St James Major was one of the twelve apostles called by Christ to share in his mission. Along with his brother St John (who also became an apostle), he was a fisherman. Christ met him when he was mending nets with his brother at the sea of Galilee and invited him to become a disciple. (Matthew 4:21-22)
There were actually two apostles named James – St James Major and St James Minor, who was the son of Alphaeus and brother of Christ (Matthew 10:1-3). The two have been traditionally titled “Major/Minor” or “Greater/Lesser” to enable us to tell them apart. St James Major probably had a fiery personality, because Christ nicknamed both him and St John the ‘sons of thunder’ (Mark 3:17).
St James stands out in the gospels. As Pope Benedict once explained: “James belongs, together with Peter and John, to the group of the three privileged disciples whom Jesus admitted to important moments in his life.” These moments often related to death – the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration (when they saw Moses and Elijah in the afterlife) and Christ’s last night in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Mark 5:35-43; 9:2-8; 14:32-42)
This preparation of St James for death proved significant. Pope Benedict XVI continues: “Early in the first century, in the 40s, King Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, as Luke tells us, “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the Church. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword” (Acts 12: 1-2).”
The pope concluded: “James the Greater stands before us as an eloquent example of generous adherence to Christ. He, who initially had requested, through his mother, to be seated with his brother next to the Master in his Kingdom, was precisely the first to drink the chalice of the passion and to share martyrdom with the Apostles.” (cf Matthew 20:20-28)
Tradition has it that St James once preached in Spain and that his body was transferred to Santiago de Compestela, where there is now a major shrine to the apostle. St James is the patron saint of Spain and as such, the Spanish embassy church in London was named after him. It features various scenes from his life in stained glass, including his call to be an apostle, his presence at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, his request for a special place in heaven and of course, his martyrdom. The stained glass scene of his death as King Herod looks on dates to 1900 and may have been the work of Powell & Sons.
See the full image:
Powell & Sons / The Martyrdom of St James Major / Stained glass / 1900
Where to find this work of art
St James Spanish Place, London
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On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: The Book of Daniel tells the story of how The Three Holy Youths were also sentenced to death for their faith in God.
- From the New Testament: Earlier in the Acts of the Apostles, we read of The Martyrdom of St Stephen.
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