James, who is called the Brother of the Lord and the first bishop of Jerusalem, was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple, whereby his legs were broken. Then he was beaten on the head with a fuller's club and died. He was buried not far from the Temple (Roman Martyrology, May 11).
Two of Jesus' apostles were named James, so in Latin texts a convention developed of naming the one whom Jesus called first Jacobus Major or "James the Greater" and the other one Jacobus Minor or "James the Less." The words Major and Minor refer to seniority, not importance.
Pre-modern sources in western Christianity consistently assume that the apostle James was the same "James the brother of Jesus" who was the first leader of the Church in Jerusalem and is mentioned numerous times in the Acts of the Apostles. Modern challenges to this assumption are not relevant to the art, so they will not be covered here.
JAMES AND THE RESURRECTION
I Corinthians 15:7 says that after the Resurrection Jesus appeared "to James, then to all the apostles." An episode in the Golden Legend adopts a later expansion of this mention. After the Crucifixion James vows to eat nothing until Jesus is resurrected. When that happens, Jesus comes to him, blesses some bread, and gives it to him saying, "Rise, my brother, and eat, because the Son of Man has risen" (Ryan, I, 271).
Later, because of his reputation for righteousness, Jewish leaders asked him to stand on the pinnacle of the temple and warn the people against the doctrine that Jesus had been resurrected and would come again. When he did the opposite, they pushed him to the ground, stoned him, and beat him to death with a fuller's club. HIS PORTRAITS
In the art there has been some confusion about what a fuller's club should look like. A fuller is a person who cleanses the impurities out of wool and thickens it, in a process that originally involved beating it with a club. In many images St. James the Less holds a club that looks sufficient for such a job, as in the first picture at right. But in others the club is slimmer and has a wooden board attached at a right angle to one end, as in the image of James's martyrdom at right. Still others give him what looks more like a long staff similar to that of James the Greater but a bit thicker at one end, as in the last picture on the right. The confusion may be due to some artists' never having seen a fuller's club: in medieval times fullers abandoned clubs in favor of water mills.1
Further adding to the confusion are some woeful errors regarding this saint's attribute. Quite a few images attach the name of James the Less to a figure holding a pilgrim's staff, as if he were the other James. This confusion was sufficiently widespread to merit a comment in Molanus in the 16th century (III, 283). In one case an apparently indecisive artist gave both a club and a staff to a figure he labeled as Iacobus Minor. Other images labeled by their creators as James the Less give him a bucksaw (example), which is the attribute of Simon the Zealot and has no relation whatever to James.
Being an apostle, James is usually shown with a gospel book. Despite his martyrdom he is rarely shown with a palm branch.
In the martyrdom image at right his face resembles that of Jesus; this practice was condemned by Molanus (ibid.), who noted however that it seemed to have its origin in a comment attributed to St. Ignatius that James looked so much like Jesus that they could have been twins.
James is of course included in images of the twelve Apostles. In the earliest, he is identified only by a label, not an attribute (example). Later images sometimes put beards on all the apostles except John the Evangelist and James the Less (example). This is a way of using the latter's status as minor to distinguish him from the other James.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-10.
NOTES1 Wikipedia, s.v. "Fulling," retrieved 2014-02-12.