Saints in Art: 05 – Patron Saints

Patron or protecting saints are of various orders, there being patrons of nations, cities, and towns; of orders, societies, schools, and hospitals; of physicians, soldiers, sailors, prisoners, travellers, invalids, and those who are weak; of students, philosophers, theologians, and other scholars; of young girls and women who teach; of women in childbirth; and of individuals in all professions and stations.

There are certain patron saints of both sexes, who have been venerated by all nations and in all periods since the Christian era. This is true of saints who have a Scriptural history, yet some of these have been adopted, and are considered as special patrons of certain localities, – as Saint Peter at Rome, and Saint Mark in Venice, – while, in another sense, they belong to all Christendom, and, as saints, must ever be accorded the highest honours. There are also saints who are greatly venerated as patrons in certain localities, who are rarely mentioned elsewhere; for example, Saint Justina and Saint Rufina are most important in Seville, and almost unknown in Rome or Paris.

The universal patrons are represented in Art in the churches and religious and charitable edifices of all countries. We may lament, as we study these pictures and statues, that we are frequently reminded of the productions of pagan art, and that the simple stories of the New Testament are so supplemented with legends and traditions that these men of God are not recognisable by one who knows their Scripture story only; but we may comfort ourselves with the reflection that they represent aspects of the divine character of Christ, or some virtue to which we aspire. We may well believe that such beings as are thus represented were Nothelper – Helpers-in-need – in the ages of barbarity and violence, of ignorance and superstition, in which many of these conceptions originated.

Among these universal patrons the first place is accorded to Saint George of England, the hero of the Faerie Queene. He is also the patron of Germany, and shares the honours of Venice with Saint Mark, while he is the protector of soldiers and armourers, wherever saints are venerated. As Saint Michael overcame Satan himself, as Apollo and Perseus destroyed the monsters of mythology, so Saint George slew the evil one, under the usual form of a dragon, who ravaged the flocks and herds, and even destroyed the children of a certain city in Libya. So much feared was this monster that, at length, two children, drawn by lot, were daily given him to appease his wrath, and a day arrived when the lovely daughter of the king was the victim to be sacrificed.

As the maiden was going forth to meet her fate, Saint George appeared, and making the sign of the cross, and calling on Christ for strength, he overcame the dragon after a terrible conflict, and the beast having been bound with the girdle of the princess, she led him, perfectly subdued, within the walls of the city. As a result of this prowess of the saint, twenty thousand people embraced the faith of which they had witnessed the power, and were baptised in one day. I will not recount all the sufferings to which Saint George was subjected by the Emperor Dacian, before he was finally beheaded, which persecutions gained for him the title of the Great Martyr, in the Greek Church.

To the Crusaders Saint George was the ideal military saint, and in 1222 his feast was made a holiday. A century later, in 1330, the institution of the Order of the Garter confirmed his title as chief patron of England, where there are one hundred and sixty-two churches dedicated to him.

Devotional pictures of Saint. George are numerous, and embrace single figures of the saint, or representations of his combat with the dragon, or Madonna pictures in which he is introduced. Of single figures I will mention but one, the statue by Donatello, on the exterior of Or San Michele, Florence. It is the personification of dignified nobility and serious, calm determination, such as one would desire in a defender, in peace or in war. He leans on his shield, on which the cross is seen; his head is bare, and his person protected by a complete suit of armour. One would scarcely look for the same conception of this saint by Donatello and Spenser, but the sculptor’s statue and the poet’s lines are in accord.

Upon his shield the bloodie cross was scored,
For sovereign help, which in his need he had.
Right faithful, true he was, in deed and word;
But of his cheere did seem too solemn sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.

In Gothic sculpture and in French art Saint George appears but rarely, and is then in company with other military saints.

In pictures of Saint George and the Dragon there may be a certain resemblance to those of Saint Michael, but there are also such differences as make it easy to distinguish each from the other. Saint Michael has wings, and a balance; Saint George has the martyr’s palm; Saint Theodore, too, appears with a dragon, but that on which he stands in the Piazetta, at Venice, can only be called a dragon by courtesy; it is a crocodile, and, in any case, it seems unlikely that Saint George and the Dragon can be mistaken for any other subject.

Tintoretto, Rubens, Raphael, Ludovico Caracci, and Lucas von Leyden all painted their conceptions of the struggle between the saint and the monster. Albert Dürer made four different prints representing it. Schwanthaler embodied his idea of it in a fine bas-relief, and it has been many times pictured by lesser artists.

The two small pictures by Raphael, in the galleries of the Louvre and the Hermitage, differ much in spirit. The first, called Saint George with the Sword, represents the mail-clad saint on a white horse, at the moment when he is about to strike off the dragon’s head; the monster, with open mouth and uplifted claw, is too near the leg of the saint for safety. The landscape background is desolate, with two stunted trees; in the distance the princess is escaping. The figure of the saint is elegant, and his face that of a happy youth, perfectly certain of victory over his revolting foe.

The Saint Petersburg picture is the Saint George of the Garter. Henry VII. had sent the Order and Insignia of the Garter to Duke Guidobaldo, and Count Castiglione was sent to England to be knighted as proxy for the duke, and, with other gifts, he carried this Saint George to Henry. After many changes it now hangs beside the great portrait of the Emperor Alexander, having a burning lamp continually before it. Here, too, the saint is on a white horse, and, rushing forward, has transfixed the dragon with his lance, while the princess, in the background, is kneeling in prayer. Under his right knee the saint wears the Order of Saint George, or the Garter.

Tintoretto also painted this subject twice, one picture being in the Ducal Palace, Venice, and the other in the National Gallery. That in Venice differs much from other pictures of the subject. The princess is astride the dragon’s neck, he being bridled with a ribbon which the maiden holds. Saint George, standing behind, holds his hands above her head, either to bless the princess, or by a miraculous power to quiet the dragon. A monk is near, watching the group. The princess is richly dressed; the face of the saint is beautiful; his gray armour and drapery are in clear relief against the sky. Of this work, Ruskin says:

There is no expression or life in the dragon, though the white flashes in the eye are, very ghastly: but the whole thing is entirely typical; and the princess is not so much represented as riding the dragon, as supposed to be placed by Saint George in an attitude of perfect victory over her chief enemy.

Here, as in all other representations of this and kindred subjects, we understand that their real intent is to symbolise the conquest of evil by good. The picture by Rubens, in the Queen’s Gallery, was painted for Charles I, the saint and princess being portraits of the king and his queen. The Thames and Windsor Castle are seen in the distance. Here, Saint George, with his foot on the dragon, gives the princess the end of the girdle that she may lead the conquered monster. Two groups of spectators observe the scene, while angels descend from above with a crown and laurel for the victor.

'Saint George', by Ercole GrandiA quaint picture is that by Ercole Grandi, in the Corsini Gallery, Rome. It explains itself with great frankness. The dragon is pinned to the earth by the weapon which transfixes his body, and when the saint’s sword descends, the prayer of the princess will doubtless be answered.

In the Church of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice, are pictures of Saint George and the Dragon, the Reception of the Saint by the Father of the Princess and the Conversion and Baptism of the King and his Court. These are by Carpaccio, whom Kugler calls “the historical painter of the elder Venetian School.” He certainly represented the daily life of Venice in a masterly manner, no matter what subject he painted. His backgrounds are rich with landscape, imposing edifices, and other accessories, and his colouring is deep and powerful.

Veronese, Rubens, and Vandyck all painted the Martyrdom of Saint George, and it is needless to say that they are all fine works of art. The first two follow the legend that the saint was beheaded, but Vandyck pictures his being sacrificed to an idol. The work of Veronese is in the Church of San Giorgio, Verona; that of Rubens in the Church of San Giorgio de Liere, near Antwerp, and that by Vandyck in a private collection.

I know of no Madonna picture in which Saint George appears that is so attractive as that by Correggio, in the Dresden Gallery. The Virgin is enthroned in the midst of open architecture, and the whole scene is flooded with brilliant daylight. Saint Peter, Saint John Baptist, and Saint Geminianus are also represented. Boy angels play with the armour of Saint George, in the foreground. The picture has all the grace and sweetness of Correggio’s best manner, and belongs to the period of his greatest power.

When we consider Saint Sebastian, the universal protector against plague and pestilence, we find more historical fact connected with his life than is the case with many other saints. He came of a noble family in Gaul, was a commander in the Praetorian Guards, and a favourite with the Emperor Diocletian. Being secretly a Christian, the practice of Christian virtues rendered him singularly attractive to his associates, while his position enabled him to protect other Christians from persecution. At length, however, two young Christian soldiers were condemned to death, – after firmly enduring torture, – and the prayers of their families had almost persuaded them to recant, when Sebastian, careless of his own safety, eloquently encouraged them to meet death rather than deny Christ. So enthusiastically did he picture the Christian life, here and hereafter, that those who heard him were converted and baptised, including the judge himself.

This boldness sealed Sebastian’s fate. Diocletian reasoned with him, endeavouring to save his life, – for he loved his faithful young guardsman, – but failing in his efforts, he condemned Sebastian to be bound, and shot to death with arrows. This being done, the saint was left for dead, but his friends who came to bury him discovered that he still lived, and secretly nursed him back to health.

After his recovery, the Christians urged him to fly from Rome, but Sebastian placed himself in the path of the emperor, as he left the palace, and when Diocletian appeared Sebastian entreated him to spare the lives of the Christians who had been condemned to death. Diocletian exclaimed, “Art thou not Sebastian?” and when the truth was told him, he commanded that Sebastian should be beaten to death with clubs, and his body thrown into the Cloaca Maxima. The Christians, however, rescued the corpse, and buried it in the catacombs, at the feet of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The shooting with arrows doubtless caused Sebastian to be chosen as a protector against pestilence. He did not, like some other saints, devote himself to the care of the plague-stricken, but arrows, from the most ancient days, have been the symbol of pestilence. In regions subject to such diseases there are many churches dedicated to Saint Sebastian.

Pictures of this saint, almost without exception, represent his martyrdom. Even when he is introduced in various religious subjects, with other saints, one or more arrows were customarily used to emphasise his personality. He is pictured as young, semi-nude, and bound to a tree or column; he is of a noble figure and fine countenance, and gazes heavenward with an expression of spiritual ecstasy; angels frequently are seen descending with the martyr’s crown and palm, and in some cases his armour is introduced as an emblem of his military profession.

There is little variety in the manner of representing Saint Sebastian, and this little is seen in the backgrounds and in minor details, but there is a great difference in the effect of the pictures. The earliest examples are stiff, badly modelled, and sometimes absurd in their unnatural posing and their curious details. Later Saint Sebastian became a favourite subject with artists, affording as it did a fine opportunity for anatomical modelling and the representation of Apollo-like beauty. Almost numberless pictures were thus produced which are recognised at a glance.

'Saint Sebastian', by Guido ReniGuido Reni’s picture in the Capitoline Museum, Rome, is an excellent example of these works, which display the skill of this artist, who painted this subject seven or eight times.

In the Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, there is a Saint Sebastian by Tintoretto, which Ruskin calls

“the most majestic Saint Sebastian in existence, as far as mere humanity can be majestic, for there is no effort at any expression of angelic or saintly resignation: the effort is simply to realise the fact of the martyrdom, and it seems to me that this is done to an extent not even attempted by any other painter… The face, in spite of its ghastliness, is beautiful, and has been serene; and the light which enters first and glistens on the plumes of the arrows dies softly away upon the curling hair and mixes with the glory upon the forehead. There is not a more remarkable picture in Venice.

Unfortunately this picture is on a space between the windows and has as bad a light as possible. By shading the eyes it can be seen comparatively well at some hours of the day, and one should visit this wonderful Scuola many times.

Of the few pictures illustrating the life of Saint Sebastian, those by Veronese, in the Church of San Sebastiano, Venice, merit the first mention. The finest of these represents the saint on the way to his martyrdom. He descends a flight of steps, dressed in full armour and waving a banner, while exhorting the two young Christians not to deny their faith. It is a picture to arouse enthusiasm, and few can study it without feeling a deep sympathy with the young Christian orator, who is thus courting death for the sake of the faith which was in him. The picture is aglow with light, and the variety of persons in the groups of spectators afforded Veronese the opportunity to represent many types of character, which he so well knew how to improve. It is a work of immense dramatic power, and some good critics prefer this before all other pictures by Veronese. Kugler considers it the noblest work of the great Venetian, in some respects. Indeed, the skill and beauty of its composition, the richness of the sentiment so powerfully expressed, the life and excitement of the scene, combined with its glorious colour, make this a masterpiece in painting. The pictures of Veronese in the Church of San Sebastiano, where the walls and altars are rich with his works, may be regarded as a glorious monument to himself, since he is buried here, and they well serve to perpetuate his fame, while they honour Saint Sebastian.

There are several interesting statues of Saint Sebastian; that in the church dedicated to the saint, in the environs of Rome, which was designed by Bernini, is esteemed as the finest conception of this sculptor; it was executed by Giorgini, who lovingly interpreted the intention of his master.

In the Cathedral of Lucca, in a small octagonal chapel of marble, erected in 1484, in which is kept the sacred crucifix, shown but three times a year, there is a statue of Saint Sebastian, dating from 1470, that is famous as the first undraped statue produced in Italy, after the Renaissance in Art. The saint is represented bound to a tree and pierced with several gilt arrows; the pose of the figure and the expression of the face are admirable and redeem the work from its other defects. The chapel.and the statue are the work of Matteo Civitale.

In the Church of Santa Maria, in Carignano, Genoa, is a colossal statue of Saint Sebastian by Puget, a follower of Bernini. Here also the saint is transfixed, and his armour is at his feet; it is an effective, pretentious work.

In our day it seems quite unnecessary that protectors against the plague should be especially venerated in Western Christendom, but during the Middle Ages this scourge frequently visited all seaports that were in commercial communication with the Orient. This was especially true of ports on the eastern coast of Italy; terrible visitations of the plague devastated Southern Europe, and even swept over London with terrific results. These considerations explain the need that was felt for more than one protecting saint against these dreaded evils. After Saint Sebastian, the most important of these is Saint Roch, who is seen in many religious pictures. Much of the interest in this saint is centred in the Church and Scuola di San Rocco, Venice.

'Mary Magdalene', by G. ChiariThe church was built to receive the relics of the saint, which had been stolen from Montpelier, the home of the saint, and carried to Venice, where the visitations of the plague were frequent. The church was built by a community of men who cared for the sick and suffering, many of its members belonging to noble and wealthy families. The Scuola di San Rocco, so magnificently decorated by Tintoretto and his pupils, was connected with the church, and contained the council-halls of the community.

The principal facts in the life of Saint Roch are well authenticated, and he is thought to be entitled to special reverence on account of his having contracted the plague in caring for the sick. He suffered all its horrors in a secret place to which he dragged himself, in order that he should not expose others to its dangers, and his only attendant was a little dog, who brought food to his master. When recovering, Saint Roch dragged himself to Montpelier, where he was not recognised, and was arrested as a spy and sent to prison by his own uncle, who did not know his nephew in the wasted prisoner. In prison he died; his dungeon was filled with supernatural light, and beside his body was a writing disclosing his identity and promising that the plague-stricken who prayed to Saint Roch should be healed.

Devotional pictures represent him as a pilgrim with staff, cloak, wallet, and cockle-shell. His little dog is frequently with him, and the saint usually lifts his robe to disclose a plague spot. A small picture by Garofalo, in the Belvedere, Vienna, is a good example of these representations, in which the subject is easily recognised. In the Scuola di San Rocco, decorated by Tintoretto, one picture represents the saint in the presence of God; it is on the centre of the ceiling. Of this Ruskin says:

“It is quite different from his common work; bright in all its tints and tones; the faces carefully drawn, and of an agreeable type; the outlines firm, and the shadows few; the whole resembling Correggio.”

In this remarkable Scuola there are fifty-seven pictures by Tintoretto. Here is also a statue of Saint Roch by Campagna, in the lower hall, while in the upper hall there are scenes from the life of the saint in bas-reliefs, on panels of oak, by Marchiori.

In the Church of San Rocco are five scenes from the life of Saint Roch, also by Tintoretto. They are Saint Roch in the Wilderness, Saint Roch in the Hospital, Saint Roch Healing Animals, The Capture of Saint Roch, and an Angel appearing to the Saint in Prison.

One cannot approve of all the works of Tintoretto, and Kugler’s estimate of him, which follows, expresses the truth in a few words; while one finds great pleasure in the study of his numerous and vast canvases, there is still something to be desired.

“His off-hand style, as we may call it, is, it is true, always full of grand and meaning detail; with a few patches of colour he expresses sometimes the liveliest forms and expressions; but he fails in that artistic arrangement of the whole, and in that nobility of motives in parts, which are necessary exponents of a high idea. His compositions are not expressed by finely studied degrees of participation in the principal action, but by great masses of light and shade. With Titian the highest idea of earthly happiness in existence is expressed by beauty; with Tintoretto in mere animal strength, sometimes of a very rude character.”

Rubens painted for the Confraternity of Saint Roch, at Alost, a large altar-piece, on which he spent but a week; it so pleased the monks that they paid him eight hundred florins, after which the artist gave them three smaller works, which were placed beneath the larger one. The upper portion of the large picture represents Saint Roch in his prison, ablaze with heavenly light, kneeling to receive from Christ his mission as a protector against the plague. In the lower part is a group of the afflicted, praying the saint for his aid. The whole is painted with the great power of the famous Belgian master.

Votive pictures are frequently seen in hospitals, churches, and chapels dedicated to Saint Roch, in which he is represented as having healed the donor.

Akin to the offices of Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch were those of the brothers, Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian, known as the saintly Arab physicians. They were patrons of medicine and physicians, and of the Medici family. Having studied their profession for the sake of caring for the suffering, they came to be the most skilful physicians that had been known before, or in their time. In the reign of Diocletian they were beheaded.

In the Greek Church, the devotions that had been paid to Esculapius were transferred to these saints, and in the sixth century Pope Felix IV. erected a church in their honour in the Forum. The Greek mosaics in this church are doubtless the most ancient existing representations of these holy brothers.

In devotional pictures Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian appear in the conventional garb of a physician, “in scarlet gown, furred well.” Their symbols are a pestle and mortar, ointment boxes, or a lancet. A picture by Titian, commemorating the plague in Venice in 1512, now in Santa Maria della Salute, interested me more than any representation of these saints that I have seen. They are with Saint Mark, the chief patron of Venice, and Ruskin says:

“The small Titian, Saint Mark with Saint Cosmo and Saint Damian, was, when I first saw it, to my judgment, by far the first work of Titian’s in Venice.”

Pictures illustrative of the lives and legends of these saints are rare, and I know of none that are important. While Saint Christopher is not the patron of anyone class of people, he is the giant saint, whose story is intended to encourage all who are in need to realise that divine aid is ever near. The sight of him is believed to strengthen the weak and weary; a Latin inscription, when translated, runs,

“Whoever shall behold the image of Saint Christopher shall not faint or fail on that day!”

His beautiful legend relates that Offero sought the most powerful sovereign in the world, that he might serve him, and finding that even sovereigns feared Satan, Offero served him, and finding that Satan feared Christ, he sought his service, and was greatly afflicted at not finding him.

'Saint Christopher', by Fiorenzo di LorenzoAt length, as Offero slept in his hut beside a river, where he was accustomed to aid those who wished to cross the stream, he heard the voice of a child begging to be carried to the opposite bank. To this Offero gladly consented, and raising the child to his shoulder, and taking his strong staff, he entered the water. The child, who was easily enough carried at the start, grew heavy and heavier, until, in the middle of the stream, Offero feared that both he and the child would be drowned. Then he exclaimed, “Who art thou? had I borne the whole world it could not have been heavier!” And the child replied:

“Thou hast borne not only the world but the maker of it on thy shoulders; henceforth thou shalt serve me. Plant thy staff and it shall put forth leaves and fruit.”

Then Offero became a Christian and his name was changed to Christopher – the bearer of Christ – and he went about doing good until the time of his martyrdom in Samos. He is easily recognised in works of art by his size and his enormous staff, which is never omitted.

Scenes from the life of Saint Christopher are rare. The Church of Santa Maria dell Orto, Venice, is also called the Church of Saint Christopher, the Martyr, and there is Tintoretto’s picture of his martyrdom, which is a good example of the manner of this master, already mentioned.

In the Church of the Eremitani, Padua, a chapel dedicated to Saint James and Saint Christopher is important in the history of Art in Northern Italy, and it is still imposing in effect in spite of what it has suffered by decay and restorations. The picture of Saint Christopher bearing the child is by a poor artist, Bono, of Ferrara. The pictures of the Martyrdom of the Saint and the Removal of his Body are interesting examples of the work of that very important fifteenth century master, Andrea Mantegna. A son-in-law of Jacopo Bellini, his style was doubtless influenced by him, and some writers and art critics attribute to Mantegna a great influence on the most famous artists of the Venetian school. In the History of Painting in North Italy, Crowe and Cavalcaselle, we read:

Here it is that we become fully acquainted with Mantegna’s lofty position among artists. Here we mark how much more gifted he was in some senses than the celebrated men of the following century. We compare his giant figure with Titian’s David and Goliath, or the Death of Abel in the ceiling of the sacristy of the Salute in Venice, and we perceive that the great Venetian lives on the achievements of the Paduan, content to enjoy the fruit garnered by Mantegna, who for his part fixes rules indispensable to the future expansion of Art. It was necessary that some one should be found, to level the road leading to perfection; and such an one we justly recognise in Mantegna, who, without sense of spontaneous or ideal grace, and without feeling for colour, had the power and indomitable will of Donatello and Buonarotti.

Saint Nicholas of Myra is important, since he is the patron saint of Russia, Bari, Venice, Freiburg, and many other towns and cities. He is also the protector of children, especially of schoolboys, of travellers, merchants, sailors, and poor maidens, as well as a guardain saint against thieves and violence, or losses by robbers. He is best known to us as Santa Claus, and all over Christendom he is known as the saint of the people, especially of the poor, and has no rival in the affection of the young. In A.D. 560, the Emperor Justinian dedicated a church to Saint Nicholas, in Constantinople, and since then, in Europe and in Great Britain, where there are three hundred and seventy-six, a greater number of churches and chapels have been dedicated to Saint Nicholas than to any other saint.

The facts in relation to this saint seem to resolve themselves into the statement that from infancy he was religious and entered the priesthood; he devoted his life to good works, and died peacefully in Myra, and was buried in a splendid church.

After his death great miracles were performed at his tomb, and many cities desired possession of his remains. In Bari it is claimed that the bones of the saint were brought there in 1084, and a magnificent church was erected as his tomb. The Venetians make the same claim, but by general consent he is called Saint Nicholas of Bari. The story of his miracles and remarkable experiences would fill a small volume; many of these have been illustrated in Art.

Being the most popular saint of the Greek Church, he is more frequently seen in the devotional pictures of that church than is any other saint. In these he wears the dress of a bishop, with neither mitre or crosier, bearing the cross alone, while the three Persons of the Trinity are embroidered on his cope.

In the devotional pictures of the Western Church Saint Nicholas is represented in bishop’s robes, with mitre, crosier, jewelled gloves, and a magnificently embroidered cope. A fine picture of this description, by Botticelli, is in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. His attribute is three balls, to which various meanings are ascribed. The most frequent explanation is that they signify three purses that the saint gave to save the daughters of a poor man from a dishonourable life; again, they stand for loaves of bread which he distributed to the hungry; while others see in them a symbol of the Trinity. If sitting, the balls are in his lap; if standing, they are at his feet, or he carries a book on which the balls are placed. Rarely these balls are replaced by three purses, and again, by three children, referring to a miracle by which he restored to life three children who had been murdered. An anchor, or a ship in the distance, refers to Saint Nicholas as the patron of seamen.

A beautiful picture of Saint Nicholas is in the so-called Anseidei Madonna, by Raphael, at Blenheim. The Virgin and child are reading a book; Saint Nicholas, on one side, is reading the Scriptures; his face is singularly sweet and benevolent.

The visit by night which Saint Nicholas paid to the house of the poor man, when he threw the purses containing the dowries for the daughters in at the window, has been more frequently represented than has any other incident of his legend. The quaint picture of this scene, by Fra Angelico, is in the Vatican. Through the open doorway of the house, the poor father is seen, sitting in the corridor, in a dejected attitude; in a room beyond the three maidens, asleep in bed, are visible. At one side the saint is throwing the purses in through an open window. The story is most simply told, the work, though in colours, being scarcely more than outline.