A painting like this huge panel in the Uffizi gallery in Florence is a feast for saint spotters. It was painted in the first decade of the 15th century, it is 5 m high and Lorenzo Monaco has painted 30 saints attending the Coronation of the Virgin.
Most notably there are two saints in white habit, one at the left and one on the right, and these are probably St Romuald and St Bernard in the habit of the Calmaldolese Benedictines, for whose abbey this altarpiece was painted. Also notable is that there are no female saints in attendance. Perhaps we should give them some consideration in compensation.
Like a great number of saints overall, most of the women are martyr saints. In a nutshell, to become a saint you had to be really extremely good and do good works, or you had to die for being Christian, enduring torture along your path to martyrdom. (And for ladies it was important to be a virgin.) The martyr saints are the ones most commonly depicted in 14th and 15th century painting. All martyr saints should carry the palm of martyrdom, as these elegant saints do in a painting from the early 17th century. The palm is a symbol of victory with roots in Classical times.
According to legend, St Catherine of Alexandria was tortured on a spiky wheel and in painting she’s never seen without a wheel or part thereof. The additional axe in this painting is unusual and probably refers to her being beheaded. She was a queen or princess so she wears a crown. Binoculars would again be useful to see what the saint on the right has in her little plate. Although it may look like popcorn, it is in fact teeth! She is St Apollinaire and naturally the patron saint of dentists. Now that you understand how these things work, you know immediately what her torture involved. Her attribute is the pliers, usually shown with just one tooth in its grip.
St Agatha, in the centre, is no exception to the often complicated stories surrounding martyr saints. Agatha’s legend includes the miraculous power of her veil in redirecting the flow of lava from Mount Etna to save her native town of Catania on the anniversary of her martyrdom. As part of a terrible story, Agatha’s breasts were cut off, thus, in painting, she is usually depicted carrying them like two little puddings on a plate! And indeed, one may find them still today in many a pastry shop in Sicily — Minnuzze di sant’Aita !
Perhaps worse than having your breasts cut off, is gouging out your own eyes, which is apparently what poor Santa Lucia did. Here she is looking rather scornfully at them through the new eyes that presumably God immediately gave her. Her companion in this painting, by the marvellous Venetian painter, Carlos Crivelli, is St Anthony Abbot. Lucia was a historical figure who suffered all manner of appalling tortures before being killed by a dagger in her throat. Strangely enough, the legend of her eyes purports to refer not to a torture but maintains that she gouged out her own eyes and sent them to her suitor, who would not stop telling her how beautiful they were.
Some saints are very localised, sometimes being found only in the towns for which they are patrons. Others have travelled widely, some adapting to the Protestantism of the lands of Northern Europe, while others have migrated from Italy and the Mediterranean, particularly to Catholic South America.
One such a migrant who has reached surprisingly diverse places is this Greek or Lebanese lady – Saint Barbara whose attribute is the tower in which her mean father imprisoned her.
In an abandoned palace in the Asturia I learned that she is also very well-known and revered in Venezuela. In the United States Marines she is patron saint of the Fifth Artillery and Infantry Brigade, because she is the patron saint of artillery.
Major Barbara is a play by George Bernard Shaw in which the title character, an officer in the Salvation Army, grapples with the moral dilemma of whether this Christian denomination should accept donations from her father, who is an armaments manufacturer. What started as a simple curiosity to identify images of the saints can lead one up interesting paths.
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