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The Iconography of Medieval Saints

Updated on June 24, 2011

Identifying Saints in Pictures

Before the advent of the printing press, most people could not read. Even the wealthy were oftentimes not literate. In the case of the English, if they could read anything, it was French, not their native tongue. And half or more of all printed documents in Europe were in Latin, which wasn't anyone's native tongue. It didn't help matters any, either, that standardized spelling didn't exist.

How do you communicate with a largely illiterate population? With pictures. Hence why churches were decorated with stained glass, murals and rood paintings, which all depicted scenes from the Bible or from the lives of saints. People would have heard Bible and saint stories in church and through popular tales, and these images throughout church would have helped reinforce those stories, just as a small child can retell a familiar story, word-for-word, just by looking at the pictures.

But how do you know which saint or apostle is in a picture? Jesus is pretty obvious, but what about everyone else? Medieval art developed a very strong and fairly standardized iconography-certain things in a painting indicated the identity of the person in it.

The following is a short list of symbols which were used in the middle ages to depict some of the more popular saints:

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary was very frequently painted wearing blue in Western European paintings. Blue was a humble clothing color, but a very expensive paint color. She was also almost always found either with the Christ-child, or weeping at the base of the cross. She is sometimes shown on a throne or crowned, because she was known as “the Queen of Heaven.”

Anchor - St. Clement

Clement is supposed to have died around the year 100, being one of the earliest Bishops of Rome. He converted many Romans to the faith before being killed by having an anchor tied to his neck and being cast into the sea. His remains were miraculously recovered around 868 and were taken to Rome and housed in the church of San Clemente. He is a patron of lighthouses (possibly because his body, before being moved, was said to appear yearly at low tide, guarded by angels).

Banner - St. George

St. George, patron saint of England, is usually depicted on a horse, lancing a dragon; a maiden may or may not also be in the picture. He is almost always shown with a banner-red cross on white field-and this is sometimes flown from the end of his lance.

Birds - St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis is depicted with birds based on a legend that he preached to the birds. He is also supposed to have tamed a wolf, and it is not uncommon, especially in modern paintings, to see him surrounded by animals other than birds. He can also usually be recognized by his gray monk's habit (the Franciscan Order was founded on his rule), his hermitage in the wilderness, and the fact that he suffered from Stigmata (although he would have said that he was blessed with it).

Book - St. Anne (mother of the Virgin Mary)

Anne’s cult was very popular in the high middle ages, as was the Virgin’s. It is not clear why Anne’s symbol was the book, but she is very frequently depicted teaching the Virgin to read. She also sometimes appears alongside Mary at the foot of the cross, or in a tri-generational portrait of her, Mary and the Christ-child.

Three Boys in a Tub - St. Nicholas

This image is in relation to one of the legends of St. Nicholas, in which he resurrected three children who had been killed by a butcher and hidden in a brine vat (and yes, the nursery rhyme Rub-a-Dub-Dub is thought to have come from this story). Nicholas was a bishop, and is always depicted as such.

Club/Staff - St. Christopher

He is sometimes depicted as a giant, with the Christ-child on his back, because of a legend that says he lived by a river and carried people across; one day a child came to him and he found that he could not lift the child, he was so heavy. The child then said that he was Jesus Christ, and he carried the weight of the world upon himself. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and was invoked against plague; it was said that no one who looked upon an image of him would die that day (so very important you know what he looks like!). St. Jude is also depicted by a club, but he was not nearly as popular in the middle ages (in fact, he became the patron saint of lost causes because no one seemed to want to invoke him for anything else!).

Crutch - St. Giles

Legend has it that an 8th century king was out hunting a doe, which fled to St. Giles for protection. The king accidentally shot the saint instead, crippling him. He was a very popular medieval saint among cripples, lepers and nursing women. His emblem, the crutch, was sometimes used on a sign to denote a hospital or leper colony. A deer and arrow are also sometimes depicted with him.

Alabaster Jar - Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is almost always depicted with some sort of alabaster jar or urn, because she washed Christ's feet with oil and dried them with her own hair. She is sometimes shown with loose hair, both because of this Biblical reference and because of the medieval belief that she had once been a prostitute (the other woman in this image is Saint Dorothy, a virgin martyr, represented by the basket of fruits and flowers).

Ladle - Saint Martha

Martha is one of Jesus' female followers in the New Testament, and it is believed that she was sister to Mary Magdalene and Lazarus. Because she served Jesus supper twice in the Bible, she is considered the patron saint of housewives and lay sisters. Her other emblems are keys and a broom.

Lamb - John the Baptist

John is usually recognizable by the fact that he is dressed in skins or rags (he is often barefoot and with unkempt hair too), but he is sometimes depicted with or pointing to a lamb. The lamb, however, is a reference to Christ (the sacrificial lamb); any depiction of a lamb without a person present is called the paschal lamb and symbolizes Christ.

Mice/Rats - St. Gertrude of Nivelles

No one is really sure why Gertrude became associated with mice, although there is possibly a pagan connection. Nonetheless, she was invoked against infestations of mice and rats. She was also connected to travelers, and she was usually toasted and invoked before setting out on a journey. It was said that it took the newly-dead three days to reach the afterlife (this was based on the notion that Christ was dead for three days, yet he did not ascend into heaven during that time); St. Gertrude was said to be the saint which the dead stayed with on their first day.

Nails- St. Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph, it would seem, is linked to nails because it was he who took the body of Christ down from the cross and laid it in a tomb (he is often depicted doing this). He is also linked to the Holy Grail legend and is sometimes also depicted with two cruets (bottles, such as hold vinegar and oil) containing the blood and sweat of Christ.

Rooster - St. Peter

This emblem belongs to Peter because of the story in the Bible of how he denied knowing Christ three times "before the cock crowed." He could also be depicted with an upside-down cross-it was said he was martyred in that way-or with keys, as he was said to be the gate-keeper of heaven. He is sometimes depicted as a bishop, as he was the first Bishop of Rome.

Saltire (X) Cross - St. Andrew; Shell - St. James the Greater

St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, was said to have been martyred on an X-shaped cross. He is sometimes also shown with Peter in a boat, casting a net.

He was the patron saint of pilgrims and of Spain. The shell emblem was associated with Santiago de Compostela before it was associated with James, but pilgrimages to his shrine there indelibly linked the two together. Pilgrims who had visited would wear a shell on their clothing as a souvenir (in this picture, James has it on his hat). His shrine was exceedingly important in the middle ages; it was generally considered the third most holy, after Jerusalem and Rome. He might be depicted wearing a pilgrim's hat and purse, and carrying a walking-stick.

Scales (Weighing Souls) - St. Michael the Archangel

Saint Michael is alternatively depicted in armor or robes, crushing Satan (who may be a demon or a dragon), or with scales, ready to weigh souls and separate the wicked from the good (and sometimes he's slaying with one hand and judging with the other). The weighing of souls is an ancient image, going back at least as far as Ancient Egypt, when Anubis weighed the heart against the Feather of Truth; in both cases, souls/hearts which were corrupt would unbalance the scales and condemn the deceased to some sort of tormented afterlife/Hell. And like Anubis, St. Michael helped guard and shepherd lost souls in the afterlife; Michael was said to care for the souls of the departed on their second day after death (see Mice/Rats and St. Gertrude for more information on this belief).

Shamrocks and Snakes - St. Patrick

The patron saint of Ireland was said to have converted the island to Christianity by using a shamrock to explain how the trinity was both separate-like the leaves-and a complete whole-like the plant; he also drove all the snakes off the island. He is usually depicted as a bishop, and he might also be depicted with a Celtic cross (which he is said to have created).

Solider - St. Maurice

There are two other popular soldier-saint figures from the middle ages which are sometimes confused with St. George: St. Michael and St. Maurice. St. Maurice is never depicted slaying a dragon, is frequently depicted with "companions" (the Theban Legion), and is sometimes depicted as a black man. St. Michael is sometimes depicted slaying a dragon, but never from horseback; he also always has wings.

Sword - St. Paul

He is often also depicted holding a book, and is sometimes shown bald with a long beard.

Wheel - St. Catherine (of Alexandria)

Catherine was a very popular female saint in Western Europe during the middle ages. When Roman officials attempted to break her on the wheel, it broke instead, injuring bystanders. So she was beheaded instead, whereupon milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Being a young, virgin martyr, she was the patron saint of girls and also of those who used wheels-spinners, wheelwrights, millers, etc. She was also legendary for debating against 50 Roman philosophers on the merits of Christianity and winning, so she was also considered the patron of clerics, philosophers and academics.

The Four Gospel Writers

Angel – Saint Matthew. The four Gospel writers, unlike all the other figures listed here, were sometimes reduced to just their emblems for gospel covers.

Bull/Ox – St. Luke

Eagle – John the Evangelist. Other symbols for this saint include a cup of poison and (rarely) a pot of boiling oil.

Lion – St. Mark. He is the patron saint of Venice, where his lion image is frequently found. (If the image looks like a bear, it’s probably a lion; medieval artists were not often sure what a real lion looked like.)

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Suggested Reading

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford Quick Reference)
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford Quick Reference)

Information in this article came from this book.



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