Sacred Mysteries: A Hamburg bishop’s vision of Jesus in Jewish dress

Anscar depicted as the founder of Hamburg’s lost cathedral - Bridgeman
Anscar depicted as the founder of Hamburg’s lost cathedral - Bridgeman

In 1804 the demolition of the medieval cathedral of St Mary in Hamburg began after a vote by the burghers of the city, which then functioned as a sovereign state. The great Gothic cathedral was a splendid building with two towers and tall spires. Its broken stones were used to strengthen coastal defences.

It was an unfeeling act. Among the furnishings that survived was a painting now to be seen in the nearby church of St Peter. It shows St Anscar holding a model of the original cathedral in his episcopally gloved hands.

The painting is not an accurate depiction of what St Anscar (also spelt Ansgar or Anschar), who was born in 801, would have been dressed like, but is a devotional image of the man regarded as the Apostle of the North, or as we might call it, Scandinavia. It was painted by Hans Bornemann of Hamburg, a gift to the cathedral from its provost, Johannes Middelmann, shown kneeling at the foot of the patron saint with a speech scroll explaining that he died in 1457, when the picture was done.

I don’t know any Anscars except for Anscar Vonier (1875-1938), who survived a shipwreck to become Abbot of Buckfast and a writer of remarkable penetration. He gained the name on becoming, like the saint, a Benedictine monk. The original Anscar had joined the monastery of Corbie in northern France and in 822, aged 21, was among those founding an offshoot at New Corbie on the river Weser.

In the 820s Anscar took part in two missionary initiatives in Jutland and Sweden. In 831 he was made Archbishop of Hamburg and travelled to Rome to receive from Pope Gregory IV the pallium, the ritual scarf presented to Metropolitans. This pope spent the 13 years left to him trying to deal with the break-up of the empire of Charlemagne in the 30 years after his death.

In the years until his own death in 865, Anscar attempted to Christianise Sweden and Denmark. It was uphill work, since the Danes raided his see at Hamburg in 844, destroying his liturgical books. Without financial resources, he was granted in addition the bishopric of Bremen, a city on the Weser that, like Hamburg, was to grow in prosperity in the high Middle Ages as a Hanseatic trading port. Bremen kept its legal links with Hamburg Cathedral until the latter’s demolition.

It was at Bremen that Anscar died and his life was written by his successor, Rimbert. This hagiography is punctuated by dreams or visions granted to Anscar.

In one of the most striking, Anscar found himself in a chapel where he was in the habit of praying. “A man came through the door who was tall, dressed according to Jewish custom, and of handsome appearance. From his eyes a divine lustre radiated like unto a flame of fire. When he beheld Him he cast aside all hesitancy and, believing that it was the Lord Christ, he ran forward and fell at His feet.”

Of course everyone at the time knew that Jesus was Jewish, but it was more frequent to associate Jewish culture with resistance to Christian demands. I don’t quite know what Jewish dress was like in Anscar’s time. Four centuries later, manuscripts showed Jewish men in hats with a peg-shaped stalk on top. Jesus himself is depicted in such a hat on the road to Emmaus in a 12th-century Life of Christ in the Getty Museum (MS 101).

In Anscar’s Life, Jesus hears the saint confess his sins then tells him: “Fear not, for I am He that blotteth out thy iniquities.” Strengthened by this, he perseveres until death in following Jesus in a way that his biographer declares makes him a martyr (“witness”) for Christ. His feast day is February 3.