Catholic artistic tradition assigns each saint particular symbols that denote the Saint’s martyrdom, miracles, or circumstances of their lives. These symbols serve to identify the saints, and aids to memory of a Saint’s life and actions, and as symbols of spiritual ideals. Symbols with other context within Christianity art linked to their definitions under the Christian symbolism page. It should be noted that the existence and circumstances of many of the saints are considered legendary or apocryphal; many of the stories are allegories of spiritual teachings. The following is a brief list of Saints and their common symbols:
St Agatha carries a palm branch and a plate or platter bearing two female breasts, symbolizing the method of her martyrdom at the hands of Quintanius of Sicily, who caused her breasts to be torn from her with shears. (also sometimes depicted)
St Agnes, a martyr, carries a lamb, symbolizing the virginity she died to protect. The legend of the Roman saint, whose name means “chaste,” tells that she was brutally executed after refusing to marry the son of a Roman official. She is sometimes depicted covered in hair, a covering which kept the virgin saint protected from rape at the hands of her executioners.
St. Ambrose, one of the Latin Fathers, is pictured in the uniform of his office: a Bishop’s mitre and crozier, a scourge representing his efforts to drive out Arian heretics, and a beehive, an emblem which recalls a story of the Saint’s infancy, when a swarm of bees was said to have swarmed from his mouth, foretelling his future eloquence.
St Andrew: The apostle Andrew is most often represented by the symbolism of his martyrdom, a cross shaped like an “X,” or sometimes, a “Y” cross. One version of the saint’s legend tells that he chose to be crucified on the oddly shaped cross because he felt undeserving of a death too similar to that of his savior.
St Anna or Anne, the sister of the Virgin Mary and mother of John the Baptist, is often depicted with a book or scroll, and usually wearing red and green clothing. Sometimes she is pictured with the infant John.
St Anthony is the desert hermit whose struggle with demons was a hugely popular subject in renaissance art. Anthony is symbolized with a walking stick and pilgrim’s cloak, with blue theta or “T” (short for Theos, God) on his cloak, and is often pictured with the raven who is said to have brought him his daily meal during his solitary existence in the desert. A pig symbolizing earthly desires the saint overcame often accompanies him on his travels.
Anthony of Padua, a student of St. Francis, is pictured with an ass, who is said to have knelt before him as he carried the Eucharist to a dying man. He is also variably pictured with a lily, flowering cross, a book, or flames.
St. Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists, she carries a palm branch and pincers of pliers, which symbolize the removal of her teeth before her martyrdom for the destruction of pagan idols.
St Augustine, a Latin Father and one of the most important theologians of the early Church, most often carries a book and pen, a reference to his voluminous apologetic writings. He is also commonly portrayed with a flaming, arrow pierced heart, symbolizing the intensity of his piety.
St Barbara was beheaded by her pagan father after building a tower with three windows representing the Christian trinity; the tower and the sword that took her head are her symbols.
St Bernard of Clairvaux is best known for his role in the founding of the Order of the Knights Templar; his visions of the Virgin Mary are legendary. he is usually pictured with a lectern and book, or receiving the three drops of milk from the breast of the Virgin he described in one of his many visions. Sometimes a demon is pictured chained to the lectern.
St Catherine of Alexandria had visions of her betrothal to the Christ child, and was renowned for her eloquence and dialectic ability. She is best known for her martyrdom on a spiked wheel, carried out when she refused to marry the emperor. Sometimes she wears a crown, an emblem of her noble birth, and often carries a book.
St Catherine of Siena was a Dominican nun best known for her extraordinary piety and for her stigmata, wounds she received for her adoration of the cross. She is recognized by her stigmata and a crown of thorns or roses, and is usually pictured adoring the crucifix, which sometimes has a lily or rose intertwined.
St. Christopher’s legend tells that while aiding many people to cross a swollen river, he unknowingly carried across the Christ Child. He is almost exclusively pictured with his palm-tree staff, bearing a small child through water.
St Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, is pictured with symbols from his childhood. A dog bearing a torch refers to his mother’s prenatal dream; a star or cornona of light was said to have appeared on his forehead at his baptism. A loaf of bread he sometimes carries recalls a story of a miraculous supper, served to Dominic and his starving monks by angels.
St Francis of Assisi is arguably the best loved of the Catholic saints. The founder of the Franciscan order was a pious vegetarian ascetic. He is pictured in the robes of his Order, often feeding the birds; he is also pictured with stigmata, and often accompanied by a wolf and a lamb.
St George is another popular image of the renaissance. His reputed slaying of a terrible dragon to rescue the maiden daughter of the king recalls the Greek myth of Perseus. St George is easily recognizable, being most often shown wearing a knight’s dress, battling his dragon. he occasionally sits astride a unicorn, a symbol of purity, and his lance is often broken. The story of St George is often believed to allegory for the struggle to ‘rescue’ the soul from the ‘dragon’ of one’s sinful nature.
The Apostle James, believed to be the brother (or half-brother, if you will) of Christ, is symbolized by a pilgrim’s staff and a scallop shell, the emblem of the shrine of Compostella.
The other James, known as James the Lesser, was reportedly beaten to death by crowd. His emblem is the instrument of his death, a club.
St Jerome is another desert Hermit, one of the Latin Fathers and the first translator of the bible. He is pictured either in his study with his translations, or beating his breast with a stone in the desert. Another tale tells of his compassion toward a lion, from whose paw he removed a thorn; the lion is usually pictured resting at his feet.
St John the Baptist, the prophet who foretold the coming of Christ, is pictured in his hermit’s dress,with a hair shirt and a ‘reed cross,’ the latter often adorned with a banner which reads, “behold the lamb of God,” in reference to his famous prophecy. Sometimes he is pictured carrying a lamb, or with his head on a platter, which refers to his beheading at the hand of Herod. On rare occasion, he is pictured as a young Bacchus, or even as a a centaur.
The legend of Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, tells that when the young saint visited the future mother of God, the staff left at her father’s door miraculously budded, releasing a dove to heaven. Alongside the staff, Joseph is pictured with tools of his carpentry trade, and a basket containing doves (symbolic of the sacrificial doves brought when the young Jesus was presented at the temple)
An interesting parallel in the above tale is of Joseph of Arimathea, a later follower of Jesus, whose legend tells that he traveled to England, where his staff, placed in the ground at Glastonbury, took root. The Holy Thorn that grew from the staff still grows at Glastonbury.
John the Evangelist is one of the four tetramorphs, often pictured as an eagle, without any human features, a symbol of the astrological sign of Scorpio. Other depictions, recalling his miraculous transformation of poison, show him blessing a chalice containing serpents.
Tales of the Apostle Jude tell of his beheading with a halberd or goring with a lance; he is pictured with either weapon.
Saint Lucy was young noblewoman who gave all of her belongings to the poor. Lucy’s story is a bit unusual; she is said to have torn out her eyes because they inflamed a suitor. She was martyred for her faith by having her neck pierced after other methods failed due to miraculous intervention. She is depicted with a wounded neck and her eyes in hand or on a plate.
Luke the Evangelist is one of the four tetramorphs, pictured as a winged Ox. Human images of Luke depict him with the accouterments of a physician or as a painter, as he was believed in medieval times to have painted portraits of the Virgin.
St. Margaret of Antioch is yet another young martyr put to death for refusing to relinquish her purity. As the story goes, she was imprisoned for refusing a wealthy suitor. While imprisoned, she was visited by Satan, in the form of a monstrous Dragon, who proceeded to swallow her alive. She thwarted the dragon with the sign of the cross made upon her heart-it grew in size until the dragon was split open. As her miracle excited the masses, she was executed. Margaret is pictured with the palm or crown signifying a martyr, with a dragon trampled underfoot; sometimes she is pictured unharmed in the jaws of the dragon.
Mark the Evangelist is the third tetramorph, in the image of a winged lion,recalling both the Lion of Judah and the lion of Leo in the Zodiac. When portrayed as human, Mark appears as a sailor, often with alion at his feet. St Martin of Tours was a fourth-century Hungarian soldier renowned for his compassion. Mark is most frequently pictured carrying out one of his legendary acts of kindness, the dividing of his cloak to share with a poor beggar. Another story tells of his promotion to Bishop: as a pious man, Martin avoided the honor, but while hiding, he was given away by the honking of a goose. For this reason, he is sometimes pictured in Bishop’s raiment, with a goose at his feet.
St Mary of Egypt is revered by both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. As a young girl in Alexandria, Mary lived a life of debauchery as a prostitute. When she was supernaturally prevented from entering a church, she became remorseful, repented her wicked ways, and became a desert hermit, taking just three loaves of bread on her sojourn. As the story goes, she remained in the desert for the remainder of her life, taking yearly communion from the priest Zosimus. One year Zosimus arrived to find the saint dead; he was aided in her burial by a mysterious lion. She is usually pictured as a wasted elderly woman clothed only in hair, with her three loaves and a lion at her feet.
St Mary Magdalene is regarded in Christian legend as a reformed prostitute, the ultimate repentant sinner. She is identified by the Church with Mary, the sister of Martha, who anointed Jesus with Spikenard, a funeral perfume, before his crucifixion. Many legends tell of her sojourn to Marseille in a boat with no oars, where she is said to have carried out a lengthy pentience as a desert hermit after performing many miracles. Her best known attribute is the jar of spikenard. It is also common to portray her as a naked penitent, clothed only with hair, and frequently accompanied with a skull, a symbol of the futility of vanity. Older images are similar to those of Mary of Egypt (and in fact the two saints may have the same origin), elderly, nude, and clothed in her lengthy hair.
Mathew the Evangelist is the fourth tetramorph, pictured as (or accompanied by) a winged Ox or Bull. When pictured in human form, he is generlly pictured recording the genealogy of Christ on a scroll, or with the purse of a tax collector.
The fourth century Bishop, Nicholas of Myra, is by far the most recognizable of all the Catholic saints- at least in his secular form as Santa Claus. In religious pictures, he is usually portrayed in Bishop’s garb, often with a barrel full of young boys, an image from a story of Nicholas that tells of his miraculous resurrection of three young boys killed by a psychopathic butcher. Another tale tells of his anonymous generosity to a poor family, throwing three purses of coin into the home of a destitute family in need of dowries for their three daughters.
St Paul the Apostle, while less celebrated, is the man most responsible for the popularization of the Christian religion, and for that reason he is credited as an apostle, even though he never personally met Jesus. The most common image of Paul is of his conversion on the road to Damascus; as a repentant on his knees under a beam of light. Other portrayals are likely to show him as a martyr, with his severed head under his arm, and accompanied by the sword that killed him.
Peter the Apostle is credited with the founding of the Church, and regarded as its first Pope. Peter is alternately depicted holding the keys of heaven, in Papal garb, or with the accouterments of a fisherman, his earthly career. More on the symbolism of Peter. Another emblem of Peter is the reversed Latin cross, as he was believed to have been crucified upside-down to avoid the honor of dying as Jesus did. He is almost invariably depicted in a golden mantle.
The Apostle Phillip is one of many early martyrs, put to death after killing a serpent worshiped by the people. he was put to death for his deed, and is pictured with the symbol of this martyrdom, a reed or staff topped with a cross.
Saint Sebastian was a martyr, and a favorite subject of renaissance painters. He is also the only martyr said to have died twice! Sebastian was a Roman soldier and a body guard of the Emperor Diocletan. When he was revealed as a secret Christian, he was ordered to convert, and his refusal resulted in his execution by firing squad. He is invariably depicted at his (first) execution, tied to a post and riddled with arrows. Sebastian was supposedly rescued by another Christian, who nursed him to health, and he began preaching. When discovered, he was beaten to death with clubs in the gladiator’s arena.
The Apostle Simon, according to Church legend, was one of the shepherds in attendence at the birth of Christ. He is pictured with either a saw or a large cross, depending on which story of his martyrdom is preferred by the artist- crucified or sawn in half.
St Thecla was a follower of the Apostle Paul, whose conversion (and subsequent rejection of sex) so enraged her lover that he turned her in toi the authorities. Although they made many attempts to martyr the girl, she survived many tortures and escaped, becoming a renowned healer. This supposedly outraged the local physicians, who pursued her with intent to murder her, but the ground opened, and she was swallowed up. She is pictured in grey or brown robes, carrying a palm branch.
The Apostle Thomas was the famous doubter who questioned the validity of the resurrection, and was invited to touch the wounds of the risen Christ. The symbol most often associated with Thomas is the compass or square of the architect, symbolizing the “building up of wealth” in Heaven.
St Veronica was, according to legend, a woman who took pity of the Lord on the road to Golgotha. She offered him her veil to wipe the sweat from his brow. When returned, the veil retained a perfect likeness of Christ’s features. Veronica’s image is easily identified, as she is almost invariably portrayed holding her kerchief with the likeness of Christ.
The story of St Ursula tells that like many Christian matyrs, the beautiful princess was desired as the wife of a noble. Ursula presented the would-be groom with a list of demands, including his conversion, an allotment of time for a pilgrimage, and an enormous retinue of virgin attendants. So smitten was the prince that he readily agreed, and even joined her on her pilgrimage, where they were attacked by huns who slew all but the young saint. The Hun’s leader offered to spare Ursula if she would become his bride, she refused, and he executed her with three arrows through the breast. She is pictured with an arrow, and a pilgrim’s staff bearing a red-cross banner. She is almost always accompanied by her retinue.