Plan Ahead

Visiting Manet/Degas?

You must join the virtual queue. Read the additional visitor guidelines.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Saints in Medieval Christian Art

Since early Christian times, hundreds of men and women have been revered in the Church and identified as saints. Their lives were held up as models of exemplary behavior, and they had the power to intercede, to direct the prayers of the faithful to God, and to act in the world. They were advocates in heaven for the faithful on earth.

The physical remains of saints, called relics, were believed to have the power of intercession as well as the capacity to heal. Reliquaries, richly decorated containers for these sacred objects (62.96), honored the relic contained within and impressed the worshipper through their outward forms. The most important relics and reliquaries could lure thousands of the faithful to undertake pilgrimages to distant shrines. The power of the living saint was believed to be present at the location of his or her body, which was invested with the ability to work wonders.

The powers of saints extended to their images. Just as a saint could mediate between the believer and God, depictions of saints could mediate between the worshipper and the saint. Medieval art prominently featured images of saints, whether in narrative scenes drawn from their lives or represented as cult figures. Painted sculptures (25.120.239a, b) or representations in manuscripts made saints vivid to church-goers, approachable as a familiar face but with access to the power of heaven. The images or objects linked the worshipper and his or her prayers to their prototype in heaven, and they also visually reinforced the stories of the saints’ lives.

Some biographies of saints, called saints’ lives, are historical accounts, while others are apocryphal legends. In the thirteenth century, Jacobus de Voragine compiled many saints’ lives in an anthology called The Golden Legend. Either type of saintly story could be the source of anecdotes and scenes represented in medieval art. Some saints depicted in art can be identified by their facial appearance, but most are recognizable by an identifying object relating to an episode from their life or death.

The earliest saints lived in the time of Jesus, and many knew him personally. Saint John the Baptist (48.149.16), Jesus’s cousin, lived in the desert and was described as clothed in a camel’s skin, so he is often seen with a shaggy coat and disheveled hair. Since he referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God, he is also often identified with a lamb as his attribute. He is even some-times seen as a decapitated head on a “charger” or platter, recalling his martyrdom.

The disciples called evangelists who wrote the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (41.100.169)—can be seen actively writing their texts in many images. Each of the four evangelists was associated from an early date with a symbolic creature: a man or angel for Matthew, a lion for Mark (17.190.36), an ox or calf for Luke, and an eagle for John (1977.421). Often these beasts serve as labels for the evangelist, or the symbols can stand alone.

Saint Peter was one of the earliest followers of Jesus. Jesus charged Peter with the continuation of the faith, calling him the rock upon which the Church was established. Jesus also gave him the keys that became his attribute in art. Peter has a distinct facial type (17.190.670), with white hair and beard and a rounded face—notably different from that of Saint Paul. Paul has an elongated face, a pointed black beard, and a balding forehead with a widow’s peak.

Apart from the family and disciples of Jesus, devotion to saints initially focused on individuals who had been martyred for the faith in the first centuries after the death of Jesus. The first Christian martyr was Stephen, a deacon in the early church. He was stoned to death, and his statues often show him cradling the stones of his martyrdom. Saint Catherine (17.190.905), a fourth-century Egyptian princess, was tortured on a wheel, her most typical attribute. Saint Martin of Tours (d. 397) had been a Roman soldier and became the third bishop of Tours. He is identified through his most famous act of charity: using his soldier’s sword to divide his own cloak and give half to a suffering beggar.

Francis of Assisi (1181/2–1226; 1979.498.2) renounced his wealthy background to live a life of poverty, and founded religious orders for men and women. A morse, a clasp for an ecclesiastical garment, shows the moment when Francis, in a prayerful vision of a six-winged angel, received the stigmata: physical wounds marking the spots where Jesus was nailed in the crucifixion. Francis was pronounced a saint within two years of his death.