The Holy of Ordinary

Saints and Symbols

One definition of an icon is "a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analagy to it" (

Perusing many books published on iconography, I gather it interests not a small amount of people.  Since there are only so many different stages of life, sexes, cultures, and locations in which to communicate which saint is depicted in an icon--and there are thousands upon thousands of saints-- relevant symbols tend to accompany them in pictures.

The means by which these symbols are integrated into the identity of their saints quietly humbles me.

Not so much the usual ones.  Most symbols are, by nature, easily identified.

Some are associated with profession: 

Saint Joseph, a carpenter, carries a carpenter's tools; Cosmos and Damien those of a doctor; Bernardo of Sienna looks down unmoved by the three bishop miters he rejected; Saint Louis of France wears a crown (hint: he's a king).

Saint Louis of France

Others are identified by means of death or torture: 

Peter of Verona, one of the most interesting, wears a cleaver lodged into his skull, like some tacky, twentieth-century Halloween costume.  Then there's Saint Denis, a living body holding his decapitated head in hand.

Catherine has her wheel, Lucy her eyes, Agatha her breasts.

The mortal mind easily views the parallels.

But sometimes, the connection between the saint and symbol are peripheral.

There are animals and animal companions:  

Vitus has a rooster, which was thrown into a pot of boiling oil with him; Agnes gets a lamb because, well, her name looks and sounds like agnus (lamb in Latin);  Saint Giles protected a deer, and  Bernard has a white dog, who appeared to his mother in a dream when she was pregnant with him.

And people and paraphernalia:  

Bavo of Ghent brings his hollow tree, in which lived as a hermit; Ursula herds a crowd of virgins under her cloak, her fellow martyrs;  Diego of Alcala carries the flowers found in his cloak when a friar confronted him, suspecting him of stealing food to give to the poor.

Saint Cecilia

The music of Cecelia's wedding celebration is always with her in the form of an instrument.  Barbara holds her tower of imprisonment and later hermitage.  Nicholas, three golden balls, which he gives as dowry to rescue three girls from prostitution.

These are the ones that give me pause.  

For such random objects and things to become the sacred symbols of the those in Paradise hints at a profound insight into the nature of our God.  The saint, who loves Him and aspires to Him with all his being, engulfs everything he knows and sees into that first and reckless Love.  And the ordinary, by virtue of touching a holy life, is drawn up into the beatific vision.


Post a Comment

Leave me a comment! Don't be shy!