Feast of St Luke
I once saw St Luke’s body.
Well, actually, the body itself was hidden in a reliquary in a chapel in a basilica in Padua, where I was visiting a colleague. Like many relics, we are, evidently, not meant to interact with it directly, so much as stand near it, and—I guess—absorb its holiness, or something.
Anyway, I once saw St Luke’s body.
Well, it was missing its head (which is in Prague, for some reason) and a rib (which the Italians kindly gifted to the Greeks in the year 2000).
But I digress. I once saw St Luke’s body. Well, kind of.
I mean, it probably wasn’t actually St Luke’s body at all, but—you know—why let facts get in the way of a perfectly good story, says the priest. Frankly, most of what I’m about to tell you about Luke was probably made up by pious Catholics in the middle ages, but—bear with me—I promise you there’ll be a point to all of this.
There is much that is said about the saint whose life we celebrate today, handed down to us over the generations. He is, of course, best known as the author of one of the four gospels in the New Testament, despite the fact that the text never actually names its author. Indeed, he is the author of what is arguably the most fastidiously historical of the gospels: he at least claims to want to set the record straight.
From the other biblical work attributed to Luke—the Acts of the Apostles—Christians have traditionally inferred that the saint was also a physician; indeed, this was apparently his day job. Thus, we have the image both of historical scholarship as well as of science, albeit ancient medical science, which is perhaps unrecognisable as science today, and probably quite scary.
Now, the signs by the reliquary in that basilica in Padua mentioned very little of any of this. Instead, they chose to focus on a lesser known strand of the traditions concerning St Luke: that is, his work as a painter. Since about the 8th century—probably in response to iconoclastic controversies in those days—Luke has come to be celebrated as the inventor of icons. That ubiquitous image of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus at her side is said to have first been painted by Luke who even had the Blessed Mother and Child themselves sitting and posing for him.
Thus, we have Luke: saint, medical doctor, amateur historian, and visionary painter, an impossible polymath if ever there was one. And yet—despite my general scepticism about relics and the details of the lives of early saints—there is something important being expressed in St Luke’s life and work as we have received it.
I am not, you might be relieved to hear, talking about “interdisciplinary research”, which is all the rage these days, though I suppose it would be interesting to see a dissertation on the history of medical science entirely painted with egg tempera and gold leaf on wood.
Nor am I attempting to extol the virtues of amateur scholarship, even though I do think that it is a wonderful thing that non-academics—equipped with torches, metal detectors, telescopes, and shovels—are constantly making important discoveries about Roman Britain, comets, and (best of all) dinosaurs.
Nor am I even trying to show that holy men and women—saints, even—can be serious contributors to knowledge and the arts, even though Georges Lemaître (the Belgian priest who first proposed the Big Bang theory) and Gregor Mendel (the Augustinian friar who first discovered genes) are personal heroes of mine.
Instead, I want to think a bit about what work—and, for that matter, play—is good for, through this particular prism.
The Gospel according to St Luke is, as I have already mentioned, an anonymous work, and may well always have been, though there is scholarly disagreement on this point. “Luke” is the name we have designated to its unknown author, around whom we have constructed this elaborate hagiography, based only in part on biblical material. Having done this, it is easy to make the anachronistic mistake of thinking that Dr Luke’s dabbling into investigative journalism or historiography is some kind of side project that will help him diversify his income streams or increase his impact factor. But the Gospel according to St Luke is, in the first place, a gift to the community to which Luke belongs: he is far less interested in fame and fortune—he had neither a publishing contract nor even author attribution—than in widening access to the good news that Christ sets us free. (Incidentally, one of many things from which Christ sets us free, is the kind of insecurity that drives us so to crave fame and fortune.) Would it only that we—members of the scholarly community, at whatever level—were also happy to publish anonymously, and not merely in order to shield our fragile egos from criticism, but actually because we prioritize the propagation of knowledge over personal glory. A pipe dream, perhaps.
Similarly, it is a mistake easily committed to think of Luke’s work in the visual arts purely as an extracurricular expression of individual creativity; as if, in other words, it were a hobby to ward off the tedium of his upper middle class life in his Harley Street practice. Furthermore, icons are, like gospels might have been, typically left unsigned, which makes them consummately unlike most modern objects recognized as art, which almost inevitably serve as vehicles for the artist’s symbolic immortality. Far from being such antidotes to boredom or commodified products of self-expression, icons are manifestations of pious devotion to their subject: in Luke’s case, the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. It is, in other words, not for the glory of the painter, that the icon maker paints, but for the glory of God and saints being painted, as well as for the benefit of the faithful.
All this talk of benefits might sound utilitarian, but it need not be. There is, of course, I think, everything in the world to be said for art for art’s sake (or for that matter, science for science’s sake): the rejection of our culture’s fetish for practical and measurable outcomes can only be a good thing. But too often what lies beneath such slogans is selfishness and narcissism. To reject crass utilitarianism is not to simultaneously stop asking questions about the good that our endeavours aim to accomplish, both for us, as well as for others.
Admittedly, this is all almost certainly to read too much into the fantastical life of a saint, whom we may or may not have made up from disparate fragments of information. It is also almost certainly too romantic a view of gospel writers and icon painters both, who were after all, human beings at least occasionally riddled with the same sorts of pathetic insecurities as we are. All the same, sermons—like icons and biblical narratives, incidentally—are not meant merely to be veridical representations of the facts as they are, but rather to be proclamations about the world as it ought to be, about us as we ought to be.
And so it is that the memory of St Luke, the unlikely polymath, has allowed us to go from an anecdote to a sustained criticism of individual ambition in favour of a view of work and play that prioritizes collegiality and community. Not an inappropriate place to end up, it seems to me, in this august institution. Go forth then, and do likewise.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.