Holy Eyeballs on a Plate, and Other Odd Religious Iconography

 
  By  Sarah Rosenberg

By Sarah Rosenberg

Historically, monetarily, and spiritually, medieval and early renaissance art has incredible value. It is a special genre that can be as odd as it is beautiful. Many medieval or early renaissance paintings stray from what we consider normalcy, and the fashioning of Saints tends to be particularly strange. (Although I hear the plates of eyeballs accessory is making a comeback.)

In medieval religious art, saints are pictured with specific objects that are crucial to the story of their sainthood. Identifying the saints in artwork hinges on knowing the significance of the particular objects they hold, such as eyeballs. The following list will guide your next museum or cathedral visit, freeing up your mind to ponder other important matters, like why everyone seemed to be running around naked back then. 


Saint Lucy.jpg

Saint Lucy

Signifiers:

1. Eyes on a plate—according to medieval tradition, Saint Lucy's eyes were gouged out during her martyrdom.  

2. An oil lamp ("Lucy" means light).

3. A palm frond (signifying victory).

4. The sword that killed her. 

 

Patron Saint of:

The blind, martyrs, and salesmen

 
 Photo: ©Wolfgang Moroder

Photo: ©Wolfgang Moroder

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Signifier:

The (sometimes broken) wheel on which Roman Emperor Maxentius attempted to torture her. This wheel is sometimes known as the "Cathrine Wheel." 

 

Patron Saint of:

Workers whose labor involves wheels, such as knife sharpeners, potters, wheelwrights, spinners, mechanics, etc. 

 

 
 Note: Yes, that creature is supposed to be a lion. It's 16th century art, people.

Note: Yes, that creature is supposed to be a lion. It's 16th century art, people.

Saint Jerome

Signifier: 

He once pulled a thorn from a lion's paw, according to legend. The lion then befriended him and protected him and his monastery. Saint Jerome is almost always pictured with a lion somewhere in his portraits. 

 

Patron Saint of:

Scholars, librarians and archeologists. 

 
 Note: Sebastian was a soldier, and is often shown as an attractive, fit young man. Rarely is he depicted as an incontinent dweeb, as in this painting from the 1400s.

Note: Sebastian was a soldier, and is often shown as an attractive, fit young man. Rarely is he depicted as an incontinent dweeb, as in this painting from the 1400s.

Saint sebastian

Signifier:

The piercing arrows by which he was martyred. 

  

Patron Saint of: 

Soldiers, archers, and athletes. 

 
Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 10.41.30 PM.png

Saint Apollonia

Signifier: Pincers with tooth. As part of her martyrdom, it is said that her aggressors broke all of her teeth before threatening to burn her alive. 

 

Patron Saint of:

Dentists and those suffering with toothaches. 

 
Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 10.52.48 PM.png

Saint Thomas aquinas

Signifiers:

Tommy had quite a penchant for learning. He is regarded as one of the most learned and intellectual saints. Thus his signifiers are a book, which often radiates with the glory of (religious) knowledge. He also often holds a pen. 

 

Patron Saint of:

Academics, scholars, philosophers, and book sellers.

 
 Note: In Michelangelo's  The Last Judgement , a very buff Bartholomew wields both a knife and his flayed skin. If it takes being skinned alive to look that good, sign me up ASAP.

Note: In Michelangelo's The Last Judgement, a very buff Bartholomew wields both a knife and his flayed skin. If it takes being skinned alive to look that good, sign me up ASAP.

Saint bartholomew

Signifiers:

1. His flayed skin—Bartholomew was flayed alive as part of his martyrdom.

2. A knife. 

 

Patron Saint of: 

In a macabre fashion, Bartholomew is the patron saint of trades that involve skins: leather workers, bookbinders, and shoemakers. 

 

 

 
 Note: Can someone please explain what's going on with the maiden at the bottom right?

Note: Can someone please explain what's going on with the maiden at the bottom right?

Saint Ursela 

Signifiers:

1. One or more staffs with banners of St. George (the flag with the red cross design in the picture at left). 

2. An arrow reminds the viewer of the manner of her killing. 

 

Patron Saint of: 

Archers, orphans, and female students.

 

 
 Note: Here, Leonardo Da Vinci's  John the Baptist  resembles a  Simpsons  character, like Sideshow Bob with hair relaxer.

Note: Here, Leonardo Da Vinci's John the Baptist resembles a Simpsons character, like Sideshow Bob with hair relaxer.

Saint John the Baptist

Signifiers: 

1. A tunic or mantel of skins (often camel). 

2. A cross-topped staff. 

 

Patron Saint of: 

Conversion to faith, baptism, builders, and people dealing with harsh weather or storms. 

 

These saints are just a useful sampling of the 10,000+ saints that have been canonized. There are likely more deliciously odd tidbits that exist in the artwork involving the others. Also, leave alternative captions for the artwork above in the comments (So many possible jokes for Saint Ursela—look at those tiny arms). 

 

See more weird art History