Saturday, May 01, 2021

The Legend of St Philip the Apostle

The feast of the Apostle St Philip is traditionally kept on this day, together with St James the Younger, a custom which derives from the presence of their relics in the Roman basilica of the Twelve Apostles, which was originally dedicated only to the two of them. In the Synoptic Gospels, he is not mentioned apart from the list of the twelve disciples whom Jesus called his Apostles (Matthew 10, 1-4 and parallels). However, St Clement of Alexandria, writing ca. 200 AD, knew a tradition that Philip was the man who asked leave to go bury his father, to whom Christ replied, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” (Stromata 3, 4, 25, citing Matthew 8, 22.)

Reliquaries of Ss Philip and James displayed in the crypt of the church of the Twelve Apostles. Photo by Agnese, from part 3 of the very first Roman Pilgrim series, in 2014. 
In the Gospel of St John, on the other hand, Philip is a very prominent figure. After Christ “finds” him, and calls him, saying no more than “Follow me!”, Philip brings to Him Nathanael, who confesses “Thou art the Son of God, Thou are the king of Israel.” (1, 43-49.) At the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, it is Philip to whom Christ says “Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”, and who replies “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one may take a little.” (6, 5 and 7). Later on, Philip and Andrew together introduce some gentiles to Jesus. (12, 20-22) Finally, during the Last Supper, Philip says to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”, to which Jesus replies, “Have I been so long a time with you; and have you not known me? Philip, he that seeth me seeth also the Father. How sayest thou, show us the Father? Do you not believe, that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?” (14, 8-10) A fuller version of this passage, John 14, 1-13, is listed as the Gospel for the feast of Ss Philip and James in the very oldest lectionary of the Roman Rite, ca. 650 AD, and provides most of the proper antiphons for the Office, as well as the second Alleluia and the Communion antiphon of their Mass.

A motet based on the Communion of the Mass of Ss Philip and James, in a polyphonic setting by the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621).

At the beginning of the Acts, he is named in the company of the Apostles in the upper room. (1, 13). When the first seven deacons were chosen, one of them is also called Philip, and there was already in antiquity some confusion between the two. Eusebius of Caesarea, for example, in his Ecclesiastical History (3, 31), takes it for granted that they are the same person, referring to his four daughters, even though in Acts 21, 9, it is stated that it was Philip the deacon who had four daughters. He quotes a letter from Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, to Pope Victor I (189-99), which refers to Philip’s burial at Hierapolis in Phrygia, (now called Pammukale, in southwest Turkey), where he had preached the Gospel for many years. He also cites from one of the very first Church historians, Papias, bishop of Hierapolis and a contemporary of Pope Victor, the story that Philip had raised a man from the dead, a story which Papias had heard from one of Philip’s daughters.

Like several other Apostles, Philip also has an apocryphal set of Acts written about him; his is a compilation of fifteen different episodes which vary in their degree of absurdity. One of these episodes, the ninth, is a brief account of the slaying of a dragon, which he does on his missionary travels in the company of his fellow Apostle Bartholomew, and his sister, whose name is given as Mariamne.

In the Golden Legend of Bl. Jacopo de Voragine, the account of St Philip is quite short, far shorter, in fact, than that of St James, and also contains a dragon-slaying episode. However, the story is told in a completely different manner from that of his fictitious Acts. In the Golden Legend version, Philip is in Scythia, where he is brought by the pagans before a statue of Mars, and ordered to sacrifice to it. A dragon emerges from the statue’s base, killing the son of the priest in charge of the sacrifice, and the two local officials who were keeping the Apostle in chains, while making everyone else present sick with its breath. Philip promises to remedy these ills if the pagans break the statue and replace it with a Cross; when they do, he heals the sick, raises the three dead persons, and banishes the dragon to an uninhabited desert. He then comes to Hierapolis, where he successfully combats the heresy of the Ebionites, establishes the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and is finally crucified by the infidels.

In the year 1487, a wealthy Florentine merchant named Filippo Strozzi commissioned the painter Filippino Lippi to fresco a chapel dedicated to the name Saint whom he shared with the artist. The complex and agitated style which Lippi learned from his teacher, Sandro Botticelli, perfectly suits the complex and agitated scenes of the dragon’s defeat and the Apostle’s crucifixion. The dragon is clearly too small to really pose a threat, representing that his power is vanquished by that of Christ’s minister. The statue of Mars is shown as a colored figure like the living persons in the lower part of the scene, and not as a white stone figure like the statues below him; this is often understood to represent the fact that the conflict between paganism and Christianity was very much alive in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Savanarola.

St Philip Banishing the Dragon, by Filippino Lippi, in the Strozzi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1487-1502
The Crucifixion of St Philip
In the pre-Tridentine Roman Breviary, this story is told in terms very similar to those of the Golden Legend, even so late as the editions published in the 1520s. The scholars charged with revising the legends of the Saints for the Breviary of St Pius V were very concerned to remove anything that might bring discredit on the Church, and were particularly severe with episodes of dragon-slaying; there is no hint of the story whatsoever in the revised legend of St Philip, the version which is still read to this day in the Breviary of the Extraordinary Form. (Ss George, Martha and Margaret of Antioch are treated in similar fashion.)
Nevertheless, in the 18th century, when statutes of the 12 Apostles were put up in the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s own cathedral, a reference to the old legend was kept. This work by Giuseppe Mazzuoli, executed between 1703 and 1712, shows St Philip stepping on a dragon, albeit also a very small one.

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