St James Minor was both one of the Twelve Apostles and a relative of Christ. In St Mark’s gospel, he’s referred to as ‘James the Less’, to distinguish him from the other apostle named James (Mark 15.40). The term ‘Less’ (or Minor) may refer to either his height or his age.
According to the New Testament, he was one of the four “brothers” of Christ (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19). Since the gospels describe him as “the son of Alphaeus” – not the son of St Joseph – he was not the literal brother of Christ (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15). Rather, like St Jude he was a close relative – possibly a cousin.
As a relative of Christ and an apostle, St James became a leading figure in the Early Church. The Acts of the Apostles describe how he played an important role in the Church of Jerusalem and the Apostolic Council that took place in the city (Acts 15:1-34). St Paul referred to him as one of the “pillars” of the Church, alongside St Peter and St John (Galatians 2:9).
St James is also believed to be the author of one of the letters included in the New Testament. The Letter of St James is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” – Jewish believers spread throughout the world. The letter seems to reflects various elements of one of Christ’s parables about an active faith – the Parable of the Sower.
As Pope Benedict XVI explained: “It is quite an important writing which heavily insists on the need not to reduce our faith to a purely verbal or abstract declaration, but to express it in practice in good works. Among other things, he invites us to be constant in trials, joyfully accepted, and to pray with trust to obtain from God the gift of wisdom.”
He added: “St James’ Letter shows us a very concrete and practical Christianity. Faith must be fulfilled in life, above all, in love of neighbour and especially in dedication to the poor. It is against this background that the famous sentence must be read: “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26)”.
This stained glass scene of St James Minor pictures him seated, in the act of writing his letter. The window, by Sir Ninian Comper, is from Downside Abbey in Somerset. It belongs to a set of windows portraying all Twelve Apostles. The caption refers to St James by his Latin name, Jacobus Minor. Above the apostle’s head is a tongue of fire, a symbol of the Holy Spirit that descended upon him at Pentecost.
The quotation in Latin on the surrounding scroll is from the first chapter of his letter. It means: “In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (1:18)
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
Downside Abbey, Somerset
Read the relevant passage