The Cross of St. Lazarus
Some nine hundred years ago, a green Greek Cross emblem was used by the Hospitallers of St. Lazarus.
But who was Lazarus?
Lazarus is Hebrew for 'whom God has helped' and was the name of two men in the Bible: a beggar with leprosy in one of Jesus' parables, and a brother of Martha and Mary of Bethania.
The first is featured in a story2 of a rich man who spent all his time enjoying life. Nothing wrong with that of course, but his big mistake was to ignore the plight of a poor beggar who was so helpless and frail that dogs were able to lick his leprous sores. The poor man would have gladly eaten the crumbs from the rich man's table, which was indeed possible, but the rich man denied him any such sustenance.
Rich or poor, we all eventually die and when Lazarus died he went to heaven, whereas the rich man went to Hell. The rich man is no longer wealthy and would gladly eat the crumbs from Lazarus's table, but that is not possible. This parable teaches us to be aware of our responsibilities and not ignore them.
The second story3, condensed here into a few short sentences, is about the Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary of Bethania. Lazarus became sick and died. After his body had lain in the tomb for four days, Jesus came along and brought him back to life. Incredible? Yes, miracles are.
Instant stardom for Lazarus of course, and many Jews converted to Christianity because of him. The high priests therefore were keen to reverse this miracle by killing Lazarus. Not much more is written about him in the New Testament but legend says that instead of being killed, Lazarus, his sisters and a few other followers of Jesus were cast away to sea in a small boat with neither oars nor sail. They drifted to Provence in southern France where Lazarus preached, became the first Bishop of Marseilles, exiled himself to a crypt to escape the persecution of Emperor Nero, and was finally beheaded under the persecution of Domitian.
How much of this legend is true is debatable. Tidal currents in the Mediterranean are weak so drifting from Israel to Provence sounds unlikely. The 1,500 nautical mile journey today in a modern powered boat takes 6-7 days and it is more probable the seafarers landed further up the Israeli coast and travelled overland to France. Historians have not been able to verify much of the legend, but for the Order of St. Lazarus, founded in the 11th century, proof is not necessary. Like the hospitallers of St. Julian they have taken the spirit of this remarkable man, plus the parable (above) of the leper, to forge an Order that provides nursing for lepers. The original knights had leprosy themselves, and they ran a hospital for fellow sufferers near Jerusalem.
Leprosy today (Hansen's disease) is still one of the world's major health problems and a new patient is diagnosed every minute of every day. The good news is that it's curable. The bad news is that the disease is most prevalent in developing countries where social stigma is strongest and $35 for the necessary multi-drug therapy (MDT) is beyond the reach of most victims. (source: Lepra)
Referring back to the parable, $35 is just crumbs for us but could save the life of a leprosy sufferer.
The Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem
This Order was established during the 1st Crusade. Their leprosarium, not far from Lazarus's home town of Bethany, was originally built by a much older brotherhood founded by St. Basil in the 4th century. In addition to caring for and tending to the sick, the brothers took an active protectionist role in fighting off local infidels who wanted to burn the place down.
The Order flourished. Hospices spread across Europe and at the same time, the strength of the military force grew. In addition to protecting lepers in sanatoria from ignorant society, they had a fleet of warships in the Mediterranean to protect merchant ships from pirates.
Today, the Order faces different challenges which are no less daunting. They are now a significant humanitarian force, especially in Eastern Europe where Christian communities are trying to grow.
St. Lazarus's Cross
Until recently, the obvious 'spoils of war' were just a few pieces of pillaged artwork and luxury cars. These days however, the rewards are more significant. Oil is an obvious prize, (if the U.S. doesn't get it then the Chinese will) - but there is an even more lucrative jackpot, and one that offers immediate and significant returns. Think of some new vocabulary we've been given so far in the 21st century; terms like 'reconstruction'. The rampant bribes and black marketeering immediately after a war are the real 'spoils of war' of today.
Back in the 1st Crusade days however, the spoils were more profound. Capturing the enemy's flag, for example, was akin to taking their soul. It is possible therefore that the St. Lazarus Cross was coloured green to symbolise the victory over the Mohammedans. Green was the favourite colour of the prophet Mohammed (it is believed he wore a green cloak and green turban). However, a more likely explanation for the knights to sew a green cross badge on their tunics was to distinguish themselves from the red cross moline of the Templars, the white cross (on black) of the Hospitallers of St. John, and the black Teutonic cross.
In the 15th century, the Orders of St. Lazarus and St. John of Jerusalem merged, and a combined emblem appeared. (Composite crosses are not uncommon; the British Union Flag is another example.)
Over the years, the knights of the Order squabbled over several variations of the cross, and now the most common design of the St. Lazarus Cross is the eight-pointed vert St. John's Cross design.
The St. Lazarus and Green crosses are also known as Vert Crosses. The term vert (or verd) means an emerald green colour, as one might see in the fresh vegetation of a forest, and comes from the Latin viridis. Like a young plant it has a bright tincture symbolising vitality. This contrasts with the pale green which is emblematic of death and associated by some people with bad luck. For this reason, cars (except British racing cars) are seldom painted green even though such a colour could usefully portray an 'ecologically friendly' image.
Two hundred years ago, Wilhelm Sattler of Schweinfurt produced a nice emerald pigment for artists. Popular for its warm hue, and the copper arsenite used gave the paint a level of permanence. Sadly, it also killed quite a few artists and once the poison was identified, copper aceto-arsenite was used most successfully as rat poison for the Paris sewers. In 1820, green sweets were found to have been adulterated with copper acetate, and here's an interesting theory about Napoleon's death the following year, caused by green wallpaper.