Who’s who? How to recognize saints

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

Special thanks to the Macaulay Family Foundation.


Additional resources:

Painting Saints from The National Gallery

Cleavers, poison and snakes | How to spot saints in paintings | National Gallery (video)


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:09] We wanted to talk about how you recognize who’s who in late medieval and Renaissance painting. Artists developed conventions to let the audience know who they were looking at.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] Legibility was the most important thing. The viewers could look at a work of art and imagine the stories around these divine figures.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] Two of the most frequently represented figures are the Virgin Mary, often referred to as the Madonna, and her son, Jesus Christ.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] We often see Mary holding on her lap the Christ Child. We also often see Mary seated on a throne. This is the idea that Mary is queen of heaven, surrounded by angels. We know that they’re angels because they have wings.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] The particular painting that we’re looking at is not a single panel, it’s a diptych. It’s two panels that are hinged. And on the opposite side, we see a scene that is later in time.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] We see the Crucifixion. This is Christ’s death on the cross.

Dr. Zucker: [0:59] And we see the Virgin Mary a second time as well, this time on the lower left, mourning the death of her son.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] Then on the other side, we see the figure of Saint John. So it’s often Mary and John who we see at the Crucifixion.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] In addition to the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, late medieval and early Renaissance paintings often portray saints, and there’s a lot of saints, so it’s important that we can distinguish one saint from another.

Dr. Harris: [1:25] The easiest way to identify saints is by what they carry, that is, their attribute. Let’s look at the saints that we have here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] A great example of an attribute can be seen in the figure on the upper left in light blue. If you look closely in his right hand, he holds two keys. Now, these are dark, but originally they would probably have been more silvery and they would’ve been more clear.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] Christ says to Saint Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In other words, the keys symbolize Peter’s incredible power of opening or shutting the gates of heaven.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] That means that virtually any time you see a figure holding keys, you can identify that figure as Saint Peter.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] Below Peter, we see Saint John the Baptist. Saint John the Baptist is often shown in this way, bearded and wearing a cloth of hair.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] Also, he’s often shown pointing to Christ, as he is here. Now, this is just one attribute. There are multiple attributes that artists use to identify figures, and Saint John the Baptist is often represented with a lamb as a symbol for Christ.

Dr. Harris: [2:31] Those attributes that help us identify John the Baptist tell us something about his role. He points to Christ as someone who came before Christ, but who points the way, and the lamb refers to the phrase that John says, “Here is the Lamb of God,” referring to Christ.

[2:47] With Saint John the Baptist, we’re looking at a figure who was essentially contemporaneous with Christ’s life, but with so many saints, we’re looking at figures who lived later, but who, because of persecution, gave their lives, often in a very violent and terrible way, for their faith in Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] In this case, Saint Catherine is holding two symbols. In her left hand, she holds the wheel, the instrument of torture, but in her right, she holds a palm frond, which is a symbol of her victory over sin and death.

[3:20] Another important female saint is Mary Magdalene.

Dr. Harris: [3:23] She’s frequently depicted at the feet of Christ, but we often see her standing beside the cross as we do here, and she’s always identifiable by her long hair.

Dr. Zucker: [3:33] Often red. There’s another common attribute of Mary Magdalene, which is a jar, which by tradition held ointment that she used to anoint Christ’s feet.

[3:41] Another important figure, one of the four Doctors or Fathers of the Church, is Saint Jerome. He’s often clothed in bright red.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] And he’s often accompanied by a lion. This comes from a fable that Saint Jerome pulled a thorn from a lion’s paw, and the lion befriended him.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] Here we see two female saints who are holding their attributes in a chalice and on a plate.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] In this case, carrying the particular ways in which they suffered for their faith. So, we see Saint Lucy, whose eyes were gouged out, and on the right Saint Agatha, whose breasts were sheared off.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] Although according to tradition she was miraculously healed.

Dr. Harris: [4:22] You’ll notice both carry those same palm fronds that saints often carry.

Dr. Zucker: [4:27] These are only a few of the many attributes that artists used to help viewers identify which saint is which.

[4:35] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Who’s who? How to recognize saints," in Smarthistory, May 6, 2021, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/whos-who-how-to-recognize-saints-2/.