Friday 8 December 2023


Hello Friends!

One of my lesser-known interests, I don't call it a hobby, is hagiography.  

Hagiography is the history of the lives of the Saints, a sort of biography of holy people.  I developed an interest in hagiography when I was studying art history for one of my degrees.  It is a fundamental tool for any studies involving the art of the Rennaissance, where images are full of symbolism which would have been as well known to the contemporaries of the era on all levels of society in a way that we, for the most part, do not relate to.  

During the Rennaissance very few people could read, so pictures and paintings depicted stories to educate the masses much in the same way comic books illustrate a story without words today.  Churches were full of illuminated images of biblical stories, and everyone could read the story depicted knowing the central characters by identifying their attributes.  Art was a way of teaching, as well as giving people something to focus on when attending services in the days before printed Bibles and hymnals.

Colour was important, as I will explain, and every saint is depicted holding an attribute which is something particularly associated with each individual.  For example, a symbol of their martyrdom or something that was a dominant feature of their life.

The palm, frond or branch, is sacred to many religions, and to most of us is probably best known for being cast before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on what is now known as Palm Sunday.  Consequently, most Christian saints are depicted holding a palm frond as an attribute of their faith, and distinguishing them from lay people in crowd scenes.  It is symbolic of triumph, victory, peace and eternal life.

Probably the most important colour in hagiography is lapis blue.  Lapis blue paint is a pigment made from the expensive and highly prized mineral composite Lapis Lazuli.  Due to it's costly nature, it was reserved only for the most important saints, so the most important of all saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary is immediately identifiable as she is almost always depicted in Lapis Blue.  Amongst other things Lapis is symbolic of transcendence, purity, royalty, and the divine. 

Saints were immediately identifiable by their attributes.  In the main, attributes were symbolic of a saint's martyrdom, although not always as not all saints were martyred, sometimes they indicated the prominent events or characteristics of the venerated.  Some examples of attributes are:

Saint Catherine: a broken wheel {tortured and condemned to death in a spiked wheel which broke when it touched her; the origin of the firework that bears her name}
Saint Laurence: a gridiron {grilled to death}
Saint Barbara: chains and a tower {imprisonment and torture}
Saint Peter: keys {keeper to the Gates of Heaven} upside down cross {crucifixion}:
St David: Bishop with a white dove on his shoulder {appeared to him}
Hildegard of Bingen: book {prolific writer}
Francis of Assisi: Stigmata {first person known to experience this}
Joseph: Carpentry tools
John the Baptist: a lamb {the one chosen by God to baptise Jesus Christ}
Mary Magdelene: Alabaster box {a myrrh bearer; anointed the feet of Jesus}
Patrick: A shamrock, snakes {the Trinity; he expelled all the snakes from Ireland}

David depicted with a dove on his shoulder and a Bishop's crozier, rood screen St David's Cathedral

The Four Apostles are depicted thus:

Matthew: A winged man, or an angel
Mark: A winged lion
Luke: A winged ox or bull
John: An eagle

and they are depicted N,S,E,W positions of this beautiful Rose Window in the west wall of St David's Cathedral.

As mentioned earlier, a knowledge of hagiography and saintly attributes is an essential tool for any scholar of history.  I find it a fascinating area of study, and hope you have found it interesting.  It is something which without it, it can be impossible to understand many works of art, particularly pre the era of printed books.

Until next time
Stay safe, stay well.
Debbie xx 


  1. I enjoyed this post very much, Deb! When visiting cathedrals it is so evident that symbolism played a unique role in telling the masses of the glorious message of Christianity. The apostles in the rose window of St David's cathedral is stunning and so meaningful! The rood screen with St David and the dove on his shoulder and the Bishops staff is stunning! When I think of the symbolism in the church, I immediately think of Chartres Cathedral in France. It was a spiritual experience for sure! Thank you for reminding me of the symbolism in all cathedrals, and even small chapels. Have a warm, cozy weekend, my friend.

    1. Thank you Martha Ellen. Symbolism in art is a fascinating subject, The Victorians presented social and political views through symbolism. One of the most critical on religion of the day is Holman Hunt's "The Hireling Shepherd" Victorian art became an area of special interest to me. It is difficult to keep the post brief and readable when so passionate about the subject.
      The wind is howling, the rain is torrential. Staying cosy inside! Stay safe, my friend.

  2. Very interesting, Deb! I haven’t heard of this before now!

    1. Thank you, Nellie. Glad you found it interesting.

  3. I didn't know any of this - even with a book of saints on my shelf - so it was interesting to read.
    Glorious stained glass

    1. Thank you Sue. I didn't either, until I had to study it. It can be compelling when you look at art through symbolism and see beyond the paint.

  4. I love this post, Deb. I did not know any of this and found it fascinating. Feel free to post more on this subject, the photos are beautiful. I know I will be rereading this post again, really interesting.

    We are having Spring again today, in the low 60's. Crazy weather for December, I'm not complaining. ;-)

    1. Thank you my dear friend. Let's not speak of the weather, we're being buffeted and blown about again, with yet another two back to back named storms! Care to swap?

  5. What a wonderful post, a fascinating and very interesting read.
    The stained glass is beautiful.

    Wishing you a good weekend.

    All the best Jan

  6. A brilliant post Debbie with so much of interest. I love the stained glass - just stunning. I know a little about saints from church crawling but most of your post was new to me and I found it fascinating :)

    1. Thank you, Caroline. Once I discovered hagiography my understanding of art went up to a whole new level, especially of Renaissance art.

  7. My dissertation was on the equine iconography of the 8th - 9th Century Pictish crosses. They started off with just Pictish symbolism (which is still virtually impossible to interpret and then gradually Christian symbolism was used on the other side of the sculptured Pictish stones.

    I love going into Medieval churches and seeing the wall paintings which have been uncovered - all designed to remind the ill-educated parishioners what they must adhere to in order NOT to sin! LOVED this post.

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. What a fascinating subject your dissertation was on! Mine was on symbolism in Victorian art. Might precis that for a future blog!

  8. How interesting. I have to confess I'm quite ignorant of this form of symbolism, something which was never touched on in my school days and that lack of knowledge persists today, though I love the iconography. Thank you, I've learnt something today.

    1. Thanks so much Wessex Reiver. I remained blissfully unaware of it myself until my professor taught me what to look out for Happy you enjoyed it.