Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, was a third or fourth-century Christian man who became a martyr following his death during the reign of Roman Emperor Decius or alternatively during the reign of Emperor Maximinus II Dacian. The confusion arises due to the similarities between the names of the two monarchs. However, Saint Christopher’s veneration started to occur late in the Christian tradition and did not turn into a common practice in the Western Church until the Late Middle Ages. Despite this, since the 7th century, Christians have been naming churches and monasteries after him. Legends about him can be traced back to sixth-century Greece. By the ninth century, they had made their way to France. The most popular version of his life and death appeared in the 13th-century ‘Golden Legend.’ According to the most popular legends about him, he was a Canaanite named Reprobus, who was exceptionally tall (5 cubits or 7.5 feet or 2.3 m) and had a fearsome face. He took a child, who later turned out to be Christ, across a river. Besides being the patron saint of travellers, he has been hailed as the patron saint of places like Baden, Germany; Barga, Italy; and Tivim, Goa, India.
Legends About Saint Christopher
It was in Greece in the sixth century that the legends about his life and death first started to form. By the ninth century, they were known by the people in France. The 11th-century bishop and poet Walter of Speyer wrote down one version. However, the best-known stories about him come from the 13th-century ‘Golden Legend’.
Most legends agree that he was a tall and fearsome Canaanite named Reprobus. He was working for the king of Canaan when he decided to be in the service of “the greatest king that ever was”. He visited the king whom everyone believed to be the greatest, but then one day he witnessed the king performing a cross after someone spoke of the Devil. He realised that the king was afraid of the Devil.
He then met a band of marauders, one of whom proclaimed himself to be the Devil. Reprobus subsequently began his service under him. One day, he was with his new master when the marauder sidestepped a wayside cross. He discovered that even the Devil was afraid of Christ. Leaving that man, Reprobus began his search for Christ.
During his search, he came across a hermit, who served as his guide and teacher in the Christian faith. When he requested the hermit to tell him in what ways he could serve Christ, he was advised to fast and pray.
Christopher answered that he could not do that. As a result, the hermit then told him that with his size and strength, he could serve Christ by helping people to get across a turbulent river, where many people had died while trying.
The hermit told him that his service would make Christ happy. Christopher then began assisting people to get across the river. One day, a little child came to him and asked for his help to cross the river.
While they were crossing, there was suddenly more water in the river and the child felt incredibly heavy to Christopher. After much effort, he got to the other side.
He told the child that his life had been in great danger as he felt that he was carrying the weight of the whole world. The child revealed himself to be Christ, saying that “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work”. The child then disappeared.
Sometime after this, he travelled to Lycia, where he offered soothing words to the Christians as they were being executed. When he was taken to the local king, he refused the king’s order to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods.
The king attempted to convince him with wealth. He also instructed two women to seduce him. Christopher convinced the women to convert to Christianity alongside thousands of others in the city. The king told his men to execute Christopher. After several failed attempts, he was decapitated.
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The Patron Saint of Travellers
Christopher of Lycia is honoured with a Feast Day on 9 May by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The liturgical reading and hymns revolve around his arrest by Decius who tried to convince Christopher with harlots before ordering his execution.
The Roman Martyrology venerates him on 25 July. The Tridentine Calendar remembered him on the same day but in private masses. However, all masses had started celebrating him by 1954. That went on until 1970 when the commemoration stopped because of the general restructuring of the calendar of the Roman rite as decreed by the motu proprio, Mysterii Paschalis.
His veneration was believed to be not part of Roman tradition, as it was integrated into the Roman calendar quite late (about 1550) and in a limited capacity. However, the feast is hosted locally even today.
A gold-plated reliquary, kept at the Museum of Sacred Art at Saint Justine's Church (Sveti Justina) in Rab, Croatia, is believed to contain the skull of Saint Christopher. The church’s tradition states that a bishop displayed the relics from the city wall in 1075 to put an end to a siege by an Italo-Norman army.
Travellers often wear pendants with his name or image on them. There is a French phrase for these pendants, “Regarde St Christophe et va-t-en rassuré” (“Look at St Christopher and go on reassured”, also translated as “Behold St Christopher and go your way in safety”).
People are known to keep miniature statues of him in their automobiles. In Spanish, his medals and holy cards carry the phrase “Si en San Cristóbal confías, de accidente no morirás” (“If you trust St. Christopher, you won’t die in an accident”).
Being a renowned saint, Christopher is venerated by a wide variety of people, including athletes, mariners, ferrymen, and travellers. He is regarded as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. He is the patron of various things related to travel and guards the travellers against lightning and pestilence.
As Saint Christopher guards travellers against sudden death, his depictions were placed opposite the south door of several churches, so they could be spotted easily. Most of these depictions show him as a large man who is carrying a child on his shoulder and a staff in one hand. More wall paintings of Saint Christopher exist in England than any other saint.
Some of his depictions in both Eastern and Western Orthodox Iconographies show him with the head of a dog. These representations can be traced back to the reign of Emperor Diocletian. During a battle with the tribes dwelling to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica, a man, whose name was Reprebus, Rebrebus or Reprobus, was taken captive. He was said to be a giant of a man, with the head of a dog.
The Byzantine representation of Saint Christopher as a dog-headed man originated in their mistake of reading the Latin term Cananeus (Canaanite) as canineus (canine).
In 1609, Lord Cholmeley's Men staged the play ‘Saint Christopher’ in Yorkshire. This led to the group’s prosecution in the Court of Star Chamber. Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiró authored the novella ‘Saint Christopher’, which was put out posthumously in 1912.
In the 2003 film ‘Seabiscuit’, the jockey Red (Tobey Maguire) is given a Saint Christopher pendant by Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) in the hours leading up to the eponymous horse’s final race at Santa Anita for good luck.