In Lycia St. Christopher, Martyr. During the reign of Decius he was beaten with iron rods. By the supreme power of Christ he was preserved from a fire of leaping flames. Finally he was pierced with a host of arrows and achieved martyrdom by decapitation. – Roman Martyrology for July 25
Some legends put St. Christopher's story in the reign of Decius (250-251). Earlier versions say he was of a dog-faced race of cannibals, in some accounts a prisoner of war. His prayer for the gift of speech is said to have been answered by God, who said he would use that gift for the salvation of many. (See the three Passions listed in the Hagiography at right.) Eastern Orthodox images follow these accounts: From above, God addresses Christopher, who wears a soldier's garb and has the head of a dog
Sometimes it is the head of a wolf
or a horse
But it is the 13th-century Golden Legend that determines the portrayals of Christopher in western art. Here the saint begins as a gigantic pagan named Reprobus ("the reject") who desires to serve whoever is the most powerful of kings. His first king appears to be afraid of the devil, so Reprobus reasons that the devil must be stronger and seeks him out. But the devil proves to be terrified by a wayside crucifix, so Reprobus abandons him and seeks the man on the Cross. A hermit teaches him about Christ, baptizes him as Christophoros, "Christ bearer," and says he should serve the Lord by carrying people across an otherwise unfordable river.
One day Christopher takes a small child on his shoulders, who grows heavier and heavier as they cross the stream. The child explains, "thou hast not only borne all the world upon thee, but thou hast borne him that created and made all the world, upon thy shoulders." He is the Christ Child. He tells Christopher to plant his staff in the ground today and it will bear leaf and fruit tomorrow. The miraculous staff later enables him to convert thousands of pagans in Lycia. At this, the king of Lycia orders him put to death.
Images of the saint crossing the river with the Christ Child on his shoulders came to be extremely common in western art from the 13th century until modern times. As at right, most images have the staff already in leaf, an orb in the child's hand, and fish in the river. Some images also put the hermit on the bank of the river (example). Otherwise, the variations are few. In one image we see the saint offering the child a ride. In others, we may see the staff replaced by a palm branch (example) or an entire palm tree (as in the second picture at right).
Pilgrims who looked upon an image of St. Christopher were believed to gain a special blessing, so many medieval and later churches put up huge images that no pilgrim could miss, either on a prominent interior wall (example) or on the outside of the building, as this mosaic in Germany.1 In 1594 Molanus condemned this belief as superstitious, but it appears to have endured.2 The Glottertal image, for example, was added to the exterior wall only in 1907.3
The staff and the child are retained even in group images where the river cannot be shown, as in images of the 14 Holy Helpers. Very rarely we see the saint with just his staff, as in this painting with the saints in Heaven or possibly this image of the Doge at prayer.
Even rarer are narrative images. I have not personally seen any. On the internet I have found only a 19th-century stained-glass window in a French church with scenes from the Golden Legend's account and a Russian icon with scenes from a quite different legend.
Christopher images almost always portray the saint bare-headed, but in a wall painting in England he wears what looks like a pilgrim's hat with the brim turned down.
Statuettes of St. Christopher with staff and child graced thousands of American dashboards in the mid-twentieth century, as he was the patron saint of travelers. But when the Vatican removed him from the church calendar in 1969, it was widely (and wrongly) assumed that he had been declared not a saint, and the practice declined.4
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-19, 2016-09-30.