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.

Four Evangelists

The symbols of the four Evangelists are here depicted in the Book of Kells. The four winged creatures symbolize, clockwise from top left, Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke.
Saint Symbol
Matthew the Evangelist winged man, purse, lance
Mark the Evangelist winged lion, book
Luke the Evangelist ox, book, brush, palette
John the Evangelist eagle, chalice sometimes with a snake in it, kettle, book

The Twelve Apostles

The key as symbol of St. Peter
The Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. Russian, 14th century, Moscow Museum.
Saint Symbol
Andrew saltire
Bartholomew the Apostle knife, human skin
James, son of Zebedee pilgrim's staff, scallop shell, key, sword, pilgrim's hat, astride a white charger, Cross of Saint James
James, son of Alphaeus / James the Just square rule, halberd, club, saw
John book, a serpent in a chalice, cauldron, eagle
Jude sword, square rule, club, ship
Judas Iscariot thirty pieces of silver
Matthew angel
Saint Matthias axe
Peter Keys of Heaven, boat, fish, rooster, pallium, papal vestments; man crucified head downwards on an inverted cross, vested as an Apostle, holding a book or scroll. Iconographically, he is depicted with a bushy white beard and white hair, and wearing a blue robe and yellow mantle.
Philip column; elderly bearded saint and open to God man, holding a basket of loaves and a Tau Cross
Simon boat; cross and saw; fish (or two fishes); lance; man being sawn in two longitudinally; oar
Thomas the twin, placing his finger in the side of Christ, axe, spear (means of martyrdom), square (his profession, a builder)

Saints listed by name


Saint Symbol
Acathius of Melitene crown of thorns
Agatha of Sicily tongs or shears, veil, bells, two breasts on a plate
Agnes lamb
Alfege of Canterbury axe
Alfred the Great codex, crown, orb/scepter
Ambrose bees, beehive, dove, ox, pen
Anne, grandmother of Jesus door, book with the Virgin Mary reading, red robe and green mantle
Anthony the Great monk's habit, bell, pig, T-shaped cross
Anthony of Padua Child Jesus, bread, book, lily
Athanasius of Alexandria bishop arguing with a pagan, bishop holding an open book, bishop standing over a defeated heretic
Augustine of Hippo dove, child, shell, pen, book


Saint Symbol
Barbara tower, chalice, ciborium, cannon
Barnabas pilgrim's staff, olive branch
Benedict broken cup, raven, bell, crosier, bush
Benno of Meissen fish with keys in its mouth, book
Bernard of Clairvaux pen, bees, instruments of the Passion
Bernardino of Siena tablet or sun inscribed with IHS, three mitres
Blaise wax, taper (candle), iron comb
Bonaventure communion, ciborium, cardinal's hat
Boniface oak, axe, book, fox, scourge, fountain, raven, sword
Bridget of Sweden book, pilgrim's staff
Brigid of Kildare cow, crosier, Brigid's cross


The college shield of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, prominently depicting a Catherine wheel.
Saint Symbol
Casimir of Poland and Lithuania royal attire of crown and red robe lined with ermine, lily, cross, rosary; sometimes two right hands
Catherine of Alexandria wheel, crown, sword, book
Catherine of Ricci ring, crown, crucifix
Catherine of Siena stigmata, cross, ring, lily
Cecilia organ
Cerbonius geese
Charles Borromeo cardinal's robes, communion
Christopher giant crudely dressed, torrent, tree, branch or large staff, Carrying the Child Jesus on shoulder
Clare of Assisi monstrance
Clare of Montefalco cross
Clement anchor, fish, Mariner's Cross
Corbinian saddled bear
Saints Cosmas and Damian a phial, box of ointment
Saints Crispin and Crispinian shoes, millstones
Cyriacus deacon's vestments


Saint Symbol
Daniel lion
David of Scotland king with sword or sceptre
David of Wales dove
Denis head in hands
Dorothea of Caesarea flowers, fruits
Dominic rosary, star, dog with a torch
Dunstan hammer, tongs
Dymphna crown, sword, lily, lamp, princess with a fettered devil at her feet


Saint Symbol
Earconwald bishop travelling in a chariot
Edmund the Martyr quiver of arrows
Edward the Confessor king crowned with a nimbus and holding a sceptre
Saint Eligius bishop 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
Elijah cave
Elisabeth of Hungary alms, flowers, bread, the poor, pitcher
Emilianus monk on horseback
Elizabeth of Aragon crown
Erasmus of Formiae windlass
Eric of Sweden king being martyred at mass
Eustace hunting clothes, stag, bull, crucifix, horn, oven


An axe, the symbol of the martyrdom of Judas Thaddeus and other saints
Saint Symbol
Faith Shield of the Trinity
Felix of Burgundy anchor
Florinus of Remüs bottle, glass of wine
Francis of Assisi wolf, birds, fish, skull, stigmata
Francis Xavier crucifix, bell, vessel, crab with a cross


Saint Symbol
Gabriel is archangel, trumpet, armour, wings, scroll stating “Ave Maria Gratia Plena”
Genesius theatre mask
Genevieve lit candle, bread, keys, herd, cattle
George dragon, soldier or knight in armour, often on white horse, especially in the East, Cross of Saint George
Gertrude of Nivelles crown, tapir, lily, mouse
Giles Benedictine habit, hind
Gregory the Great papal tiara, crosier, dove (often portrayed at his ear)


A "fiddleback" chasuble from the church of Saint Gertrude in Maarheeze in the Netherlands
Saint Symbol
Helena wearing a royal crown while supporting a cross
Hippolytus of Rome papal tiara
Hippolytus the soldier military garb, horse's harness
Honoratus of Amiens baker's peel or shovel; bishop with a large Host; bishop with three Hosts on a baker's shovel; loaves
Hugh of Lincoln swan


Saint Stephen depicted with three stones and the martyrs' palm
Saint Symbol
Ignatius of Antioch a bishop surrounded by lions or in chains
Ignatius of Loyola Eucharist, chasuble with Jesuit-style collar, book often inscribed with "Ad majorem dei gloriam", or the letters AMDG, the letters "ihs" with a cross across the h (traditionally with three nails below the letters, and the letters and nails surrounded by the sun's rays), sword, cross.
Imerius of Immertal hermit's garb and bird of prey
Irene of Tomar palm of martyrdom
Isidore of Seville bees, pen, book
Ivo of Kermartin depicted as a lawyer, holding a document, in legal dress.


IHS monogram of the name of Jesus
Saint Symbol
Jerome lion, cardinal clothing, cross, skull, books and writing material, stone in hand
Joan of Arc shield, Cross of Lorraine
Saint Joanna lamb
John Berchmans Rule of Saint Ignatius, cross, rosary
John Chrysostom bees, dove, pen
John of God alms, heart, crown of thorns
John the Baptist lamb, 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
Joseph, spouse of Mary Child Jesus, lily, rod, plane, carpentry square, purple robe and brown mantle
Juan Diego tilmàtli
Justin Martyr axe, sword
Justina of Padua palm frond, knife, unicorn
Juthwara round soft cheese


Saint Symbol
Kateri Tekakwitha turtle, lily
Kevin of Glendalough blackbird
Knut of Denmark Nordic king with royal insignia, dagger, lance or arrow.


Saint Symbol
Lambert of Maastricht palm of martyrdom
Lawrence of Rome cross, Gospel Book, gridiron, palm frond, purse of money, attired as a deacon in a dalmatic, accompanied by a group of poor people.
Leander of Seville pen
Leonard of Noblac lock, chain, manacles or fetters
Liborius of Le Mans pebbles, peacock
Louis IX of France royal attire of crown and blue robe decorated with golden fleur-de-lis, crown of thorns, nails
Lucy cord, eyes on a dish, lamp


Saint Symbol
Margaret of Scotland reading
Margaret the Virgin dragon in chains
Martha aspergillum, dragon
Martin of Tours goose; sharing cloak with beggar
Martin of Porres broom, a cat, dog and a mouse eating from the same plate
Mary Magdalene jar of ointment, red egg
Matilda purse, alms
Maurice soldier in armour, banner with red cross
Maurus scales, spade, crutch
Menas of Crete two camels
Michael scales, banner, sword, dragon
Monica girdle, tears
Mungo fish with ring in its mouth, bell, tree, bird


Saint Symbol
Nicholas three purses or balls, anchor, boat, child


Saint Symbol
Oda of Scotland depicted 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 Norway axe in Norway's coat of arms


Baptismal font in Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany.
Saint Symbol
Pancras sword, palm branch
Pantaleon nailed hands
Patrick cross, harp, serpent, baptismal font, demons, shamrock
Paul the Apostle sword, book or scroll, horse; long, pointed beard, and balding backwards from forehead. Green robe, red mantle.
Saint Peter of Verona Dominican with a hatchet in his head or a severe head wound; or writing the words "Credo in unum Deum" as he dies
Petronilla set of keys, dolphin
Philip Neri lily
Philomena anchor, palm, arrows


Young man with two spits
Saint Symbol
Quentin depicted 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
Quiteria depicted 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
Saint Symbol
Raphael fish
Richard bishop with overturned chalice
Rita of Cascia roses, roses and figs, crucifix, thorn, sometimes with a wound in her forehead
Roch angel, dog with bread, leg wound, pilgrim's dress
Rose of Lima crown of thorns, anchor, city, roses


Saint Symbol
Sativola scythe, well
Sava of Serbia book
Sebastian arrows, crown
Spyridon of Corfu bishop with Gospel; long, pointed beard, and wearing a shepherd's hat
Stanislaus of Szczepanów sword
Stephen stone(s)
Stephen of Hungary royal attire of crown and robes, and holding orb or sceptre with double cross
Swithun bishop with bridge, broken eggs


Neo-Gothic "solar" monstrance at the hermitage church of Warfhuizen.
Saint Symbol
Teresa of Ávila heart, arrow, book
Teresa of the Andes small cross, flowers
Theodore crocodile
Thérèse de Lisieux roses entwining a crucifix
Thomas Aquinas monstrance, dove, ox
Thomas Becket sword, and wearing chancellor's robe and neck chain
Thomas More axe
Trudpert axe
Tudwal dragon


Saint Symbol
Urban portrayed in art after his beheading, with the papal tiara near him
Urban of Langres bishop with a bunch of grapes or a vine at his side; a book with a wine vessel on it
Ursicinus book and fleur-de-lis
Ursula arrow; 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 Aosta birds on his shoulder; wearing fur pelisse in a religious habit


A traditional biretta
Saint Symbol
Vedast wolf carrying a goose in its mouth; child; bear
Verdiana snakes
Victor of Marseilles windmill
Vigilius of Trent shoes or clogs
Vincent de Paul children
Vincent Ferrer pulpit, cardinal's hat, trumpet, captives
Vitus cross, rooster, lion


Crosier of archbishop Heinrich of Finstingen, 1260–1286
Saint Symbol
Wenceslaus of Bohemia crown, dagger
William of Montevergine wolf and pastoral crook
William of York bishop crossing the River Tweed
Winnoc hand-mill, bridge, grinding corn
Wolfgang of Regensburg a church building with an adze lodged in the roof, a wolf


Saint Symbol
Xenia of Saint Petersburg walking stick
Xystus book, papal tiara, martyr's palm


Mitre of Bishop Sztojkovics, Hungary, c. 1860, stolen in 1989
Saint Symbol
Yrieix bishop's mitre


Saint Symbol
Zachary Making peace with King Luitprand. Sometimes he may have an olive branch and a dove over him
Zenobius of Florence flowering tree; bringing a dead man or child back to life
Zita bag, keys

Further reading

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See also

External links


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