There are some very interesting facts regarding the manner in which Christian art has pictured the three persons of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, saints, and martyrs, a knowledge of which is necessary to the student of historical painting in order that he may understand the thought of the artist who has painted any devotional picture. Especially is this the case since there is no other class of pictures by the old masters so numerous as this.
A list of the most important emblems which enable us to know the characters denoted in a painting of this sort is given below:
The Nimbus and Aureole are used only in the portrayal of some holy being. They are usually gold, or the color of gold, to denote brightness.
The Nimbus surrounds the head and designates any holy person or saint, as well as Divinity. It is usually circular ; when triangular or containing a cross it always designates a per-son of the Holy Trinity ; when square it denotes that the holy person was living at the time the picture was painted. From the fifth to the twelfth century it was pictured as a solid golden disc, or plate, over the head ; from the twelfth to the fifteenth it was a broad golden band around or behind the head from the fifteenth it has been a bright fillet over the head.
The Aureole surrounds the entire body and belongs only to the persons of the Godhead and the Virgin Mary. Sometimes, but not often, it is pictured about the figure of a saint when in the act of ascending to heaven.
The Lamb is the peculiar symbol of Christ the ” Lamb of God,” as the sacrifice without blemish. It is sometimes given to John the Baptist, also in the sense of sacrifice. As a general emblem of innocence, meekness, and modesty, it is given to St. Agnes.
The Lion is also a symbol of Christ the ” Lion of the tribe of Judah,” and is used as such in early Christian art. In its significance of solitude it is placed near saints who lived as hermits. It often accompanies St. Jerome because of the legend that this saint once pulled a thorn from the foot of a lion that ever afterward accompanied him. As denoting martyrdom in the amphitheatre it is found with martyr saints, as St. Ignatius and St. Euphemia.
The Serpent, an emblem of sin, is often at the feet of the Virgin Mary ; when entwined about a globe it symbolizes the power of sin over the world.
The Peacock is an emblem of immortality ; in mythological pictures it accompanies Juno.
The Dove is the emblem of the Holy Ghost ; also of simplicity
and purity in many pictures of the Madonna and Child.
The Sword signifies martyrdom, and thus is given to St. Paul and others who died by it.
Arrows are given to St. Sebastian, St. Ursula, and St. Christina, who were tortured or died by them.
The Cauldron, signifying torture, is given to St. John the Evangelist and St. Cecilia.
The Cup with a serpent is sometimes given to St. John the Evangelist, because of the tradition that poison was once offered him in a cup, from which he expelled the poison in the form of a serpent, by making the sign of the cross.
The Wheel or Wheels, symbols of torture, are given to St. Catherine of Alexandria, sometimes to St. Christina.
The Skull signifies penance, and is often placed beside saints in penitence.
The Palm is the universal symbol of victory and triumph. The Olive is the emblem of peace and reconciliation.
The Lily is the emblem of purity, and is often. seen in pictures of the Virgin Mary, especially in annunciation pictures, where it is often put into the hand of the angel Gabriel ; it is also put into the hand of St. Joseph, whose rod, according to an old tradition, blossomed into lilies ; also it is found in the hand of St. Dominick.
The Apple is an emblem of the fall from Paradise ; when in the
hand of the Infant Saviour, it signifies redemption from sin. The Pomegranate is the symbol of a happy immortality.
Roses are symbols of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Cecilia, and
The three archangels most frequently represented in art are Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
Michael is captain of the Lord’s hosts, is usually clad in armor, and armed with a sword or spear ; sometimes he bears scales.
Gabriel is the special messenger of God, and so is the angel of the annunciation, when he often bears lilies.
Raphael is the médecin of God, or the messenger of healing ; sometimes he wears sandals and bears the staff and gourd of the pilgrim ; as guardian angel he carries a sword and a small casket containing a charm against evil spirits.
In early Christian art the symbols of the four evangelists are as follows :
St. Matthew, the cherub; St. Mark, the lion; St. Luke, the ox; St. John, the eagle.
After the sixth century it became usual to distinguish each of the apostles by some particular emblem borrowed from some circumstance of his life or death, thus :
St. Andrew, the transverse cross.
St. Peter, the keys, sometimes a fish. St. James Major, the pilgrim’s staff.
St. John, the cup with the serpent, or the eagle.
St. James Minor, a club.
St. Thomas, a builder’s rule ; more seldom, a spear.
St. Philip, the staff or crosier ; sometimes a small cross in the hand.
St. Bartholomew, a large knife.
St. Matthew, a purse.
St. Simon, a saw.
Judas Iscariot, the money bag. He is usually represented as distinct in some way from the rest of the disciples, is some-times hideous, and often deformed.
St. Paul bears the sword, sometimes two swords.
St. Mathias has as an attribute the lance or an axe.
The four great Latin fathers who enter frequently into devotional pictures are St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory.
St. Jerome is the most important of these and is almost always represented in one of three ways, as patron saint, in cardinal’s robes, or with a cardinal’s hat at his feet ; as a translator of the Scriptures, with an open book in his hand ; as a penitent, half naked and emaciated. His forehead is very high and his beard reaches to his girdle. A lion is usually near him because of the tradition that having pulled a thorn from the foot of a lion it followed him ever afterward.
St. Augustine may be known by a flaming heart, or a heart pierced, to express the ardor of his piety or the poignancy of his repentance, but these are not often used when he is grouped with other figures. When St. Jerome is accompanied by another bishop with a book in his hand and no particular attribute, we may suppose him to be St. Augustine.
St. Ambrose is most often represented with a knotted scourge of three thongs in his hand, sometimes with a beehive or bees near him.
St. Gregory is usually accompanied by the dove, which in early pictures is close to his ear.
A few other important saints and their distinctive emblems are as follows. A full account of the legends connected with each may be found in either. Mrs. Jameson’s or Mrs. Clement’s legendary Art.
St. Agnes is most frequently represented as accompanied by a lamb.
St. Anna often accompanies the Virgin Mary ; she is placed close beside her, sometimes bearing her on the knees.
St. Anthony of Egypt, usually represented as undergoing severe temptations, wears the monk’s habit, and sometimes carries a bell which was believed to overcome demons.
St. Anthony of Padua wears the brown habit and cord of St. Francis of Assisi ; is often represented as receiving a vision of the Infant Christ.
St. Barbara is special patroness of the church, also of armorers and gunsmiths ; she often bears a miniature tower with three windows ; sometimes the palm and sword. When represented as patroness of gunsmiths, small cannons are some-times introduced.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, the bride of the Infant Saviour, is often pictured as receiving a ring from him, and is richly dressed, and adorned with gems. Her special attribute is the wheel, sometimes two wheels, instruments of her martyrdom.
St. Catherine of Sienna is usually habited as a nun, and bears the stigmata.’
St Cecilia is the patroness of music. Her special attribute is the organ or the music roll. She often wears a crown of red and white roses, and is usually richly dressed.
St. Christopher (the Christ-bearer) carries a huge staff and often has the Infant Christ on his shoulders.
St. Dominick is clad in the habit of a Dominican monk, often has a star on or above his head, and carries a lily branch and a book; sometimes a dog is beside him.
St. Dorothea has roses on her head or in her hands ; sometimes either she or an attendant carries a basket containing three roses or three apples.
St. Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist, is frequently introduced in pictures of the Madonna and Child ; is represented as being of matronly age, sometimes aged, and her head is usually coifed.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary has roses as an attribute and is usually represented as performing some deed of mercy.
St. Francis of Assisi is clad in the brown habit and cord of the Franciscan monk and is known by the stigmata.
St. George is a military saint; is clad in armor, and is often represented as slaying a dragon.
St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is known by her attribute, the cross.
St. Joachim, father of the Virgin Mary, is found in early pictures in company with St. Anna.
St. John Baptist, the herald of Christ, appears often as the infant companion of Jesus ; as a man, he is pictured clad in goat-skin, gaunt and wasted, and usually bears a cross, sometimes a cup.
St. Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, is often seen in Holy Families, where he is represented as of middle age, sometimes aged; his chief attribute is the rod which bears lilies.
St. Laurence is usually clad in the rich dress of an archdeacon, bearing a palm, and a gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom ; sometimes the gridiron is embroidered on his robe, sometimes suspended from his neck or placed under his feet.
St. Lucia is protectress against diseases of the eye ; her attributes are a light and two eyes borne on a platter.
St. Luke is the patron saint of artists ; is often represented as painting the Virgin Mary.
St. Margaret is the type of maiden innocence ; is often represented as holding the palm of victory and treading lightly upon the dragon, which represents evil.
St. Martin is often represented with a naked beggar at his feet, with whom he is dividing his cloak.
St. Mary of Egypt is usually worn and wasted and always has long hair that wraps her like a garment.
St. Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of penitent women ; her special attribute is the jar of ointment ; she is usually represented with luxuriant golden hair.
St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, appears in many of the pictures that illustrate his life. Her dress is a black robe with veil, or coif, of white or gray.
St. Nicholas of Bari is the patron saint of children, sailors, and travellers. He wears the bishop’s dress, very much ornamented. His special attribute is three balls.
St. Nicholas of Tolentino is often represented as working miracles. He is clad in the black habit of an Augustine monk, has a star on his breast, and often bears a crucifix wreathed with lilies.
St. Ottilia is protectress of all who suffer with diseases of the eye ; is clad in the black robe of a Benedictine nun, and often bears two eyes on a book.
St. Roch is the patron saint of prisoners and of sufferers in hospitals ; is dressed as a pilgrim. He often points to a plague spot on his side or lifts his robe to show it ; is usually accompanied by a dog.
St. Sebastian is young and beautiful, naked, bound to a tree, and pierced by arrows.
The Sibyls are prophetesses who foretold the coming of Christ to the Gentile world. They are usually designated by scrolls.
St. Stephen is generally represented in the dress of a deacon, with the palm of victory, and stones, emblematic of his martyrdom.
St. Ursula is the patron saint of maidens, particularly of school-girls and of teachers of girls. Her attributes are the crown of the princess, the pilgrim’s staff, the arrow, and the banner with red cross. She is often represented as spreading her mantle over maidens.
St. Veronica holds the napkin on which is the likeness of the Saviour.