heavier than it is. The weight on your shoulders is heavy enough, but you are able to carry it and deal with it. As long as no phantasy takes it over and adds all those kilos of worrying. Now to Atlas…, once your feet are in solid ground and stuck to earth like a rock, you will be able to carry even the heaviest on your shoulders. Make yourself standing up with both feet on the ground. First thing to arrange is your own stability. And then you can carry all that weight and deal with any burden, for yourself and for others.