Some people go Trainspotting or aeroplane spotting – I go saint spotting! You never know who you’ll find in a painting or a fresco in whatever church, chapel or tabernacle.Who’s you favourite saint? And who is your patron saint, the saint whose name you bear? And can you recognise him or her? I confess that I’m hooked on saints . At least, what I mean is, that I am hooked on their images – finding them and recognising them, identifying saints and prophets and allegorical figures and events. The fun is in getting to know a saint, in recognising him or her and knowing why the saint’s image is what it is. If you want to recognise a word, such as marmalade, then it must always be spelt in the same way, and so it is with a saint – he must in some way always appear to be the same and the secret to that is his so-called attribute.
The attribute is usually an object, sometimes an animal, or some personal characteristic or clothing. John the Baptist for example — one of the easy guys to recognise — is always barefooted and wearing an animal skin as one might expect of someone who lived in the desert. He will often have a lamb with him — the Lamb of God — and carry a crossed wand. In both of these paintings from very different periods, John the Baptist is unmistakable, and here in the company of another John. This time it’s John the Evangelist and you would have to look very carefully—binoculars would be useful here — to see John the Evangelist’s attribute is a chalice, in which there is a serpent. This particular iconography, for the Evangelist, is just one of several ways in which he is depicted.
Let’s start with the saints who are most easily recognisable and whose images are more or less universally seen. I have already introduced you to John the Baptist. As equally often painted, and easily identified, is St Peter.
Peter to whom Christ said he would give the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In almost every depiction of Peter you will see the keys, as you will see them also on the arms of the Pope. Look closely at both paintings, for often one key is silver and one is gold. It’s not easy to find the reason for this but in Rubens’ portrait of Peter he shows us that he knew. The silver key points to the earthly kingdom, while the gold one points to heaven.
There is another Peter also easily recognisable because of his rather bizarre attribute. This is Saint Peter Martyr or St Peter of Verona who was one of the most important Dominican leaders. He is always in the distinctive black and white Dominican habit and depicted with some bloody, not-so-blunt instrument in his head, or his shoulder, or both. On the road from Como to Milan the poor fellow was brutally attacked and killed by some Cathars, who were clearly very upset by his preaching against them.
Universally loved, perhaps because his cult has grown to include his patronage of animals,. St Francis is also one of the two patron saints of Italy. He shares this duty with Saint Catherine of Siena. St Francis is always distinguished by his habit of a rough brown material (most likely hessian) but his attribute is the stigmata, the 5 wounds that Christ suffered on his crucifixion — bloody wounds on his hands and feet and the right side of his torso. Once again it may take close inspection to see the attribute but once one knows what to look for the game is done.
And why are saints all over the place in 14th, 15th and 16th century painting? Because they were the examples of how to get to heaven, and man’s primary ambition in life was to live his life in a way which guaranteed his entrance to the kingdom of God. The ubiquitous depiction of saints and the study of them is not simply a useless eccentricity but an exercise which provides insight into many aspects of cultural and religious history.
About the author
Michael Barbour is an art guide and lecturer based in Florence. One of his highlight tours focuses on the works of art and sites which best illustrate the changes which took place in the visual arts in Florence in the 1400s and constituted the Renaissance in art. His uniquely crafted tour takes takes 4 to 6 hours at least and requires walking from one end of Florence (Santa Croce) to the other end across the river (the church of the Carmine). For more information contact Michael.Barbour@outlook.it