Saint symbolism

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Dutch Book of Prayers from the mid-fifteenth century. Group of five saints. From left to right, Saint Joseph, Saint James the Great, Saint Eligius, Saint Hermes, and Saint Ghislain, with their emblems.

Christianity has used symbolism from its very beginnings.[1] Each saint has a story and a reason why he or she led an exemplary life. Symbols have been used to tell these stories throughout the history of the Church. A number of Christian saints are traditionally represented by a symbol or iconic motif associated with their life, termed an attribute or emblem, in order to identify them. The study of these forms part of iconography in art history. They were particularly used so that the illiterate could recognize a scene, and to give each of the saints something of a personality in art. They are often carried in the hand by the saint.

Attributes often vary with either time or geography, especially between Eastern Christianity and the West. Orthodox images more often contained inscriptions with the names of saints, so the Eastern repertoire of attributes is generally smaller than the Western. Many of the most prominent saints, like Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist can also be recognised by a distinctive facial type – as can Christ. In the case of later saints their actual historical appearance can also be used; Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444) is one of the earliest whose distinctive appearance was well-known from early prints and is nearly always used by artists. Some attributes are general, such as the palm frond carried by martyrs.

The use of a symbol in a work of art depicting a saint reminds people who is being shown and of their story. The following is a list of some of these attributes.



Acathius of MeliteneCrown of Thorns
Agatha of Sicilytongs or shears, veil, bells, two breasts on a plate
Alfred the GreatCodex, crown, orb/scepter
Ambrosebees, beehive, dove, ox, pen
Anne, grandmother of Jesusdoor, book, red robe and green mantle
Anthony the Greatmonk's habit, bell, pig
Anthony of PaduaChild Jesus, bread, book, lily
Athanasius of AlexandriaBishop arguing with a pagan, bishop holding an open book, bishop standing over a defeated heretic
Augustine of Hippodove, child, shell, pen, book


Barbaratower, ciborium, cannon
Bartholomew the Apostleknife, human skin
Benedictbroken cup, raven, bell, crosier, bush
Bernard of Clairvauxpen, bees, instruments of the Passion
Bernardino of Sienatablet or sun inscribed with IHS, three mitres
Blaisewax, taper (candle), iron comb
Bonaventurecommunion, ciborium, cardinal's hat
Bonifaceoak, axe, book, fox, scourge, fountain, raven, sword
Bridget of Swedenbook, pilgrim's staff
Brigid of Kildarecow, crosier, Brigid's cross


The college shield of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, prominently depicting a Catherine wheel.
Catherine of Alexandriawheel, crown, sword, book
Catherine of Ricciring, crown, crucifix
Catherine of Sienastigmata, cross, ring, lily
Charles Borromeocardinal's robes, communion
Christophergiant crudely dressed, torrent, tree, branch or large staff, Carrying the Child Jesus on shoulder
Clare of Assisimonstrance
Clementanchor, fish, Mariner's Cross
Corbiniansaddled bear
Saints Cosmas and Damiana phial, box of ointment
Cyriacusdeacon's vestments


Denishead in hands
David of Walesdove
Dorothy of Caesareaflowers
Saint Dominicrosary, star, dog with a torch
Dunstanhammer, tongs
Dymphnacrown, sword, lily, lamp, princess with a fettered devil at her feet


Edmund the Martyrquiver of arrows
Saint Eligiusbishop portrayed with a crosier in his right hand, on the open palm of his left a miniature church of chased gold; with a hammer, anvil, and horseshoe; or with a horse
Elisabeth of Hungaryalms, flowers, bread, the poor, pitcher
Emilianusmonk on horseback
Elizabeth of Portugalcrown
Erasmus of Formiaewindlass
Eustacehunting clothes, stag, bull, crucifix, horn, oven


An axe, the symbol of the martyrdom of Judas Thaddeus and other saints
Saint FaithShield of the Trinity
Florinus of Remüsbottle, glass of wine
Francis of Assisiwolf, birds, fish, skull, stigmata
Francis Xaviercrucifix, bell, vessel, crab with a cross


Gabrielis archangel, trumpet, armour, wings, scroll stating “Ave Maria Gratia Plena”
Genesiustheatre mask
Genevievelit candle, bread, keys, herd, cattle
Georgedragon,soldier or knight in armour, often on white horse, especially in the East, Cross of Saint George
Gertrude of Nivellescrown, tapir, lily, mouse
GilesBenedictine habit, hind
Gregory the GreatPapal Tiara, crosier, dove (often portrayed at his ear)


A "fiddleback" chasuble from the church of Saint Gertrude in Maarheeze in the Netherlands
HelenaWearing a royal crown while supporting a cross
Hippolytus of RomePapal Tiara
Hippolytus the soldiermilitary garb, horse's harness
Honoratus of Amiensbaker's peel or shovel; bishop with a large Host; bishop with three Hosts on a baker's shovel; loaves
Hugh of Lincolnswan


Saint Stephen depicted with three stones and the martyrs' palm
Ignatius of Antiocha bishop surrounded by lions or in chains
Ignatius of LoyolaEucharist, chasuble with Jesuit-style collar, book, often inscribed with "Ad majorem dei gloriam", or the letters AMDG, cross.
Imerius of Immertalhermit's garb and bird of prey
Irene of Tomarpalm of martyrdom
Isidore of Sevillebees, pen, book
Ivo of Kermartindepicted as a lawyer, holding a document, in legal dress.


IHS monogram of the name of Jesus
James, son of Zebedeepilgrim's staff, scallop shell, key, sword, Pilgrim's hat, astride a white charger, Cross of Saint James
James, son of Alphaeus / James the Justsquare rule, halberd, club, saw
Jeromelion, cardinal clothing, cross, skull, books and writing material, stone in hand
Joan of Arcshield, Cross of Lorraine
Saint Joannalamb
John BerchmansRule of Saint Ignatius, cross, rosary
John Chrysostombees, dove, pen
John of Godalms, heart, Crown of Thorns
John the Baptistlamb, head on a platter, animal skin (the camel-skin coat of the Gospels), pointing at Christ or a lamb, often portrayed carrying a long crudely made cross
John the Evangelisteagle, chalice sometimes with a snake in it, kettle, book
Joseph, spouse of MaryChild Jesus, lily, rod, plane, carpentry square, purple robe and brown mantle
Juan DiegoTilmàtli
Jude the Apostlesword, square rule, club, ship
Justin Martyraxe, sword
Justina of Paduapalm frond, knife, unicorn
Juthwararound soft cheese


Kateri Tekakwithaturtle, lily
Kevin of Glendaloughblackbird
Knut of DenmarkNordic king with royal insignia, dagger, lance or arrow.


Lambert of Maastrichtpalm of martyrdom
Lawrence of Romecross, Gospel Book, gridiron, palm frond, purse of money, attired as a deacon in a dalmatic, accompanied by a group of poor people.
Leander of Sevillepen
Leonard of Noblaclock, chain, manacles or fetters
Liborius of Le Manspebbles, peacock
Louis IX of FranceRoyal attire of crown and blue robe decorated with golden fleur-de-lis, Crown of Thorns, nails
Lucycord, eyes on a dish, lamp
Luke the Evangelistox, book, brush, palette


Margaret of Scotlandreading
Margaret the Virgindragon in chains
Mark the Evangelistwinged lion, book
Marthaaspergillum, dragon
Martin of Toursgoose
Martin of Porresbroom, a cat, dog and a mouse eating from the same plate
Mary Magdalenejar of ointment, red egg
Matilda of Ringelheimpurse, alms
Matthew the Evangelistwinged man, purse, lance
Maurusscales, spade, crutch
Michaelscales, banner, sword, dragon
Monicagirdle, tears


Nicholasthree purses or balls, anchor, boat, child


Oda of Scotlanddepicted wearing a long blue gown with one shoulder bare; usually carries a staff or a book; always shown with a magpie on her hand and a crown under her feet
Olaf of Norwayaxe in Norway's coat of arms


Baptismal font in Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany.
Pantaleonnailed hands
Patrickcross, harp, serpent, baptismal font, demons, shamrock
Paul the Apostlesword, book or scroll, horse Long, pointed beard; balding backwards from forehead. Green robe, red mantle.
Peterkeys, boat, rooster, square white beard and short, curling white hair, bald on top. Blue robe and yellow mantle.
Saint Peter of VeronaDominican with a hatchet in his head or a severe head wound; or writing the words "Credo in unum Deum" as he dies
Petronillaset of keys, dolphin
Philip the Apostlecolumn
Philip Nerilily
Philomenaanchor, palm, arrows


Young man with two spits
Quentindepicted as a young man with two spits; as a deacon; with a broken wheel; with a chair to which he is transfixed; with a sword; or beheaded, a dove flying from his severed head
Quiteriadepicted with a dog on a lead; depicted with her head in her hands, emerging from the sea.


Angel holding the sun at the Bordeaux cathedral
Rita of Casciaroses, roses and figs, crucifix, thorn, sometimes with a wound in her forehead
Rochangel, dog with bread, leg wound, pilgrim's dress
Rose of LimaCrown of Thorns, anchor, city, roses


Sativolascythe, well
Sebastianarrows, crown
Simoncrossed oars, saw


Neo-Gothic "solar" monstrance at the hermitage church of Warfhuizen.
Teresa of Ávilaheart, arrow, book
Teresa of the Andessmall cross, flowers
Thérèse de Lisieuxroses entwining a crucifix
Thomas Aquinasmonstrance, dove, ox
Thomas the Apostlelance, axe, square rule
Thomas Moreaxe


Urbanportrayed in art after his beheading, with the Papal Tiara near him
Urban of Langresbishop with a bunch of grapes or a vine at his side; a book with a wine vessel on it
Ursicinusbook and Fleur-de-lis
Ursulaarrow; banner; cloak; clock; maiden shot with arrows; depicted accompanied by a varied number of companions who are being martyred in various ways; ship
Ursus of Aostabirds on his shoulder; wearing fur pelisse in a religious habit


A traditional biretta
Vedastwolf carrying a goose in its mouth; child; bear
Victor of Marseilleswindmill
Vigilius of Trentshoes or clogs
Vincent de Paulchildren
Vincent Ferrerpulpit, cardinal's hat, trumpet, captives
Vituscross, rooster, lion


Crosier of arcbishop Heinrich of Finstingen, 1260–1286
William of Monteverginewolf and pastoral crook
Winnochand-mill, bridge, grinding corn
Wolfgang of Regensburga church building with an adze lodged in the roof, a wolf


XystusBook, papal tiara, martyr's palm


Mitre of Bishop Sztojkovics, Hungary, ca. 1860, stolen in 1989
YrieixBishop's Mitre


ZacharyMaking peace with King Luitprand. Sometimes he may have an olive branch and a dove over him
Zenobius of Florenceflowering tree; bringing a dead man or child back to life
Zitabag, keys

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), article Symbolism