Keys. A bag of money. An eagle. And numerous instruments representing a martyr’s death.
Those are some of the symbols found on the 12 ancient apostles statues by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, which have been featured in The Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, Denmark, for nearly 200 years and now at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center.
Each base bearing an apostle statue has inscribed a Greek equivalent of that apostle’s name. The larger Christus statue, has a shorter base with “Venite a Me” and “Matteo 11:28” — Italian for “Come unto Me” and Matthew 11:28, which reads: “Come unto me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
The Christus statue is seen with outstretched arms as welcoming, inviting, enveloping, with the hands and feet of the resurrected Christ shown with the wounds of the crucifixion. That differs from other similar statues and depictions of the Savior either suffering through the crucifixion or with arms reaching upward in a show of power.
The following are some of the representations of symbolism found with Thorvaldsen’s statues of the 12 ancient apostles.
Peter (Petrus): The keys held in Peter’s right hand are symbolic of Matthew 16:19, where Christ tells Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
James, brother of John (Iacobus Frater Iohannes): James is depicted holding a shepherd’s staff or walking stick and sporting hat behind his left shoulder. Tradition has James preaching in Spain, with many Christian pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago route to Santiago de Compostela, believed by some to be the apostle’s burial location.
John (Iohannes): The lack of a beard underscores the youth of John, and the writing slate and pencil symbolize his role as an evangelist and one of the authors of the four gospels. At his feet is an eagle, which was one of the winged creatures mentioned in Revelation 4:7, with John the author of that New Testament book.
Paul (Paulus): In collections of apostle statues, Paul often takes the place of Judas Iscariot. In his left hand, he holds a sword. Traditions have Paul suffering death under Emperor Nero sometime between 62 and 68 A.D. As a Roman citizen, Paul was spared crucifixion and is believed to have been beheaded instead.
Matthew (Matthaeus): Like fellow evangelist John, the statue of Matthew holds a writing slate and a pencil. Beside the right foot is a bag of money, with Matthew’s original profession being a tax collector.
Philip (Philippus): The statue is holding a small cross, since tradition has Philip often preaching of Christ’s crucifixion as well as being crucified upside down.
James, son of Alphaeus (Iacobus Alphaeus Filius): Tradition has this James — who is shown holding a staff or a fuller’s club — being stoned and beaten to death with such a club near the temple in Jerusalem.
Thomas (Thomas): Thomas holds a builder’s square, given that an ancient story has Thomas building a palace for King Gudaphara in India. Since the “doubting” Thomas didn’t initially believe in the first reports of the Savior’s resurrection until he touched the wounds of crucifixion, the square symbolizes his belief in things “measured and weighed.”
Bartholomew (Batholomeaus): The knife being held conveys the legend of his death at the command of the king of Armenia.
Andrew, brother of Peter (Andreas Frater Petri): Portrayals often show Andrew with a book or scroll and accompanied by an X-shaped cross suggesting or representing the legend of his death in Patras, Greece.
Judas Thaddaeus (Judas Thaddaeus): This statue holds a halberd, which is a long-handled medieval weapon combining a spear and a battle-ax. Stories have Judas Thaddaeus suffering a martyr’s death in Persia.
Simon Zelotes (Simon Zelotes): The saw held in front represents the tradition of Simon Zelotes’ death in Persia.
A previous version of this story included a photo of an incomplete statue representing the apostle Philip by Bertel Thorvaldsen displayed in the Rome Temple Visitors’ Center. In the completed statue, Philip is holding a small cross.