On Images of Saint Christopher

Chap. XVI.

Of the Picture of St. Christopher.

THE Picture of St. Christopher, that is a man of a Giantlike stature, bearing upon his shoulders our Saviour Christ, and with a staff in his hand, wading thorow the water, is known unto Children, common over all Europe, and stands Colossus like in the entrance of Nostre Dame in Paris.[1]

Now from hence, common eyes conceive an history sutable unto this description, that he carried our Saviour in his Minority over some river or water; which notwithstanding we cannot at all make out. For we read not thus much in any good Author, nor of any remarkable Christopher, before the reigne of Decius: who lived 250 years after Christ. This man indeed according unto History suffered as a Martyr in the second year of that Emperour, and in the Roman Calendar takes up the 21[2] of July.

The ground that begat or promoted this opinion, was, first the fabulous adjections of succeeding ages, unto the veritable acts of this Martyr, who in the most probable accounts was remarkable for his staff, and a man of goodly stature.

The second might be a mistake or misapprehension of the Picture, most men conceiving that an History which was contrived at first but as an Emblem or Symbolical fancy: as from the Annotations of Baronius upon the Roman Martyrologie, Lipellous3 in the life of St. Christopher hath observed in these words; Acta S. Christophori à multis depravata inveniuntur: quod quidem non aliunde originem sumpsisse certum est: quam quod symbolicas figuras imperiti ad veritatem successu temporis transtulerint: itaque cuncta illa de Sancto Christophoro pingi consueta, symbola potius, quam historiæ alicujus existimandum est esse expressam imaginem; that is, The Acts of St Christopher are depraved by many: which surely began from no other ground, then, that in process of time, unskilful men translated symbolical figures unto real verities: and therefore what is usually described in the Picture of St. Christopher, is rather to be received as an Emblem, or Symbolical description, then any real History. Now what Emblem this was, or what its signification, conjectures are many: Pierius hath set down one, that is, of the Disciple of Christ; for he that will carry Christ upon his shoulders, must rely upon the staff of his direction, whereon if he firmeth himself, he may be able to overcome the billows of resistance, and in the vertue of this staff, like that of Jacob, pass over the waters of Jordan. Or otherwise thus: He that will submit his shoulders unto Christ, shall by the concurrence of his power encrease into the strength of a Giant; and being supported by the staff of his holy Spirit, shall not be overwhelmed by the waves of the world, but wade through all resistance.

Add also the mystical reasons of this pourtract alleadged by Vida and Xerisanus: and the recorded story of Christopher, that before his Martyrdom he requested of God, that where ever his body were, the places should be freed from pestilence and mischiefs, from infection. And therefore his picture or pourtract, was usually placed in publick wayes,4 and at the entrance of Towns and Churches, according to the received Distick.

Christophorum videas, postea tutus eris.


My notes (and other people's) are in square brackets [ ]; addenda from manuscripts are in curly braces { }; Browne's own marginalia are unmarked. Ross says that Browne "wrastles with shadows" here, Arcana Microcosmi II.12, ignoring Browne's explanation of why he does so (both here and in Chapter 13).

1 ["On voyait autrefois, à droite en entrant dans l'église, une statue colossale représentant saint Christophe. En face de cette statue on lisait ces mots, gravés sur une colonne que supportait un homme à genoux: « C'est la représentation de noble homme, Messire Antoine des Essarts Chevalier, jadis sieur de Thierre et de Glatigny au val de Galice, conseiller et chamellan du roy notre sire Charles VI de ce nom, lequel chevalier fit faire cette grande image et remembrance de monsieur St-Christophe, en l'an 1413. Priez Dieu pour son âme. » La statue de saint Christophe, haute de vingt-huit pieds, fut abattue en 1785." (Édouard Gourdon, Les Églises de Paris, Paris, 1843.)

"Là, sur notre droite, un géant semble taillé à l'échelle de l'énorme fût, lourd de siècles, près duquel il est dressé. Il porte sur l'épaule le divin Enfant, et s'appuie sur un bourdon de deux toises de haut, « fait de vieux chêne noueux avec lequel il fend le cours rapide du fleuve » : ainsi le décrit la Lutetia de Raoul Botrays. Vous reconnaissez le Titan chrétien, le bon saint Christophe. Son image est là depuis le commencement du XVe siècle, offerte à la cathédrale par un donateur, dont la portrait lui fait pendant contre le pilier d'en face. Ce chevalier, à genoux sur une colonne de pierre, est messire Antoine des Essars, frère du prévôt de Prais, Pierre des Essars, décapité aux Halles le 1er juillet 1413. Le Journal d'un bourgeois de Paris note avec stupéfaction la manière joviale dont il reçut le coup de hache: « Depuis qu'il fut mis sur la claie jusques à sa mort, il ne faisoit tousjours que rire, dont le plus de gens le tenoit pour vrai foul. » Antoine, garde de l'épargne et de la libraire de Charles VI, et de plus concierge du Palais, faillit accompagner son frère au pilori. Il ne fut pas décolé grâce à de puissants amis, ceux du ciel surtout, et sa reconnaissance érigea une statue votive au saint Passeur, dont il pouvait redire plus que tout autre la bonne garde: Christophorum aspicias, postea tutus eris: « Jette les yeux sur le Porte-Christ, et ta barque sera sauve! » " (Maurice Vloberg, Notre-Dame de Paris et le voeu de Louis XIII, Paris, 1926.)

There remains something of a mystery about this statue, to my mind. In the long century of destructions and desecrations of Notre Dame which began in 1698 under Louis XIV, who attempted to rebuild it in the baroque manner, destroying the choir, the jubé, the gothic altar, many of the windows, and much else, and which ended in 1831 with the partial destruction of the Archevêché, 1785 is not a year remarkable for anything. So what happened, exactly? In any case, you may see a reproduction of a print of an etching of it on the page Images of St. Christopher.]

2 [Correctly, the 25th.]

3 Lip. De vitis Sanctorum.

4 Anton. Castellionæi antiquitates Mediolanenses. [Or, with a better rhyme, Christophorum videas, postea tutus eas. Christopher seems to have taken on a new life in some areas as, of all things, the patron saint of playing-fields. Or, presumably, of those who play upon the fields, fields not generally requiring the protection of a saint.]

This page is dedicated to the memory of Boo the Cat.

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