Friday, August 31, 2007


Continued from last Saturday’s discussion on hands:

Of course saints hold other things besides clubs, knives, and other weapons. Some saints are holding plants. Many saints are seen holding palm branches, which symbolize victory over death. Jesus is sometimes holding a reed, which is associated with His passion. A lily represents purity or virginity. Many saints hold the lily but it is particularly associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph.

There are some saints that have particular plants associated with them. It will be of no surprise to you that Saint Patrick will hold a three-leaf clover, which he used to teach about the Holy Trinity. St. Theresa, of course, is seen holding roses.

There are also many other objects that will either assist you in determining who is being depicted or give you some idea about what they are known for. A book (or books) may be a sign of great learning. If they have a book and pen, it may be that they did much inspired writing. A scroll is generally a sign of the Old Testament. They may study the Old Testament or it may be used to teach as we see in depictions of Saint Ann instructing Mary. A pen in the hand with a scroll may be an Old Testament writer or a writer in general. Other contextual clues will help fill you in.

A staff or a shell or both of them combined is a sign of pilgrimage or travel. Scales are a sign of justice. A church in a hand may have one of two meanings. If it is a particular church it either means that the saint is the church’s patron saint or that they personally had a hand in the construction of the building in some way. If it is a non-descript church chances are that the saint had a role in the general building up of the faith of the church. Music usually has something to do with the saint’s influence in this field. For example, St. Ambrose is often seen with scrolls of music for his (writing/influence depending on your opinion) of Ambrosian Chant.

An orb in the hand represents the world and is a symbol of imperial majesty. This is often seen in the hand of Christ the King, the Infant of Prague, Mary Queen of the Universe, and saints of royalty such as Saint Steven. Christ is sometimes seen with scales at the second coming as He weighs souls.

Then there are many particular objects. For example St. Joseph is most often depicted holding the tools of his trade such as square. Saint Vincent de Paul (who cared for the poor), St. Anthony (who was granted a request to hold the Christ child), and St. Christopher (who mystically bore the Christ child across a river) are depicted holding a young child. Saint Jerome often has a rock in his hand not because he was martyred with one but because of his great acts of penance (and he needed it!) Saint Pius V holds a rosary, Saint Ambrose at times a beehive, Saint Cecilia a harp or lap organ, St. Clare a monstrance, Saint Zita groceries, St. Peter keys, Saint Jude a shield with Christ pictured on it, and the list goes on and on. These objects are not just decoration but teach us something important about the saints.

Deep in my sole I feel that it’s pretty much a shoe in that next week we’ll take a look at feet.


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Odysseus said...

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Anonymous said...

in many of the older churches, the stained/painted glass windows are of a degree of realism that i can go in and see the things you describe.

in many of the newer [post VII] churches, the windows are such that the detail you describe is almost non-existent.

if i go into an art museum and see the 'masters' depictions of the saints and holy ones. i see these characteristics.

if i look at the newer 'stuff', i find these lacking.

where is an artist taught the rules as you've outline them?

Fr. V said...


Now you understand my argument that there is a difference between art for art's sake and liturgical art.

Some art just does not lend itself to such detail - faceted glass (sp?) for example. But much of art has more emphasized "my impression of holy things, how it makes me feel," rather than an object that teaches.

Now all art has a great degree of personal interpretation, but my argument is that it is more heavily emphasized today. Therefor liturgical art is not so much the idea of the congregation, or a more universal idea brought to image but the artist's image - here is what I feel - what do you think? Great for a museum, not so for mass.

Then again, Carravagio was thought too realistic for liturgical art at one time. . .

But as a priest I find certain types of artwork make my job much easier. It is like CCD classes - if it is too rigid I have only information, no feeling of life. If it is too subjective it is hard to get people to relate to it, spend time with it, and understand what it is trying to do.

Ahhh, maybe someday . . .

Anonymous said...

Well, I just wish Caravaggio and Anibale Carracci lent themselves to stained glass. Or even to icons, for the more one looks at Caravaggio's "Incredulity of St. Thomas" or Carracci's "The Mocking of Christ," the more one sees a Saviour who is just as human as us as He is Divine unlike us.

I think Jesus likes very realistic art to represent mutual Love. I was thinking today just after receiving Communion that we/the saints are not so much His canvases and icons as we are each His chosen holy altar.

Very interesting data, here, and so unique a blog. We ought to pass this around a little more widely, beginning perhaps with seminarians and novices online, tho' I think "Moneybags" and "Chiara" must have it already. I am presuming that folks at Steubie and Notre Dame have it already. Gosh, I hope so!

May God bless you.

Father Schnippel said...

Dont forget St. Lucy holding a paten with her eyes on it! (Usually also depicted with eyes in her head as well, for God replaced her sight after her eyes were plucked for her dedication.)

Fr. V said...

Good point!

I wish I would have thought of that when talking about eye glasses! I will include that in my next class.