You won’t suffer an untimely death today if you catch a glimpse of St Christopher. Which is why, in many medieval churches, there is a huge image of the saint, often painted on the wall opposite the main entrance so that his sturdy figure is the first thing you see when you come in. Of course he is so prominent if seeing him can save a sinner from dying that day without the benefit of the sacraments. He is the patron saint of travellers.
In Holy Trinity, our little statue of the gentle giant who carried the sins of the world and staggered under the load is tucked away on a specially made shelf in the centre of the leftmost double window on the north side. This small memento is suitably discreet because we aren’t medieval Catholics but members of the modern Church of England, and we don’t officially recognise saints. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul all dropped their haloes when they became Protestants. Even St Christopher has been removed from the official liturgical calendar of the Catholic church because the Christ Bearer, which is what Christopher means, may not have existed at all.
St Christopher’s story is part of the web of Christian myth that draws the soul closer to God. Christopher was a giant of a man who, because of his strength, worked as a ferryman who carried people over the river. One day a small child approached him and asked whether the giant would take him to the other side, and the big man lifted him gently onto his shoulders and strode into the river. It should have been an easy journey because the child was small and the giant had forded the river with far heavier loads. But, as he pushed through the current, he found the going harder and harder and the child seemed to be growing heavier and heavier. The giant held on tightly to the child’s legs though he felt he was buckling under the weight. When he reached the other shore, the child said: “I am the Christ and you have carried the sins of the world.”
Our giant in Holy Trinity did not fare so well: the boy he carries got dropped. There is a thick frill of glue around the infant’s neck where the head has been stuck back on. The grapevine suggests that a visiting amplification engineer let fall a screwdriver onto the holy child when installing wires on the wall above the window.
We know nothing about our statue. There is not even a pottery mark on the base of the figure because the figure is plaster not earthenware. It was probably one of hundreds made from plaster poured into a reusable mould. It is very likely Italian, Catholic in origin and, judging by the amount of wear and tear, could date from the 1950s. The statue may have been acquired in the years the St Christopher’s Guild for young people flourished at Holy Trinity, some time between the 1930s and the 1950s.
So, no work of art. But the piece comes from a tradition of devotion. Look into the gaze shared by ferryman and child. It is filled with tenderness. Far more impressive wall paintings often forget this. In neighbouring Woodeaton’s Church of the Holy Rood, the gaze is there in the damaged fresco but, in St Ethelreda, Horley, the figure looks frankly anxious: although his movements are jaunty, his mouth is tight with strain and his eyes wide open with gathering panic. The figure in Thorpe Mandeville, Northants, doggedly soldiers on while a blithe Christ child sits easily with his legs around the neck of the giant, like any small child riding on his father’s back, and makes a sign of blessing. The website http://www.paintedchurch.org/contensc.htm has all the pictures.
My thanks to Benjamin Lloyd of the auctioneers Mallams, who kindly looked at our statue and suggested a basic identification.