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The Martyrdom of St.

Matthew the Apostle

While widely recognized as the writer of the first book of the New Testament, St. Matthew remains
one of the unknown figures among Christ’s apostles. Even there, he seems almost hidden, perhaps
out of humility. He appears abruptly at his counting-table, follows Christ with a matter-of-fact
suddenness, and only occasionally is mentioned afterwards in the narrative, sometimes, as in Mark’s
gospel, under his other name of Levi, an appropriately priestly-sounding appellation. This is not to
call him a minor figure, by any stretch of the imagination—there is great inner tension and drama
packed into his shocking, bold, split-second conversion; and his gift of the Gospel, sometimes
thought to have been written originally in Aramaic, provides a distinctly Hebrew view of Our
Lord’s coming as the prophesied Messiah, the Christ.

There are many other, now-forgotten stories of St. Matthew’s life, some striking, some
contradictory, some surely legendary, others certainly real. Historians sometimes keep such tales at
arm’s length from serious inquiry, but while occasional flourishes and details may seem extravagant
to our modern minds, such legends were frequently passed down orally from the earliest times and
treated with considerable respect by the Fathers of the Church: theologians, bishops and priests
with deeply probing, critical minds who, weathering dungeon, fire, sword, and a fair amount of
bitter invective, did not suffer nonsense gladly. There is truth beneath the gilding. While not part of
the inspired canon of Scripture and certainly not free of occasional oddities, they remain an
important part of our Catholic heritage. Without such stories, we would have no three kings and
the Good Thief would remain nameless.

The accounts of St. Matthew’s life after the Resurrection are varied, and somewhat
overlooked. In art, he is seldom depicted apart from his pen and scroll; only occasionally do we see
his conversion or the feast at the house of Levi, and even rarer still is his martyrdom. But in his
death, there is a special strength and sacrifice; and because of the events that led him to his own
Calvary, the second-century St. Hippolytus called him “the apostle of holy virginity.”

Where and when and even how St. Matthew gained the crown of martyrdom is uncertain. It
is placed variously in Persia, Ethiopia, Parthia or Macedonia, or even in a fabulous “city of man-
eaters” of unknown location, and variously by sword, by decapitation, or by burning. However, the
most commonly-accepted version, which can be found in the older forms of the Breviary, as well as
the medieval compilation known as The Golden Legend of the bishop Blessed James of Voragine,
which places his martyrdom in the vicinity of Ethiopia and Egypt. It is this version I have followed
in this image; though, like the medievals and early Christians, I have concerned myself less with
authentic period detail than the essential historic and symbolic qualities of the narrative.

St. Matthew appears in the center of the image, as a bishop vested in full pontifical regalia.
He is reported to have presided over his flock in this capacity for thirty-three years. This is
deliberately anachronistic, to show the continuity of the order of bishops over the past two
millennia, but less anachronistic than one might imagine. The Apostles were the first bishops, and
while the hierarchy and traditions of the Church have grown and developed over time, we are
realizing more and more that many of Catholicism’s customs are far more ancient than we
popularly imagine. For instance, the Apostolic Constitutions—perhaps not as old as once thought,
but still drawing on long-established oral accounts continuously passed down from early times—
ascribe to him the invention of holy water. This may or may not be true, but the early Christians,
with their hidden liturgies, mystagogy, and catacomb art were very much the Church in a
recognizable, organized modern sense. Such niceties are not late medieval additions to a pure,
obscured early faith, but their germ has always been present.

St. Matthew’s vestments are depicted as more medieval in character than truly
archaeologically ancient, but they nonetheless are intended to stress this concept of sacred
continuity. His emblems of tax-collector’s money-bags are embroidered on the lappets of his mitre
and the hem of his maniple; the crook of crozier is ornamented with figures of angels bearing
Gospel-books, the palm-branches symbolic of martyrdom, and a six-pointed star and Hebrew letter
Yod, one of the divine monograms associated with God the Father, representing his Judaic
background. The tassels and bells on his robes also echo the vesture of the Jewish high priesthood,
while the crucifixion scene on his chasuble recall us to the central fact of his own sacrifice for

I have condensed several key moments in the drama of the saint’s death, as related by Bl.
James of Voragine, into this one composite image. Now, the martyrdom of St. Matthew about in
this way. Some time before, St. Matthew had gained the attention of the local ruler, Egippus, by
raising his dead son (some accounts say daughter) to life, as well as defeating two local pagan magi,
Zaroës and Arxaphat. One particularly picturesque version has two dragons summoned by the
sorcerers falling asleep at his feet. After such acts of wonderworking, Egippus was so amazed, he
exclaimed Matthew was nothing less than a god himself, but Matthew explained he was but the
servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. King Egippus and his family were baptized, and a great church
was built for St. Matthew’s new flock. Iphigenia, the king’s daughter (sometimes said to be the one
Matthew raised to life) offered her virginity to God, and St. Matthew put her at the head of two
hundred other consecrated women. This may seem as fanciful as the sleeping dragons mentioned
earlier in this account, but the orders of widows and virgins are frequently mentioned in the New
Testament, and while not perfectly analogous to today’s nuns, are certainly similar in spirit. Eastern
Orthodox accounts call the king of the story Fulvian, and say he later became a priest and saint
himself, adopting Matthew’s own name as his own. But this is a detail unfamiliar to Western

Iphigenia’s father, whatever his name, eventually died, and was succeeded by the wicked
Hirtacus, who lusted after the virgin Iphigenia. He attempted to bribe the Apostle with land and
power—even to half his kingdom, like Herod—if he could deliver the girl to him to be his wife.
Matthew, cleverly, suggested he should follow the custom of his predecessor and attend Mass on
the following Sunday. Iphigenia and her other virgins would be present, and he would preach on
the blessings of lawful Christian marriage. Hirtacus was delighted, assuming his Sunday would
culminate in a wedding to the beautiful Iphigenia. The next day, as good as his word, the Apostle
preached at length on the glories of matrimony. The king praised him for his wisdom, but
Matthew, having finished his sermon, called for silence, and said, “Since marriage is good as long as
the union is kept inviolate, all of you here present know that if one of his servants dared to usurp
the king’s spouse, he would deserve not only the king’s anger but death as a penalty, ad this not
because he had married a wife, but by taking his master’s spouse, he was guilty of violating
matrimony. So it is with you, O king! You know the virgin Iphigenia has become the spouse of the
eternal King and is consecrated with the sacred veil. How can you take the spouse of One who is
more powerful than you and make her your wife?” King Hirtacus, enraged, stamped out of the
church. Iphigenia fainted—or, was James puts it, “was prostrate with fear,” but St. Matthew stood
firm and gave the virgins his blessing. It is this event which is shown on the right-hand side of the
image, the beauteous Iphigenia, clothed in modest but royal raiment, dropping her prayer-book in
shock, and supported by one of her horrified handmaids.

The central figure of St. Matthew represents him as preaching his sermon, wearing the mitre
of pontifical authority; giving his blessing to the frightened virgins, and also, at the very moment of
his martyrdom. While holy mass continued, the king summoned a swordsman to dispatch the
impudent apostle. After the liturgy concluded, St. Matthew paused for a moment in prayer before
the altar with his hands raised to heaven. I have taken a little license here and imagined the attack
occurring right at the masses’ conclusion, with the procession forming up before the altar;
processional crosses and a taper can be glimpsed in the background, as well as the palm of
martyrdom. The right-hand processional cross shows the hand of the Father reaching down from
heaven at its central node, a reference to the medieval etymology that saw Matthew’s name as
deriving from the Latin-Greek manus Theos, or hand of God. This is not linguistically accurate from
a modern or historical understanding, but nonetheless illustrates a deeper symbolic meaning.
Pendants inscribed with the Alpha and Omega hang from the cross’s arms, but this being the
divine fulfillment of Matthew’s whole earthly life, only the Omega is visible.

The swordsman came down the aisle of the church and struck the Apostle square in the
back with the point of his sword. He died almost instantly. We do not see this hear, just the
moment before the blade fell; the executioner is a limber, capering, mocking, demonic figure,
inhuman behind his visor, decked out in fantastical armor decorated with serpentine ornament and
bat-wings, his scabbard and sword-hilt decorated with the pagan Egyptian symbols of the old order
represented by Hirtacus and his lusts. He is merely a depersonalized extension of the king his
master; history does not even give him a name, and this shows to us how sin can destroy our own
identity, while God seeks us to be fully alive in Him.

What happened next? Sadly, blood was nearly met with more blood. St. Matthew’s enraged
congregation stormed Hirtacus’s palace and nearly burnt it down, but were restrained by the
Apostle’s priests and deacons. His whole flock then joyfully celebrated their spiritual father’s entry
into heaven as a martyr. Hirtacus eventually came to an inglorious end, and Iphigenia’s brother was
installed as ruler by a jubilant populace. Iphigenia herself died a peaceful death and is now know as
St. Iphigenia. While largely forgotten by today’s Christians, she was venerated in colonial Brazil, as
well as in Spanish-ruled eighteenth-century Guatemala, and her feast-day, while not on the General
Calendar, may be traditionally celebrated on the same day as St. Matthew’s, that is, today.

St. Matthew’s life and martyrdom is not well-known today. Yet, it offers a defense in blood
of Christian purity and faithfulness extraordinary even in its own day. Such tales have been handed
down from generation to Christian generation; fanciful details and anachronistic scenery may have
been added over two millennia of retelling, but the central action of the story and its significance
remain obscured. Christians have suffered too much for the Faith to neglect to pass on such stories
without care, or to turn them into a game of telephone. I make no pretense of historical accuracy in
this image, which has more of Gothic France and fifteenth-century Germany, as well as a hint of
our own time, in it, than the mildly nebulous setting of history, folklore and legend. The main
object has been to create a sense of timelessness, continuity, antiquity, beauty, and the exotic
wonder that this tale of sacred travel and death has engendered in the hearts of Christians over the
ages. A concern with exact historical detail in art is a fairly modern idea.

To conclude this oration, I would like to direct you to the little angel tucked in below the
Apostle’s feet. St. Matthew is almost always shown with a winged man nearby. As with the other
three Evangelists, they are derived from the accounts of the seraphim and cherubim of Ezekiel and
the Apocalypse, and in this instance, the winged man—usually transmogrified into an angel—
relates to the roll-call of generations that begins St. Matthew’s Gospel, our assurance of the God-
Man’s true humanity, and His essential Jewishness. Indeed, the scroll it holds bears the opening
words of the New Testament: “The book of generations of Jesus Christ, the son of David.” This
text, and this angel, remind us that in the end all Christian witness brings us back to this final point.
That God became Man in a real place, in a real time, to save us for Himself.