Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hang on, St. Christopher

When I was in grammar school, it was important to have a good saint. I was named for St. Christopher and as far as I was concerned, you couldn't do much better than that. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Christopher was a pretty bad dude who sought the most powerful being in the world to serve. He served a king until he found out the king feared the devil, then served the devil until he learned the devil feared Christ. Some kids had lame saints, guys who fed birds and stuff. There wasn't much to be done about it. My saint on the other hand, was massively strong and had a glorious death. I paid for my smugness later when the Vatican sort of pulled the rug out from under we Christophers. It seemed there wasn't enough actual evidence of Christopher's life to justify canonizing him. There was the possibility that he was just a legend. As opposed to say, the virgin birth.

Saint-wise, I've been adrift, until today in Recklinghausen. With my new found mobility, I'm planning a series of weekend bike trips. Today I planned to ride from Reckinghausen to Haltern am See. A short hop of 25-30 km in the northern Ruhrgebiet. The plan had the advantage that I could do the ride from one Bahnhof to the next and it would all be within the region served by my monthly transit pass. In other words, my travel would be free. It's easy to bring a bike on a DB train. I rode to the Bahnhof here in Essen and got a train into Recklinghausen without incident, but thereafter, nothing went according to plan.

First, I discovered that Recklinghausen has the largest icon collection outside of the Greek Orthodox world. The museum was right downtown and it seemed a shame not to take it in. I stopped there before leaving on my odyssey and was glad I did. Although the museum is small, they have a wonderful collection of icons. And icons are my kind of Art. They're relatively easy to understand and enjoy. When I see an exhibition with work by say, Richard Serra, in which he flings molten lead at the wall of a 300 square meter room with killer clerestory windows, I often think how great it would be if I could clean up the lead hazard and use the room for painting. Or maybe a day care center for kids. I know I can't: Richard Serra is a great artist, and he makes great Art. But I prefer the icons.

On the first floor the theme of the icons changed from the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary for you Protestants) and Jesus to saints. And some images of a guy with what looked like the head of a dog. Reading the captions, I found that not only was I looking at examples of cynocephaly, but that this guy was my old buddy, St. Christopher. It seems there is a very different St. Christopher tradition in the orthodox world. Christopher was part of a race of half humans who ate people. He was taken in a battle and accepted baptism from his Christian captors. Then he did all the stuff that I had already heard about, carrying Christ as a child across the river, shoving his staff in the ground and having it flower. But before that, he was a dog-headed cannibal.

Wow. First, it explains why the Vatican was so eager to see the back of this guy. Second, it totally puts me back on top in the saint category. I've heard it said that he who laughs last, laughs best. Now I know it's true. The rest of the day was great too, but since this post is already too long, I'll summarize. I left the museum and got lost quickly on the road out of Recklinghausen. I rode around in a fabulous landscape filled with windmills and rapeseed fields but never got anywhere near my destination, Haltern am See. Instead I rolled back into Recklinghausen to find that Sunday afternoon was a Verkaufsoffener Sonntag. All the stores were open, and the city center was filled with people. I had a bratwurst and beer while listening to a group of old baby boomer types playing American folk songs. They began with "Worried Man," went on to "Sixteen Tons," and some Hank Williams favorites. The guy on the right was playing a washtub bass. They were good, but I left before they got into the Credence Clearwater Revival material. Like the Pope, I know you've got to draw the line somewhere.


Anonymous said...

You've got a freaking awesome saint!

And Emily made me watch Harold and Maude. It was interesting, and pretty gross at one particular part. I loved Harold's car, too bad he felt he had to drive it off a cliff.

Shawn B.

Scott said...

It's unfortunate about the supression of St. Christopher. My great grandfather had a lot of St. Christopher Medals. He always wanted to be sure everyone had one, anytime they were travling. Even if it was just a quick trip to the store.

I remember very well the day in first grade when we all learned what our names meant. Mine has no particular history. It's more of a last name really. I remember being pretty depressed. I always envied those, like you, who had the interesting stories--and dog headed Christ carriers--behind their names.

scott davidson said...

How about this for a design for a wall painting, in the tried-and-true Art Nouveau style?:, by the famous English artist, Audrey Beardsley himself. You can also order a canvas print of the picture from