St. Andrew the Apostle ‘Endured the Cross, Scorning Its Shame’

THE SAINTS IN ART: Matteo Preti’s painting is a crossroads between earth and heaven.

Matteo Preti, “The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew,” ca. 1651

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew, one of the original Twelve Apostles. Andrew was the brother of Peter, and both were fishermen. In the Gospels of Matthew (4:18-20) and Mark (1:16-17), they are both called together, abandoning their nets to “fish for men.” In Luke (6:14-16), he is named along with the other eleven Apostles, who are selected out of a broader group of “disciples.”

In John (1:35-42), Andrew is presented as a disciple of John the Baptist, who steers them to Jesus, whom they follow. After spending “that whole day with him,” Andrew then went back to get his brother Peter and bring him to Jesus.

The Johannine episode speaks to the tradition, particularly strong in the Christian East, of regarding St. Andrew Protokletos, “first-called.” Note that the name “Andrew” itself is not Hebrew but Greek (it means “manly”), indicating an openness in the family to wider cultural influences, a not-insignificant fact in first-century Israel, where an exclusivist notion of being “Chosen” dominated. It’s not by accident, then, that many Catholic-Orthodox events have taken place on the feast of St. Andrew, e.g., the 2006 meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew and the 2014 meeting between Pope Francis and him. The Pope and Patriarch now traditionally exchange messages on St. Andrew’s Day.

I have imagined — perhaps with no warrant — that Andrew was a younger brother who brought his older brother’s attention to something important. Many mystics, however, seem to suggest that Andrew was the elder. I don’t know. What I do know is that he is the patron of brothers, who shows us just what a good brother wants for his sibling. He even made him famous: nobody in 2021 would remember Peter, first-century Galilean fisherman, were it not for what his brother, Andrew, did for him. 

Andrew makes a number of appearances in the Gospel. While there is an “inner core” of Peter, James, and John within the “inner core” of the Apostles (in contrast to the larger pool of disciples), Andrew is often close to that inner, inner core — something of right on the first ring. He is the one who informs Jesus, for example, of the boy with bread and fishes when Jesus multiplies the loaves (John 6:8). He is also part of the conversation about signs of the end times in Mark 13:3.

Tradition has it Andrew worked in lands around the Black Sea, and he is regarded as a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. (He is also regarded as the patron saint of Scotland — when you look at the flag of the United Kingdom and see the white “X,” it’s the cross of St. Andrew). Tradition also has it that St. Andrew was martyred by crucifixion at Patras, in Greece, around AD 60. Recent literature I have read suggests that the tradition of regarding St. Andrew’s cross as X-shaped developed only later in history, and that he was bound, not nailed to the cross; again, I do not know. Crucifixion did occur by nailing the victim to the cross or by tying him there; binding the victim was less painful in intensity, but prolonged the death watch.

Matteo Preti’s mid-17th-century painting, “The Crucifixion of St. Andrew,” is a Baroque painting whose artist was influenced by Caravaggio. As is characteristic of Baroque painting, the main protagonist is central and powerfully developed physically — he and his cross dominate the painting. There are two groups of spectators, earthly and heavenly. The former mill about at the bottom of the painting. Crucifixions were public spectacles and intended as such, in order to deter others from doing things to follow the victim on another cross. 

This painting is a crossroads between earth and heaven. St. Andrew bids farewell to the former. The light, like his life, is fading at the bottom of the painting. 

But the light and heaven is opening up at the top. The angels are not curious gawkers but a spiritual “cloud of witnesses” encouraging St. Andrew to “run with perseverance in the race marked out for us” fixing his eye on Jesus, who “endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:1-3). St. Andrew has “run the race and finished the fight and kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:7-8), a crown “that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25). 

I chose this painting precisely because of those heavenly spectators. Today is the last day of November, a month Catholics dedicate to pray for the dead and to reflect on their own mortality. Preti’s painting fittingly depicts that aspect of the month, too. We should not forget that the moment of death is the most dramatic moment of our lives, the moment when leaving this earth, heaven and hell are in dramatic contention for the soul. As the Ave Maria reminds us, it’s one of the two most important — and only two guaranteed — moments in human life: “now, and at the hour of our death.” Pray for us, Holy Mother of God! Pray for us, St. Andrew!

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