St Christopher (San Cristoforo), ‘the one who carries Christ’, is the giant with his feet in the water and a small child on his shoulders. He was one of the most venerated saints of the Middle Ages, and today his image is found in churches throughout Italy, and in taxi cabs around the world. He is the saint of travelers and pilgrims, and suspiciously shares his feast day, July 25, with St James, the pilgrim saint of Compostela, Spain.
Churches around the world are dedicated to St Christopher, including Milan’s Chiesa di San Cristoforo sul Naviglio. Milan has scarcely little open water, but the famed Naviglio Grande passes within meters of the church’s portals. The location is particularly apropos for the Milanese expression of the legendary cult.
A long time ago, a very tall and strong ferryman lived on the banks of a river. His job was to help people cross the river day and night and in all kinds of weather. One night, as a terrible storm raged, a little boy came to him and asked to be carried across the river. Although the winds and waves were very strong, the man could not refuse the little boy and placed him on his shoulders and began walking across the river. The more he walked, the heavier the little boy became – in fact, the little boy was the heaviest cargo he had ever carried – and the tall, strong man could only continue with great effort and perseverance. Finally, with the last of his strength, they arrived safely on the other side of the river. When the giant man asked the little boy why he was so heavy, it was revealed to him that the little boy was, in fact, the Christ-child and he was so heavy because the Christ-child was also carrying the full weight of the world in the form of a small ball.
Some see Greek (Hercules) and Egyptian (Anubis) influences in the development of the legend. The saint is called Cynocephalus in Greek, which means ‘dog head’, and is sometimes depicted in the East with the head of a dog.
Historical evidence for the saint is rather slight. According to the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (the Martyrology of Jerome), St Christopher was martyred in Lycia on July 25, 250 CE during the persecution of Emperor Decius, and by the fifth century, references appear to churches and monasteries dedicated to the saint. The western legend of Saint Christopher appears in its definitive form in Jacobus da Voragine’s thirteenth century, Golden Legends (Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum), in which the saint is identified as one of the fourteen Holy Helpers who offer protection against the plague. According to da Voragine, the martyrdom of Christopher, who is identified as a giant Canaanite, included being beaten with rods, hit with arrows, thrown into a fire, and finally beheaded. He is remembered, however, as the one who carried Christ.
The Chiesa di San Cristoforo sul Naviglo is a charming complex consisting of two contiguous churches located at an obligatory crossing point in the canal system of greater Milan.
The older church, the one farther away from the water, was built around 1364 upon an existing twelfth-century foundation as a single-roomed Romanesque church with a semicircular apse by a certain Friar Pietro Franzoni of Tavernasco, who also built an adjacent lazaretto, or hospital, in conjunction with the expansion of the Naviglio Grande. The apse contains frescoes by the Luini school, which depict the Eternal Father and the symbols of the four Evangelists. The lower register of the apse depicts the life-sized figures of St James and St John the Baptist in the center, and St Catherine of Siena and Blessed Christina Visconti on the two sides. Of the remaining frescos on the northern wall, the most noteworthy is a fifteenth-century image by the Bergognone school, if not by Bergognone (d. 1523/4) himself, of the enthroned Madonna surrounded by saints Rocco, Antonio, Augustine and Sebastian.
In the fifteenth century, a second church, commonly known as the Ducal Chapel, was built on the southern side of the existing church by Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), fulfilling his vow regarding the cessation of the plague of 1399 which had claimed 20,000 victims. The Ducal Chapel was likewise dedicated to St. Christopher, patron saint against the plague, as well as to John the Baptist, St James and Blessed Cristina, protectors of the Visconti family, in commemoration of their victory over John III of Armagnac at the Battle of Alessandria on July 25, 1391. The two-bay apse-less church has a cross-vaulted ceiling. The remaining frescoes give an idea of the vivid colors and dynamic images that greeted faithful pilgrims and travelers as they entered the church. Frescoes, which are still visible, include the Adoration of the Magi and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In 1625, the wall separating the two churches was demolished, transforming the two churches into a single two-aisled interior space.
The church has two valuable wooden statues of St. Christopher. One from the fourteenth century is in the original church (left), and a second statue from the sixteenth century is located in the Ducal Chapel.
Traces of two frescos of Saint Christopher can still be discerned on the façade of the original church, which is adorned with a terracotta portal and rose window. Above it, in small white marble tiles are three coats of arms: the serpentine image of the Visconti family, the cross of the city of Milan and the radiant sun among stars of Cardinal Pietro Filargo (1339-1410), archbishop of Milan (1402-1409), later elected Anti-pope Alexander V (1409-1410). The facade of the Ducal Chapel consists of a simple portal flanked by two tall lancet windows. Above the portal are the coats of arms of the Visconti family and the city of Milan. A fifteenth century Romanesque bell tower, unique among churches in Milan, rises over the two churches.
What led Christopher to become a ferryman in the first place?
According to legend, Christopher was a giant with great physical strength, who went in search of a single goal: to serve the most powerful person in the world. At first, he served a mighty king. One day, when a juggler was singing a song in which the devil was mentioned, Christopher saw the king make a sign of the cross. Seeing that the king was afraid of the devil, Christopher concluded that the devil was stronger than the king, and Christopher left the king in order to serve the devil.
One day while Christopher was serving the devil, they passed a cross along the side of the road. Christopher could see that the devil was visibly afraid of the cross, since it was the sign of Jesus Christ, and Christopher concluded that the cross was stronger than the devil. So, Christopher left the devil in order to serve Jesus Christ.
Christopher was led to a poor Christian hermit. When Christopher asked how he could serve Jesus Christ, the hermit told Christopher to pray and fast. Christopher knew nothing about prayer and fasting, and so he refused and asked the hermit for another way to serve Jesus Christ. The hermit then pointed to a nearby river and said, ‘No one can cross the river without risking his or her life. With your strength and enormous size, you can carry travelers and pilgrims from one bank to the other. This would be the best way for you to serve Christ. And so day and night, without refusal or rejection, Christopher carried people back and forth across the river until one dark and stormy night a little child appeared and asked to be carried across the river. . .
In case Christopher was not convinced that the little boy was the Christ Child, he was told to plant his pole in front of his house. In the morning, when Christopher awoke, the pole had turned into a palm tree with leaves and dates, which is often depicted in images of the holy saint.
The cult of St. Christopher developed along land and water routes frequented by pilgrims and travelers. St Christopher was thought to gave strength and protection to pilgrims as they crossed the Alps, and as far north as the Baltics, St Christopher became the patron saint of the cities of Riga and Vilnius. In Milan, its legacy includes a church located along the banks of the Naviglio Grande, where with a wee bit of imagination the story of the giant ferryman and the Christ child can still be evoked, despite the picturesque pedestrian bridge now giving easy access to both sides of the canal.
Jerpoint Abbey, Ireland