Symbolism: St. John’s chalice and snake

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Over the next few months I’ll be writing some more about ancient Christian symbols (the fish, the anchor etc), but I thought I’d reboot my Symbolism Series by talking about something which caught my eye at Liturgy this morning.

In my parish, around the inner portion of the dome, we have paintings of the Twelve Apostles (with St. Matthias replacing Judas). This morning I ended up sitting next to the following painting of St. John:
John

It occurred to me that, while I know the book he is holding is symbolic of his Gospel, I had no idea of the symbolism behind the chalice and snake. When I got home I needed to satisfy my curiosity, so I did some research…

As with most symbols, I found a few different explanations, as well as some evolution of the symbols over time. In art, St. John’s association with a chalice appears to have begun around the Thirteenth Century. Some commentators see this as pointing to the Last Supper, but possibly the most obvious reference would be to the line in John’s own Gospel where Christ promises James and John that they will both “drink of [His] cup” (Matthew 20:23).

However, the addition of a snake to the chalice seems to point to something a little different. There is an old legend that once St. John was given a cup of wine which had been poisoned but that, by his blessing, the poison came out of it in the form of a snake and John drank the cup unharmed.

A number of rather lovely traditions have built up around St. John’s association with wine. The old Roman Ritual contained a blessing of wine on the feast of St. John, in which the wine would be taken home and drunk with the main meal, with members of the family passing around a single cup, inviting each other to drink “the love of St. John”. In my research I also found references to wine being used in the wedding ceremony separate from the Eucharist, as well as its use as a sacramental for the dying.

So, that’s the origin of the symbols. What I think we have here is a perfect reason to go and buy a nice bottle of wine on the next feast of St. John:

Western Church: December 27
Eastern Church: May 8 and September 26 (Repose)

September 26th is around the corner… Cheers!

2 comments

  • Just came back from France. Also notice the snake in the chalice. However it appeared in the nativity scene (painting in the louvre). Odd, since John was not present at Jesus birth. I have a shot of the painting, but not sure if it was a Michael Angelo painting.

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