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Understanding the Iconography of Saints in Western Painting

The Heavenly World of Saints

In Western Art paintings of saints are numerous and important. Identifying Saints is easy if you know their individual emblem. The emblem is symbol of their life or martyrdom. For instance
Catherine of Alexandria is almost always depicted with a wheel, Saint Christopher walking or standing in water and Saint Francis is often with a wolf. Catherine was broken on a wheel, Christopher served Christ by helping travelers to cross a dangerous river and Francis was known animal lover. These are just two of many examples. It is vital to know the iconography of Saints when looking at paintings to have a better understanding of their correct meaning.  Some of the greatest artists in history have been inspired by religious devotion to create divine images of such religious beauty and fervor that they hold power even today. Understanding these sacred reminders of the spiritual world and comprehending their symbolic meanings is essential in understanding the difference between an icon and idolatry. Saints fall into four distinct categories; evangelists, apostles, confessors and martyrs. Martyrs are the most divine and sacred because they have given their blood for Christ. In Medieval and Renaissance painting the presence of a halo signifies a saint. Early Christian martyrs were burned alive, left in the forests to be eaten by wild animals, cooked in boiling oil, crucified and subjected to a plentitude of other vile tortures. The heathens in power despised the Christians because they would not renounce their faith. The one way for a Christian to avoid being horribly tortured was to denounce his faith. They frustrated their persecutors by willingly throwing themselves into roaring fires and launching themselves into the jaws of lions in the arena.

A list of some of the most well known emblems and symbols of Saints

Pig -  emblem of  Saint Antony of Egypt

Serpent and shamrock, symbol and emblem St. Patrick. The  Patron saint of Ireland. Died about 465 A.D.

Swan emblem of Saint Hugh of Lincoln. he was a great animal lover and as well as caretaker to lepers. A swan he befriended fowled him around and kept watch of him as he slept.

Raven symbol of Saint Oswald who died in 992. He  was born into a wealthy family but devoted his life to the poor.

Wheel emblem of Catherine of Alexandria, She was put on a torturous spiked wheel, and when the wheel fell apart, she was beheaded.

Wolf  emblem for many early Saints including  St. Francis of Assisi who is often shown with a wolf .

The anchor is the emblem of St Clement who was the 4th Bishop of Rome. He was martyred just 100 years after the death of Christ by being tossed into the stormy sea with an anchor tied around his neck.

Otters emblem of Saint Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon monk and hermit. He was a great animal lover who enacted the first laws to protect wildlife. Otters became his emblem after they  rescued him from the drowning.

Cow emblem of St Perpetua who was gored  to death by enrage cow in the a 3rd-century when she was thrown in the arena of Carthage.

Bull emblem of Thomas Aquinas

Bear emblem of St. Seraphim of Sarov. During his life as reclusive monk he stayed in the forest and fed and befriended many animals including a bear.

Camel emblem of Egyptian Saint Mennas.  He was martyred by being thrown into a fire pit when he openly declared his Christian faith.

Saintly Quotations

We are like children, who stand in need of masters to enlighten us and direct us; and God has provided for this, by appointing his angels to be our teachers and guides.
~ Saint Thomas Aquinas

"Make yourself familiar with the angels, and behold them
frequently in spirit; for without being seen, they are present with you. ~ Saint Francis de Sales

 Since God often sends us inspirations by means of His angels, we should frequently return our aspirations to him by means of the same messengers.  ~ St. Francis De Sales

But if these beings guard you, they do so because they have been summoned by your prayers.
~ Saint Ambrose

The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in Paintings. Most prominently featured  symbols and their meaning:

The  Serpent

Good Shepherd

Adam and Eve




Virgin Mary


The Anchor

The Apostles



The Cross

Architectural Elements


The Saints










Household Objects

Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better. -André Gide





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