Saints, Iconography of
SAINTS, ICONOGRAPHY OF
Determining the correct identification, location, and execution date of representations of saints is the proper concern of their iconographical study. Cult, legends, and attributes of saints (as well as changing aesthetic ideals) have developed in the evolution of saint imagery a complex but rich deposit of iconography in both the Western and Eastern churches. Although systematic accounts of the lives of the saints (see hagiography) had been inaugurated early in the 17th century by the bollandists, it was not until the first half of the 19th century, with a revived interest in the Middle Ages and the work of men such as Seroux d'Agincourt, that the science of iconography originated. (see iconology and iconography.) This article treats the iconographic classification of saint images and the general development of their representation. (For the problems of devotion to images and their cult, see images, veneration of; iconoclasm.) The iconography of Jesus Christ and of Mary (Blessed Virgin) are treated under their respective titles; see also specific saints.
The development of saint images and statues in Christianity had its origins in the veneration of martyrs and their relics; popular piety had a tendency to substitute images and icons for the actual relics of martyrs for devotional purposes; they became kinds of anthropomorphic reliquaries. Images without relics were less desirable than relics; yet the remains of the saints (relics) alone held a weak attraction in themselves, which seems to explain why reliquaries were made (toward the end of the Merovingian era) in such forms as foot, arm, finger, and hand. The intercessory power attributed to saints and the efficacy of prayer through devotion to their relics influenced the making of saint images and the evolution of their iconography.
Personal characteristics and attributes. Methods of representing the saints gradually evolved into an elaborate system by the time of the Renaissance. Representations of holy persons became a kind of language, which, when correctly understood, might reveal much about the life, attributes, and devotion of the depicted subject; further interpretation might reveal the spiritual posture and theological orientation of its makers, as well. The iconography of specific saints has evolved around two distinct elements that are sometimes confused: personal characteristics and attributes. Personal characteristics are those elements of the physical appearance or clothing proper to the saint and identified with him, such as the baldness of St. Paul, the corpulence of St. Thomas Aquinas, or the woven-palm tunic of Paul the Hermit. An attribute is a sign added to the person to identify him. This might be an emblematic object (key of St. Peter), an animal accompanying him (lion of St. Mark, lamb of St. John the Baptist), or an instrument of martyrdom (stones for the stoning of St. Stephen). These may be distinguished further as being either real (the cross of bishops and abbots) or symbolic (palm of martyrs, key of St. Peter). In the absence of physical description, attributes sometimes serve to identify the subject, though several may be necessary to distinguish him; thus some popular saints (e.g., St. Anthony) have come to be distinguished by as many as seven or eight attributes. Attributes have become superfluous to characterize modern saints, since there are portraits or photographs by which they can easily be known.
The Nimbus. The most common attribute, applied to all saints, is the nimbus (cloud), a luminous defined shape surrounding the head of the saint. Its origins are pre-Christian, and examples are found in Hellenistic art of pagan inspiration; the halo was used, as evidenced in mosaics and coins, for demigods and divinities such as Neptune, Jupiter, Bacchus, and in particular Apollo (god of the sun). This solar emblem, also struck on the coins of the Roman emperors, was transformed by Christianity into a sign of sanctity, though it was not reserved exclusively for saints since it was employed honorifically for Christian emperors. More commonly, the halo is found in the form of a disk or circle; the less common square or rectangular nimbus was used to honor persons who were still living when the representation was made. The square nimbus symbolizes the earthly vault or place on earth, whereas the circular one, considered perfect in form, symbolizes the celestial vault or heavenly place. John the Deacon in his life of Pope Gregory the Great explained that Gregory preferred to be represented with the square nimbus, which was the sign of the living (insigne viventis ), and not the crown (Patrologia Latina [Paris 1878–90] 75:461). Its usage can be traced to encaustic portrait images painted on Egyptian mummies (see H. Leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie [Paris 1907–53] 11:1744–52; 12:1272–1312). The circular nimbus was adopted by Christian art in the 4th century, when it seems to have been reserved for Christ alone; it first appears on a saint in the mid-5th century and by the 6th century appears uniformly on the saints in the mosaics of S. Apollinare (Ravenna). To avoid confusion with the saints, the nimbus of Christ was inscribed with a cross, forming the cross-nimbus proper to Him; as another type of distinction, the figure of Christ came to be surrounded with the almond shaped aura (called mandorla, or aureole), which was sometimes given as well to the Virgin. The nimbus evolved from a flat opaque disk to a three-dimensional mobility (following the direction of the head) with the introduction by Giotto of painting the figure in a believable three-dimensional space. During the Renaissance it assumed various kinds of transparency or became simply a circular contour or filigree ring. With Rembrandt the strict nimbus was replaced with a luminous atmosphere surrounding a part of the figure. Although originally the gold nimbus was used only for Christ, it came to be applied to all the saints after the introduction of the cross-nimbus (see halo).
Other Attributes. Attributes have also emerged that are applicable to categories of saints such as martyrs, bishops, and apostles. The widest, yet not universal, categorical attribute is the scroll or the book, which might be either open or closed. Thus it might be used with Christ as teacher, the Evangelists, popes, bishops, founders of orders, and great teachers. With a specific inscription, it becomes an individual attribute (e.g., Holy Rule for St. Benedict). There are numerous categorical notes of identification: armor for warrior saints; miter for bishops; dalmatic for deacons; tiara for popes (conical up to the 14th century, then a triple crown); and the garb proper to the order of various religious and monks. Founders of churches and abbeys may be pictured holding a model of their building; the chaste of either sex may receive the lily branch (St. Joseph, St. Catherine of Siena); martyrs bear the palm and receive the crown; decapitated martyrs (cephalophores ) hold their heads in their hands; the dove
Individual attributes became more frequent toward the end of the Middle Ages; these were rare and nearly unknown in the Eastern Church. In the West, however, a multiplication of individual attributes from the 13th century on created an involved saint iconography that reached its greatest complexity in the saint images of the 15th century. Individual attributes were initiated to identify more specifically the represented saint. These might come from the name itself, such as Christopher (Chris-topheros, Christ bearer), which originally meant one who carried Christ in his heart; both legends and iconography surrounding St. Christopher grew from this name; whence he was pictured in older monuments literally bearing the full-grown bearded Christ in Majesty on his shoulders in a huge frontal position. By the beginning of the 14th century, he was more commonly depicted as fording a river on foot, bearing the Infant Christ on his shoulders. Other individual attributes might be borrowed from the trade of the subject, such as the carpenter tools for St. Joseph. Popular stories, legends, and accounts of the saints' lives are another source of individual attributes. The bread basket, rope, and broken bell are attributed to St. Romanus, who was said to have fed Benedict in the mountainous cave by lowering a basket of food with a rope and ringing a bell (Dialogues of St. Gregory, bk. 2; Patrologia Latina [Paris 1878–90] 66:128–130). For martyrs, the instruments of their death are frequently employed as a proper attribute. Thus the oblique cross in the form of an "X" (crux decussata ) is an attribute of St. Andrew, who suffered death on such a cross. Finally allusions to patronage or cult can also be their source. Toward the end of the 15th century St. Cecilia (Roman martyr of the late 2d century) was adopted as patron of music, which gave rise then to her individual attribute, the musical instrument. Because of reciprocal influences and the interplay of legend, patronage, and iconography, it is difficult at times to discover whether the attribute led to the patronage (or even legend) or vice versa.
Changes in type. The identification of a saint image alone does not necessarily reveal much of the content of the work, since the work itself generally incorporates the aesthetic ideals and religious tendencies of its makers. For example, one can find two different types of St. Francis. The pre-Reformation St. Francis bears a human warmth presented with picturesque Italian charm and implies that joy in simple earthly things is a virtue. L. Réau labels this type Giottesque (Iconographie de l'art chrétien [Paris 1955–59] 3:519), an exclusively Italian type, particularly of the 14th century. The Counter Reformation type, however (El Greco, Zurbarán, Ribera), is an emaciated and wan St. Francis, drained of joy (sometimes given the additional attribute of a skull), dramatically elevating a spirit of penitence. Thus El Greco charged his St. Francis paintings (and paintings of other saints) with the mystic ardor of an ascetic engaged with intense inner experience. This shift in representation suggests how transformations occur in saint imagery and how different attributes may be added (such as the skull for St. Francis) to suit the particular religious tendencies of a period or a generation.
[r. j. verostko]
2. Historical Evolution
The evolution of pictorial representations of saints has produced a great variety of types through the centuries, revealing shifting spiritual approaches in devotion.
Early Christian to Renaissance. At first, in the catacombs of Rome, Naples, Arles, and other places, where honor was early rendered to the heroism of the martyrs, a Greco-Roman naturalism was used to depict allegorical subjects. By the side of Christ as the Good Shepherd and elsewhere there was portrayed the orans, a standing praying figure with arms stretched out forming a cross; these praying figures have been explained variously as the soul in paradise, as a symbol of the Church, or as one in heaven praying for those on earth. Occasionally there is an obvious attempt at portraiture, with some indication of activity on earth.
Preserved well are the high-relief sculptured marble sarcophagi (see sarcophagus), which present biblical scenes with sacramental interpretation. The Apostles are shown in Roman togas, in a realistic fashion, though sometimes they are presented symbolically as sheep. On the cross in the mosaic of the apse of St. Clement, the Twelve appear as doves.
Following the fall of Rome in the 5th century and the rise of Byzantium, there was a shift in the manner of portraying saints. In the East the classical Greek ideal of the human form was transformed into a highly stylized art with hieratic figures and Persian decorative elements.
The saints were not represented as they were on earth, but now as in heaven, dressed in garments of the Byzantine court, symbol of the kingdom of God. On the nave walls of the church of S. Apollinare Nuovo, there are two lines of saints, men on one side, women on the other, all dressed alike and facing the apse, offering the crowns of their martyrdom together with Christ's sacrifice, on the altar. The names written above are the only distinction of one saint from the other. The pictures recall the presence of the saints of the Church Triumphant, with whom all the faithful on earth pray in unity with Christ to God the Father.
The change in the representation of the saints was not simply a matter of aesthetics. It resulted from the development of theological expression obtained through visual art as much as through verbal means. The book found by Didron on Mt. Athos, though written at a late date, does give instructions handed down from early times regarding the way subjects should be painted in churches according to Greek tradition. Every part of the church is important in a complete iconographic scheme. The Prophets of the Old Testament and the saints of the New Covenant all have their proper locality in the basilica. st. mark's in Venice gives some idea of how richly and carefully worked out an iconographic scheme could be.
The outbreak of the iconoclastic controversy (see iconoclasm) in the East, which raged longer than 100 years during the 8th and 9th centuries, though successfully overcome, had the effect of keeping some restraint on pictorial representations.
In the East images remained flat, without any attempt being made to create an illusion of the figure in the round. In the West, where sculpture was used with less fear of idolatry, a kind of representation developed that was quite distinct from that of the East. It emerged too with a hieratic quality but had undergone transformations through the influence of Celtic art and that of the barbarian tribes. During the 11th and 12th centuries, Romanesque art had achieved its richest realizations in its churches. Architecture and sculpture were blended into a rhythmic whole, expressing vast theological and biblical themes. Holy personages of the OT, the Evangelists, and the elect or damned in general received their respective places in the grand tympanum themes (Autun, Vézelay, etc.).
The rise of the Cistercians under St. Bernard of Clairvaux created a kind of puritanical movement long before the Reformation. The gaunt style of architecture, expounded in St. Bernard's Apologia, flourished particularly in 12th-century Cistercian churches. In order to avoid distractions from prayer and meditation in monastic churches (and as protest to the luxury of Cluny churches), paintings and sculpture were renounced; walls were all white and the architecture itself served to lift the soul to prayer.
Cistercian art did not prevail universally but was limited, for the most part, to the monastic centers of the order. Beginning in the 12th century, a saint image in sculpture and stained glass emerged with Gothic architecture as an "elegant" type of saint reflecting the prestige of the royal court. The St. Theodore on the south portal jamb of Chartres, approaching high Gothic, has an easy courtly elegance suggesting the ideal Christian soldier who has achieved a peaceful and elevated life. In the 13th century in Italy, there was an awakening of a humble humanism following the spirituality of St. Francis. Saints began to appear in a more believable space with an earthly familiarity, combating the difficulties of life on earth. The saint image was injected with human sentiment and participated in the newly discovered delights of nature.
Renaissance to the present day. With the return to classical humanism during the Renaissance, the Gothic fragility disappeared and the saint image emerged with an elevated intelligence and the prestige of learning. The saint was presented in a rationalized three-dimensional space with learned correctness arrived at through the laws of perspective (both linear and spatial) and the study of anatomy. The cult of the nude derived from studies of anatomy and an interest in classical ideals. Thus the blessed (and the damned) were presented in the nude in Luca Signorelli's frescos in the S. Brixio chapel of the Orvieto cathedral; the nude saint achieved brilliant strength from the hand of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The saint was often presented with some learned association, deliberately conscious of himself as an individual and appropriately "posed" within the frame of the picture. Good examples may be seen in paintings by Mantegna and Bellini of the Madonna enthroned with saints, a popular subject by the end of the 15th century.
The exaltation of noble families and rich patrons through humanistic vainglory occurred as donors themselves were often included in the painting with the holy personages. This, along with the rising popularity of mythological subjects, produced a less believable saint image. Meanwhile, reformers in the North, fearful of idolatry and wishing to emphasize the importance of preaching the Word, initiated a new iconoclasm; they destroyed statues and paintings of Christ, Mary, and the saints.
The Council of Trent (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 1821–25) took measures to check abuses in the representation of religious subjects and reaffirmed the position on the veneration of images that was asserted by the Council of Nicaea II (ibid. 600) and the Council of Constantinople IV (ibid. 653, 656). After the Council of Trent the saint image began to assume a new posture; the classical pose of the Renaissance was replaced with the theatrical flare of the baroque, and the saint became engaged with expressions of intense inner experience and ecstatic gesture. It was present in Bernini's The Ecstasy of St. Theresa and spread to the North as exemplified by Rubens and in Spain by El Greco and Zurbarán.
In England, the vigorous illuminations of the Saxon and Norman centuries, of the antiphonaries and psalters of the Westminster School, and of the later Gothic period, which demonstrate a deep religious life, were to be abandoned for landscape and portraiture because of Puritanical pressure. Later, when the pre-Raphaelites tried to recapture medieval spirituality, they were unable to do so, since they were imprisoned by a naturalistic art, which, when rendered in a romantic light, was fictive and unconvincing. William Blake alone stood out, creating his own symbolism against a tide of realism.
By the 19th century, religious art was at a very low ebb. After the industrial revolution, when personal creative work was replaced by standardized industrial production, a cheap plaster image emerged along with lithographed and engraved saint reproductions. These images, often with little intelligent iconography and bearing more sentiment than authentic spiritual content, have been labeled from their greatest centers of distribution such as La Place Saint-Sulpice ("Sulpician Art").
In the later 19th century and early 20th century, various efforts were made to restore the integrity of the religious image. In Beuron through Father lenz a hieratic neo-Byzantine effort known as beuronese art was introduced; in France, Maurice Denis and George Desvallières attacked false religiosity in images; Alexandre Cingria with a group of six Swiss artists, backed by Bishop Besson, tried to counteract the decadence of their period; in England Stanley Spencer forcefully put modern man into his pictures (Burghclere Chapel), and Eric Gill tried to restore integrity through expert and sensitive craftsmanship (Stations of the Cross, Westminster Cathedral).
Although a great painter such as Georges Rouault produced a saint image of true religious spirit, which touched the 20th-century sensibility, it did not have an organic force sufficient to culminate in a unified, widespread Christian image. Organized efforts through the Liturgical Arts Society and the Liturgical Press at Collegeville, Minn., and the work and publications of the Dominicans in France accomplished much in raising consciousness to the problem of the saint image. However, after World War II and the continued growth of abstract art, the use of the image for devotional purposes began to be replaced with a sometimes barren aniconic religious art.
In order to avoid the unauthentic and unconvincing saint image, modern church architecture has tried to achieve devotional ends through the use of space and very limited imagery (much like the Cistercian ideal under St. Bernard). The attempt of Henri Matisse at the chapel of vence to achieve a work of art with a complete and unified iconographic scheme, though masterful in itself, stands isolated and has not led Christianity to discover the authentic saint image of the 20th century. The earlier effort at assy achieved individual pieces of strength (Rouault's Veronica ) but, because of the variety of talent employed, failed to point convincingly in any direction. The recent saint photograph reproductions of the New Image Editions in France are notable, since they attempt to rise above the impersonal portrait photograph and present a personal, living encounter with a believable holy person.
In the East, tradition has been maintained with some variations but not with any real change of outlook. The Russian Orthodox have developed the Byzantine style and are famous for their icons. Other national branches of the Eastern churches have continued their own specific variation of a similar style, untouched by the violent changes in the West. The Syrians and Copts, Armenians, and Ethiopians have left many miniatures manifesting their devotion to the saints, in the Eastern style, which they continued much later than the Celts, whose somewhat related art was arrested early by the Romanized West.
Bibliography: c. cahier, Caractéristiques des saints dans l'art populaire enumerées et expliquées…, 2 v. (Paris 1867). f. c. husenbeth, Emblems of Saints: By Which They Are Distinguished in Works of Art … (3d ed. Norwich 1882). a. n. didron, Christian Iconography, tr. e. j. millington, completed by m. stokes, 2 v. (London 1886). c. rohault de fleury, Archéologie chrétienne: Les Saints de la messe et leurs monuments…, 10 v. (Paris 1893–1900). a. b. jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, ed. e. m. hurll, 2 v. (New York 1896). m. e. tabor, The Saints in Art, with Their Attributes and Symbols Alphabetically Arranged … (London 1908). e. e. goldsmith, Sacred Symbols in Art (2d ed. New York 1912). arthur de bles, How to Distinguish the Saints in Art by Their Costumes, Symbols and Attributes … (New York 1925). w. molsdorf, Christliche Symbolik der mittelalterlichen Kunst … (Leipzig 1926). l. brÉhier, L'Art chrétien, son développement iconographique des origines à nos jours (2d ed. Paris 1928). k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 2 v. (Freiburg 1926–28). e. ricci, Mille santi nell'arte (Milan 1931). j. braun, Tracht und Attribute der Heiligen in der deutschen Kunst (Stuttgart 1943). a. grabar, Martyrium: Recherches sur le culte des reliques et l'art chrétien antique, 3 v. (Paris 1943–46) v. 2. É. mÂle, L'Art religieux de la fin du XVI e siècle, du XVII e siècle et du XVIII e siècle: Étude sur l'iconographie après le concile de Trente, Italie, France, Espagne, Flandres (2d ed. Paris 1951). g. kaftal, Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting (Florence 1952). g. w. ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York 1959). h. roeder, Saints and Their Attributes (London 1955). w. schamoni, Le Vrai visage des saints, tr. l. poucrault (Bruges 1955). j. pichard, L'Art sacré moderne (Paris 1953). w. rubin, Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy (New York 1961). p. rÉgamey, Religious Art in the Twentieth Century (New York 1963). g. mercier, L'Art abstrait dans l'art sacré (Paris 1964).
[j. u. morris]