This Tabernacle Design is Totally Inscrutable

What do the symbols on this tabernacle mean?

(photo: Photo by Kevin DiCamillo)

One of the many blessings—literally—of teaching at a Catholic College is the availability of the Real Presence kept in the tabernacle in the college chapel. One can stop in and have a moment of respite and make a spiritual communion.

However, at Niagara University’s Alumni Chapel (also known as the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels), I am presented with tabernacle doors that I find utterly unfathomable. As you can see in the photograph, there’s the obligatory sheaf of wheat and host (the Bread of Life) and the grapes (the Blood of Christ). But then come 12 little bronze squares with black symbols that are not at all as clear-cut.

Obviously, these are symbols of the Twelve Apostles, of that there can be no question. And not all of them are totally mysterious. For example: the upside-down Latin cross is obviously the symbol of St. Peter who was crucified upside-down.

So far, so good.

And while we’re giving out hints: it is a standard in hagiography that Saint John was poisoned and survived, hence the symbol of the snake coming out of the chalice.

For the hat trick: St. Thomas was reputed to be an architect, so he is represented by a carpenter’s “square.”

But good luck trying to figure out what represents the other nine apostles—or for that matter, which nine apostles are here: is that Saint Paul or Saint Matthias?

Another big part of the problem of this puzzle: I’m not even sure what some of these symbols are—let alone what they are meant to represent. Even one of the Vincentian priests who has been stationed at Niagara for decades admits that he’s not sure what all of the symbols are either.

Strangely, while there is a beautiful illustrated booklet entitled Niagara University Alumni Chapel: History & Guide, published circa 1993, it does not explain the symbols on the tabernacle doors. However, it does go into detail on the 12 windows (one for each apostle) and there is some crossover, so wherever I found it helpful to do so, I’ve included quotes from this booklet below.

Thus starting from the northeast (upper-right)-hand corner of the tabernacle doors and working down, let’s guess together:

  1. An ax or hatchet: symbol of St. Paul’s beheading? This guess kind of doesn’t work since St. Paul is usually shown with a long sword. St. Jude is often shown with a club, so he makes for a good second choice. So either St. Paul or St. Jude.
  2. A knife: “Bartholomew [“Nathanael” in St. John’s gospel]: martyred by being flayed and beheaded” (from the guidebook). St. Bartholomew: check.
  3. Snake and chalice: “St. John: one of the four evangelists. He is shown holding a book symbolic of his gospel. The serpent rising from his cup refers to the story of which John’s enemies sought to poison him.” He was also later boiled in oil, but survived and was exiled to the isle of Patmos. The Beloved Disciple is thus accounted for.
  4. The square: “St. Thomas: an architect by profession, he is depicted holding a set square.” Thanks to the guidebook, we are sure this is a symbol of St. Thomas.
  5. Three things we don’t know: Here’s our best guess: “St. James the Greater said to have traveled to Spain, he is shown carrying a pilgrim’s bell and pouch.” However, all pilgrims to Santiago de Campostella carry a pilgrim’s “shell,” which may (or may not) be represented in this most mysterious panel. It could also be a Spanish wine bota, in which pilgrims would carry their vino. If these three items are the pilgrim’s bell, pouch and bota (or shell), then this is St. James the Greater.
  6. Two fish: trickier than it seems. This could be representative of any of the fishermen (Peter, Andrew, John and James). However, since we know that Peter is the upside-down cross and John is the Serpent-in-the-Chalice, and Andrew is (probably) the windmill, that leaves James—but we’ve guessing James is represented by the bell, pouch and bota above in #5—and we know that James the Less is represented by the Knife (see below). In that case the two fish might be from the Feeding of the Five Thousand (John 6: 1-15) where St. Philip says, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” And “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Jesus, ‘There is a lad here with five barley loaves and two fish.” Which would make the two fish here represent Philip, or more properly, Andrew. However…
  7. Windmill: due to its X-design, I’m betting that this represents Saint Andrew’s crucifixion on a X-shaped cross. Unless there’s a patron saint of windmills, my money is on this panel being a representative of St. Andrew.
  8. Three Loaves of Bread(?): if these are indeed loaves of bread, then they would represent St. Philip in the feeding of the five thousand, cf. John 6:5. If they are not loaves of bread they may be the three “booths” that St. Peter wanted to build during The Transfiguration. But Peter, James and John are all accounted for…as is Philip in the Two Fish. Is it possible that St. Paul has been omitted and this is some obscure reference to St. Matthias who replaced Judas? The vote for St. Matthias becomes a bit more convincing if one envisions these symbols as “lots” that were cast to elect St. Matthias.
  9. Saw: “St. Simon [the zealot or the Cananaean] pictured with a book, symbolic of his love for the law, and a saw, the instrument of his death.” In all honesty: I’d have never have guessed this had it not been for the guidebook.
  10. Upside-down cross: undoubtedly St. Peter (cf. John 21:19)
  11. Column: by process of elimination this has to be either St. Jude (unless he’s the ax in #1) or St. Matthew. It sort of works for Matthew, since he was a tax collector and would have been stationed a “custom’s post” of sorts. My vote is for St. Matthew.
  12. Pen: “St. James the Less the first bishop of Jerusalem and author of one of the canonical letters.” Again, this is from the N.U. guidebook.

I make no claims on being definitive here and would love to hear your feedback on the symbolism on this beautiful but rather confusing set of tabernacle doors.