Saints in Art: 08 – An Explanation of the Symbolism Proper to Representations of the Saints

The circle about the heads of sacred persons is known as the Aureole, the Glory, and the Nimbus. Before the Christian era, such symbols, as seen on ancient coins, medals, and other objects, signified that dignity and power belonged to the person thus honoured, as to the gods. In the early centuries after Christ, even Satan was represented with a glory, as a symbol of his power, and by reason of its pagan origin this emblem was not readily adopted in Christian art; after the fifth or sixth century, however, it came into more general use, and invariably indicated divine glory, a consecrated being, and saintly blessedness.

The aureole is varied in size and form. It is a simple circle, of more or less brilliancy, about the head of representations of saints no longer living; if the saint is portrayed as still alive, the form is square; if pictured as ascending to heaven, an oblong glory surrounds the entire person, and is known as mandorla, or almond shaped, in Italian.

Didron, in his Iconographie Chretienne, devotes many pages to the discussion of the various forms of glories which are seen, and designates the classes of beings for whom each one should be used, and gives the reasons by which these uses are properly governed; but the artists were not so learned as he in these distinctions, and the general idea that is given above serves ordinarily to explain the works of art with which we are familiar.

In the early centuries of our era, statues erected in the open air had metal discs fastened to the heads, as a protection from the weather, and many aureoles in ancient pictures resemble these, having the effect of metal plates behind the head.

After the twelfth century a simple golden band behind the head was much used; again, several circles are seen, and these are sometimes set with precious stones, or inscribed with the name of the saint represented. After the fifteenth century a bright circle over the head was chiefly used, until the seventeenth century, when all these glories were essentially abandoned. In more modern pictures we sometimes see this symbol, though it is not used with the careful distinctions observed by the old painters.

In pictures this emblem is always golden; on glass and ivory it is in various colours. Didron suggests that the colours are symbolical, as, for example, the black nimbus on the head of Judas. He speaks as follows of a miniature dated 1120, which represents Christ with a nimbus and crown of gold, surrounded by the nine orders of saints who form the celestial court, intermingled with angels.

Virgins, apostles, martyrs, confessors, prophets, patriarchs, the chaste, the married, and lastly the penitents. The first four orders, the most exalted of all. have the nimbus of gold. Prophets and patriarchs, the saints of the Old Testament, and who knew the truth imperfectly only, through the veil of metaphor and allegory, have a nimbus of silver. The nimbus of the chaste is red; that. of the married, green; and that of the penitents, yellow, but slightly tinted. Colour is evidently employed in these instances as a hierarchical medium; it loses its brilliancy in proportion as it descends from a lofty to an inferior grade, after which point the title of saint is no longer awarded, and the persons represented are regarded only as ordinary mortals.

Interesting as this explanation of colour is, it must not be too seriously considered, as it is by no means true that all artists gave strict attention to the colour of aureoles. As time wore on, the only colour significance seems to me to be that yellow is the colour of gold or preciousness, while red is that of fire, and typifies zeal and passion; blue and purple being emblems of penitence.

The nimbus is, in its essential significance, a representation of light, issuing from the head, and it is not unusual to see rays surrounding the head, more especially in pictures of the persons of the Trinity. These rays are variously arranged; at times they are at regular distances, and form a circle or some other regular form on the outer line; again, three rays proceed from the top of the head, and three others from each side, and a line of light connects them, either on the outer line of the rays, or again at a distance within that line, leaving the ends of the rays beyond the circle.

The general idea that these symbols indicate sacred or holy personages, and symbolise light radiating from these beings, will give an understanding of them in all cases, although one who cares to study this point will find a world of mysticism in their comprehensive interpretation.

The Cross, when the symbol of a saint, is usually in the form of the Cross of the Crucifixion, or the Latin Cross; but Saint Andrew has the transverse or X cross, the form on which he suffered death. The Egyptian cross is given to Saint Anthony as a symbol of his crutch, the crossarms making the top, and is known by his name; the same cross is seen with the Apostle Philip. The Greek cross is that in which the arms are of equal length. In some pictures of the Popes, a staff with a double cross on top is seen, which is never given to any ecclesiastic below the Pope; a staff with a single cross indicates a Greek bishop, as a crosier is the symbol of a Latin bishop.

The Fish is a very ancient and universal symbol of water and baptism, and was frequently seen on ancient baptismal fonts, and in the decoration of baptisteries. Greek for fish; see text The letters of the Greek word for fish, ***** form the anagram of the name of Jesus Christ, – they give in the Latin, Jesus Christus, Dei filius, Salvator, and in English, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour. For this reason the fish became a singularly sacred symbol.

The special fish used as a pagan symbol was the dolphin, and this is seen on ancient sarcophagi, tombs of martyrs, utensils of various kinds, and as an ornament in architecture. The fish is a symbol of those saints who made many converts to Christianity, referring to the promise of Jesus, “And I will make you fishers of men.” When given to Saint Peter it recalls his former occupation, his conversion, and his success in making converts.

'Saint Bernard giving the Rule of his Order', Cotignola, Berlin GalleryThe Lion, when seen with Saint Jerome and the hermit saints, is an emblem of solitude; with the martyrs it denotes death in the amphitheatre, and, when placed at the feet, is significant of exceptional courage and resolution in the face of persecution.

The Lamb is a symbol of unblemished sacrifice, of modesty, and of innocence. In the first sense it is given to Saint John Baptist, and in the second to Saint Agnes. In the first five centuries of the Christian era, Christ was customarily represented as a lamb, until, in 692, the Church, fearing that allegory was displacing reality and history, decreed in council that the human face and form of Christ should be substituted in works of art for the symbolic Lamb of God. It was not, however, until much later than the time of this council that Christ was generally represented in the form of a man, and was more frequently seen as the Good Shepherd who cared for the sheep.

The Peacock, which is ordinarily considered a symbol of pride, was, in ancient days, an emblem of the apotheosis – or the passing of the soul – of an empress; and as a Christian symbol it typifies the passing of the spirit from mortal to immortal life.

The Dove is the emblem of the Holy Ghost, and also of the soul of man; it is seen issuing from the lips of dying martyrs, as a symbol of the flight of the soul to heaven. When represented as an attribute of female saints it denotes purity; and it is also seen beside saints who were esteemed as especially inspired, as were some of the Fathers of the Church.

The Crown may be the symbol of a glorious martyrdom, or the attribute of a royal saint, or in the case of a royal martyr it would unite the two intentions. This symbol is also used in a mystic sense, to denote the “bride of Christ,” as when it is placed on the head of a nun at the moment of her consecration, and doubtless had this significance also, when indicating the glorious martyrdom of such saints as Catherine, Lucia, and others. When on the head of the Madonna it symbolises her sovereignty as Queen of Heaven, and refers to the rank of royal saints who wear a crown or have one placed at their feet.

The Palm, as in Revelation 7:9-14, indicates a glorious martyrdom. It is represented in a great variety of ways, and angels frequently descend from heaven to confer it on those who have suffered for the sake of their Christian faith. With the ancients, the palm denoted victory over the enemy, and to the Christian it is emblematic of the spiritual victory over sin and death.

The Sword, when given to warrior saints, is an attribute, but like the axe, lance, and club, the sword is frequently the symbol of a violent death.

Arrows, signifying the manner of their martyrdom, are given to Saint Ursula, Saint Christina, and Saint Sebastian. In the same sense wheels are represented with Saint Catherine; the poniard with Saint Lucia; pincers and shears with Saint Apollonia and Saint Agatha; and the cauldron with Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Cecilia.

The Skull is a symbol of penance, and the shell of pilgrimage.

The Bell is given to Saint Anthony as a means of exorcising evil spirits or demons.

Fire and Flames symbolise religious fervour, punishment, and martyrdom.

The Flaming Heart is emblematic of fervent piety, and is a symbol of several saints, both men and women.

The Anchor symbolises patience and hope; and is seen on very ancient objects, such as antique gems. It was much used in the symbolic decoration of the Catacombs.

The Banner is an emblem of victory. and is given to military saints and victorious martyrs. Saint Ursula and Saint Reparata are the female saints to whom it belongs.

The Church is a symbol of a founder of a church, but when represented with Saint Jerome it is an emblem of the whole Catholic Church. When rays of light issue from the portal, they are emblematic of the light which emanates from the Christian Church.

The Olive, the symbol of peace, is given to Saint Agnes and Saint Pantaleon. It is much used in the decoration of tombs and funereal monuments.

The Lily is a symbol of purity, and is given to Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Dominic and others.

The Unicorn is a very ancient symbol of purity. It is represented with Saint Justina only.

The Book is an emblem of the Gospel, of the learning of certain saints, and of authorship.

The Lamp, Taper, or Lantern symbolise wisdom and piety; in the hand of Saint Lucia such an emblem is significant of her celestial wisdom.

The Chalice is an emblem of faith, and is given to Saint Barbara and Saint John. When the serpent is in the cup it is a symbol of wisdom.

The Scourge symbolises penance, and usually indicates that which is self-inflicted by the saint to whom it is given. In rare cases, as in that of Saint Ambrose, it refers to the penance prescribed for others.

The Ship is an emblem of the Church. It is, however, associated with the legends of certain saints, as Saint Ursula, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Peter.

Fruit and Flowers are lovely symbols; roses are associated with the exquisite legends of Saint Cecilia, Saint Dorothea, and Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. An apple, pear, or pomegranate belong to Saint Catherine, as the mystical bride of Christ. In the Old Testament the apple was significant of the fall of man; in the New Testament it is an emblem of the redemption from that fall, and as such is represented in pictures of the Madonna and Infant Jesus.

The Crucifix, when held in the hand, is the attribute of a preacher; it is also a symbol of devout faith, and has a special significance in pictures of Saint Catherine of Siena, who received the Stigmata.

The Standard with the Cross is seen in pictures of missionaries and preachers, when it is emblematic of the triumph of Christianity; it is also seen with warrior saints and those of royal blood who belonged to the Monastic Orders.

The Crown of Thorns is seen on the head of Saint Catherine of Siena, and is also occasionally represented with other saints, signifying suffering for Christ’s sake.

A Sun is sometimes represented on the breast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and occasionally in pictures of other saints; it is symbolic of the light of Wisdom.

Beggars, Children, Lepers, and Slaves, with broken chains, when at the feet of a saint are symbolic of charity; they are frequently of diminutive size.

Several of the above symbols – the lily, rose, olive, apple, pomegranate, book, and dove – are seen in pictures of the Madonna, as well as in those of the saints, and have the same significance in all cases; the double use of these symbols can cause no confusion, as the Madonna pictures are unmistakable. The serpent, however, has two meanings; in the chalice of Saint John the Evangelist it symbolises wisdom; in pictures of the Madonna it is an emblem of sin, or of Satan, and is generally beneath her feet, in reference to the text, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head.”

The Hart is an emblem of solitude, purity, and spiritual aspiration. “Like as the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul for thee, O God.” With Saint Hubert or Saint Eustace it is a symbol of the miraculous stag which appeared to them; or again, of the hind that spoke to Saint Julian, or the doe in the legend of Saint Giles.

The Dragon, the emblem of sin and Satan, the spiritual foe of mankind, is represented with Saint Michael and Saint Margaret, to symbolise their conquest of evil; with Saint Sylvester and Saint George it is an emblem of the paganism which they overcame; with Saint Martha it is a symbol of a devouring flood, such as the inundation of the Rhone in her lifetime.

In early religious art colours were used with special significance, and great care was taken to give them their appropriate place and to deepen the symbolism of pictures by their proper arrangement.

White was emblematic of chastity in a woman, of integrity and humility in a man.

Red, in a good sense, symbolised love, the Holy Spirit, royalty, and heat. White and red roses were emblems of love, innocence, and wisdom. In a bad sense, red was a symbol of hatred, war, blood, and punishment. Red and black combined symbolised purgatory and the devil.

Green was an emblem of spring, hope, and victory, while Blue symbolised heaven, truth, fidelity, the firmament, and penitence.

Yellow, in a good sense, was the emblem of the sun, beneficence, marriage, fruitfulness, and faith; thus Saint Joseph and Saint Peter are clothed in yellow. In its bad sense it indicates jealousy and deceit. Judas was represented in a dingy yellow, with few exceptions, when a dirty brown was used; but so rarely was the ugly yellow omitted from pictures of the traitor, it came to be called “Judas colour.”

Gray was symbolic of mourning and of innocence unjustly accused.

Violet was emblematic of passion and suffering, or of love, truth, and penitence.

As each Order of monks wore a habit of a special colour it is not difficult to distinguish them in pictures, and by this means one can usually know for what Order the work in question was painted.

The Benedictines wore black originally, and for that reason were called Monaci Neri, – Black Monks, – but the Reformed Benedictines adopted the white habit, and Saint Benedict himself is represented in both colours, according to the Order for which the picture was painted.

The Franciscans originally wore gray, but the Reformed Communities of that Order adopted the dark brown habit. The hempen cord as a girdle is, however, an unfailing characteristic of the Franciscan monk. The black habit presents some difficulties, as it is worn by the Augustines, the Servi, the Oratorians, and the Jesuits.

The same perplexity occurs in the case of a white habit, as it is worn by Cistercians and several other Orders, among which are the Trappists, Camaldolesi, and Trinitarians.

The Dominicans wear black over white, and the Carmelites and Premonstratensians reverse these colours, wearing white over black.

The illustration which shows Saint Bernard giving Rules to his Order, the Cistercians, well displays the white habit of these monks, over which the founder wears a rich vestment, and also a mitre, as Abbot of Clairvaux. Several religious symbols are also introduced here. This picture is in the Berlin Gallery.

'Saint Brigid of Sweden giving the Rule to her Nuns', Fra Bartolommeo, Church of Santa Maria Nuova, Florence, ItalyThe picture of Saint Bridget of Sweden giving the Rule to her Nuns, is of the same character; it is in Santa Maria Nuova Florence.

The Abbess of the Brigittines wears a black habit and cloak, white wimple, and white veil, while the nuns have a gray habit and black hood, with a red band around the head, and across the top, to distinguish the habit from that of the Benedictine orders.

It requires but little study to familiarise one with the symbols and other distinguishing characteristics of religious pictures, while a knowledge of them explains much that is not comprehended without it, and greatly enhances the enjoyment of these works.