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A Blessed All Saints Day to All! Iconography: The Secret Language of Saints and Their Symbols



Works of art are neither illustrations nor evidence that validate a particular interpretation of a theological or cultural argument. Rather, works of art are in their own right a mode of human expression that generates theological interpretation and reflection, and that reveals its cultural and theological milieu. In order for an interpreter of works of art to be able to understand and to operate in this way, he or she must carefully trained in the discipline of seeing. Learning to see is a difficult task involving its own hermeneutic. In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes the process of the discipline of seeing when he tells us:


For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (13:12)
To be trained in the discipline of seeing involves the total engagement of the viewer, and the viewer in turn is transformed. This is a central part of the hermeneutic of the discipline of seeing. If one were to compare different works of art through the lens of religious studies, the distinctions and similarities between the religious worldviews and the cultural milieus would become apparent.
A symbol may be defined as an element, animate or inanimate, that stands for something else. The meaning of certain symbols, however, differs according to context in which they appear. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that the elements of a painting always carry symbolic significance – they may be included for aesthetic or naturalistic reasons.
Attributes are emblems that help the viewer to identify characters within a painting, such as the wheel of Saint Catherine or the shaggy tunic of Saint John the Baptist. They usually derive from an episode in the life of the figure concerned and often have no symbolic meaning. People, as well as objects can serve this purpose. There are also collective attributes, which identify a type: the crown of regents, the palm of martyrs or the cockleshell of pilgrims.
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Catherine of Alexandria
Feast day: November 25
Identifying situation: martyr with a spiked wheel
Appearance: wears regal robes, in particular a crown on her head
Attributes: palm leaf, sword, wheel, ring of mystical matrimony
Biographical notes: A martyr of the fourth century, probably of noble lineage, she was tortured with a spiked wheel and then beheaded under Emperor Maxentius
Patronage: Invoked by nursing women, shipwreck victims, and against migraines; protector of orators, philosophers, notaries, tailors, stylists, spinners, carters, nursing mothers, and wet nurses
The spiked wheel, often broken is the unmistakable element that identifies the martyr saint Catherine of Alexandria. The only certain information about her person celebrates her wisdom and her veneration in the monastery of Mount Sinai. Her special martyrdom, as collected and handed down in The Golden Legend, is derived from a reworking of the symbols that were originally attributed to her. A wise woman who had turned to Christ, she was able to confound and reduce to silence the most important philosophers summoned by the emperor Maxentius to confute her faith. This wisdom was originally represented as a circle, the ancient symbol of inspired wisdom. This was later confused with a wheel, and in the Middle Ages the legend of her torture by means of a wheel was invented, the torture being interrupted by the intervention of an angel (which is how the wheel got broken). In some images the wheel was a very small symbol, so small that it was later read as a ring, thus becoming the perfect emblem for depiction of the mystical marriage, an iconographic theme already present in the Middle Ages but very widespread in the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries.
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St. Florentina
Feastday: June 20
Died: 612
Spanish abbess. She was born in Cartagena, Spain, and was the sister of Sts. Leander, Isidore, and Fulgentius. Leander raised Florentina and founded a convent for her, where she became abbess.

Virgin; born towards the middle of the sixth century; died about 612. The family of St. Florentina furnishes us with a rare example of lives genuinely religious, and actively engaged in furthering the best interests of Christianity. Sister of three Spanish bishops in the time of theVisigothic dominion (Leander, Isidore, and Fulgentius), she consecrated her virginity to God, and all four have been canonized by the Church. Florentina was born about the middle of the sixth century, being younger than her brother Leander, later Archbishop of Seville, but older thanIsidore, who succeeded Leander as archbishop of the same see. Before his elevation to the episcopal dignity, Leander had been a monk, and it was through his influence that Florentina embraced the ascetic life. She associated with herself a number of virgins, who also desired to forsake the world, and formed them into a religious community. Later sources declare their residence to have been the convent of S. Maria deValle near Ecija (Astigis), of which city her brother Fulgentius was bishop. In any case, it is certain that she had consecrated herself to Godbefore the year 600, as her brother Leander, who died either in the year 600 or 601, wrote for her guidance an extant work dealing with anun’s rule of life and with contempt for the world (“Regula sive Libellus de institutione virginum et de contemptu mundi ad Florentinamsororem”, P.L. LXXII, 873 sqq.). In it the author lays down the rules according to which cloistered virgins consecrated to God should regulate their lives. He strongly advises them to avoid intercourse with women living in the world, and with men, especially youths; recommends stricttemperance in eating and drinking, gives advice concerning the reading of and meditation on Holy Scripture, enjoins equal love and friendship for all those living together in community, and exhorts his sister earnestly to remain true to her holy state. Florentina regulated her life according to the advice of her brother, entered with fervour into the spirit of the religious life, and was honoured as a saint after her death. Her younger brother Isidore also dedicated to her his work “De fide catholica contra Judæos”, which he wrote at her request. Florentina died early in the seventh century and is venerated as the patroness of the diocese of Plasencia. Her feast falls on 20 June. The name is writtenFlorentia in the Roman martyrology, but Florentina is without doubt the correct form.

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Sources:

Art as Religious Studies

Edited by Doug Adams & Diane Apostolos-Cappadonia

The Secret Language of Art by Sarah Carr-Gomm

Saints And Their Symbols by Rosa Giorgi


Wikipedia and Catholic Encyclopedia

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