Favourite passages of Leo’s Tome

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic_from_Hagia_Sophia_2744_x_2900_pixels_3.1_MBA few weeks ago, I misplaced my photocopy of Eduard Schwartz’s critical edition of Leo’s Tome. I assumed that I had tossed it out by accident since I had been clearing out a lot of old papers and things from my flat. Then, a week later, I found it — in my wardrobe, next to my Yellow Submarine T-shirt. My world makes little sense, it would seem. When I proclaimed this victorious discovery on Facebook, a friend asked what my favourite passages of the Tome were.

I’m not sure, actually. Nonetheless, based on my scribbled marginalia and interlinear notes, here are some passages that have caught my eye over the years.

One that stood out the very first time I read the Tome is a quick turn of phrase:

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

In context (in English) this is:

But that birth, singularly wondrous and wondrously singular, is not to be understood in such a way that through the newness of the creation the property of its type was removed.

This is a nice, little chiasmus, rhetorically balanced and pleasant to the ear. A few pages later, Leo writes:

infantia paruuli ostenditur humilitate cunarum, magnitudo altissimi declaratur uocibus angelorum.

the infancy of the boy is revealed by the lowliness of the cradle, the greatness of the most high is declared by the voices of angels

My marginale says, ‘Very good isocolon.’ Isocolon is a rhetorical device where parallel phrases (or cola) have equal length. Here we have two cola of five words in the order subject + genitive singular + passive verb + ablative of agent + genitive plural. They do not have equal numbers of syllables, though. Nonetheless, this is a nice example of isocolon and Leo’s use of balanced and parallelled passages throughout the Tome.

In fact, this is what makes the Tome such a pleasant read — Leo’s use of rhetorical balance in this way. The theology Leo is presenting in the Tome is two-nature Christology, so balance in argument and retoric makes a lot of sense. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, ‘The medium is the message,’ comes to mind.

Looking at my notes, I see many other instances of isocolon.

Leo is making the point about the duality of what is going on in the Incarnate Christ throughout the Tome, and one of the passages I like is:

esurire sitire lassescere atque dormire euidenter humanum est, sed quinque panibus quinque milia hominum satiare et largiri Samaritanae aquam uiuam, cuius haustus bibenti praestet ne ultra iam sitiat, supra dorsum maris plantis non desidentibus ambulare et elationes fluctuum increpata tempestate consternere sine ambiguitate diuinum est.

To hunger, to thirst, to tire, and to sleep are evidently human, but to satisfy five thousand people with five loaves and to bestow living water to the Samaritan woman, the drinking of which would maintain the one drinking so as not to thirst anymore, to walk upon the back of the sea with unsinking steps and to subdue the rising of the waves with the increased storm without doubt is divine.

Here Leo is emphasising that Christ maintains all the properties of humanity as well as of divinity. He gives four examples. For humanity, he gives us a nice example of brevitas, giving only one conjunction (atque), but for the divinity, he extends the examples into a periodic structure with subordinate clauses. The punchiness of the human examples is pleasant to my ear, and the way he makes the divine bigger and grander is pleasant theology.

I don’t think Leo makes the unity of Christ’s person as clear as he could in the Tome — this is because the error he has in mind is the over-unification of the natures, the reduction of the humanity of Christ to a nothingness liable to absorption in the divinity. He does say, however:

For although in the Lord Jesus Christ there is one person of God and man, nevertheless it is from one whence the insult is common in each, from the other whence the glory is common. For from ours it happens that the humanity is less than the Father, from the Father it happens that the divinity is equal to the Father. Therefore, because of this unity of person that is to be understood in each nature both the son of man is observed to have descended from heaven, when the son of God assumed flesh from the virgin from whom he was born, and again the son of God is said to have been crucified and died …

Severus of Antioch took issue in the 500s with Leo claiming Christ to have one person and maintained that Leo actually believed that Christ had two persons and was thus a heretic. Severus’s argument is that Leo spends too much time discussing how different actions and words of Christ pertain to divinity or humanity, not enough time stressing what is communis.

Most especially at issue is another passage that is rhetorically pungent but perhaps not Leo’s theological best:

agit enim utraque forma cum alterius communione quod proprium est, uerbo scilicet operante quod uerbi est, et carne exequente quod carnis est.

For each form operates in communion with the other what is its own, with the Word, that is, performing that which is of the Word, and the flesh acting that which is of the flesh.

Leo goes on, saying, ‘One of these glistens with miracles, the other succumbs to injuries. And just as the Word does not recede from the equality of the Father’s glory, so the flesh does not set aside the nature of our species…’

For the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox, and the Armenian Apostolic believers, this is grave heresy. For we western Christians, it is non-controversial dogma. Either way, I do think it’s pretty good rhetoric.

Philology and theology — just the way I like it.

If you find yourself suddenly thirsty for more Leo, the Tome is in English here.

The Council of Chalcedon today

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Glancing over their calendar of upcoming services, I noticed that today the local Eastern Orthodox church was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in honour of the Fourth Ecumenical Council — the Council of Chalcedon of 451. A happy coincidence is that I was typing up notes from old notebooks yestereven, and I found this from Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars:

If only because of the other paths that could so easily have been taken, these debates give the mid-fifth century an excellent claim to be counted as the most formative period in the whole history of Christianity. Much recent writing stresses the earlier Council of Nicea (325) as the critical moment in defining the beliefs of that faith, the critical dividing line between early and medieval Christianity. In reality, the struggle even to define core beliefs raged for centuries beyond this time and involved several other great gatherings, any one of which could have turned out very differently. (pp. 18-19)

As it turns out, I was no big fan of Jenkins’ book and ended up not finishing it. Nonetheless, the Council of Chalcedon was a big deal, is a big deal, and will continue to be a big deal for time to come. Not only that, it’s a major reason that I am where I am today. Jenkins is right to point us beyond Nicaea to the other ‘ecumenical’ councils as defining moments in Christianity — and Chalcedon has ended up being one of the biggest defining moments.

You may be surprised to read that. Indeed, several years ago I wrote a post about how Chalcedonian orthodoxy is not really that controversial. We mostly think of Chalcedon like this: Jesus is fully man and fully God. The end.

The thing is, the affirmation of Nicaea at the ‘Second Ecumenical’ Council at Constantinople in 381 established the fact that God is Jesus, that Jesus is homoousios — consubstantial — with the Father. The church within the Roman Empire also rejected a fellow named Apollinaris whose teaching subverted the full humanity of Jesus.

The question that arose in the fifth century was not, ‘Is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ but, ‘How is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been right in his Christology, and asking such questions was not necessarily the right thing to do — but they were asked. Once asked, a question cannot be unasked. And once answered, however imperfectly, it cannot be unanswered. The church had to come up with an answer that was both philosophically coherent and biblically faithful.

No mean task.

Now, you may be partisan to a different ecumenical council. That’s fine. Allow me to explain why Chalcedon is such a big deal.

The Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal because it was not universally accepted.

The Council of Nicaea, after the conversion of the Homoian (‘Semi-Arian’) barbarian kings in the Early Middle Ages, has become universally accepted (we set aside modern heretics who have resurrected Homoian and Arian thought). This is part of why it’s a big deal. Along with it, First Constantinople of 381 is also usually tacitly accepted, because a version of its creed is the one that even the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East recites at the Eucharist.

After First Constantinople, the next council in our list of ‘ecumenical’ (or ‘universal’) ones is Council of Ephesus of 431. It is rejected by the Church of the East. That should make it a big deal like Chalcedon. And it is a very big deal, and I recommend you get to know it. However, the Council of Chalcedon is somewhat larger a deal because the Church of the East’s roots lie beyond the Roman Empire. Its story, little known to us in the West, is a different story. It is a story worth knowing, with its own contours living in the Sassanian Persian Empire, then under the Caliphate, and reaching as far East as China — but it is a different story.

You see, the Council of Ephesus was accepted by the Latin West, the Greek East, the Copts, and some amongst the Syriac-speaking world. Although there was division in its aftermath, in 433 things were patched up by the Bishops of Alexandria and Antioch in a document known by its first two words in Latin translation, ‘Laetentur caeli.’

In other words, the Church of the Roman Empire, in which Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, as well as Copts, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox, find their heritage, came to accept Ephesus. As did the church in Armenia.

This is why the Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal. Yes, the Church of the Empire formally accepted Chalcedon. But many of her bishops in the Greek East fought against. Some emperors tried to bury it and ignore it. Justinian called a Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, the Second Council of Constantinople, to try and deal with the divisions surrounding Chalcedon. He also issued various edicts beforehand, trying to find ways of framing theology that would both affirm the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon and reconcile the growing Mono-/Miaphysite movement. Similar attempts at interpretation and framing of the Fourth Ecumenical Council also led directly to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, in 681.

Depending on which side of the many refractions of Chalcedon and its reception or rejection you found yourself on, you could end up imprisoned, or with your tongue cut out, or exiled to Petra, or stripped of ecclesiastical rank, or elevated to the episcopate, or given charge of a monastery, or any number of various situations, good or bad. You could find yourself in schism with Rome. You could find yourself in schism with Constantinople. You could find yourself hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople making Latin translations of the Greek acts of the Council of Chalcedon.

You might write a very long theological treatise defending certain aspects of Chalcedon. You might write a series of theological tractates excoriating Chalcedon and Pope Leo, whose theology it approved, for heresy. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon true. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon false.

The Council of Chalcedon is one of the most significant events of the Late Antique Church, and we need to realise that its teaching and the reception of that teaching has shaped and moulded the lives of thousands of people for 1500 years.

I believe that understanding the theology and fallout of Chalcedon, skimmed over above, is especially important for western Christians today. First, most of us would agree with Chalcedon if we knew what it taught; many of us are members of ecclesial bodies that affirm the Christological teaching of the Council of Chalcedon. By knowing who we are, what we believe, and why, we can live confidently in a world increasingly unmoored and harbourless.

Second, the world is not boxed off as it once was. The Internet makes it easier to encounter our fellow Christians from the eastern churches who reject this council. Understanding Chalcedon makes it easier for us to understand and love them. Furthermore, as war, terror, extremist Islam and secular (including economic) unrest shake the foundations of peaceable life in the Middle East, Middle Eastern Christians are finding their way West.

Some are Chalcedonians in direct, unbroken descent in the Greek tradition, such as the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Some are Miaphysites who reject Chalcedon and teach that Jesus has one nature, one will, and one energy — the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches are amongst them. Some are ‘Nestorian’, such as the Assyrian Church of the East — many Iraqis who flee West belong to this church. There are other groups with a messy relationship with Chalcedon, such as the Chaldean Catholics, who are in communion with the Pope but try to accept both Theodore of Mopsuestia (the great teacher of Nestorius, condemned at Second Constantinople in 553) and Cyril of Alexandria (the great nemesis of Nestorius, victor at First Ephesus in 431).

Christian history is not dry and dusty and irrelevant. For the Christians of the Middle East, it is a living, breathing reality that permeates their lives. By coming to understand it better, we can love them better.

Salvation, justification, and the use of apt words 1: Evagrius

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks
Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

My priest brother and I are (very) slowly making our way through The Philokalia, Vol. 1, right now. As those of you who have been with me since this blog’s inception (oh so many years ago), I have a long-standing interest in Evagrius Ponticus and demonology. Evagrius is the second author in vol. 1.

The second Evagrian text in The Philokalia is ‘Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passions and Thoughts’. Chapter 9 of this text begins:

Hatred against the demons contributes greatly to our salvation and helps our growth in holiness. But we do not of ourselves have the power to nourish this hatred into a strong plant, because the pleasure-loving spirits restrict it and encourage the soul again to indulge in its old habitual loves. But this indulgence — or rather this gangrene that is so hard to cure — the Physician of souls heals by abandoning us. For He permits us to undergo some fearful suffering night and day, and then the soul returns again to its original hatred, and learns like David to say to the Lord: ‘I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them my enemies’ (Ps. 139:22). For a man hates his enemies with perfect hatred when he sins neither in act nor in thought — which is a sign of complete dispassion. (p. 44, English trans.)

The first sentence is very un-Protestant, isn’t it?

Πάνυ τὸ μῖσος τὸ κατὰ δαιμόνων, ἣμιν πρὸς σωτηρίαν συμβάλλεται … (apologies for accents, I hate my Greek keyboard)

And, of course, we shouldn’t expect Evagrius to be Protestant. But many of a Protestant mindset will be turned off by anything contributing to our salvation except the grace of God alone. Our hatred against demons cannot, by Protestant calculations, contribute to our salvation.

As the Greek quotation above shows, Evagrius uses the Greek word σωτηρία to mean salvation — it is a simple movement from σωτηρία to salvation, isn’t it? But in what context might we refer to salvation? What is salvation here?

Well, first of all, what on earth do we mean when we say salvation? Basing my answer entirely upon anecdotes and personal conversations, it is clear that Protestants, at least, mean something called justification almost every time we say salvation.

For Anglicans who actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion, justification is our being made righteous before God — being considered righteous by God. By justification we enter into a right relationship with God:

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification. (Article XI)

Article XII is quick to point out that, although good works be the fruit of justification, they do not contribute thereto. Thus, the Evagrian statement above, that ‘Hatred against the demons contributes greatly to our salvation,’ is entirely out — with salvation being justification and justification understood in a Protestant/Anglican way.

But is σωτηρία in Evagrius the same thing as justification in the 39 Articles, or even δικαιοσύνη — that Pauline word usually Englished as justification?

I think not. This form of salvation is something else; this is what one evangelical friend referred to as ‘process justification’ once. The Evagrian salvation here is not us being rescued from the fires of Hell, or entering into a right relationship with God, or being considered holy because of Christ’s holiness and our faith — it is us being saved from the ongoing and enduring effects of the Fall.

In this case, it is our salvation from the power of the demons, with the goal of us becoming holier. This is us being saved from the presence of sin in our lives. Bishop Eddie Marsh once stated that justification is being saved from the penalty of sin; sanctification is being saved from the power of sin; and glorification is being saved from the presence of sin. All three involved being saved, so all three could be consider aspects of the ongoing salvation, σωτηρία, of the human person, through the grace of God.

When I quoted the Evagrius passage above, I went on beyond the initial sentence because it is clear that Evagrius sees Christ the Physician as taking an active role in our salvation. Our own efforts are not what truly cleanse us. We become dispassionate because of the grace of God, and God, in His grace, may choose to help us along in the path of holiness using our own efforts as the instruments of his good and gracious will.

Quick review: Reflections on St Francis by John Michael Talbot

Reflections on St. FrancisReflections on St. Francis by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I found this slim volume for 5 euros, I snatched it up since I am a fan of both St Francis of Assisi and John Michael Talbot. I assumed at the time of purchase that this book would largely be a recasting of material from Talbot’s early book The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life. I was wrong – this an entirely new volume of a different nature from that earlier work. Whereas that earlier work was largely a culling of particular lessons from the saint’s life and work as represented in his biographies, the ‘little flowers’, and his texts, this volume is a collection of brief reflections of three elements of St Francis: the story of his conversion and then two texts, The Rule of 1223 and the Testament from 1226.

The writing style in this book is like St Francis – simple and straightforward. Talbot is not trying to trick us with rhetoric or to be fancy the way a writer like myself would. He writes his thoughts and writes them in quick, simple sentences. He also repeats himself at times, which is actually a helpful tool in bringing home a point and instilling it in the mind. This is all, I believe, part of Br John Michael’s technique, for his other books that I’ve read (besides Lessons, The Music of Creation), his online articles, and his music demonstrate a depth and power that this book hints at. This is good, for it is obvious to me that the whole point of this wee book is, on the one hand, to encourage those new to the Franciscan tradition to wade in the water, and, on the other, to get the rest of us to take ourselves less seriously and rediscover the joyful simplicity of the early thirteenth-century spirituality of St Francis.

The biggest departure from most books on St Francis is Talbot’s treatment of the conversion. Usually, as in Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi or the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, we are presented with the sudden tale and snap conversion of Francis from young, gallant knight to fraticello in a moment. Br John Michael takes us through the long story, however, showing us the different stages in Francis’ conversion, from capture to Crusade to illness to penitent to hermit, etc. We are reminded that our own story, even if there is a great moment where we turn from our old ways to Christ Who is the Way, is itself a gradual series of turning posts and transformations. We are still being converted.

His reflections on the Rule discuss generally what a Rule is and how it binds the brothers, and how all of us can benefit from our own rules and constitutions. He relates about the rule and constitutions of his own community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. Talbot goes through the rule and Testament, highlighting specific passages and ideas for comment, reminding us of St Francis’ commitment to Gospel-centred living, to Jesus Christ, the church, the sacraments. Here we are called again and again to Jesus, to simplicity, and to prayer. Talbot encourages us to live the disciplined life, to pray the Divine Office, and to seek out true charity for our neighbours.

If you want your affection for St Francis renewed, or are looking to introduce St Francis to a friend, I highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews

The Essence/Energies Distinction and the Myth of Byzantine Illogic

One of the reasons I feature western poets and mystics on this blog — as I did yesterday with St Columba — is to disassemble the false dichotomy between eastern Christianity as solely mystical with mystery and western Christianity as solely interested in dogma and logic. Here is a great post by Christian Kappes, guest blogging at the excellent Eclectic Orthodoxy blog. He discusses the use of logic in the antecedents and successors of Palamas. And he even admits where there are convergences between different strands of eastern and western theology. Dogma is not the sole domain of the West; mysticism is not the sole domain of the East. Enjoy!

Eclectic Orthodoxy

by Fr Christiaan Kappes

First of all, I heartily thank Fr. Aidan Kimel for inviting me to write a guest column on Palamism. Although, in the essence of the argument, it should not make a difference, I will start by revealing my sympathy with Palamas and my general agreement with him about the distinction in God into essence and energies. However, there are actually several issues, all of which are equally complicated. Not only is there the question of what kind of (1.) ingredients are in the primordial divine soup or essence of God, but (2.) about how those ingredients are perceived by you and me (3.) and whether these ingredients in the divine soup are somehow mediatory or means of arriving at their lesser imitations in the real peas and carrots at the real dinner table.

The first question is “What kind of items go together in God?” The…

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The poetic mode of St Columba

St ColumbaA few weeks ago I posted to commemorate the poet-theologian St Ephraim the Syrian; St Ephraim shares his feast, 9 June (as celebrated in the West), with St Columba, as it turns out. St Columba was my first Saint of the Week when I was still on top of that — I even revisited him. In that first post, I discussed St Columba the missionary; in the second, St Columba the wonderworker (Columba Thaumaturgus?).

We must not forget St Columba the poet, a mode I highlighted in the first of those posts when I quoted from his hymn, ‘Adiutor Laborantium’. That poem is a plea from ‘a little man / trembling and most wretched, / rowing through the infinite storm / of this age’, that Christ might save him and bring to paradise, to the unending hymn (trans. Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Markus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery).

Another poem attributed to St Columba (‘persuasively if not certainly ascribed’ p. xiii) is included in P. G. Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18), ‘Altus Prosator’. ‘Altus Prosator’ is a hymn in honour of the Most Holy Trinity:

It is not three gods we proclaim,
but one God only we affirm,
by faith’s integrity, in three
person’s exceeding glorious. (1.9-12)

Columba goes on to extol the glorious works of God in creation, starting with ‘the good angels … / and archangels, and further ranks / of principalities and thrones / and powers and virtues’ (2.1-4), then telling of Lucifer and his rebellion before singing of God’s creation of the world. Here is a sample stanza:

Formed he the stars, put in their place
as lamps to light the firmament;
the angels joined in eulogy,
for his wondrous creation of
that boundless mass, praising the Lord,
the craftsman of the heavens above,
in proclamation that wins praise,
with utterance meet that knows no change,
and sang in noble harmony,
discharging thanks unto the Lord,
doing this out of love and will,
not from the gift that nature prompts. (Stanza 6)

Here we see angels doing as they are meant — praising God. Satan, on the other hand, seduces ‘our firstborn parents, both of them’ (7.2), and suffers a second fall. Up to Stanza 8, this is like a small, early mediaeval Paradise Lost.

Now, Columba moves on to the fierce power and potential violence of God’s created world, exemplified by the Deluge. But, although the world could be deluged at any time, God keeps creation regulated. I imagine that a life lived in the Western Isles of Scotland makes one think of the power and ferocity of rain and wind.

This is a hymnic poem, of course:

Mighty powers of our great God
make the earth’s globe suspended stand,
its circle poised in the abyss
by God’s support beneath, and by
the almighty one’s strong right hand (12.1-5)

If this is ‘Celtic’ ‘panentheism’, it is much more like the ‘panentheism’ of Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, where the acknowledgement of God being everywhere in creation is not a limitation of God but simply the recognition of His transcendent yet immanent Self; that is, God is not in creation in a nature-god sort of way. He is everywhere, Almighty, sustaining all things by His power. We can find Him anywhere, with or without ‘Thin Places’.

Take heed Stanza 14 — St Columba believed in a round earth!!

Columba’s praise of God speaks of the salvation history in the Old Testament next, reminding us of the coming Day of Judgement, ‘a day of sadness and of grief’:

So trembling shall we take our stand
before the dais of the Lord,
and we shall render and account
of all desires that we held dear (18.1-3)

Christ descends with the Cross as his standard, and human and angelic voices will join with the four beasts of Revelation in hymns, ‘the Trinity is praised by all / in threefold chorus without end.’ (22.11-12)

There is no mention, however, of the saving grace wrought on the Cross. I am too Protestant for some of this, I fear:

we shall be his comrades there,
drawn up in all our diverse ranks
of dignities, according to
enduring merits of rewards,
and shall abide in glory there
eternally, for ever and ever. (23.7-12)

Christ is King. There is Tree of Life imagery earlier. He judges the world. But where is the Crucifixion? The fear of Hell and hope of Heaven, yes. But we move straight from Moses to the Day of Judgement.

Nonetheless, there is so much of value in this Irish, this ‘Celtic’, poem of the Early Middle Ages, written in Latin by a missionary abbot on an isle in the Hebrides. I wonder if life in the Hebrides makes one more acutely aware of the Day of Judgement? There is sound theology, beautiful imagery, and a good amount of secular learning — knowledge (scientia) of the natural — created — world is a fitting place to extol the Creator.

‘Altus Prosator’ is an abecedarius; each stanza begins with a different letter of the Latin alphabet, from A-Z in 23 stanzas (lacking from our viewpoint: J, U, W). It is rhythmic, written in heavy trochees: ‘Altus Prosator, vetustus’. Out on the edge of the world, we can see the united world of Latin culture, visible here in this sixth-century Irish poet and the beauty and theology of his verse.

El Greco: St Francis and St John the Evangelist

I’ve had this draft sitting here in WordPress for three years with the above title, the content consisting solely of a link to this painting:

8452a8a4b4be891When I saw this painting in the Uffizi, there were some British visitors in the room. One in a wheelchair gestured at the painting, ‘What is that one?’

The pusher of the chair, who had been telling her comrade in wheels about the art, said merely, ‘It’s some man with a cup with a dragon in it.’

And moved on.

Although she did have more to say about a still life somewhere nearby.

She could at least have read the label, which confirmed what I had suspected: St John the Evangelist and St Francis of Assisi, by El Greco.

St John is identifiable by his cup with the dragon in it. The story goes that someone one tried to poison St John, and when the saint blessed his cup before drinking, it cracked and a dragon leapt out. If memory serves correctly, the same thing happened to St Benedict.

Dragons, by the biblical imagery, are representative of the Devil, the demons, and all manner of evil and mischief. So it makes a lot of sense as an image when someone is trying to murder someone else. Also, dragons are originally drakones, which are just big snakes. And snakes in biblical and western imagery and symbolism are tricksy and twisty and not to be trusted. Fitting for someone so wriggly as to murder by poison rather than face-to-face.

I first encountered the St-John-with-his-dragon-in-a-cup image in South Queensferry at the Priory Church:

My photo
My photo

And St Francis is your typical El Greco Franciscan. I do love an El Greco Franciscan. That pictured below was my first, sent to me in a postcard by my friend Emily:

1504grec

I realise that each of us has his/her own pieces that attract us more than others in a gallery, and I shouldn’t be a snob, anyway. But I wished I could have informed my fellow visitors, without being a jerk. But I’m too much of a jerk for that, so I decided to write a blog.

Because I like this painting, and maybe you, gentle reader, will like it, too.