A Catholic Spotter's Guide to Common Saints

So, you walk into a church - for example, my parish, Holy Rosary in downtown Indianapolis.  You look up at the stained glass windows...and the titles on the saints' halos are too small to read.  How do you know which saints are which?  You use the language of iconography, the built-in teaching system used by the church for centuries for the education of the illiterate.  Imagery is important to the human mind, and extremely useful.  Awe whoever you're with by identifying the art in a church before they can read the handy little brochure they picked up in the back!

Three bags of coins - St. Nicholas of Myra, famed for his charity and generosity.  He knew about three impoverished girls in his town who were facing prostitution because they could not afford a dowry for marriage, so he tossed three bags of gold in their chimney to save them.  You may also see him pictured next to a tub with two children in it, referencing another miracle attributed to the saint.

A spiked wheel - St. Catherine, referencing the way she was martyred.  The "Catherine's wheel" firework is named after this saint's imagery.

Gridiron or grill - St. Lawrence, the deacon, who was martyred by being grilled alive.  He was famed for telling his captors "You can turn me over, I'm done on this side."

Lion - St. Jerome, translator of the Bible.  The saint had a lion who stayed with him after the saint pulled a thorn out of his paw.

Shamrock - St. Patrick, patron of Ireland, who famously used a shamrock to teach a lesson on the Trinity.

Tower and lightning - St. Barbara, early martyr.   Her father kept her locked in a tower, and became the most vicious of her persecutors when she converted to the Christian faith.  After her martyrdom he was struck with lightning and blinded for life.

Organ or harp - St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians.

Nun carrying the Eucharist - St. Clare.  The story goes that she saved her convent in Assisi from being attacked by marauders by taking the Blessed Sacrament from the chapel to the walls.

Birds, wolf, fish, or other random animals - St. Francis, famed for preaching to the local nature-life.

Leek - St. David, patron of Wales, also pictured with a dove.  From time immemorial the Welsh have worn a leek on St. David's day, in memory of a battle against the Saxons, at which it is said they wore leeks in their hats, by St. David's advice, to distinguish them from their enemies. (Catholic Encyclopedia, newadvent.com)

Carrying the Child Jesus and a staff, or crossing water, etc - St. Christopher, patron of travellers.  He had the job of ferrying travellers across a river, and "One day he was carrying a child who continually grew heavier, so that it seemed to him as if he had the whole world on his shoulders. The child, on inquiry, made himself known as the Creator and Redeemer of the world. To prove his statement the child ordered Christopher to fix his staff in the ground. The next morning it had grown into a palm-tree bearing fruit."  (Catholic Encyclopedia, newadvent.com)

Woman with the Cross - St. Helena, empress, who found the True Cross.  My patron, so one of my favorites!

Sword - St. Paul, beheaded by a sword.

Dog and a wounded leg - St. Peregrine, patron of cancer sufferers.

Child Jesus and a book - St. Anthony, patron of people-who-lose-things.  "Dear St. Anthony, come around!  Something's lost and can't be found!"  That's my version, always paired with a Hail Mary, because the Italians' "Tony, Tony" doesn't work for me.  I'm German.