Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Painting Angels, Saints and Their Symbols

by Maria Stella Ceplecha


Maria Stella Ceplecha, a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota, focuses on four popular saints who are frequently depicted in art — St. Martin of Tours, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Barbara, and St. Francis of Assisi — and the symbols that often represent them.

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Morley Publishing Group, Inc., April 2004

Few saints are remembered in art, but those who are tend to appear with frequency. In their representations, these holy figures have come to be associated with some characteristic symbols . . . St. Peter with the keys Jesus gave him, St. Paul with the sword that killed him, and so on. In this piece, I've focused on three popular saints and the symbols that often represent them.


This symbol is most often associated with a ubiquitous fourth-century saint, Martin of Tours, whose image is found in many European monasteries and churches.

As a young teen, Martin found refuge in a church and became a catechumen against the will of his parents. The son of a pagan couple, he was born around 316 in the city of Sabaria, Pannonia, today part of Hungary. Shortly thereafter, his father, a Roman military tribune, was transferred to Pavia, Italy. When Martin was 15, the military draft was activated, and Martin's father seized the opportunity to thwart his son's spiritual journey by handing him over to Roman authorities. The teenager was put in chains, forced to enlist in the imperial cavalry, and sent to Amiens, Gaul (France). One winter day, Martin chanced upon a poor beggar at the city gates. Clad in only a few rags and trembling from the cold, the beggar cried out for help. No one stopped. Martin took off his cloak, sliced it in two with his cavalry sword, and gave half to the beggar.

In El Greco's painting of this scene, Saint Martin and the Beggar, the saint is mounted on a white steed and dressed in 16th-century Spanish armor instead of fourth-century Roman military garb. A tall, thin beggar with a dirty rag wrapped around his lower calf stands near the horse. Martin has just drawn his sword and is about to cut his green cloak in two. El Greco chose the colors for the horse and the cape carefully; they represent the virtues that this saint embodies. White symbolizes purity, innocence of soul, and goodness of heart; green is the symbol of hope — especially of hope over despair. In the distant background are a few masterly brushstrokes hinting at the city of Toledo (where El Greco lived) instead of Amiens (where Martin was stationed) — artists often put their own geographical or historical stamps on their work. As in many of El Greco's other paintings, the figures are elongated and graceful — the Greek's indisputable hallmark.

The night after this episode, St. Martin purportedly had a dream in which the Lord appeared clad in half a cloak and surrounded by a multitude of angels. Our Lord tells the angels, "Martin, yet a catechumen, has covered me with this garment." Shortly thereafter, the young cavalryman was baptized. The rest of Martin's life was filled with physical and spiritual tests. Once after a battle, he was ordered before Emperor Julian to receive a war bounty. Presenting himself before the Roman leader, Martin refused to accept the bounty, saying, "Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; let me now serve Christ." For this, he was put under military guard but eventually released. Martin then sought out St. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, and was received as one of his disciples. After a time, Martin became a hermit, and St. Hilary gave him some land in a place now called Liguge. Soon other hermits found their way to Martin's retreat, and together they established the first monastic community in France.

In 371, Martin reluctantly accepted being named bishop of Tours. As bishop, he traveled widely on foot, on donkey, and by boat, visiting the outlying parishes of his bishopric. Toward the end, Martin foretold his death, which occurred while visiting a center he'd established in Candes, Touraine. Stricken down and unable to walk, he asked to be carried on a stretcher to the presbytery of the church. There he died. Sulpitius Severus, a contemporary biographer, wrote: "No one ever saw him [Martin] enraged, or excited, or lamenting, or laughing; he was always one and the same; displaying a kind of heavenly happiness in his countenance, he seemed to have passed the ordinary limits of human nature. Never was there any word on his lips but Christ, and never was there a feeling in his heart except piety, peace, and tender mercy. Frequently, too, he used to weep for the sins of those who showed themselves his revilers . . ."

Martin was buried in Tours in 397 where a grand basilica and cloisters were built nine centuries later. Sadly, the shrine was sacked and the saint's relics almost completely destroyed during the religious wars of the 16th century and then again during the French Revolution. Both times the basilica was rebuilt, though the second time on a more modest scale. Today the smaller basilica is still a center of much devotion. In France, St. Martin is known as "the merciful."

Crown, Palm Branch, and Tower

In Jan van Eyck's painting, Virgin and Child, with Saints and Donor, two women stand on either side of Our Lady and the Child Jesus. The veiled woman holds a crown, and the maiden a palm branch while all stand calmly before a tower. The three women wear robes that fall in luxuriant folds about them. A Carthusian monk — Jan Vos — kneels in front, and as prior for the Monastery of Val-de-Grace (near Bruges, Belgium), he commissioned this work. But who is the queen? And what about the maiden and the tower?

The woman gracefully holding the crown is Queen Elizabeth of Thuringia, or Hungary. When she was four years old, her father, King Andrew II of Hungary, arranged a marriage for her to Hermann of Thuringia (a German principality). Shortly after, Elizabeth was sent to the Thuringian court to be brought up alongside her betrothed — a heart-wrenching custom of the times. Moreover, some in Elizabeth's newly found court were unkind to the little Hungarian princess. Two years later and still far from her family, news came that her mother Gertrude had been murdered by Hungarian nobles. Three years after that, her betrothed died and Elizabeth was promised to his younger brother, Ludwig.

Captivated by her goodness and uncommon beauty, the young man fell deeply in love with her. After his jaunts and journeys, he would bring mementos back to her — purses, a necklace or two, and a coral rosary. In 1221, they were wed; Ludwig was 21, Elizabeth 14. During their years of marriage, Elizabeth earned a reputation for kindness to the unwanted and desperate, most notably lepers, orphans, and plague victims. Twice a day she cared for the ill who came to the castle, especially those nobody else would touch. As many as 900 people a day were fed on the castle grounds. For those too weak to climb the castle's steep path, she established a hospital at the foot of the mountain.

On one occasion, she brought a gravely ill leper to the couple's own private bedchamber. She placed him on the bed covering him with blankets. When Ludwig got home and was about to retire, he pulled back the covers and nearly exploded. This time his wife's good works were too much. But his anger disappeared when he looked back and saw Christ lying there in the place of the leper.

Six years into their marriage, Elizabeth and Ludwig were expecting their third child when Ludwig joined one of the Crusades. He only got part of the way there before he succumbed to the plague. When she learned of her beloved husband's death, Elizabeth turned pale with shock and ran through the castle halls sobbing and screaming, "The world is dead to me, all that was joyous in the world has been taken from me."

Eventually, her grief subsided and she became a third-order Franciscan, establishing another hospital at Marburg. Elizabeth lived only a few more years, dying at age 24. Her spiritual director, the ascetic Conrad of Marburg, gave an account of her last moments. After hearing her final confession, he wrote, "She asked me to distribute everything [to the needy] except one worn out dress in which she wished to be buried . . . [After this] she received the body of our Lord . . . and then she devoutly commended to God all who were sitting nearby, and as if falling into a gentle sleep, she died."

Legend has it that the maiden with the golden hair holding the palm branch and standing in front of the tower with three windows was named Barbara. Unfortunately, there are no early Christian records of this saint, nor does her name appear in St. Jerome's original martyrology. References to Barbara as a virgin and martyr began to appear in the seventh century. This lasted until 1969 when her December 4 feast day was removed from the revised Roman Catholic calendar. A favorite for artists, her legend (there are several versions) is more or less as follows.

The daughter of a wealthy heathen named Dioscurus, Barbara was kept enclosed in a tower to preserve her from the outside world until she married. Only philosophers and poets were allowed to tutor her, and through this instruction, she reached the conclusion that polytheism was nonsense. A desire grew within her to convert to Christianity. She began to live austerely and vowed to remain a virgin. In the meantime, Barbara's father arranged a marriage for her to a local prince — an arrangement she rejected. Her enraged father ordered baths to be built adjoining the young woman's tower in an attempt to entice her away from her ascetic tendencies. When Barbara saw that the bath area would only have two windows, she ordered a third added to symbolize the Holy Trinity. She was baptized and recommitted herself to living austerely, eating only locusts and nectar from the honeysuckle bushes in the inner courtyard.

Her father, away on a journey while these events transpired, returned to find his daughter ever deeper in the grip of her faith. Out of ideas, he dragged Barbara before the provincial judge and angrily denounced her Christianity. The judge ordered her scourged and then condemned to death by beheading. Barbara's own father carried out the sentence at the top of a mountain. On his way down, he was struck by lightning and his body consumed by its fire.

The palm branch Barbara is holding in the painting has long been used with martyrs to symbolize the ultimate victory of life over death. St. Lucy, St. Apollonia, St. Stephen, and others are typically shown in art with a palm branch. This custom comes from early times. The Romans used the palm branch as a sign of victory. Indeed, Christ was greeted with palm branches upon entering Jerusalem before His Passion — a scriptural sign foretelling his victorious resurrection.

Cord and Stigmata

Frequently, these symbols are connected with St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans. Son of a wealthy Italian merchant and a French noblewoman, Giovanni Francesco Bernardone was a wealthy, handsome young man. Though fond of a good party, Francis was generous at heart and much taken by romantic chivalry. He wanted to be a troubadour and cavalier — one who would ride off to win the damsel, fame, and fortune. Wrote Chesterton, "Tell it as the tale of one of the Troubadours, and the wild things he would do for his lady, and the whole . . . puzzle disappears . . . The first fact to realize about St. Francis is . . . that when he said from the first that he was a Troubadour, and said later that he was a Troubadour of a newer and nobler romance, he was not using a mere metaphor . . . He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a Lover. He was a lover of God and . . . of men."

Twice did Francis head off to war (first to Perugia and then to Apulia in southern Italy), twice did he fall ill, and twice did he have visionary dreams. In Perugia, after one of the skirmishes, he was held captive for a year. Francis fell very ill there, and his father ransomed him. The next year Francis spent recovering and reflecting on his life. Once he was healthy, he volunteered a second time to accompany Count Gautier de Brienne on a military conquest to southern Italy. Shortly before departing, he had a dream in which he saw a palace "filled with saddles, shields, lances and other things" and marked with crosses. A voice said, "All these arms would belong to him and his soldiers." For Francis, this dream augured well for his future success as a great knight leading a Crusade. Euphoric, he left for southern Italy, but in Spoleto, he was again taken with a fever and had a second dream. This time the voice bade him to return to Assisi "to serve the master rather than the man." Francis returned.

One day outside of Assisi, he ran into a leper so disfigured that Francis had to step away. But he stopped, gave the sick man the money he had, and embraced him. Back in Assisi, he began to care for the sick, especially the lepers, and to visit hospitals. Once while praying in the church of San Damiano, he heard a voice coming from the crucifix that seemed to be telling him to repair the church, which was in a sad state. On impulse, Francis went to his father's shop, loaded bolts of cloth on a horse, and proceeded to sell everything at a nearby marketplace. Hurrying back to San Damiano, he gave the parish priest the money. The priest refused to accept it, and Francis left the money on a windowsill. When Francis's father found out what had happened, he was furious. Francis hid in a cave near San Damiano for a month.

When he emerged onto the streets of Assisi, dirty and hungry, the townsfolk threw rocks at him and called him a madman. Francis's father — none too pleased — hauled him home, beat him, and locked him up. The young zealot was eventually brought before the bishop "who informed him that it was not lawful to spend anything for sacred uses that had been gotten unlawfully" and that the parish priest had felt obliged to return the money thus obtained to Francis's father. Francis impetuously replied, "I give up not only the money but all my clothes, too; I will therefore go naked before the Lord."

The ascetic saint begged for alms and worked to restore San Damiano. His preaching drew eleven followers, and Innocent III granted them papal approval in 1209. Francis chose a rough peasant's robe tied with a rope to be their habit. The basic Franciscan rule included vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The friars were to live lives of prayer, fasting, and begging and were charged with helping the unfortunate and preaching the Gospel.

In Giotto di Bondone's painting, St. Francis is receiving the stigmata — the wounds of Christ — on Mount La Verna. He had gone there to leave "behind the crowds of the world," seeking a "quiet . . . place of solitude." This painting is an accurate portrayal of what is known of this experience. In Thomas of Celano's first biography of St. Francis, he describes the vision: "He [Francis] saw . . . a seraph with six wings . . . two of the wings were extended above his head, two were extended as if for flight, and two were wrapped around the whole body . . . Marks of the nails began to appear in his hands and feet . . . His right side was as though it had been pierced by a lance and had a wound in it that frequently bled."

Giotto painted St. Francis barefoot and wearing a dark brown hooded robe that is tied three times with a knotted cord, symbolizing the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience taken by all Franciscans. Two small dwellings and several idealized trees on Mount La Verna complete the background.

Maria Stella Ceplecha is a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives part of the year in Avila, Spain. Special thanks to Michaelene Zawistowski.

© 2004 Morley Publishing Group, Inc.

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