Saints in Art: 01 – Concerning the Representations of Saints in Art

In the study of Art, the pictures and statues of saints are so numerous and so important, that if one adds to the contemplation and enjoyment of their effigies they study of their lives, historical and legendary, he acquires a sense of acquaintance with a great number of holy and intrepid men and women.

An interest is also added to one’s thought and study, that greatly contributes to the comprehension of the age in which religious art was the chief art, and of the men who lived and worked in that age; while the increased enjoyment of the legacies of that epoch abundantly repays the student for any effort he has made.

The history of the world, from the time of the Exodus to the present day, constantly emphasizes the truth that freedom, civil or religious, is only secured at a costly price. A large proportion of those whom we call saints – the most exalted title that is conferred on human beings – sacrificed their lives rather than renounce Christianity, while history warrants us in estimating a great number of these as heroes and heroines of super-human courage and loyalty to their convictions, both as Christians and patriots.

Supplementing history, tradition and legendary chronicles have contributed generously to their honour and glory, all of which has been exalted and spiritualized by poets and artists, until the phrase, stories of the saints, calls up to the imagination a world of heroism, romance, religious enthusiasm, profound faith, and living spirituality, in which every one may find a personality which appeals to his own nature, and excites both his sympathy with the saint, and a spirit of emulation of the saintly virtues.

It is impossible to intelligently judge the religion and thought of a people, without a knowledge of the atmosphere in which they existed, and though but a few centuries separate us from the Middle Ages, it is only by persistent investigation that we can so understand the life of that period as to – even in an imperfect degree – bring ourselves into harmony with the spirit and purpose of the great masters, to whom we owe the earliest representations of saints, and other religious pictures.

In regard to many saints, it is true that the incidents in their lives, which seized upon the imagination of the artists, and were pictured by them, rested on legendary, rather than historical, authority. But even the most improbable legends had some slight basis in truth.

We must remember that the saints who had died for their faith in Christ were brought close to the people through oral tradition and legendary chronicles at a period when Christians – with the exception of the very learned – had not the Gospel to study, and could scarcely realise a nearness to Him, concerning whose nature they were hopelessly puzzled by the wrangling of the schoolmen.

In truth, the people of the Middle Ages were separated from Christ by an impassable barrier of theological speculation, in which they had no share, while to the saints and martyrs they could draw near, and – as Milman has pointed out – their reverence became adoration, and the line drawn by theology between the honour due to God and Christ, and that due to saints and martyrs, was lost sight of in sympathy of all classes for human beings who, with no claim to divinity, yet displayed virtues which could only be characterised as divine.

Modern, or Western, art, may be said to have had its birth about the seventh century A.D., and to have contended through three hundred years with a feeble infancy, which, slightly waxing in strength, it gradually attained to the virility of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

During the earliest periods of its life, the people were generously fed with the stories of the adventures and the wonderful deed of heroes. These stories were read and recited in public, for the benefit of those who wished to hear. When the recital was purely historical the truth was simply miraculous to the unlearned, and the legendary story, when added, was no more wonderful to them that the truth had been, and was, therefore, as readily accepted and as sincerely believed.

We must also remember that in the Middles Ages might was right, and every sort of oppression was suffered by the weaker classes, from the stronger, whose only profession was that of war; and this vocation, followed through successive generations, so brutalised these warriors that kindness and mercy, and even common humanity, were almost extinct, while gentle and refining influences in the ordinary relations of life were quite unknown. It was a period in the history of the world when repose and safety were non-existent outside the cloister, whither both men and women fled to escape persecution, and to preserve their personal purity.

With these conditions in mind we can understand that the stories of the saints must have given courage and comfort to the weary and downtrodden people who were as ignorant as they were heavy-laden, – stories which inspired a belief in the existence of love and tenderness and courage in both men and women; stories which proved that there were those who for conscience’ sake protested against the evil surrounding them, and even died, rather than sin in word or deed; stories which assured them of a heaven, of that existence of angels, and of powers that could even overcome Satan himself, and guide the spirit of the timid, fainting Christian to the presence of a tender, omnipresent Saviour.

During these centuries the most extravagant legends of the saints, which were the daily food of the people, gained such an influence and were believed so absolutely that, when the Church endeavoured by edicts and councils to put aside these exaggerations, she found herself powerless, and was forced to patiently endeavour to modify rather than abolish these extravagances.

It was largely through the influence of Art that the Church instructed the ignorant; she appealed to their better nature through painting, sculpture, and music. It was impossible to exclude at once such subjects as were objectionable to the intelligent class of that age, and greater wisdom was shown by using a more moderate policy, rather than by instituting a violent opposition to errors which were the logical outcome of such darkness as had so long prevailed.

Churches afforded the opportunity for religious scene painting, and, repulsive as many of these decorations are to the present spirit of the Christian world, we must respect them for having served their purpose, in an age when education, civilisation, and refinement were to feeble to neutralise the forces that opposed them. In many of these works such sincerity is manifested, and so enduring a spirit of devotion, that they deeply interest us, although we cannot accept them in the childlike spirit of the reverential Christians of the age in which they were created.

Thousands of travellers visit these shrines, a large proposition of whom comprehend but little of their meaning, and thus lose the profit which should come from an acquaintance with the monuments of any religious faith which has served as a stimulant to spirituality in the dimly lighted periods of the world’s history.

The symbolism of the saints is little understood by many who visit churches and picture-galleries. One soon learns that the man who bristles with arrows is Saint Sebastian, and, without a knowledge of the reason for this, his picture is supremely absurd, while the frequency with which he presents himself becomes a huge joke. The man of the gridiron is speedily recognised as Saint Lawrence, and several of the more pronounced symbols are known as symbols, with no knowledge of what they symbolise. Of the less prominent emblems still less is apprehended, and the effect which these works of art should produce is lost. While we may enjoy the picture as a picture, or the sculpture as a product of art, the subtile meaning, the impalpable element which should stir our hearts, floats over our heads, and leaves us essentially ignorant of what we have seen; a means to profit and pleasure has been offered one, and he has not taken his share of it because he is so ill prepared for its enjoyment.

In the study of pictures of the saints, as in the study of all religious art, it is of the first importance to keep the distinction between devotional and historical representations clearly in mind. Devotional pictures present to us beings worthy of veneration simply as sacred personages; these may be in numbers, or as single figures, but must be void of action.

When such personages are represented as performing miracles, doing good works, suffering martyrdom, or taking their part in any Scriptural or other sacred story, we have a distinctly historical subject.

The representation of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, either alone or surrounded by angels and saints, is the devotional subject which is dearest to the world. The wonderful representations of Paradise, the Last Judgment, the Adoration of the Lamb, and kindred subjects, in which the Almighty and Christ in Glory are surrounded by all the orders of sacred beings, from God and his Son to the humble confessors of the Christian faith, are the grandest and most impressive of devotional pictures, as one realises in beholding the Paradise of Fra Angelico, in the Academy of Florence, the Last Judgment of Orcagna, in the Campo Santo of Pisa, or the Adoration of the Lamb by Van Eyck, in the Church of Saint Bayon at Ghent.

The representation of the Joys and Sorrows of the Virgin by Hans Memling, in the Munich Gallery, is a good example of the so-called historical picture. There are many figures, and all are in action. The Virgin adores the new-born child; the Wise Men worship Him, and present their gifts; Jesus heals the Sick; the Procession of the Cross ascends to Calvary; in short, the Seven Sorrows and the Seven Joys of the Virgin are all depicted as actually occurring before our eyes.

There are numerous votive pictures, that is, pictures painted in fulfillment of a vow, in gratitude for some especial blessing, or to avert some threatening danger. In such works, the donor, and sometimes his entire family, are introduced in the picture, as in the celebrated Meier Madonna by Holbein, in the Dresden Gallery.

In the earlier votive pictures, the humility of the donors was often expressed. by the diminutive size in which they were painted; later they appeared in their natural proportions. In a picture in which a bishop kneels while the other figures stand, he is the donor. Nearly all votive pictures are devotional, as they usually represent the donors as paying their homage to the Madonna or to patron saints.

There are pictures, however, that at the first glance appear to be devotional, that are in reality historical. For example, in the Marriage of Saint Catherine, although the saint kneels in an attitude of profound devotion, there is the action of giving and receiving the ring, which at once makes the picture historical.

Both historical and devotional pictures may be either Scriptural or legendary. The first will rarely require explanation to one acquainted with the Bible. In legendary pictures of the saints, historical subjects usually represent miracles or martyrdoms; the latter are always painful, and frequently revolting; the former are essentially reproductions of such miracles as are described in the Scriptures. Thus the saints are presented as living counterparts of Christ and his disciples.

Naturally, a large proportion of purely devotional pictures portray a single saint as one to whom veneration is due., but there is also a class of very interesting pictures which represent a group of saints in repose, as, for example, in a beautiful work by Andrea del Sarto, in the Academy in Florence, in which the two elements, the devotional and historical, are strikingly combined. On the left are Saints Michael and John Gualberto in repose, – devotional; on the right are Saints John the Baptist and Bernard, the former with his right hand raised earnestly talking to Saint Bernard, who listens attentively, – historical.

The Italians have a special name for a group of sacred persons in repose, and call it a sacra conversazione; this last word does not essentially mean a conversation in the sense of speech, but rather a communion; thus, a communion of holy beings is the best definition of the above phrase, as here employed with singular fitness. Such pictures are often very beautiful, and appeal to one more than do the representations of miracles and other extraordinary acts. Many enthroned Madonnas, surrounded by saints, belong to this class, as does one of the best pictures by Perugino, in the Bologna Gallery, in which the Virgin enthroned holds the child, standing, on her knee. They are surrounded by seraphim with wings of brilliant colour. Below are Saints Michael, Catherine, Apollonia and John the Baptist. It is interesting to note that here Saint John is an old man, the saint who had beheld the vision of the Revelation, and is in strong contrast to the eternal youth of Saint Michael.

Purely legendary historical subjects, in pictures of the saints, are those in which they walk upon the water, are fed miraculously, are delivered from suffering by angels, and so on, while their exercise of miraculous power is most frequently depicted in the healing of the sick, casting out evil spirits, and restoring the dead to life.

Other legendary subjects represent a mingling of Scripture and history, as in pictures of Saints Paul and Peter. In these the Bible story and the traditions of the Church are so combined that care must be taken in order to distinguish history from legend. Again they illustrate purely fabulous traditions, while in others religious truths are figuratively set forth, in the same sense that the Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical legend.

Anachronisms are especially apparent in pictures of saints, but if one will remember that such representations were intended to express the devotional spirit rather than to represent physical facts, it will not seem so out of reason that Saint Jerome should present his translation of the Scriptures to the Infant Jesus, while an angel turns the leaves; nor that poets and philosophers who died before Christ was born on earth should present to him scrolls inscribed with sentences from their writings which are regarded as prophecies of his coming.

Saints that apparently have no relation to each other may be portrayed in company because the picture was painted for a locality in which, at varying periods, these saints have been venerated as patrons of the region. For example, Saint Theodore and Saint Mark may be coupled for no other reason than that one preceded the other as patron saint of Venice; as Saint Mark, Saint George, and Saint Catherine would be curiously bizarre in each other’s society did they not divide the honours as contemporary patrons of the Queen of the Adriatic.

Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian are associated because the latter was the patron against the plague, and the former cared for those who suffered from it. Saints Stephen and Lawrence appear as companions in works of art, not because they were such when living, but because they were entombed together.

These examples show what research will prove to be true, that such representations as are surprising and incongruous to us rested on a sufficiently reasonable basis in the mind of the artist; one should respectfully learn the reasons for such apparent inconsistencies before he ridicules or despises them.

Besides the patron saints of certain localities, there are those which may be termed the patrons of Christendom, and may legitimately appear in pictures of all countries. These are Saints George, Sebastian, Christopher, Cosmo, Damian, Roch, Nicholas, Catherine, Barbara, Margaret, and Ursula.

Again, saints who were not associated when living were united as protecting patrons of organizations that laboured for the poor and the fallen, ransomed slaves and redeemed prisoners; one such society relied on Saints Peter, Leonard, Martha, and Mary Magdalene, – Saint Peter because he had been a prisoner; Saint Leonard, because he laboured for the good of slaves and captives in his life; Saint Martha on account of her charity and benevolence; and Saint Mary Magdalene, because she is the patroness of frail and penitent women.

Thus it is that what first appears to be fantastic and unsuitable, when understood and appreciated, adds value and a deeper meaning to such religious art as we are considering. It aids us in discerning its sentiment and intention, and proves that what, at a cursory glance, seems the result of an ignorance of the fitness of things, is, in truth, the expression of earnest, devotional thought, of spiritual and poetic intelligence, and a desire to imbue that which will give pleasure to the eye with spiritual and uplifting significance.

An explanation of the symbolism connected with saints in Art will be found in the appendix.