After the death of Christ, St James devoted himself to preaching, but eventually encountered opposition from the Pharisees, who demanded that he renounce his faith and stop preaching the Gospel. When he refused to do so, he was thrown from the top of the temple to the ground where, still alive, he was beaten to death. The version recorded in the Golden Legend (c. 1264) explains how one man took a fuller’s staff (a device used for beating textiles in the process of producing cloth) and split his head with it.
This anonymous sculpture presents St James with long brown hair and a beard, wearing a dark red cloak. The saint’s right hand is raised in blessing and his face expresses kindness. A cloth is draped over his arms, which forms decorative folds at the front, perhaps hinting at his role as patron saint of dyers. In his left he holds a club, alluding to his martyrdom. In the lower section, his episcopal vestments are visible under the cloak, referencing his role as Bishop of Jerusalem.
Over half a metre tall, the statue has been cut from a single piece of hollowed-out wood and painted in deep red, brown, black, and white. It shows signs of damage as a result of age and use. The middle finger of the saint’s right hand has been broken off. Traces of gold are visible on the cloak and the staff, indicating that the statue looked more decorative in its original form. A small hole on the top of the head points to the presence of a now lost device, possibly a fixture to hold the figure stable in a specific place.
The statue is likely to have been used as an active object of devotion in a religious community, which is confirmed by signs of rubbing or touching on the figure’s forehead. It may have been part of a set of figures comprising the Twelve Apostles. Such imagery was common in medieval sculpture, not just in the Iberian Peninsula but also in other parts of Europe.
The statue was acquired by Canon Joseph Bamber, who served as a parish priest at St Robert’s at Skedmergh, near Kendal, between 1948 and 1983. He had a collection of religious objects, which he bequeathed to Ushaw College.
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Saint James the Less.
Unknown artist (Thirteenth century).
Medium and Support
Painted wood and gilding.
67 cm (height).
Marks and Inscriptions
Bequeathed by Joseph Bamber 1983.
Acquired at an unknown date by Joseph Bamber (1909–83).
Ushaw Historic House, Chapels & Gardens (previously known as Ushaw College).
Stefano Cracolici & Clare Marsland, ‘Spanish Art at Ushaw College’, Spanish Art in County Durham, ed. Clare Baron & Andy Beresford (Bishop Auckland: Auckland Castle Trust, The Bowes Museum, & Durham University, 2014), pp. 128–30.