Despite not being religious, my favourite buildings around Florence are the many churches, and some of my favourite pieces of art are on the very subject. So I’m pretty clued up on the stories from the bible, as well as the characters which make appearances in many of the paintings hung in the galleries I’ve become so fond of.
In many of the religious paintings, you’re likely to see a few Saints – they’re easy to spot as they usually have a halo floating around their head. A Saint is someone who has been recognised as having an exception degree of holiness or likeness to God; from being an exemplary role model, an extraordinary teacher, someone in possession of a special and revelatory relation to God, or even a person who led a life without attachments or comforts. So they are pretty important people, and each have an interesting past on how they became a Saint themselves, and if you know how they became one, your well on the path to recognising whose who.
Some of the Saints which are commonly depicted in religious art;
Saint Peter Martyr/of Verona – A Dominican with a cleaver in his skull and sometimes a sword in his chest, he was killed by paid assasins. Sometimes the he writes the words “Credo in unum Deum” as he dies. Pretty gruesome.
Saint Catherine – Normally seen with the wheel (sometimes just a piece) she was to be martyred on – but it broke and she was beheaded instead. Also less frequently pictured with a crown at her feet, hailstones, a bridal veil and ring, or a dove.
Saint Veronica – Shown with a veil with Christ face on it, as she offered her veil to Christ to wipe the sweat from his brown as he carried the cross up to Calvary, which was subsequently marked with Christ’s features.
Saint Mary Magdalene – The famous sinner who repented, she is shown with an ointment pot which she used to anoint Christs feet. Also seen at the feet of Christ at the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Saint Cecila – Shown with music or an organ. Her parents insisted she marry a pagan, although she had promised her virginity to God – at her wedding she sang a hymn of love in her heart to Jesus, her true spouse.
Saint Nichola of Bari – Dressed as a Bishop, holding a Gosepl Book. Sometimes shown with Christ over his shoulder, or perhaps with golden balls, which symbolise a dowry of 3 bags of gold he gave to 3 girls, whose poor father was about to sell them into prostitution. Otherwise known as Santa Claus!
Saint George – Look for the dragon he famously killed. He is always dressed as a crusader in armour (with the St George’s Cross), holding a lance and riding a white horse.
Saint Lucy – Lucia of Syracuse, a young Christian martyr who is often depicted with a cord, eyes on a dish, a lamp, sword of a woman hitched to a yoke of oxen.
Saint John the Baptist – He normally wears a camel-skin robe, and often with a lamb. He sometimes carries a scroll with the words “Ecce Agnus Dei”, maybe with a platter with his own head on, or pouring water from his hands or a scallop shell.
Saint Jerome – Commonly shown in his study wearing cardinal attire, with a lion lurking around somewhere. A cross, skull, trumpet, owl or some books and writing materials are all commonly seen in depictions of this Saint.
Saint Genevieve – Shown with a candle as on two occasions God relit candles that she was holding, one is kept at Notre Dame and is said to have healed many people.
The next 12 Saints are the Apostles, so commonly see at the Last Supper with Christ.
Saint Peter – The feisty Leader of the 12, recognisable by his short, white, curly hair and beard. Most commonly seen with the Keys of Heaven or holding a scroll. Other objects might include a rooster, or a man crucified upside down . He is often with Saint Paul holding the church together, showing their shared supremacy among the Apostles.
Saint Paul – Although not one of the original 12, he has always been known as an Apostle. Always depicted with brown hair and a tapered beard. He is balding with a high forehead (which signifies wisdom and learning) with a tuft of hair in the centre. He normally carries a sword and a large Gospel book, indicating the number of epistles he contributed to what became the New Testament.
Saint John – The beloved Disciple and the Theologian. His younger self (the beloved Discple) is regularly depicted in contact with Jesus in the Last Supper. In icons showing scenes from the Life of Christ (e.g the Transfiguration or the Crucifixion) or those which show the Acts of the Apostles (e.g. the Ascension or Pentecost) he is shown as a beardless brown haired youth. When John is painted in a portrait, rather than as part of a Biblical scene, then he is usually seem as the elderly John, the Theologian. At this point of his life, after 60 years after the Resurrection of Christ, he is exiled to Patmos and writes both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. He is shown with a long white beard and a high forehead, holding the Gospel book. He may also be seen with an eagle, the symbol of both John and his Gospel.
Saint Matthew – Like John, he also wrote one of the Gospels, and is commonly pictured holding a large book. Whether in portrait or in Icons depicting Biblical scenes, Matthew has a long, wavy, white beard and short hair.. As a deliberate aid of identification, he may also be shown holding the Gospel Book in Icons with Christ depicting Biblical scenes. Matthew may sometimes be shown as a winged man, the symbol associated with his Gospel.
Saint Andrew – The brother of the Apostle Peter, he was formerly a disciple of Saint John the Baptist and because of this, he is depicted with long, unkempt hair, in the manner of the prophet he followed. This makes him one of the most recognisable of the Apostles. He holds a small scroll, not to indicate he authored any famous works, but to identify him as a preacher of the Gospel.
Saint Bartholomew – Also known as Nathaniel, he is shown middle aged, with a short beard and hair. He is also shown holding the scroll of an Apostle. After his martyrdom, he appeared to a number of people in vision and dream, thus his appearance is faded.
Saint Simon – The bridegroom of the famous Wedding at Cana. He is always shown with grey, curly hair and beard, though with a higher forehead than Saint Peter.
Saint Thomas – Famous for Doubting Thomas due to his refusal to believe the accounts of the other disciples that Christ has risen. Often scorned for this, in Orhotdox teaching it is recognised that through his initial doubts, Thomas came to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and God – a greater confession of faith than any of the Apostles had previously uttered. Sometimes this confession of faith is held in his hands in icons depicted him, though more commonly it is the scroll denoting his rank of Apostle. But the most notable feature of Thomas is his youthful appearance – perhaps a link between thoughts of doubts coming to those of less age and wisdom.
Saint James, Son of Zebedee – There are two apostles named James. The son of Zebedee is the James often nicknamed “the Greater” in the West, largely because he was part of the inner circle which also contained Peter and John. John is the brother of James, and together they are known as the Sons of Thunder. James is shown with medium length, brown hair and a beard, as he was amartyred a little over 10 years after the Resurrection.
Saint Jude – Sometimes called Levi or Thaddeus, Saint Jude Thaddeus, one of Jesus’s 70 disciples and the author of the Biblical Epistle which carries his name. He is often seen with the Apostles Scroll in his hand sometimes with a quote from his writing. Otherwise he is identified as a mature man with curly, brown (sometimes grey) beard and hair. As he was related to Jesus (through Joseph) so “brother of the Lord” may be found on some Icons.
Saint James Alphaeus – The son of Alphaeus, and the brother of the Apostle Matthew, James is shown with brown, wavy or curly hair and a pointed beard.
Saint Phillip – Not the most easy to distinguish, he was a firm and early believe in Jesus, and aways shown as a beardless youth – perhaps mark off the other Saints to work out who this one is!
Saint Matthias – Matthias is the disciple who replaced Judas Isariot as one of the 12 Apostles after the latter’s betrayal and suicide. He is generally depicted as an elderly man, as he had already reached an old age when he became a disciple.
Judas Iscariot – Whilst obviously not a saint he is always a guest at the Last Supper or else kissing Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Last Supper he is often seen dipping his hand into a dish, thus revealed his future betrayal. Otherwise in scenes prior to Pentecost, he is without a halo. He is almost always shown beardless – perhaps showing he was also a young teenage at the time of his betrayal.