The Stuff of Saints
by Andrew King
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, autumn 2011]
Religions have long used iconography in the portrayal of significant figures, from Zeus’ lightning bolts to Jesus’ cross. There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest seems to be identity. A lot of the saints in Catholicism appear nearly identical. Even Simon Peter could be mistaken for God because they are often depicted as old men with long white beard and hair. So artists employ the use of icons, and position within the work, to differentiate between them. In this case, Simon Peter has a set of keys on him, signifying the passage of Matthew 16:18. This is taken further with many of the papal seals using keys, suggesting a direct lineage back to Saint Peter, the first Pope.
The symbols also help tell the legend of the saint, and why they are someone who is important. For example, St. Andrew (left) often has a saltire, which is an X shaped cross, unlike the typical latin cross that signifies Jesus. This comes from the story that when St. Andrew was martyred he insisted on dying on a saltire because he was not worthy of dying in the same manner as Jesus. This is a common theme when it comes to saints and martyrs. Their icon usually has something to do with both how they died and how devoted/faithful they were in the face of death.
But not every symbol is as grim as this. Saint Joseph, the father of Jesus, will carry a staff ending in flowering lilies (right), referring to the story of how he was chosen to be the husband of Mary. He and many other unmarried men were called to present staves at an altar to see who would marry Mary. All the other men did, but Joseph, being ill and older, hid his staff. When he finally did present it, it bloomed with many white lilies. Again, the symbol both helps people understand who they are looking at, and reminds them of both an act of God and the humility of Joseph.
While the use of symbols is unsurprisingly universal and quite old, it is interesting to note that many of the symbols associated directly with Christianity actually come from previous uses. One of the most commonly used symbols is the halo. Put around saints and holy figures, the halo is ever present in sacred art. But it was in wide use before Christians adopted it. Most notably are the Egyptian gods and goddesses, specifically Ra and Hathor. They often have a golden disk above their heads depicting the Sun and signifying their importance. Halos of sorts have also been seen in ancient Indian art, though instead of a disk it is more an aura of fire around a person’s head. The halo wasn’t always just to depict a saint. It was often used to denote someone of importance, like the halo around King Herod’s head despite the fact that he is in the process of ordering the massacre of the Innocents.