– photo collage of the two Stockade weathercocks, also known as chanticleers, cockerels, and “the cock of St. Nicholas” (click on it for a larger version); St. George’s rooster is on the Left and First Reformed’s on the Right –
The results of my weathervane photo shoots can be seen above, and in the two collages below, which focus on each weathercock separately (click on them to enlarge):
– St. George’s chanticleer (L) and 1st Reformed’s (R) –
Therefore, I naturally assumed there would be nothing controversial or undesirable about the Stockade’s silent metallic weathercocks. That was, from a historical perspective at least, a big mistake that cost me many hours of research, and has left me with unanswered questions that I hope our readers will be able to resolve. As always, I also hope that any readers who discover mistakes in this essay will let me know so they can be corrected. As I get new information or better analysis, I will update this posting.
“In 1735, the Episcopal church was organized, but it was not until 1762 that a small stone edifice was erected, in which the Scotch and English worshiped alternately. Like a good Dutch church, it bears on its weathervane the cock of St. Nicholas.”
The insistence by the 1st Reformed historian that the neighboring St. George’s weathercock was “a cock of St. Nicholas” suitable for “a good Dutch church”, raises some interesting questions, which are discussed below.
- How Old is St. George’s Weathercock? [amended Nov 22, 2013] If the date given above by the 1st Reform historians is correct, 2012 is the 250th anniversary of St. George’s original small stone edifice. There is, however, no certainty about when the first weathercock was erected at St. George’s. In 1880, when Griffis and Pearson wrote the 200-year history of Schenectady’s 1st Reformed Church, they mention the construction of St. George’s stone church edifice in 1762, and add that the St. George’s church building “bears on its weathervane the cock of St. Nicholas.” As written, it sounds as if the authors are speaking in the present tense, and are not dating the weathercock to 1762. St. George’s first stone steeple was not built until 1870, and it surely had a weathercock atop its steeple when Griffis and Pearson wrote their church’s history.
However, we can’t (at least, I can’t) be sure weather St. George’s had a weathercock before the 1870 stone steeple. No written record has been found mentioning whether a weathercock went up when St. George’s built a timber-frame steeple in 1792; nor do we know if there was a weathercock perched on the peaked roof prior to the erection of the wooden steeple in 1792. In his well-researched and well-reasoned article “St. George’s Historic Weathercock”, in the Episcopal Education column of St. George’s September 2013 The Georgian Newsletter, at 9, Daniel Kennison suggests that the whimsical weathercock pictured in this webposting — which was forged from sheet iron and not steel — may have been created prior to the construction of the wooden steeple in 1792. (After inspecting parish expenditure records, which had an item for a celebration “at steeple raising,” Kennison also speculates that the steeple, which has long been presumed to have been erected in 1792, actually went up in 1804. Another possibility is that the 1792 steeple had deteriorated in a way that required it to be rebuilt and re-raised in 1804.)
Jean Zegger’s fondness for the graceful cockerel above St. George’s is understandable. Although it looks great from the ground, I was surprised to find out that Reverend Blanch recently made a Steeple and Window Restoration Appeal (May 29, 2012) to his congregation, in which he noted that “The weather vane needs reseating and re-gilding.”
follow-up (Nov. 22, 2013): There’s a new rooster in town. St. George’s had planned to refurbish its deteriorating weathercock, but it was apparently so damaged, that Church leaders decided to replace it with a replica. The old rooster was taken down in July of this year, and its successor erected on Nov. 20, 2013. See our posting on that same day, “St. George’s rooster is back and looking good“, which has photos and a brief discussion.
To the far Left above is the rooster-less weathervane mast on July 12, 2013; the second photos shows the new weathercock shortly after it was ensconced on November 20, 2013
However, in the 1860s, the First Reformed Church “took several steps to counteract its public image as a Dutch church,” apparently fearing that association with a foreign origin and foreign language would slow the congregation’s growth. It seems that the weathercock was deemed by our local church leaders to be too Dutch to allow atop their building. Therefore, we are told in the expanded version of the 1880 history text, “Three Centuries: The History of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady 1680-1980” (Vol. 2, at 38), that:
By 1880, the congregation had renewed pride in its Dutch heritage (id. at 39), causing Reverend W.E. Griffis, in his Third Anniversary Sermon to mourn the absence of the Dutch chanticleer on the church spire. Therefore:
Despite the urging of the venerable Rev. Griffis, no weathercock flew above the First Reformed Church for over 100 years. The current weathercock was installed on the Church’s spire late in 1969, when it replaced the arrow weather-vane bemoaned by Rev. Griffis, which had been destroyed in a 1948 fire. (id. at 319) The story of the chanticleer atop the 1st Reform spire was told in a front-page article of the December 1969 issue of The Stockade Spy (“First Reformed Church Now Capped by Traditional Chanticleer;” by Bobbie Byrne; click to read Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, provided by current Spy editor Sylvia Briber.) According to the Spy:
“The chanticleer differs from the arrow that used to mount the spire. The cock is traditionally used on reformed churches, and is a device that Charlemagne used on his shield.[*] . . Symbolically, the cock denotes the coming of dawn, and recalls the treachery of Peter before the crucifixion of Christ.”
[*] Editor’s Note: The Spy article attributes the use of the cock atop Christian churches to an order by Emperor Charlemagne, “to signify that the churches were under his protection.” I believe the author of the piece, or her sources, may have confused Charlemagne, called Charles the Great, with Gregory the Great, who is discussed below as having stated that the cock was a great Christian symbol, due to its Biblical connection to St. Peter. In my quick research, I could find no connection between Charlemagne and chanticleer, and the bird sometimes shown on “replicas” of his shield is an eagle.
As suggested above, this history made me wonder just why the Dutch Reformed Church felt that the weathercock (1) was particularly associated with and appropriate for Dutch church steeples; and (2) was so closely tied to St. Nicholas of Myrna (a/k/a Sinterklass) that it is was consistently referred to as “the cock of St. Nicholas.” After exhausting (but not quite exhaustive) research, I can only present my tentative findings and explanations.
A casual look around the globe, especially at Europe and nations colonized by Europeans, seems to demonstrate that weathercocks are everywhere on older church steeples and spires. There are apparently two important “popish” reasons for the prevalence of weathercocks, as explained at Wikipedia:
- ” Pope Gregory I (“the Great”) who was pope from 590 to 604 A.D., said that the cock (rooster) “was the most suitable emblem of Christianity”, being “the emblem of St Peter”. Some say that it was as a result of this that the cock began gradually to be used as a weather vane on church steeples.”
- Pope Nicholas I decreed in a 9th century edict that every church must show the symbol of a cock on its dome or steeple, to represent Jesus’ prophecy of Peter’s betrayal (Luke 22:34) — that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed on the morning following the Last Supper. (The cockerel was also seen as an emblem of the vigilance of the clergy calling the people to prayer and to be steadfast in their faith, and as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.)
- In the Bayeux Tapestry from the 1070s, originally at the Bayeux Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux) and now exhibited at Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, there is a depiction of a man installing a cock on Westminster Abbey.
Also, there is a weathercock atop the rather-non-Dutch 14th Century British church of St. Nicholas at Berwick Basset, Wiltshire, England. (thanks to M and D Ball for the photo)
- On the other hand, the WikiCommons media page on Weathervanes in the Netherlands has pictures of many weathervanes on churches, and not one is a rooster. Ships and horses, a dragon or two, angels, and more, but no cockerel in sight.
Despite the weight of history and evidence, I kept looking for ways to explain the Weathercock Boasting of our Dutch church friends. I thought I had found a possible source of such information, when I saw that the St. Nicholas Society of New York City, formed “to preserve knowledge of the history and customs of New York City’s Dutch forebears” (with conviviality and good food, as well as erudition), called its newsletter The Weathercock, and gave an ancient weathercock an honored place at every dinner and ceremony.
Francis Sypher, the Society’s go-to man for history and lore, wrote me that he knows of no special relationship of the Dutch with weathercocks. He thought the Society adopted the symbol for the fortuitous reason that Washington Irving (one of its main founders) had donated to the Society an antique weathercock from his Sunnyside collection that was purportedly from an important Manhattan building.
Francis surmised that perhaps Washington Irving’s classic “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” (1809; click the title link for free access to the full text, from Gutenberg.org), although written as a humorous satire, “has been ever since read by many as authentic history, and many of his spoofs and jokes are taken as accurate accounts.”
Francis Sypher’s reference to Knickerbocker’s History proved fruitful. Irving’s still-entertaining “history” of the Dutch in New York does mention weathercocks often. It seems that weathercocks quickly went up on the very first houses in the original New Amsterdam settlement, and that the “houses of the higher class” had many characteristics in common, one of which was that “on the top of the roof was perched a fierce little weathercock, to let the family into the important secret which way the wind blew.” Irving also tells us that when under threat by foreign forces, “the honest burghers smoked their pipes in profound thoughtfulness, casting many a wistful look to the weathercock on the church of St. Nicholas”, hoping for a fair wind. These references might have, whether accurate or not, given weathercocks an aura of unusual importance in New Amsterdam.
One historical fact may also lay behind the claimed special relationship between the Dutch churches in America and weathercocks. As explained last January in a USPS weblog posting about their series of weathervane stamps, and stated by many other authorities:
That historic weathervane is, I believe, preserved as an artifact at First Church in Albany, and any weathercock currently on its steeple is a replica. An article in Reformed Worship magazine adds some interesting details:
“The  Blockhouse Church boasted a new pulpit with an hourglass for timing the sermon (during the seventeenth century most sermons lasted about two hours) and a weather vane in the form of a cock (see “of Roosters and Preachers”); both of these had been purchased from the mother church in Amsterdam for twenty-five beaver skins.”
– weathercock across the Mohawk River on the 1st Reformed Church of Scotia
Similarly, in The Siege of Leyden (1901), John Lothrop Motley wrote (at 73 n. 11):
Note 11. The vanes of the steeple: p. 54. In the Netherlands and in the cities of the middle states in America settled by the Dutch, the cock of St. Nicholas (“Santa Clause,” as we say, after the Dutch Sint Niklass) is the favorite form of the vane on the church spire, the monitor of vigilance to St. Peter . . . and the emblem of the resurrection.
Finally, in defense of the Dutch Church’s claim to prominence vis-a-vis the weathercock symbol, it is probable that a nation that was intensely associated with windmills also felt a closeness to weathervanes. As author Russell Shorto said about the observant and erudite Adriaen Van der Donck, “Like a good Dutchman, he made a special study of the winds of the New World–‘the swift and fostering messengers of commerce’.” See The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (at 130). Although they did not hold a monopoly position on church weathercocks, I believe the Dutch in America can rightly say that a steeple weathercock befits a Dutch church at least as well as it does any other.
On the other hand, the appellation “cock of St. Nicholas” over-reaches too far to be taken seriously. There doesn’t seem to be any justification for calling a weathercock — at least one not on a church named for St. Nicholas — “the cock or chanticleer of St. Nicholas”. Some might even say that it besmirches the kindly saint’s reputation to associate him with a randy, annoying, shifty fowl.
Could the Dutch Reform Church have merely confused “their” Saint Nicholas with the other Saint Nicholas — Pope Nicholas I — who promulgated the papal edict requiring roosters atop every church? Were they unwilling to grant so much influence to the head of the Roman Church, but happy to gild the reputation of a much beloved, ancient cleric? Or, did the legend of St. Nicholas of Myra simply overwhelm the memory of Pope Nicholas, as it did other saints, like Martin of Tours. (see “Saintly and Generous“)
There is no doubt that the Netherlands has a special relationship with St. Nicholas, even though the 4th Century bishop never left Asia Minor, and he is claimed as patron by literally thousands of churches around the world, many score of professions (from prostitutes, to lawyers, to sailors, to pharmacists), a couple billion children, and numerous other nations. As they say at the informative and thorough St. Nicholas Center, “Saint Nicholas is nearly everybody’s saint!” For example:
Over 50 cities and towns in the Netherlands claim Nicholas as their patron saint. In addition, despite the attempts by the Protestant Reformation to stamp out the veneration of all saints, the Netherlands kept St. Nicholas’ celebrations vibrant — for children and adults. See “Celebration in the Low Countries.” As one site dedicated to Greek Christmas customs pointed out, “The Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive.”
But, being fond of St. Nicholas and nurturing his legend does not begin to explain the Netherlands naming a phenomenon as universal as church weathercocks for him. (Nor does it justify claiming that the Episcopal weathercock a block away in the Stockade is sporting, not a good Anglican weathervane, but a cock of St. Nicholas worthy of a Dutch church.) Doesn’t this one old saint have enough on his hands already, without adding cocks?
Furthermore, it seems clear that even in the Netherlands, a church named for St. Nicholas can often have a creature or icon other than a rooster for its weathervane. (see the section on Reformed churches in the Gazetteer of Churches at the St. Nicholas Center) For example, a tower from 1704 at St. Nicolaaskerk, in Drogeham, a Reformed church, has a horse atop its weathervane.
– the Steenstra St Nicholas Cookie Legend
It’s not surprising, then, that neither Rev. Levering, First Reformed’s current rector, nor Francis Sypher of the St. Nicholas Society of New York, could think of a connection between St. Nicholas and weathercocks that would justify naming them for him. Despite many hours of research, I could find no fact from St. Nicholas’ life related to roosters. Moreover, I could find only one mention of a tale or legend involving St. Nicholas and a rooster. It is the Steenstra St. Claus Cookie Legend described at the St. Nicholas Center website, which may very well have its roots in a 20th Century Michigan advertising campaign.
We’re told that the Steenstra company’s almond Dutch speculaas cookies come in a special package of St. Claus cookies. Now made by Cookies Unique, they are the original American “windmill” cookies and they “tell a unique version of the St. Nicholas legend.” Each package comes with five cookie shapes, that correspond to the legend of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to all children in the Netherlands on St. Nicholas Eve. In short:
“The shapes are: St. Nick on his horse, a windmill where he lived, a rooster that would wake him up, an owl that made him wise, and a boy and girl that are the recipients of St. Nick’s good cookie treats.”
That’s it. As far as my research reveals, that is the entire rooster-related portion of the multinational, multi-faceted St. Nicholas legend. Except, that in Catalonia, Spain:
“Children often have wooden swords [in the St. Nicholas Day parade], a reminder of the time, long ago, when, on St. Nicholas Day, children were allowed to kill roosters found on the road. Now, in Benassal, large cardboard chickens lead the procession, recalling the former custom.”
Isn’t that charming? I don’t think the rooster cookie and the murderous children add up to a justification for naming all weathercocks for St. Nicholas. He proved himself to be quite a feisty fighting-cock, fervently defending his Faith, when he punched the heretic Arius in the face at the first Council of Nicaea in 325. But, that should not raise (or lower) St. Nicholas to the rank of patron saint of weathercocks.
It seems, however, that I’ve sidetracked myself from the main focus of this posting: how lucky we are to have two fine examples of weathercock weathervanes here in the Stockade neighborhood — reminding us each day is a new day, while linking us to a long history of rooftop chanticleers. To wit:
Now that some of our sidewalks have been smoothed out, we can more safely look up as we go about our lives here in the Stockade. Of course, where broken, uprooted and slanted sidewalks are still in place, we should stop, plant our feet and glance up. I’m going to try to stop looking at my feet so much as I stroll our streets and parks, and I hope you will, too, to better enjoy small treasures like our Stockade weathercocks. Many thanks to Jean Zegger for starting me on this project; to the Washington Post for evoking my sympathy for unwanted roosters; and to our local Dutch forefathers for piquing my curiosity about weathervanes and the legacy of the very popular saint who we celebrate this evening and every December 6th.
- St. Peter’s Church, Tadley, Hampshire, England, by Antony, © reuse under Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commerical, No Derivatives).
- 14th Century British church of St. Nicholas at Berwick Basset, Wiltshire, England. (thanks to M and D Ball for the photo)
St. Stephen’s Church, Carlby, Lincolnshire, Great Britain; © Bob Harvey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons, Attribution, Share-Alike License. This weathercock is more similar to the St. George’s rooster than any I’ve found so far.
- Dairsie Old Church (St. Mary’s), Fife, Scotland (1621), by Miss Steel, reuse under this Creative Commons, Attribution, Share-Alike License
12-12-12 Update: A gorgeous, sunny Dec. 12, 2012, brought out the gilding on St. George’s rooster, which was a perfect perch for a flock of live birds:
For a related St. Nicholas Day diversion, check out David Sedaris’ droll discussion of gift-giving in Holland, called “Six to Eight Black Men,” from his book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004 Little, Brown). He concludes, after sketching out the details:
If you’re good and live in America, [Santa will] give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”
This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution—so what’s not to love about being Dutch?
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