Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Saint Misbehavin'

When I was about 13, I was confirmed in our local Catholic church along with a bunch of other kids from the area. The whole process involved a number of different stages - things to be memorised, theological concepts to grapple with - which mostly took place after school in friends' living rooms over a few glasses of orange squash. The bit everyone was excited about was choosing a confirmation name. We all had to choose a name of a saint with which we felt a particular affinity, and since we were all 13 and all had a sombre regard and encyclopedic knowledge of the animal kingdom (particularly the long-extinct), most of my friends chose St Francis, the saint who told the birds to stop tweeting when he was praying, and high-fived wolves, and walked through fire, and seemed like the cool older brother you never had. 

I wanted to distinguish myself from the Franciscan herd, though, and spent a good 45 minutes leafing through any and all Catholic literature I could find on our bookshelves, scanning the pages for names that sounded as different as possible to Francis. This was important: to a 13-year-old boy, getting a confirmation name was an opportunity to do something you spent your entire adolescence yearning to do - shedding your given, embarrassing identity in favour of a pseudonym redolent of a dark and dangerous past that the increasingly-noticeable female members of your French class would find alluring, perhaps enough to overlook your increasingly-obvious physical inferiority to your classmates. So I chose St Matthias. 

It's only in the last year that I've actually bothered to properly research St Matthias, to whose status as patron saint of alcoholics, barrel-makers and Gary, Indiana I ascribe my female contemporaries' failure to cast themselves helplessly at my scrawny 13-year-old feet. (One of my Franciscan friends kissed a girl's eye - aiming for the lips - in the Tunnel of Love at the local theme park). Matthias, whose name (according to 'The Golden Legend', Jacobus de Voragine's medieval romp through the thrills and spills of the lives of the saints) means either "gift of God" or "humble or small" (thanks, Jacobus), was the disciple picked to fill the shoes of Judas Iscariot after the Resurrection of Christ. Throughout de Voragine's life of Matthias, there's a sense of anti-climax: Matthias was chosen as a disciple by rolling dice (he was odds; the other contender, Joseph the Just, was evens), which started as best of three, then five, then seven, then nine, then Christ got impatient and told them to just give him the goddamn job already. 

There aren't many paintings or sculptures of Matthias (perhaps not surprising given his final-reel appearance in the Bible), or at least not many in which he can be confidently identified. When he is there, as in a slim oblong panel painting by Masolino in the National Gallery, he looks appropriately awkward and out-of-place, holding his saintly attribute of the axe (presumably a reference to his grisly martyrdom, which probably took place in Ethiopia after several years of preaching) in an uncertain way. In Masolino's painting he shuffles along cautiously on his big flat feet, carrying his axe as though it were a tray of brimming wine glasses. Pope Gregory the Great looks over at him, making the gesture of blessing, but warily, ready for Matthias to drop his axe or trip over his toga. How I managed to be so prescient at 13 I don't know, but I'd like to say to my younger self: thanks. Thanks a lot.

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