Sacred and Legendary Art – Of Certain Emblems and Attributes

To know something of the attributes and emblems of general application, as well as those proper to each saint, is absolutely necessary; but it will also greatly assist the fancy and the memory to understand their origin and significance. For this reason I will add a few words of explanation.

The Glory, Nimbus, or Aureole – this Christian attribute of sanctity, and used generally to distinguish all holy personages is of pagan origin. It expressed the luminous nebula, supposed to emanate from, and surround, the Divine Essence, which stood, “a shade in midst of its own brightness.” Images of the gods were decorated with a crown of rays, or with stars; and when the Roman emperors assumed the honors due to divinity, they appeared in public crowned with golden radii. The colossal statue of Nero wore a circle of rays, imitating the glory of the sun. This ornament became customary; and not only the first Caesars, but the Christian emperors, adopted the same divine insignia; and it became at length so common that we find it on some medals, round the heads of the consuls of the later empire. Considered in the East as the attribute of power only, whether good or evil, we find, wherever early Art has been developed under Byzantine influences, the nimbus thus applied. Satan, in many Greek, Saxon, and French miniatures, from the ninth to the thirteenth century, wears a glory. In a psalter of the twelfth century, the Beast of the Apocalypse with seven heads, has six heads surrounded by the nimbus; the seventh, wounded and drooping, is without the sign of power.

But in Western Art the associations with this attribute were not merely those of dignity, but of something divine and consecrated. It was for a long time avoided in the Christian representations as being appropriated by false gods or heathen pride; and when first adopted does not seem clear. The earliest example cited is a gem of Saint Martin of the early part of the sixth century, in which the glory round his head seems to represent his apotheosis; and in all instances it is evidently intended to represent divine glory and beatitude.

The glory round the head is properly the nimbus or aureole. The oblong glory surrounding the whole person, called in Latin the vesica piscis, and in Italian the mandorla (almond) from its form, is confined to figures of Christ and the Virgin, or saints who are in the act of ascending into heaven. When used to distinguish one of the three divine persons of the Trinity, the glory is often cruciform or triangular. The square nimbus designates a person living at the time the work was executed. In the frescoes of Giotto at Assisi, the allegorical personages are in some instances distinguished by the hexagonal nimbus. In other instances it is circular. From the fifth to the twelfth century the nimbus had the form of a disc or plate over the head. From the twelfth to the fifteenth century it was a broad golden band, round, or rather behind the head, composed of circle within circle, often adorned with precious stones, and sometimes having the name of the saint inscribed within it. From the fifteenth century it was a bright fillet over the head, and in the seventeenth century it disappeared altogether. In pictures the glory is always golden, the color of light; in miniatures and stained glass I have seen glories of various colors, red, blue, or green.

The Fish was the earliest, the most universal, of the Christian emblems, partly as the symbol of water and the rite of baptism, and also because the five Greek letters which express the word Fish form the anagram of the name of Jesus Christ. In this sense we find the fish as a general symbol of the Christian faith upon the sarcophagi of the early Christians; on the tombs of the martyrs in the Catacombs; on rings, coins, lamps, and other utensils; and as an ornament in early Christian architecture. It is usually a dolphin, which among the pagans had also a sacred significance.

The passage in the Gospel, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” is supposed to have originated the use of this symbol; and I may observe here, that the fish placed in the hands of Saint Peter has probably a double or treble signification, alluding to his former occupation as a fisherman, his conversion to Christianity, and his vocation as a Christian apostle, i.e., a fisher of men, in the sense used by Christ; and in the same sense we find it given as an attribute to bishops who were famous for converting and baptizing, as Saint Zeno of Verona and Gregory of Tours.

The Cross – About the tenth century the Fish disappeared, and the Cross – symbol of our redemption from the apostolic times – became the sole and universal emblem of the Christian faith. The cross placed in the hand of a saint is usually the Latin cross (1), the form ascribed to the cross on which our Saviour suffered. Other crosses are used as emblems or ornaments, but still having the same signification; as the Greek cross (2), in which the arms are all of the same length; the transverse cross, on which Saint Andrew is supposed to have suffered, in this form (3); the Egyptian cross, sometimes placed in the hands of Saint Philip the apostle, and it was also the form of the crutch of Saint Anthony, and embroidered on his cope or robe, hence it is called Saint Anthony’s cross (4). There is also the Maltese cross, and various ornamental crosses. The double cross on the top of a ‘staff’, instead of the crosier, is borne by the Pope only; the staff” with a single cross by the Greek bishops.

At first, the Cross was a sign only. When formed of gold or silver, the five wounds of Christ were signified by a ruby or carbuncle at each extremity, and one in the centre. It was not till the sixth century that the Cross became a Crucifix, no longer an emblem, but an image.

The Lamb in Christian Art, is the peculiar symbol of the Redeemer, as the sacrifice without blemish; in this sense it is given as an attribute to John the Baptist. The lamb is also the general emblem of innocence, meekness, modesty; in this sense it is given to Saint Agnes, of whom Massillon said so beautifully, “Peu de pudeur, où il n’y a pas de religion; peu de religion, où il n’y a pas de pudeur.”

The Pelican, tearing open her breast to feed her young with her own blood, was an early symbol of our redemption through Christ.

One or both of these emblems are frequently found in ancient crosses and crucifixes; the lamb at the foot, the pelican at the top, of the cross.

The Dragon is the emblem of sin in general, and of the sin of idolatry in particular; and the dragon slain and vanquished by the power of the Cross is the perpetually recurring myth, which, varied in a thousand ways, we find running through all the old Christian legends; not subject to misapprehension in the earliest times; but as the cloud of ignorance darkened and deepened, the symbol was translated into a fact. It has been suggested that the dragon, which is to us a phantasm and an allegory, which, in the Middle Ages, was the visible shape of the demon adversary of all truth and goodness, might have been, as regards form, originally a fact; for wherever we have dragon legends, whether the scene be laid in Asia, Africa, or Europe, the imputed circumstances and the form are little varied. The dragons introduced into early painting and sculpture so invariably represent a gigantic winged crocodile, that it is presumed there must have been some common origin for the type chosen as if by common consent; and that this common type may have been some fossil remains of the Saurian species, or even some far-off dim tradition of one of these tremendous reptiles surviving in Heaven knows what vast desolate morass or inland lake, and spreading horror and devastation along its shores. At Aix, a huge fossilized head of one of the Sauri was for a long time preserved as the head of the identical dragon subdued by Saint Martha; and Saint Jerome relates that he had himself beheld at Tyre the bones of the sea monster to which Andromeda had been exposed – probably some fossil remains, which in the popular imagination were thus accounted for. Professor Owen told me that the head of a dragon in one of the legendary pictures he had seen in Italy closely resembled in form that of the Deinotherium Giganteum. These observations have reference only to the type adopted when the old Scripture allegory took form and shape. The dragon of Holy Writ is the same as the serpent, i.e., personified sin, the spiritual enemy of mankind.

The Scriptural phrase of the “jaws of hell” is literally rendered in the ancient works of Art by the huge jaws of a dragon, wide open and emitting flames, into which the souls of sinners are tumbled headlong. In pictures, sin is also typified by a serpent or snake; in this form it is placed under the feet of the Madonna, sometimes with an apple in its mouth; sometimes, but only in late pictures of the seventeenth century, winding its green scaly length round and round a globe, significant of the subjugation of the whole earth to the power of sin till delivered by the Redeemer. On this subject I shall have much more to say when treating of the pictures of the Fall of Man, and the subjects taken from the Apocalypse: for the present we need only bear in mind the various significations of the popular Dragon myth, which may shadow forth the conquest over sin, as in the legends of Saint Michael and Saint Margaret; or over paganism, as in the legends of Saint Sylvester and Saint George; or sometimes a destroying flood, as in the legend of Saint Martha, where the inundation of the Rhone is figured by a dragon emerging from the waters and spreading around death and pestilence, like the Python of the Grecian myth.

The Lion, as an ancient Christian symbol, is of frequent recurrence, more particularly in architectural decoration. Antiquaries are not agreed as to the exact meaning attached to the mystical lions placed in the porches of so many old Lombard churches; sometimes with an animal, sometimes with a man, in their paws. But we find that the lion was an ancient symbol of the Redeemer, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”; also of the resurrection of the Redeemer; because, according to an oriental fable, the lion’s cub was born dead, and in three days its sire licked it into life. In this sense it occurs in the windows of the cathedral at Bourges. In either sense it may probably have been adopted as a frequent ornament in the church utensils, and in ecclesiastical decoration, supporting the pillars in front, or the carved thrones, etc.

The lion also typifies solitude – the wilderness; and, in this sense, is placed near Saint Jerome and other saints who did penance, or lived as hermits in the desert; as in the legends of Saint Paul the hermit, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Onofrio. Further, the lion as an attribute denoted death in the amphitheatre, and with this signification is placed near certain martyrs, as Saint Ignatius and Saint Euphemia. The lion, as the type of fortitude and resolution, was placed at the feet of those martyrs who had suffered with singular courage, as Saint Adrian and Saint Natalia. In the example of Saint Jerome, a lion may have originally typified any hindrance in the way of study or of duty; in allusion to the text, The slothful man saith. There is a lion in the way.” (Proverbs 26:13)

When other wild beasts, as wolves and bears, are placed at the feet of a saint attired as abbot or bishop, it signifies that he cleared waste land, cut down forests, and substituted Christian culture and civilization for paganism and the lawless hunter’s life; such is the significance in pictures of Saint Magnus, Saint Florentius, and Saint Germain of Auxerre.

The Hart or Hind was also an emblem of double signification. It was a type of solitude and of purity of life, and was also a type of piety and religious aspiration, adopted from the forty-second Psalm, “Like as the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul for Thee, O God!”

When the original meaning of the lion, the hart, and other emblems was no longer present to the popular mind, legends were invented to account for them; and that which had been a symbol became an incident, or an historical attribute, as in the stories of the lion healed by Saint Jerome, or digging the grave of Saint Paul; the miraculous stag which appeared to Saint Eustace and Saint Hubert; the wounded doe in the legend of Saint Giles; and the hind which spoke to Saint Julian.

The Peacock, the bird of Juno, was an ancient pagan symbol, signifying the apotheosis of an empress, as we find from many of the old Roman coins and medals. The early Christians, accustomed to this interpretation, adopted it as a general emblem of the mortal exchanged for the immortal existence; and, with this signification, we find the peacock with outspread train on the walls and ceilings of catacombs, the tombs of the martyrs, and many of the sarcophagi, down to the fourth and fifth centuries. It is only in modem times that the peacock has become the emblem of worldly pride.

The Crown, as introduced in Christian Art, is either an emblem or an attribute. It has been the emblem from all antiquity of victory, and of recompense due to superior power or virtue. In this sense the word and the image are used in Scripture in many passages: for example, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of glory.” And in this sense, as the recompense of those who had fought the good fight to the end, and conquered, the crown became the especial symbol of the glory of martyrdom. In very ancient pictures, a hand is seen coming out of heaven holding a wreath or circlet; afterwards it is an angel who descends with a crown, which is sometimes a coronet of gold and jewels, sometimes a wreath of palm or myrtle. In general only the female martyrs wear the symbolical crown of glory; martyrs of the other sex hold the crown in their hands, or it is borne by an angel. Hence we may presume that the crown, which among the Jews was the especial ornament of a bride, signified the bride or spouse of Christ – one dedicated to virginity for his sake; and in this sense, down to the present time, the crown is placed on the head of a nun at the moment of consecration. Therefore in the old pictures of female martyrs we may interpret the crown in this double sense, as signifying at once the bride and the martyr.

But it is necessary also to distinguish between the symbol and the attribute: thus, where Saint Cecilia and Saint Barbara wear the crown, it is the symbol of their glorious martyrdom; when Saint Catherine and Saint Ursula wear the crown, it is at once as the symbol of martyrdom and the attribute of their royal rank as princesses.

The crown is also the symbol of sovereignty. When it is placed on the head of the Virgin, it is as Queen of Heaven, and also as the “Spouse” of Scripture allegory.

But the crown is also an attribute, and frequently, when worn by a saint or placed at his feet, signifies that he was royal or of princely birth: as in the pictures of Louis of France, Saint William, Saint Elizabeth, Saint Helena, and many others.

The crowns in the Italian pictures are generally a wreath. or a simple circle of gold and jewels, or a coronet radiated with a few points. But in the old German pictures the crown is often of most magnificent workmanship, blazing with jewels.

I have seen a real silver crown placed on the figures of certain popular saints, but as a votive tribute, not an emblem.

The Sword is also either a symbol or an attribute. As a symbol, it signifies generally a martyrdom by any violent death, and, in this sense, is given to many saints who did not die by the sword. As an attribute, it signifies the particular death suffered, and that the martyr in whose hand or at whose feet it is placed was beheaded; in this sense it is given to Saint Paul, Saint Catherine, and many others. It is given also to the warrior martyrs, as the attribute of their military profession. Other symbols of martyrdom are the Axe, the Lance, and the Club.

Arrows, which are attributes, Saint Ursula, Saint Christian, and Saint Sebastian.

The Poniard, given to Saint Lucia.

The Cauldron, given to Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Cecilia.

The Pincers and Shears, Saint Apollonia and Saint Agatha.

The Wheels, Saint Catherine.

Fire and Flames are sometimes an emblem of martyrdom and punishment, and sometimes of religious fervor.

A Bell was supposed to have power to exorcise demons, and for this reason is given to the haunted Saint Anthony.

The Shell signifies pilgrimage.

The Skull, penance.

The Anvil, as an attribute of martyrdom, belongs to Saint Adrian only.

The Palm, the ancient classical symbol of victory and triumph, was early assumed by the Christians as the universal symbol of martyrdom, and for this adaptation of a pagan ornament they found warrant in Scripture: Revelation 7:9, “And after this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude stood before the throne, clothed with white robes, and with palms in their hands.” . . . And he said to me. These are they which came out of great tribulation.” Hence in pictures of martyrdoms an angel descends with the palm; hence it is figured on the tombs of early martyrs, and placed in the hands of those who suffered in the cause of truth, as expressing their final victory over the powers of sin and death.

“The sensual think with reverence of the palm
Which the chaste votary wields.”

The palm varies in form from a small leaf to the size of a palm branch, almost a tree. It is very small in the early Italian pictures, very large in the Spanish pictures. In the Siena pictures it has a bunch of dates depending from it. It is only in late pictures that the palm, with a total disregard to the sacredness of its original signification, is placed on the ground, or under the feet of the saint.

The Standard, or banner, is also the symbol of victory, the spiritual victory over sin, death, and idolatry. It is borne by our Saviour after His resurrection, and is placed in the hands of Saint George, Saint Maurice, and other military saints; in the hands of some victorious martyrs, as Saint Julian, Saint Ansano, and of those who preached the Gospel among infidels; also in the hands of Saint Ursula and Saint Eeparata, the only female saints, I believe, who bear this attribute.

The Olive, as the well-known emblem of peace and reconciliation, is figured on the tombs of the early martyrs; sometimes with, sometimes without, the dove. The olive is borne as the attribute of peace by the angel Gabriel, by Saint Agnes, and by Saint Pantaleon; sometimes also by the angels in a Nativity, who announce “peace on earth.”

The Dove in Christian Art is the emblem of the Holy Ghost; and, besides its introduction into various subjects from the New Testament, as the Annunciation, the Baptism, the Pentecost, it is placed near certain saints who are supposed to have been particularly inspired, as Saint Gregory, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Hilarius, and others.

The dove is also a symbol of simplicity and purity of heart, and, as such, it is introduced into pictures of female saints, and especially of the Madonna and Child.

It is also the emblem of the soul; in this sense it is seen issuing from the lips of dying martyrs, and is found in pictures of Saint Eulalia of Merida, and Saint Scholastica the sister of Saint Benedict.

The Lily is another symbol of purity, of very general application. We find it in pictures of the Virgin, and particularly in pictures of the Annunciation. It is placed significantly in the hand of Saint Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary, his staff, according to the legend, having put forth lilies; it is given, as an emblem merely, to Saint Francis, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Dominick, and Saint Catherine of Siena, to express the particular purity of their lives.

The Unicorn is another ancient symbol of purity, in allusion to the fable that it could never be captured except by a virgin stainless in mind and life; it has become in consequence the emblem peculiarly of female chastity, but in Christian Art is appropriate only to the Virgin Mary and Saint Justina.

The Flaming Heart expresses fervent piety and love: in early pictures it is given to Saint Augustine, merely in allusion to a famous passage in his Confessions; but in the later schools of Art it has become a general and rather vulgar emblem of spiritual love: in this sense it is given to Saint Theresa; Saint Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a Florentine nun; and some of the Jesuit saints.

The Book in the hands of the Evangelists and the Apostles is an attribute, and represents the Gospel. In the hand of Saint Stephen it is the Old Testament; in the hand of any other saint it may be the Gospel, but it may also be an emblem only, signifying that the saint was famous for his learning or his writings; it has this sense in pictures of Saint Catherine, the Doctors of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Bonaventura.

A Church placed in the hands of a saint signifies that he was the founder of some particular church: in this sense Saint Henry bears the cathedral of Bamberg; or, that he was the protector and first bishop of the Church, as Saint Petronius bears the cathedral of Bologna, I must except the single instance of Saint Jerome; the church in his hands signifies no particular edifice, but, in a general sense, the Catholic Church, of which he was the great support and one of the primitive fathers; to render the symbol more expressive, rays of light are seen proceeding from the portal.

The Scourge in the hand of a saint, or at his feet, signifies the penances he inflicted upon himself; but in the hand of Saint Ambrose it signifies the penance he inflicted upon others.

The Chalice, or Sacramental Cup, with the Host, signifies Faith; it is given to Saint Barbara. The Cup, with the Serpent, is the attribute of Saint John.

The Ship – The Ark of Noah, floating safe amid the Deluge, in which all things else were overwhelmed, was an obvious symbol of the Church of Christ. Subsequently the Ark became a ship. Saint Ambrose likens the Church of God to a ship, and the Cross to the mast set in the midst of it. “Arbor quoedam in navi est crux in ecclesia.” The Bark of Saint Peter tossed in the storm, and by the Redeemer guided safe to land, was also considered as symbolical. These mingled associations combined to give to the emblem of the ship a sacred significance. Every one who has been at Home will remember the famous mosaic of the ship tossed by the storms, and assailed by demons, called The Navicella, which was executed by Giotto for the old Basilica of Saint Peter’s, and is now under the Portico, opposite to the principal door. I believe that in the pictures of Saint Nicholas and Saint Ursula the ship had originally a sacred and symbolical significance, and that the legends were afterwards invented or modified to explain the emblem, as in so many other instances.

The Anchor is the Christian symbol of immovable firmness, hope, and patience; and in this sense we find it very frequently in the catacombs, and on the ancient Christian gems. It was given to several of the early saints as a symbol. Subsequently a legend was invented to account for the symbol, turning it into an attribute, as was the case with the lion and the stag. For example: to Saint Clement the anchor was first given as the symbol of his constancy in Christian hope, and thence we find, subsequently invented, the story of his being thrown into the sea with the anchor round his neck. On the vane of the Church of Saint Clement in the Strand, the anchor, the parish device, was anciently placed; and as in the English fancy no anchor can be well separated from a ship, they have lately placed a ship on the other side, the original signification of the anchor, as applied to Saint Clement, the martyr, being unknown or forgotten.

The Lamp, Lantern, or Taper, is the old emblem of piety: “Let your light so shine before men”; and it also signifies wisdom. In the first sense we find this attribute in the hand of Saint Gudula, Saint Genevieve of Paris, and Saint Bridget; while the lamp in the hand of Saint Lucia signifies celestial light or wisdom.

Flowers and Fruits, often so beautifully introduced into ecclesiastical works of Art, may be merely ornamental; Crivelli, and some of the Venetian and Lombard painters, were fond of rich festoons of fruit and backgrounds of foliage and roses. But in some instances they have a definite significance. Roses are symbolical in pictures of the Madonna, who is the “Rose of Sharon.” The wreath of roses on the brow of Saint Cecilia, the roses and fruits borne by Saint Dorothea, are explained by the legends.

The apple was the received emblem of the Fall of man and original sin. Placed in pictures of the Madonna and Child, either in the hand of the infant Christ, or presented by an angel, it signified Redemption from the consequences of the Fall. The pomegranate, bursting open, and the seeds visible, was an emblem of the future, of hope in immortality. When an apple, a pear, or a pomegranate is placed in the hand of Saint Catherine as the mystical Sposa of Christ, which continually occurs, particularly in the German pictures, the allusion is to be taken in the Scriptural sense: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.”