A Catholic Spotter's Guide to Saints

We humans live and work by visual symbols.  A red stop sign and other traffic signs tell us how to drive.  The Red Cross or the staff with two twined snakes show us where to get medical help.  A company's logo alerts us to their products.  Symbols are integral to our life and society, and always have been.

As Catholics, however, we have a whole sublime layer of symbols that is integral to our Catholic society.  Walk into any old cathedral and you will find that you are surrounded by a world of imagery, a world to which we modern Catholics need a key.  In earlier days, when common folks did not have the luxury of books, they were educated in their catechism and culture through the images on the walls of the church around them.  Statues, paintings, stonework, all worked together to bring the Catholic into a closer harmony with those who went before him; with the tenets of his faith; with the lives of the Church Triumphant; with the culture into which he was born.

Nowadays, having not been brought up in a distinctly Catholic culture, and not having the rich tradition of religious art and architecture which exists in older countries, we have to learn this visual dictionary from scratch.  Anyone can walk into a garden or hardware shop and recognize a statue of St. Francis of Assissi.  Why?  Because he'll be the only guy you see standing with his hands out and assorted birds and animals around him.  Just about everyone recognizes St. Patrick, too - he's pretty distinctive with that green chasuble, bishop's mitre, and just in case you were wondering, a shamrock.  But how many of us can walk into a church, view all the stained glass windows, and identify all the saints depicted in them without needing to read the visitor's guide?

We'll start off this first installment with the Four Evangelists and the Twelve Apostles.  Hopefully, I will write more installments of this "Spotter's Guide".  I encourage you to search further and continue to learn about the rich visual heritage of the Faith.  Further up and further in!

The Four Evangelists

Ezechiel 1: 4-5, 10 - "And I saw, and behold a whirlwind came out of the north: and a great cloud, and a fire infolding it, and brightness was about it: and out of the midst thereof, that is, out of the midst of the fire, as it were the resemblance of amber: And in the midst thereof the likeness of four living creatures...And as for the likeness of their faces: there was the face of a man, and the face of a lion on the right side of all the four: and the face of an ox, on the left side of all the four: and the face of an eagle over all the four."

Apocalypse 4, 6-7 - "And in the sight of the throne was, as it were, a sea of glass like to crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes before and behind. And the first living creature was like a lion: and the second living creature like a calf: and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying."

Ox: St. Luke; the ox is the sacrificial animal of the Old Covenant, and St. Luke opens his Gospel with the priest Zacharias offering sacrifice.

Man/Angel: St. Matthew, because he begins his Gospel by listing the ancestral genealogy of Christ.

Lion: St. Mark, for his Gospel begins with the voice crying in the wilderness.

Eagle: St. John; the eagle was believed to be the only creature who could gaze into the light of the sun and not be blinded, and St. John in the beginning of his Gospel "soars into the mystery of the Incarnation of God so naturally and contemplates it so profoundly that he seems like an eagle flying toward the sun."

Frequently the ox, lion and man will be depicted with wings in reference to Ezechiel, although equally often they will be wingless.

The Twelve Apostles

Saltire (X-shaped) Cross: St. Andrew - tradition has it that the apostle Andrew was crucified on a cross made in the form of an X.  He is also sometimes shown with a fish or other emblems of the fisherman's trade.

Flaying knives or an empty human skin: St. Bartholomew - this apostle was martyred by being flayed alive.

Scallop shells: St. James the Greater - St. James receives the traditional symbol of the pilgrim; legend has it, he travelled, preaching the Gospel, as far as Spain, to Compostella, on the shore of which scallop shells are common.  Also represented with a pilgrim's staff.  The scallop was traditionally used to represent pilgrims of the Middle Ages who had travelled to the Holy Land or to the shrine of St. James at Compostella.

Fuller's club or holding a book: St. James the Lesser -  was beaten to death, hence the club; wrote an epistle, hence the book.

Eagle - St. John the Evangelist, as mentioned earlier.  Also pictured with his head on Christ's chest at the last supper.

Bag or pouch: Judas - The traitor apostle was in charge of the money for Jesus and the other apostles, and hence is pictured with a pouch of money.  In images of the Last Supper, he is usually depicted without a halo, dark-skinned, and/or in the corner.

Face of Christ on a medallion: St. Jude - Patron of lost or impossible causes.  He wears the medallion for reasons unknown, but it almost always picture with it, and frequently with a flame over his head.

Winged man: St. Matthew - for reasons described above.

Upside-down cross: St. Peter - This rash and lovable apostle was to be crucified, but in his humility could not bear to be crucified in the same way as his Master, and so requested to be crucified upside-down.

Loaves and fishes: St. Philip - this is the apostle who brought the loaves and fishes to Jesus for the miracle of the feeding of the multitude.

Saw: St. Simon - martyred by being sawn in two.

T-square or carpenter's rule: St. Thomas - the Apostle of India built many churches in India.


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