Why the Martyr Wears a Crown

Iconography reminds us that the saints will sit in judgment with Christ.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

At the end of June and beginning of July the calendar of the universal Church is marked by the feasts of a number of well-known martyr-saints.  June 29th marks the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, preceded on the 28th by Irenaeus and followed on the 30th by the First Martyrs of Rome; Thomas More and John Fisher had their feast the previous week; Oliver Plunket, Thomas the Apostle, and Maria Goretti the following week.  Mid and late July is thinner, but the little-known bishop St. Apollinaris has his feast on the 20th, and St. James on the 25th.

The presence on the calendar of so many martyrs raises the question—more striking with the martyrs of more recent eras—of the martyr’s crown.  The phrase is a familiar one, and the concept is old: a fifth-century fresco from the catacomb of St. Gennaro (unfortunately under copyright) shows Sts. Peter and Paul carrying their crown of martyrdom in their hands.

The crown is perhaps a puzzling symbol in our day and age.  The martyr’s palm is more easily explained: the palm branches from Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, linked to the suffering and the victory of his passion and death, makes their association with the martyr’s sufferings commonsensical.  But in our (almost) post-royalty age, the martyr’s crown may seem outdated: a relic of times when we thought leaders of countries required a shiny thing on their heads to impress their subjects, or possibly to mark them out in battle.

I would not deny that a crown serves those functions as well: like any singular article of clothing, it marks its wearer out.  But there is a significance to decorating, indeed, to glorifying the head, which goes beyond mere convenience.  The head contains the brain, the seat of the mind; it is associated with wisdom, insight, good judgment … Perhaps the king wore a crown not merely to impress, but to remind his people and himself that his job was above all to be wise, to rule justly, to judge with “epikeia” (roughly: “reasonableness”).  That perhaps is part of the reason why English judges long retained the practice of wearing enormous and ridiculous wigs: because (on some unconscious level) people felt that they looked more impressive and specifically more wise and therefore worthier to be judges.

The judge’s wig and the king’s crown were largely for appearances; no one considering the matter supposes that a man is actually wise in virtue of wearing a headdress.  But the point of a martyr’s crown is that it is tied to a real achievement.  This achievement of martyrdom marks the martyr out for office as well: the crown is not merely a decorative recognition, but also a reminder that sanctity in a peculiar way qualifies the saint as a judge.

In considering the injunction from Matthew’s gospel, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” I observed that most of us have not the moral insight to determine when our neighbors have bad will: in other words, we are not generally insightful when it comes to assigning degrees of moral blame even to those whom we know.  But the deficiency is, hopefully, a temporary one: it lasts only until we become saints, at which point we may in fact qualify as judges of one another.

There is scriptural basis for such an exotic claim.  St. Paul asks the startling question in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Know you not that the saints shall judge this world?” and adds, more startlingly still, “Know you not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3; see also Matt. 19:28, Wis. 3:6-8, etc.).  In the supplement to the Summa Theologica, Aquinas finds that “perfect men” will judge in the same sense as “a book containing the law might be said to judge”; for

[as] Richard of St. Victor … says: “Those who persevere in Divine contemplation, who read every day the book of wisdom, transcribe, so to speak, in their hearts whatever they grasp by their clear insight of the truth”; and further on: “What else are the hearts of those who judge, divinely instructed in all truth, but a codex of the law?” … But [pronouncing judgment] happens in two ways. First, by [the judge’s] own authority: and … In this sense to judge belongs to God alone. Secondly, to judge is to acquaint others of the sentence delivered by another’s authority, that is to announce the verdict already given. In this way perfect men will judge, because they will lead others to the knowledge of Divine justice, that these may know what is due to them on account of their merits: so that this very revelation of justice is called judgment.  Hence Richard of St. Victor says (De judic. potest.) that … “[the saints judging] open their hearts to the gaze of all those who are below them, and that they reveal their knowledge in whatever pertains to the judgment.” (supplement, Q.89, respondeo).

The key here, as in any part of the spiritual life, is conformity to Christ.  It is noteworthy that the judging of the saints, as described by St. Thomas and Richard of St. Victor, is almost a passive activity: the saints are mirrors of Christ, rather than judges in their own right; and they reflect his judgment insofar as they are conformed to Christ, insofar as their hearts are “divinely instructed in all truth.”  All the saints, and the martyrs in a preeminent way: for the doctrines of the Christian faith are such that to believe, to understand, and to live them are all mutually enriching activities; and they live Christian doctrine most thoroughly who suffer with Christ; and there is a particularly significant resemblance between Christ and those whose suffering, like his, takes visible, bloody form.