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Saint Christopher

Saint Christopher
Born unknown
Canaan (Western accounts) or Marmarica (Eastern accounts)
Died c. 251
Asia Minor
Venerated in Roman Catholicism
Eastern Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy
Feast 25 July (Latin Church) , 9 May (Eastern Churches)[1]
Attributes tree, branch, as a giant or ogre, carrying Jesus, spear, shield, as a dog-headed man
Patronage bachelors, transportation (drivers, sailors, etc.), traveling (especially for long journeys), storms, Brunswick, Saint Christopher's Island (Saint Kitts), Island Rab, Vilnius, epilepsy, gardeners, holy death, toothache

Saint Christopher (Greek: Ἅγιος Χριστόφορος, Ágios Christóforos) is venerated by several Christian denominations as a martyr killed in the reign of the 3rd-century Roman Emperor Decius (reigned 249–251) or alternatively under the Roman Emperor Maximinus II Dacian (reigned 308–313). There appears to be confusion due to the similarity in names "Decius" and "Dacian".[2] However his veneration only appears late in Christian tradition, and did not become widespread in the Western Church until the Late Middle Ages, although churches and monasteries were named after him by the 7th century.

That Christopher's name, meaning "Christ-bearer", foretells his adult life may give a clue that his story lacks a precise historical origin. He may be the same figure as Saint Menas. His most famous legend, which is mainly known from the West and may draw from Ancient Greek mythology, tells that he carried a child, who was unknown to him, across a river before the child revealed himself as Christ. Therefore, he is the patron saint of travelers, and small images of him are often worn around the neck, on a bracelet, carried in a pocket, or placed in vehicles by Christians.


  • Legend 1
  • Historical identification 2
  • Veneration and patronage 3
    • Eastern Orthodox liturgy 3.1
    • Roman Catholic liturgy 3.2
    • Relics 3.3
    • Medals 3.4
    • General patronage 3.5
    • Patronage of places 3.6
    • Depictions in art 3.7
  • References in popular culture 4
  • See also 5
  • Further reading 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


There are several legends associated with the life and death of Saint Christopher which first appeared in Greece and had spread to France by the 9th century. The 11th-century bishop and poet, Walter of Speyer, gave one version, but the most popular variations originated from the 13th-century Golden Legend.[3]

According to the legendary account of his life Christopher was initially called Reprobus.[4] He was a Canaanite, 5 cubits (7.5 feet (2.3 m)) tall and with a fearsome face. While serving the king of Canaan, he took it into his head to go and serve "the greatest king there was". He went to the king who was reputed to be the greatest, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. On thus learning that the king feared the devil, he departed to look for the devil. He came across a band of marauders, one of whom declared himself to be the devil, so Christopher decided to serve him. But when he saw his new master avoid a wayside cross and found out that the devil feared Christ, he left him and enquired from people where to find Christ. He met a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked him how he could serve Christ. When the hermit suggested fasting and prayer, Christopher replied that he was unable to perform that service. The hermit then suggested that because of his size and strength Christopher could serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where they were perishing in the attempt. The hermit promised that this service would be pleasing to Christ.

After Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked him 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." The child then vanished.[5][6]

Christopher later visited Lycia and there comforted the Christians who were being martyred. Brought before the local king, he refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The king tried to win him by riches and by sending two beautiful women to tempt him. Christopher converted the women to Christianity, as he had already converted thousands in the city. The king ordered him to be killed. Various attempts failed, but finally Christopher was beheaded.[5]

Historical identification

The earliest known woodcut, 1423, Buxheim, with hand-colouring

Historical examination of the legends suggests Reprobus (Christopher) lived during the Christian persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius, and that he was captured and martyred by the governor of Antioch.[7] Historian David Woods has proposed that St. Christopher's remains were possibly taken to Alexandria by Peter of Attalia where he may have become identified with the Egyptian martyr Saint Menas.[7]

The legend of Saint Christopher records two important historical facts that identify him with the historical Saint Menas. The first is that the Greek and Latin legends of Saint Christopher identify him as belonging to the Third Valerian Cohort of the Marmantae (Latin: Cohors tertia Valeria Marmantarum), a military unit of Northern Africa of Marmarica (between modern day Libya and Egypt), recruited by none other than the Emperor Diocletian.[8] The second is that Saint Christopher was martyred in Antioch.

The martyrdom of Saint Menas corresponds to the details of the legend of Saint Christopher. The theory that identifies the two saints as one and the same concludes that the name "Christopher" meaning "Christ-bearer" was a title given to the name of the valiant Menas who died in Antioch. Since he was not a native of that land, his name was not known and so he was simply revered by his generic title: "Christophoros" or "Christ-Bearer."[9] Saint Menas happens to be the patron of travelers in the Coptic tradition,[9] which further supports an association with Saint Christopher who is the patron of travelers in the Greek and Latin traditions.

Part of Saint Christopher's story closely parallels that of the Argonaut Jason, who carried across a raging river an old woman that was likewise described as being far heavier than she should have been and was actually the goddess Hera in disguise.

Veneration and patronage

St. Christopher, from the Westminster Psalter, c. 1250

Eastern Orthodox liturgy

The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates Christopher of Lycea with a Feast Day on May 9. The liturgical reading and hymns refer to his imprisonment by Decius who tempts Christopher with harlots before ordering his beheading.[10] The Kontakion in the Fourth Tone (hymn) reads:

Thou who wast terrifying both in strength and in countenance, for thy Creator's sake thou didst surrender thyself willingly to them that sought thee; for thou didst persuade both them and the women that sought to arouse in thee the fire of lust, and they followed thee in the path of martyrdom. And in torments thou didst prove to be courageous. Wherefore, we have gained thee as our great protector, O great Christopher.[10]

Roman Catholic liturgy

The Roman rite as mandated by the motu proprio, Mysterii Paschalis. His commemoration was described to be not of Roman tradition, in view of the relatively late date (about 1550) and limited manner in which it was accepted into the Roman calendar,[12] but his feast continues to be observed locally.[13]


The Museum of Sacred Art at Saint Justine's Church (Sveti Justina) in Rab, Croatia claims a gold-plated reliquary holds the skull of St. Christopher. According to church tradition, a bishop showed the relics from the city wall in 1358AD in order to end a siege of the city by an Ottoman army.[14]


A bronze St. Christopher medallion

with St. Christopher's name and image are commonly worn as pendants, especially by travelers, to show devotion and as a request for his blessing. Miniature statues are frequently displayed in automobiles. In French a widespread phrase for such medals is "Regarde St Christophe et va-t-en rassuré" ("Look at St Christopher and go on reassured", sometimes translated as "Behold St Christopher and go your way in safety"); Saint Christopher medals and holy cards in Spanish have the phrase "Si en San Cristóbal confías, de accidente no morirás" ("If you trust St. Christopher, you won't die in an accident"). In Austria an annual collection for providing vehicles for the use of missionaries is taken up on a Sunday close to the feast of Saint Christopher, asking people to contribute a very small sum of money for every kilometer that they have traveled safely during the year.

General patronage

St. Christopher is a widely popular saint, especially revered by athletes, mariners, ferrymen, and travelers.[3] He is revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. He holds patronage of things related to travel and travelers — against lightning and pestilence — and patronage for archers; bachelors; boatmen; soldiers; bookbinders; epilepsy; floods; fruit dealers; fullers; gardeners; a holy death; mariners; market carriers; motorists and drivers; sailors; storms; surfers;[15] toothache; mountaineering; and transportation workers.

Patronage of places

Christopher is the patron saint of many places, including: Baden, Germany;[3] Barga, Italy; Brunswick, Germany;[3] Mecklenburg, Germany;[3] Rab, Croatia; Roermond, The Netherlands; Saint Christopher's Island (Saint Kitts); Toses in Catalonia, Spain; Mondim de Basto, Portugal; Agrinion, Greece; Vilnius, Lithuania; Riga, Latvia; Havana, Cuba; and Paete, Laguna, Philippines.

In Eastern icons, Saint Christopher is sometimes represented with the head of a dog

Depictions in art

Because St. Christopher offered protection to travelers and against sudden death, many churches placed images or statues of him, usually opposite the south door, so he could be easily seen.[13] He is usually depicted as a giant of a man, with a child on his shoulder and a staff in one hand.[16] In England, there are more wall paintings of St. Christopher than of any other saint;[13] in 1904, Mrs. Collier, writing for the British Archaeological Association, reported 183 paintings, statues, and other representations of the saint, outnumbering all others except for the Virgin Mary.[17]

In Eastern Orthodox icons, Saint Christopher is sometimes represented with the head of a dog. The background to the dog-headed Christopher is laid in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, when a man named Reprebus, Rebrebus or Reprobus (the "reprobate" or "scoundrel") was captured in combat against tribes dwelling to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica. To the unit of soldiers, according to the hagiographic narrative, was assigned the name numerus Marmaritarum or "Unit of the Marmaritae", which suggests an otherwise-unidentified "Marmaritae" (perhaps the same as the Marmaricae Berber tribe of Cyrenaica). He was reported to be of enormous size, with the head of a dog instead of a man, apparently a characteristic of the Marmaritae. This Byzantine depiction of St. Christopher as dog-headed resulted from their misinterpretation of the Latin term Cananeus (Canaanite) to read canineus (canine).[18]

The German bishop and poet Walter of Speyer portrayed St. Christopher as a giant of a cynocephalic species in the land of the Chananeans (the "canines" of Canaan in the New Testament) who ate human flesh and barked. Eventually, Christopher met the Christ child, regretted his former behavior, and received baptism. He, too, was rewarded with a human appearance, whereupon he devoted his life to Christian service and became an athlete of God, one of the soldier-saints.[19]

References in popular culture

See Saint Christopher in popular culture

See also

Further reading

  • Bouquet, John A. (1930). A People's Book of Saints. London: Longman's. 
  • Butler, Alban (1956). Thurston, Herbert J.; Attwater, Donald, eds. Butler's lives of the saints. New York: Kenedy. 
  • Cunningham, Lawrence S. (1980). The meaning of saints. San Francisco: Harper & Row.  
  • de Voragine, Jacobus (1993). The golden legend: readings on the saints. William Ryan, trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.  
  • Weinstein, Donald; Bell, Rudolph M. (1982). Saints and society: the 2 worlds of western Christendom, 1000–1700. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr.  
  • White, Helen (1963). Tudor Books of Saints and Martyrs. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 
  • Wilson, Stephen, ed. (1983). Saints and their cults: studies in religious sociology, folklore, and history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  


  1. ^ (Greek) Ὁ Ἅγιος Χριστοφόρος ὁ Μεγαλομάρτυρας. 9 Μαΐου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  2. ^ T.D. Barnes, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge, MA, 1982). pp. 65–66. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Mershman, F. (1908). St. Christopher. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved September 16, 2008
  4. ^ Weniger, Francis X., "St. Christopher, Martyr", (1876)
  5. ^ a b , John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.Lives of Saints"St. Christopher",
  6. ^  
  7. ^ a b David Woods, "St. Christopher, Bishop Peter of Attalia, and the Cohors Marmaritarum: A Fresh Examination", Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), p.170
  8. ^ D.H. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (3rd ed.: Oxford, 1992), 97-98; or the note by V. Saxer in A. di Berardino (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Early Church I (New York, 1992), 165. 
  9. ^ a b "The Origin of the Cult of St. Christopher". 
  10. ^ a b "Christopher the Martyr of Lycea". Saints. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 2013. Retrieved April 16, 2013. 
  11. ^ Martyrologium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001 ISBN 88-209-7210-7)
  12. ^ Calendarium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 131
  13. ^ a b c  
  14. ^ Letcher, Piers (June 18, 2013). Croatia (5th ed.). Bradt Travel Guide. pp. 259–60.  
  15. ^ Dioces of Orange hosts First Annual Blessing of the Waves in Surf City, Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, September 15, 2008
  16. ^ Magill, Frank Northen; J. Moose; Alison Aves (1998). Dictionary of World Biography: The ancient world. Taylor & Francis. pp. 239–44.  
  17. ^ Collier, Mrs. (1904). "Saint Christopher and Some Representations of Him in English Churches".  
  18. ^ L. Ross, Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary (Westport, 1996). p. 50. 
  19. ^ Walter of Speyer, Vita et passio sancti Christopher martyris, 75.

External links

  • Saint Christopher Website with information and references about St. Christopher.
  • "The Life of Saint Christopher", The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, Temple Classics, 1931 (Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Translated by William Caxton) at the Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook
  • Saint Christopher at the Christian Iconography web site
  • St. Christopher in the Golden Legend: Latin original, English translation (Caxton)
  • Irish "Passion of St. Christopher"
  • Saint Christopher engraved by E. Sadeler from the De Verda Collection
  • Understanding the dog headed Icon of Saint Christopher at Orthodox Arts Journal.
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