Some Basic Iconography

(subtitle: Or, Knowing When St. Francis of Assisi Is St. Francis of Assisi)

How do you know what person a painter has painted in a picture? How do you know when a painter has painted God rather than a human creature? How do you know whether you’re looking at an Old Testament patriarch or a hermit saint in the desert? How can you tell St. Agnes from St. Agatha?


I am no art historian, just an observant laywoman. What I have observed is a basic “grammar” to Sacred Art. When approaching a stained glass window, sculpture, or painting to read its meaning, notice what these details are telling you:

  • haloes
  • colors (esp. of clothing)
  • objects (which are symbols)
  • animals

What you see on, near, and around the people in the work will tell you about them: who they are and what they are doing.

What is this a painting of? (This is on an altarpiece, and it’s by Botticelli, by the way.)

Some Basic Iconography

Who are these people? Whom do you see? How do you know? What do you see that tells you that?

The Blessed Virgin upon the throne is the focal point of the picture. We know that this is the BVM because 1) she is holding the Child Jesus, 2) she is enthroned as Queen of Heaven, and 3) she is wearing her color blue, which has connotations of Heaven (from the color of the sky) and the sea (she is sometimes called “the Star of the Sea”).

This scene must portray the glory of Heaven, because of the rich background, the throne, and the Heavenly Court: both angels and saints surround the Virgin Mother. I found St. Michael the Archangel, St. John the Baptist, two bishops, and a man who is probably St. Barnabas (since this is from a church/chapel dedicated to him) and a holy woman whom I would guess is a martyr, since she is holding a palm branch.

I will do some research and see if I am correct.

Indeed, the man in red with the branch in his hand is St. Barnabas. The bishop near St. Michael the Archangel is St. Ignatius of Antioch. (Love him!) The bishop on the other side is St. Augustine–which makes sense because we see him writing in a book. (Love him too!) The woman is St. Catherine of Alexandria, an early martyr, but it is curious that we don’t see her “trademark” characteristic: her wheel, on which she was tortured. (The other way I know to recognize this St. Catherine is with an image of a devil nearby that she is confronting, but obviously that would not be appropriate imagery for this heavenly scene!) Other notable images in this scene include the angels around the Virgin holding the implements of Christ’s Passion and Death, and the inscription on the top step of the throne is a line from Dante’s Divine Comedy. This is why I love Sacred Art: truly beautiful and noble, it is full of symbols and imagery that remind us to think of God and holy things.

Some of the best ways to learn about iconography are to learn the lives of the saints, so you can recognize their symbols, and to look at paintings and trying to figure out who is represented and why. A blog I absolutely love that will help you analyze Sacred Art and imagery is Ad Imaginem Dei. Now here’s a real art historian (and medievalist!). You will see and learn so much amazing stuff here–make frequent trips to this site!

In closing today, I’ll leave you with a beautiful piece of art that really IS St. Francis of Assisi, since today is his feast. (Please note the brown robes, stigmata, skull, and crucifix.)

Some Basic Iconography

Sancte Francisce, ora pro nobis!

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