Christian Iconography Explained

Below are brief explanations of common attributes given to saints to identify them in art. (This page is constantly being updated).

St. Anthony the Great

St. Augustine

St. Augustine was a early Church father, famous for his prolific writings on the Church and morality, known as Confessions; thus, he is typically shown writing, dressed as a bishop.

St. Barnabas

St. Benedict

St. Benedict is the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

Saints Cosmas and Damian

Saints Cosmas and Damian are typically portrayed together, as they were brothers (some sources claim twins). They were the patron saints of physicians and therefore closely linked to the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, due to the play on the Medici name (“medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”). They are usually depicted in red togas and red caps. Sometimes, they are shown with surgical tools or ointment jars laying near them, denoting their status as doctors.

St. Catherine of Alexandria

According to Christian belief, St. Catherine of Alexandria was an Egyptian woman of noble birth who was persecuted by Emperor Maxentius. She was to be killed on a spiked wheel, but upon her touch, it broke. Thus, her main attribute in paintings is a spiked wheel. She was subsequently beheaded.

St. Eligius

St. Eligius was the patron saint of the Florentine guild of goldsmiths.

St. Francis

St. Francis (1181/2-1226) founded the Franciscan monastic order. He is generally depicted in his monk’s habit with the stigmata (i.e. the wounds of Christ) on his hands.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Jerome

Saint Jerome’s major identifier is his tamed lion, whom he allegedly met while living in the wilderness.

St. John the Baptist

A popular subject among Renaissance artists is St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist was believed to be Jesus’ cousin; his epithet derived from his role in Jesus’ baptism. Generally, St. John is recognizable via his animal hair tunic, his reed or processional cross, and his untamed hair.

St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist was the patron saint of the Florentine silk guild. As an evangelist, he is shown with a book, denoting him as one of the authors of the Gospel.

St. Justus of Lyons

Detail of The Madonna and Child adored by St. Zenobius and St. Justus, Ghirlandaio

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is often depicted with an ointment jar, and she is typically placed on the Virgin’s right, in a place of honor.

St. Margaret of Antioch

St. Margaret of Antioch, also known as St. Margaret the Virgin, is usually shown either emerging from a dragon’s mouth or standing atop a dragon. Indeed, allegedly, St. Margaret was devoured by the devil while he was in the guise of a dragon. The devil, however, could not stomach her and spit her out unharmed.

Detail of Portinari Altarpiece, Hugo Van der Goes

St. Matthew the Evangelist

Saint Matthew the Evangelist is generally pictured holding a Bible, an allusion to his contribution to the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew.

Archangel Michael

The archangel Michael is famous for sending Lucifer to hell. Thus, he is generally depicted in his armor, carrying his sword. Also, because he is an angel, he usually is depicted with wings.

St. Miniatus

St. Miniatus is a Florentine saint, who is regularly depicted in Florentine altarpieces.

St. Paul

St. Paul is identifiable via his long, pointed beard and (usually) bald head. He is also generally holding a sword, an allusion to his martyrdom (he was beheaded by Romans), and a book, a reference to his epistles.

St. Peter

One of the most well known of the saints is St. Peter (for whom the Vatican’s Cathedral is named). According to the Bible, St. Peter led his fellow 12 Apostles after Jesus was crucified, and as the leader of the early Church, he is considered by the Church to be its first pope. He is typically depicted with a set of keys (which has been incorporated into Papal coat of arms, as a nod to its first pope) because Jesus is supposed to have told him that he would give St. Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew XVI:19). He also is usually depicted with a short square-shaped beard and holding a book.

Archangel Raphael

Detail of The Madonna and Child adored by St. Zenobius and St. Justus, Ghirlandaio

Raphael is an archangel and therefore is generally depicted with wings. His usual identifier that separates him from the other archangels is a jar of ointment because he is associated with healing. Indeed, in the most well-known Raphaelite legend, Raphael is responsible for curing the blindness of the father of a young man named Tobias.

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Vincent of Saragossa

St. Vincent of Saragossa is generally shown carrying a ship and/or a millstone, an allusion to the fact that his body was thrown into the sea after he died. He is also sometimes depicted holding a palm, the universal symbol of martyrdom.

St. Zenobius

St. Zenobius is a patron saint of Florence, Italy. Allegedly, St. Zenobius saved Florence from the Ostrogoths in AD 405 when he was bishop of Florence. St. Zenobius is most famous for his uncanny ability to bring people back from the dead. Because he was the Bishop of Florence, he is usually shown dressed as a bishop.

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