Cult, Church, City: The Cult of Andrew 

In the Wardlaw Museum, there stands a carved oak statue of a man bearing a diagonal cross. The wood is elegantly worked, with curves hollowed out to form delicate drapes of cloth, and the piece has been oriented so the grain suggests wrinkles on his tired, downcast face. The man is Saint Andrew, carrying the cross he died on. 

Image shows a wooden statue of St Andrew, he is carrying his cross under his left arm
Image source: National Museums Scotland 

Over the centuries, many people have looked at this carving, just as you are now. However, instead of standing alone behind glass in a museum, it would have stood amongst other religious objects, as part of a screen or altar display for the cult of Andrew, a system of devotion which venerated Andrew the Apostle – the first disciple to be chosen by Jesus, and Peter the Apostle’s brother. Although it may have started as a way for Christians to pay respects to one of their religion’s most important founders, the cult has meant different things for different groups of people. Over time and place, it has been a driver of economic development, a bestower of power, and a promotor of community spirit and brotherhood. 

The cult’s role as a driver of economic development can be seen here in St Andrews. During the medieval era, pilgrims flocked here to see Andrew’s relics. They came from all around Europe, meaning that they were travelling long distances and required convenient transportation, leading to fording bridges and founding ferry services so that they could cross the Firth of Forth. This travelling also took a long time, resulting in a string of inns which provided food and shelter for weary pilgrims heading to and returning from St Andrews. Once in the town itself, the pilgrims would want tokens such as pilgrim badges as proof that they had made a pilgrimage, and to absorb some of the relics’ healing powers to take back home. This encouraged a bustling market with skilled craftsmen that could produce those badges, as well as anything else a pilgrim could need. 

Towards the later half of the medieval era, the cult also brought economic development via an influx of students, who came to study theology and law before taking up positions in the church. Although the cult is much less religiously important today, its economic legacy lives on – in the last academic year alone, tuition fees for every student at the University added up to £121.9 million.  

The University also allowed the cult of Andrew to play the role of bestower of power. Medieval towns and cities in Europe founded institutes of higher education to display their wealth and importance, which in turn helped legitimise their country’s right to self-governance – how could a nation be trusted to rule itself if it couldn’t educate its own people?  

Though universities are not quite so rare these days, there are other ways in which the cult has been used by recent governments to legitimise themselves. In the 1980s, Romania’s first president, Nicolae Ceauşescu, wanted to prove that his Communist government could measure up to the old monarchy, which had ended in 1947. He did so by emphasising Romania’s history of Christianity. 

According to official church history textbooks, the ancestors of Romanians had been evangelized by Saint Andrew himself. While travelling through Dobruja in the winter, he took shelter from the elements and wild animals in a cave. Desiring water, he struck the ground with his staff, and a spring sprang forth. Its waters had healing powers, which he used to heal the local Romanians, thus converting them to Christianity.  

Ceauşescu pushed this rendition of history to support his claims that Romanians were the first people to occupy Romania. Thus, they owned the land, and had the right to rule over themselves, via a president that they elected – him. However, Ceauşescu only allowed the people to govern themselves in the way someone agrees to a request when a gun is held to their head. Eventually, in 1989, they seized the right to self-rule in its rawest form: a revolution, culminating in his execution. 

Ultimately, Ceauşescu failed to abuse the cult of Andrew to feed nationalism and instill a sense of superiority in his people. But elsewhere, the cult of Andrew has been a promotor of brotherhood with communities both local and global, while still encouraging the expression of national identity.  

The use of Saint Andrew as a symbol of national pride might be most familiar from expressions of Scottish identity – after all, he is Scotland’s patron saint, and his cross is emblazoned right across the Scottish flag. This is especially true when the proclamation of Scottish identity is an act of defiance against those who seek to quell it. For instance, the famous Scottish rebel William Wallace’s battle cry was “Saint Andrew mot us speed!”, meaning “May Saint Andrew support us!” 

This was true outside Scottish borders as well. As globalisation occurred, Scots took their culture and their cult with them, establishing societies in the name of Saint Andrew wherever they went, like in my home country of Hong Kong. But rather than using these organisations to insulate themselves from the international community, these organisations were often charities that helped the needy. A notable example is the St Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, which was founded by Scottish immigrants to the USA in 1729, making it the oldest charity in New York. 

However, Saint Andrew does not belong exclusively to Scotland and the Scottish diaspora – Ukraine and Russia also view him as a symbol of national pride and claim him as their patron saints. This stems from a legend about his travels, documented in The Tales of the Bygone Years

According to the Tales, Andrew was travelling to Kherson from Sinope (in modern-day Turkey), when he realised he was close to the Dneiper. He followed it upstream until he reached some hills, whereupon he stopped, prayed, erected a cross, and told his followers, “See ye these hills? So shall the favour of God shine upon them that on this spot a great city shall arise.”  

Eventually, a great city indeed arose: Kyiv. It was almost as if Andrew had seen the future (or rather, as if the authors of The Tales of the Bygone Years had manipulated their past to have a wondrous origin). At the time, there was no Ukraine or Russia. They were all one people – the Kievan Rus – and Kyiv was their capital city.  

Though the Kievan Rus were later fragmented into parts that would someday become the two separate countries, due to a Mongol invasion in 1240, their shared history gives Ukrainians and Russians a special brotherhood that some still acknowledge. Perhaps it can last as long as Andrew’s brotherhood with Peter, still going strong after two millennia: in 1969, Pope Paul VI received Cardinal Gordon Gray at Rome, to give him part of Andrew’s skull as a replacement for the relics that had been destroyed in St Andrews during the Reformation of 1559. Standing in St Peter’s to welcome the first Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh since the Reformation, the Pope simply said, “Peter greets his brother Andrew.”

Coming back to the museum, perhaps the expression on Andrew’s face makes a little more sense. All the roles that he and his cult have played, and continue to play, must make up a burden infinitely heavier than the cross at his side. Yet he still bears his cross; still marches on, a symbol of brotherhood and pride in one’s identity even in the face of adversity.  

Written by Patsy Ng, 2nd year student of Computing Science at the University of St Andrews and volunteer with University of St Andrews Museums.