Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists





Piero di Cosimo
Mary Magdalene


see also:



The Bible illustrations by

Julius von Carolsfeld "Das Buch der Bucher in Bildeb"

Gustave Dore

William Blak
e "The Book of Job"




Mary Magdalene





St. Mary Magdalene, end of the 14th cent. Anonymous




St Catherine of Alexandria, St Peter and Mary Magdalene
Carlo Crivelli


Noli me Tangere by Hans Holbein the Younger








Weyden Rogierc




Saints Peter, Martha, Mary Magdalene



The history of

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » The Middle Ages
Christian myth and legend were adapted to new traditions as the faith expanded beyond its original cultural milieu of the Mediterranean into northern Europe. New saints and martyrs emerged during the process of expansion, and their miracles and other pious deeds were recorded in hagiographic works. As before, the saints and their relics were known for their miraculous cures, but they also performed miracles associated with new social conditions, such as releasing petitioners from prison. Moreover, a new hagiographic genre appeared that described the practice of furta sacra (“holy theft”). These accounts, most famously that of St. Nicholas, detail the practice of stealing saints’ relics—removing relics from one shrine and placing them in a new one. The narratives describe the miracles that occurred in the process, including the saint’s unwillingness to move and the inability of the holy thief to move the relics.

Medieval scholars and theologians compiled not only new lives of the saints but new lives of the ultimate enemy of the saints, the Antichrist. Drawing from the Scriptures and ancient traditions, the legend of the Antichrist took shape in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. In the 10th century Adso of Montier-en-Der collected these traditions in his popular and influential Epistola ad Gerbergam reginam de ortu et tempore Antichristi (“Letter to Queen Gerberga on the Place and Time of Antichrist”), a mirror image in the negative of the lives of Jesus and the saints. Adso’s treatise became the standard account of the life of the Antichrist.

A related legend was that of the “Last Emperor.” The myth began to form as early as the 4th century, and in the 7th century the legend was shaped further in the Syriac work of the Pseudo-Methodius, who wrote in response to the expansion of Islam into Christian territories. Translated into Greek and Latin, Pseudo-Methodius provided the basis for further reworking of the legend in the 10th and 11th centuries by writers in the Latin West. The legend itself describes the deeds of the last emperor of the world, who will arise in great anger to fight against the enemies of the faith. He will establish peace before fighting and defeating the armies of Gog and Magog. He will then go to Jerusalem, where he will offer up his crown to Christ, who will bear it and the emperor’s spirit up to heaven. After the ascent of the emperor’s spirit to heaven, the Antichrist will appear in Jerusalem, and the final battle between good and evil will be fought.


Bogomil and Cathar heretics developed a number of myths that circulated in both eastern and western Europe. The stories usually stressed the role of Satan as co-creator of the world, as the creator of the human race, or as a being whose fall is responsible for the evil that exists in the world. They also taught that Jesus entered the Virgin Mary’s body through her ear and only appeared to be born of her.

A number of Christian myths, legends, and works of art were aimed at awakening religious capacities, turning the viewer or listener against repulsive forms of evil, and hastening the effects of the salvation achieved in Christ. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the bestiaries, fables, and cosmic dramas sculpted into Romanesque cathedrals. Christ, the glorious King, and his saintly cohorts confront armies of monsters and demons. Together the two sides show forth the full spectrum of the imaginary world of Christian legend and myth of the day.

Christian legends and myths were also woven into various literary creations: the late medieval chansons de geste yielded to the epic tales, lyric poetry, and songs that conducted audiences into an enchanted symbolic world that paralleled their mundane one. Such are the enigmatic poems of the courtly-love tradition of the 12th-century and the literature patronized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie, countess of Champagne. Similarly the troubadours of 12th-century Provence creatively refashioned, in Christian terms, the inspirations they received from the Arabic poetry of Spain and the influences of Celtic and Oriental themes in circulation at the time. These tendencies toward the fantastic in Christian expression reached their literary peak in the works of Dante (1265–1321), whose Divine Comedy depicts the terrifying and attractive visions of Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell in such a way as to quicken the ultimate powers of the imagination and thereby draw the reader toward the effective images of the mystery of their own salvation.

In the place of Charlemagne, a favourite hero of the old chansons de geste, the legendary cycles of the 12th century spawned a new generation of romantic heroes—King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table. Marie, countess of Champagne, sponsored Chrétien de Troyes, the poet who composed five long romances that became the mythic foundation for chivalry. These cycles interweave Christian, Muslim, and Celtic elements into a singular cosmic vision. Suffering ordeals during their adventures, the knights of the Arthurian cycle (Arthur, the Fisher King, Perceval, and Lancelot) journey through the Wasteland on their heroic quests for the Holy Grail and for the cure that will revitalize king and cosmos. Wolfram von Eschenbach offers the most coherent mythology of the Grail in his Parzival, a refinement of Christian legends that draws on the worlds visited by the crusaders and by Italian merchants—Syria, Persia, India, and China. At the conclusion of many of these cycles, the Holy Grail, often in the image of the chalice of salvation in Christ, is transported to a fabulous mythical location in the Orient.

The 12th century also witnessed the rise of a new mythology of Christian history. Joachim of Fiore (1130/35–1201/02) was an abbot of the Calabrian monastery of Fiore and was well-known in the Christian world of his day. On the vigil of Easter and on Pentecost Sunday, God infused him with special knowledge, which enabled him to decode history as a series of divine signs. According to Joachim, universal history has three stages, each age (status) corresponding to a person of the Holy Trinity. The first age, presided over by God the Father, was ruled by married men and propelled by their labour. Jesus Christ presided over the age of the New Testament, an epoch ruled by the clergy and driven forward by the power of science and discipline. The two testamental periods featured the two kinds of people chosen in each, the Jews and the Gentiles. Joachim fascinated the faithful of his day with a prediction that the second age, the age of the New Testament presided over by Jesus Christ, would end in 1260. Then would dawn a new epoch, the third age, presided over by the Holy Spirit, guided by monks and fueled by their contemplation. It was to be an epoch of total love, joy, and freedom. But three and one-half years of cataclysm ruled by the Antichrist would precede entrance to this bliss.

Joachim promised that God’s mysterious saving power would burst fully into history in the immediate future and would change forever the fundamental structures of the cosmos as well as the social and ecclesiastical world. Joachim’s new vision of history generated critiques of the 13th-century church and society and was adopted by the Spiritual Franciscans and the violent heretic Fra Dolcino. His doctrine of the Trinity was condemned at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In 1255 Pope Alexander IV suppressed a collection of his written works, and in 1263 the regional Council of Arles condemned many of Joachim’s most stirring ideas. His notions of an impending third epoch, in which history would come to complete fulfillment, lived on.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » Renaissance magic and science
Christian legend and myth also found fertile ground in the practices of alchemy. Through the perfection of metals the alchemists sought their own perfection and, indeed, the salvation of all matter. The alchemist sought to dissolve and then fuse his own physical matter and spirit with the prime matter of the universe. These efforts at the reduction into prime matter were thought to make possible the re-creation of individual and cosmos as a single, pure element. Even the philosopher’s stone or elixir was reinterpreted so that Christ appeared as the perfect matter produced by the alchemical process—that is, Christ was the stone of all wisdom and knowledge. In the alchemist’s spiritual forge, the Stone reemerged from the Matrix, the crucible containing the so-called Bath of Mary, whose amniotic fluids dissolved all impurities. This dissolution prepared one for rebirth as a perfect being. All matter was redeemed by immersion in the fluids of the womb where Jesus assumed the flesh. Mystical union with Christ’s death and physical regression to that same uterus where God became matter empowered the Christian alchemist to effect a new fusion of redeemed realities, freed of all impure dross. The alchemical tradition was secretly continued by a number of scientists, including the foremost pioneers of modern physics and chemistry: Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, and Sir Isaac Newton.

Legends also found their place in the growing science of astronomy. In the Middle Ages it was learned that conjunctions of planets occur every 20 years on a minor scale and every 960 years on a major scale. This theory, described in the Liber magnarum coniunctionum, was advocated by Albumazar (787–886), a disciple of al-Kindī (?–c. 870), a Muslim philosopher who assimilated Greek philosophy to Islam. Roger Bacon used this theory to work out the chronology of great personalities in history and to map the chronological relationship of true prophets (Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ, Mani, and Muhammad), one for every 320 years. Based on observations of a supernova in 1604, Johannes Kepler calculated the “true date” of the birth of Jesus. These calculations revitalized an interest in the Magi, who had followed the great star. Kepler believed that the conjunctions were unnatural events brought about by the miraculous acts of God, who had decided to lodge the birth of his son between the significant zodiacal signs of the Fish (Pisces) and the Ram (Aries).

Rosicrucian announcements of the imminent coming of a new world also propagated the theory that great celestial conjunctions appeared at the births of prophets and saviours. Kepler’s scientific achievements confirmed the hopes of the Rosicrucians and became a foundation for the new secret order reputedly founded by Christian Rosenkreuz. The editors of Rosicrucian publications dated the death of their founder to 1484 and fixed the time of the discovery of his tomb as 1604 in order to coordinate the events with the last two great conjunctions of stars.

Aspects of the Christian religion » Christian myth and legend » History of Christian myth and legend » Christian practice in the modern world
The 20th century continued to generate important Christian myths and legend-based practices, including pilgrimages made on Marian feast days to holy wells and fairy rings outside the Irish town of Sneem and devotions at the tomb of Christ in Japan, where, according to local legend, Christ ended the long life of missionary travels he began after his mock death in Jerusalem. These acts and the explanations that accompany them detail the impact of Christian salvation on reality in modern times. In all the cultures where Christianity has been propagated, myth and legend express the fulfillment of the religious desires and hopes that constituted the religious traditions before contact with Christian revelation. The following examples suggest their variety and vitality.

The healing of sickness is, as it was in the time of the New Testament, a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of Christ in its fullness. In Africa, for example, many so-called Independent Churches have reinterpreted disease and rites of cure along Christian lines. In Douala, Cameroon, during the 1980s, two healing prophets named Mallah and Marie-Lumière divided their disciples, whom they called the “sick ones of the Father,” into groups named for the important categories of illness described in the Gospels: the Blind, the Halt, the Lame, the Deaf, the Epileptic, the Dumb, and the Paralyzed. The disciples evidenced none of these physical symptoms, but they were asked to identify deep within themselves with the affliction described in the Gospel, so that salvation might touch them in their inner being. By becoming sick, they could be healed and thus join the elect. In lengthy sermons the healing prophets reimagined traditional African religious imagery and refashioned it in the light of Christian belief. The experience of their peculiar mystical disorders afforded a basis for social regrouping and for rethinking the past and present.

The Christian expression of sacred music and trance is often grounded in legend or myth. In Brazil, for example, Macumba, Candomblé, and other Afro-Brazilian cults have roots sunk deep into the religions of African slaves transplanted to the New World. Afro-Brazilian rites often centre on possession by a supernatural being, called an orixá. The innumerable orixás are ranked in hierarchies modeled on the pantheons of the Yoruba people of West Africa, among others. In Brazil (and in much of Afro-American religious life of the Americas), each orixá is identified with a specific Christian saint. In the Umbanda cult of Brazil, altars hold small plaster images of the Christian saints associated with the orixás. Each one of the saints presides over a domain of human activity or over a disease, social group, geographic area, or craft. For example, Omolú, the god of smallpox, is identified with St. Lazarus, whose body, in Christian legend, is pocked with sores and who heals diseases of the skin. Oxossi, the Yoruba god of hunting, is associated with the bellicose St. George or St. Michael, the slayers of dragons and demons. Yansan, who ate the “magic” of her husband and now spits up lightning, is associated with St. Barbara, whose father was struck by lightning when he tried to force her to give up her Christian faith. In the worship site each orixá has its own stone, which is peculiarly shaped, coloured, or textured; arranged in a distinctive position on the altar; and identified as the Cross of Christ. A single saint may be identified with several orixás or vice versa. Regions vary the saintly identifications, and some designations shift over time. Each orixá has its own musical rhythms and sounds. When called by drums, dance, and music, the supernatural being may take over the possessed medium, reveal valued information, and carry out effective symbolic acts on behalf of the community.

European communities in the 20th century remained fascinated with the rigorous asceticism of St. Anthony of Egypt, who repulsed the assaults of wild beasts, reptiles, and demons and remained steadfast in the faith. He is considered the patron of domestic animals, and in many parts of Italy, the drama of the feast of St. Anthony, historically associated with the winter solstice, rivals any other feast day of the Christian calendar. To celebrate his feast, the people of Fara Filiorum Petri, a town in the Abruzzi region of Italy, ignite enormous bonfires on the night of January 16. Each of the 12 outlying hamlets brings into the main town’s square a bundle (farchia) of long poles. Set on end, the bundles are lashed together to form a single tall mass, an act that commemorates the historical union of the mountain settlements as one bonded community. Then the bundles of farchie, 15 or more feet high, are set ablaze. The fire is believed to cleanse the community and hold at bay the evil forces of sickness and death. As the fire dies down, young men jump through the purifying flames. Spectators carry remnants of the blessed fire back to their homes, spreading the ashes in their stalls and on their fields.

The birth of Christ was still a focus in the 20th century for traditional legends and myths that had developed outside ecclesiastical institutions. In rural Romania, for instance, on Christmas Eve groups of young carolers (colindatori) proceed from house to house in the village, singing and collecting gifts of food. Often these carolers impersonate the saints, especially John, Peter, George, and Nicholas. The words of their songs (colinde) describe legendary heroes who carry the sun and wear the moon on their clothes. They live in paradisal worlds and subdue monstrous animals in order to leave the world free from harm and ready to renew itself in the fertile acts of spring.

The symbolic reenactments of legend often experiment with alternative social orders and criticize or reverse existing divisions of labour and prestige. In Sicilian-American communities of Texas, Louisiana, California, and elsewhere, the female head of the household dedicates and displays an altar to St. Joseph and thus fulfills a promise made in a moment of need. She prepares fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cakes, fig-filled pastries, pies, and special breads and uses them to decorate a series of tiers stretching from floor to ceiling. She also arranges on this festival altar the figurines of saints, the Virgin Mary, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The construction of this panorama takes nine days, a period that constitutes a ritual novena of prayer and devout action. Representatives who act in the accompanying ceremony play the roles of the Holy Family and other saints important to the altar display. Re-creating the Holy Family’s search for room in a Bethlehem inn on the night of the Nativity, the ritual drama builds toward the moment when the altar-giver opens her home to Joseph and Mary. As Mother Mary prepares to give birth to Jesus, the hostess readies her home, heart, and community so that they may become fit dwelling places for the sacred being. The presiding women play the roles of Magi-Kings bearing gifts of food and hospitality to the Holy Family and their entourage, which includes most of the neighbouring community. A single family can host from 500 to 1,000 people in the feast that terminates the celebration.

Sometimes the new Christian mythologies function as counter-theologies or theologies of resistance to the impositions of Christian culture. They criticize the Christian missionary enterprise even while they embrace aspects of the new religion. In the 20th century, for instance, biblical and Christian themes occupied a large part of the mythology of the Makiritare Indians in the upper Orinoco River region of Venezuela. For them, Wanadi was the Supreme Being of great light and, although one being, he exists in three distinct persons (damodede, “spirit-doubles”). Over the course of creation and human history, Wanadi has sent his three incarnations to earth in order to create human beings and redeem them from the darkness into which they have fallen. In the end, Wanadi, the god incarnate who comes to save humankind, is crucified by mythical monsters called Fañurus (from the Spanish españoles: “Spaniards”), at the instigation of an evil being called Fadre (from the Spanish padre: “father” or “priest”). To all appearances, Wanadi was slain by the Fañurus, but, in fact, he cut his own insides out and allowed his inner spirit (akato) to dance free of his dead, cast-off body. Before his spirit ascends into heaven, Wanadi gathers his 12 disciples together and promises to return in a new and glorious body to destroy the evil world and create a new earth.

Unlike the orthodox canon of Christian scripture, which was inscribed and closed in the first centuries, Christian myth and legend have arisen anew throughout all of Christian history. It offers a record of the spread of Christianity—through the Mediterranean, eastern and western Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas—and highlights the diversity of cultures brought into contact with the Christian message of salvation. The diverse religious hopes, heroes, and rites of these cultures continue to shape reinterpretations of the life of Christ and his saintly followers.

Legend and myth constitute a record of critical reflection on Christian reality in all its dimensions—social, political, economic, doctrinal, and scriptural. No social class or geographic region can lay exclusive claim to Christian myth and legend; they fill the stanzas of royally sponsored poets, the visions of utopian philosophers, and the folklore of rural populations. Indeed, many ideas widely held about the workings of salvation (especially regarding the saints, angels, the devil, and the powers of nature) find their origin in legendary episodes rather than biblical text. Through myth and legend, communities across the globe have absorbed into their rich religious histories the message of Christian salvation and, through the same fabulous means, they have evaluated the impact of Christian temporal power on their world.

Lawrence E. Sullivan




Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy