The Patron Saint of Ferrymen: Julian the Hospitaller

by Dr Marianne M Gilchrist

Hull Minster lost most of its mediaeval glass during the Reformation, but there are a few fascinating fragments left. One panel tells the story of a legendary saint, who had a special role in a river port like Hull.

it shows three figures with haloes in a small boat: a married woman (we can tell this from the veils covering her hair), who holds a lantern; a man at the tiller; and between them a sombrely dressed figure who is larger and clearly more important – Christ, whom we recognise by the pattern of the cross in his halo.

The scene is from the popular legend of St Julian the Hospitaller. His story cannot be traced back further than the 12th Century, and seems to be a moral fable, rather than the story of a real person. Some versions are set in France, others in Italy. However, the story was retold often in art because it reflected a popular theme in mediaeval religion: that sinners who repented and did good deeds could be redeemed.

Julian commits a dreadful crime. He mistakenly believes his wife is unfaithful, so tries to kill her and the man he thinks is her lover. But the couple he kills are, in fact, his own parents. Stricken with remorse, he devotes his life to serving the needy.

Julian and his wife set up a guest-house for religious pilgrims next to a dangerous river-crossing, and row the ferry themselves. After many years of this, one day they take as their passenger a leper – an outcast because of his disfiguring disease – to whose every need they cater kindly. The leper then reveals himself to be an angel (in some versions, Christ himself), bringing word from Heaven that Julian's penance is done and his sins forgiven.

But why was Julian's story in a window in Hull? He was patron saint of ferrymen and boatmen, so would have the devotion of those who worked on the ferry crossings of the Hull and Humber. He was also the patron saint of innkeepers.

His feast day is the 12th February.

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