The Holy Entourage: the twelve disciples as displayed in the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano

by Christi Fonfara
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2012]
saints matthew, thaddeus and simon, from the nave of the basilica of Saint John Lateran, rome

Jesus Christ is one of the most influential people in history. Considered by some the Son of God, by others simply a prophet, while yet others doubt his very existence, but regardless of who he was, he managed to spark a religious movement that influenced almost all of Western history for the last 1700 years and more. But Jesus did not do this alone, among the numerous disciples that he acquired through his teachings and miracles, the twelve apostles became his most loyal companions and eventually they guaranteed the survival of his teachings.
Acting as his postumous voice, the twelve apostles became messengers of Christ, who they believed had risen from the dead and was literally speaking through them.
"And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of disease. Now the names of the apostles are these: ....."

saints andrew, james the elder, paul and peter, from the nave of the basilica of Saint John Lateran, rome

"These twelve Jesus sent forth and commanded them, saying, go not into the way of the Gentiles and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and as ye go preaching, saying 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"
[Matthew 10:1-7]
After Jesus' crucifixion, his disciples did as he asked, and many of them were cruelly executed for their proclamations. To the Romans Christianity sounded like a perverse and dangerous cult, and it was considered an atheist movement, because they denied the existence of the traditional gods, and anarchist, since the emperor himself was one of the gods whose divinity they denied. Thus, the propogators of this 'cult' were given the harshest of punishments. As a result, about half of the depictions of the disciples make use of symbols that represent their manner of execution. The list of apostles, how they died and the resulting symbols are as follows:
Saint Andrew - crucified on an X-shaped cross, he is usually depicted with his cross
Saint Simon - sawed in half vertically, he is usually depicted with a serrated saw
Saint Jude - beaten and beheaded, he is often shown with a large blade
Saint Bartholomew - skinned alive, his depiction usually includes a flaying knife and his own skin
Saint James the Younger - beaten to death, often shown with a club
Saint Philip - crucified on a T-shaped cross, generally depicted with that cross

saints bartholomew, james the younger, phillip, mark and thomas, from the nave of the basilica of Saint John Lateran, rome

The rest of the apostles are depicted with symbols of their contribution to Christianity, the following is a list of the rest of the disciples and their symbols:
Saint John the Evangelist - he is shown with a quill, as writer of one of the four gospels, and an eagle, which is traditionally his symbol, which originates from the book of Revelations.
Saint Thomas - also called 'doubting Thomas' because he insisted on touching Christ's wounds after he was resurrected. He is commonly shown with an architect's square rule as he was thought to have practised this profession.
Saint James the Elder - James was accepted as leader of the disciples after Jesus' death, and he carries the staff of leadership
Saint Matthew - shown with a bag of coins, alluding to his previous profession of tax collector, and/or with a pen and book as writer of one of the gospels

facade and plan of the basilica of saint john lateran, rome

The last two figures depicted in the church of San Giovanni have been saved for several reasons. Saint Paul, formely Saul, was originally a persecutor of Jesus' followers, until he was struck blind by a great light and heard the message that he was to stop persecuting Christians, and join them. He immediately changed his attitude and began to travel, preaching his message of a risen Christ.

statue of saint paul from the atrium of the basilica of saint paul outside the walls, rome

His contribution to the early development of Christianity was so crucial that he is almost always shown directly to the left of Christ (or in this case of the altar), opposite Peter on the right. Saint Paul died a martyr's death, beheaded in Rome, and thus is usually shown with a sword in his hand. He is, together with Peter, the patron saint of Rome, and the Basilica of Saint Paul is one of the four ancient papal basilicas, built over his last burial place.
Finally, Saint Peter who is often regarded as the 'Prince of Apostles'. Originally called Simon, Jesus changed his name to Peter, which in latin means 'rock', saying:
"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."
[Matthew 16:18]
Peter is considered by catholicism to have been the first Pope, having received the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven from Christ, and for this reason he is depicted with a set of keys. When possible they are shown in gold and silver - one for Heaven and the other for Hell.

saints bartholomew, james the younger, phillip, mark and thomas, from the nave of the basilica of Saint John Lateran, rome

"I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven."
[Matthew 16:19]
Here Christ is giving Peter the power that Popes still have today: infallibility, the ability to act in persona christ, and the ability to write and change church dogma.
These apostles became the first representatives of the church, and it was through their actions that Christ's message was spread and immortalized. By their teachings and often by their martyrdoms, they set an example and spread a message that could not be stopped.