Vision of the Bishop of Hamburg showing Jesus in Jewish garb

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

Anscar depicted as the founder of the lost Hamburg cathedral – Bridgeman

In 1804, after a vote of the townspeople of the city, which at that time functioned as a sovereign state, the demolition of the medieval cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hamburg began. The great Gothic cathedral was a magnificent structure with two towers and tall spiers. Its broken stones were used to strengthen the coastal defenses.

It was an act without feeling. Among the furnishings that survived was a painting that can now be seen in the nearby church of St. Peter. It presents St. Anscar holding a model of the original cathedral in his hands wearing bishop’s gloves.

The painting is not an accurate depiction of how St. Anscar (also spelled Ansgar or Anschar), born in 801, this can be called Scandinavia. It was painted by Hans Bornemann of Hamburg, a gift to the cathedral from its rector, Johannes Middelmann, shown kneeling at the patron saint’s feet with a speech scroll explaining that he died in 1457 when the painting was finished.

I know of no Anscar except Anscar Vonier (1875-1938), who survived a shipwreck to become Abbot of Buckfast and a writer of extraordinary insight. He gained this name by becoming, like the saint, a Benedictine monk. The original Anscar joined the monastery of Corbie in northern France and in 822, at the age of 21, was one of the founders of the branch at New Corbie on the Weser River.

In the 1820s, Anscar was involved in two missionary initiatives in Jutland and Sweden. In 831 he became Archbishop of Hamburg and went to Rome to receive the pallium, a ritual handkerchief given to metropolitans, from Pope Gregory IV. This pope spent his remaining 13 years trying to deal with the disintegration of Charlemagne’s empire in the 30 years after his death.

In the years until his own death in 865, Anscar attempted to Christianize Sweden and Denmark. It was hard work, as the Danes raided his see of Hamburg in 844, destroying his liturgical books. Without financial resources, he additionally received the bishopric of Bremen, a city on the Weser, which, like Hamburg, was to develop during the High Middle Ages as a Hanseatic trading port. Bremen retained its legal links with Hamburg Cathedral until its demolition.

It was in Bremen that Anscar died and his life was recorded 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 used to pray. “A man who was tall, dressed according to Jewish custom, and handsome, entered through the door. His eyes radiated a divine radiance like a flame of fire. When he saw Him, he cast aside all hesitations and, believing that it was the Lord Christ, ran forward and fell at His feet.

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

In The Life of Anscar, Jesus hears the saint confess his sins, then tells him, “Fear not, for I am the one who expiates your sins.” Strengthened by this, he perseveres until his death in following Jesus in a way that, according to his biographer, makes him a martyr (“witness”) of Christ. His feast day is February 3.

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