Cleavers, poison and snakes | How to spot saints in paintings | National Gallery

Cleavers, poison and snakes | How to spot saints in paintings | National Gallery


Saint Lawrence was burnt alive on a metal
rack, so he’s usually shown carrying it. Story goes that while he was being
cooked, he turned to his torturers and said, “I’m done on this side, flip me over!” [Title] How To Spot Your Saints Hi I’m Ed, part of the Learning team here
at the National Gallery. In this series, we’re going to explore some of the
symbols that you can find in the paintings in our collection. Now, many artists knew the people who saw their paintings would recognize the
symbols they carefully placed in them. But some of these paintings are over 700
years old – they might not planned on that. Meanings
get lost or forgotten over time, so these videos are here to help you make sense
of some of the secrets hidden in the gallery. Today, we’re going to help you
learn how to spot your saints. As the National Gallery’s got a lot of
Christian devotional paintings, you’ll find a lot of saints. Whether the
paintings were meant to hang in a church in a home, or be clasped tightly in
someone’s hands, they connect believers with someone who had made it to heaven.
Here was someone you could pray to if your problems were too great to bear, or
perhaps too trivial to bother God with. Perhaps your town had a patron saint, or
you were named after a saint. Connections to saints could be very personal so it
was important the worshippers knew who they were looking at in the painting. So
how do you spot them? Well, saints are usually associated with
attributes: objects or clothing which represent their deeds or what they
became known for. Even if painting fashions and styles
change, if you look for the attributes you should still be able to recognize
them. For example, Saint George. The Golden Legend, the medieval text on the
saints that artists often drew their inspiration from, said Saint George
defeated a dragon. So he often appears as a knight in shining armour, charging the
dragon with his spear. Whether that dragon had spotted wings in 1470, has
crawled out of a lake with its webbed feet in 1555, or suddenly develops a beak
in about 1890. So let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the saints. Saint Michael led God’s army against Lucifer’s rebels so he’s often shown wearing armour
defeating the devil. The battle only appears in a short section in the Book of Revelations but it really caught the medieval
imagination so there are lots of paintings of Saint Michael defeating the
devil. Also it presents that difficult problem for artists: how do you show the
devil? Well, an imaginative hodgepodge of terrifying creatures is how. Saint Jerome
has a load of attributes but two of the most common are a cave because he
retreated to the desert to atone for his sins, often beating his breast with a stone and a lion because he pulled a thorn out
of its paw and befriended it. Actually, the original story is about someone else
but the Golden Legend says it was Jerome so it now gets given to him. Saint Francis of Assisi appears with the stigmata, the same wounds as Christ’s on
hands, feet, and side, because they were said to have appeared on Francis’s body
towards the end of his life. Saint Veronica carries the veil she used to
wipe the sweat off Christ’s face as he carried his cross to Calvary. This one doesn’t have Christ’s face on it. Saint John the Evangelist often appears young, clean shaven and dressed in red. The cup and snake allude to the poison he drank
to prove his faith. Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, holds the candle
that miraculously relit after the devil blew it out. The woman next to her, Saint
Apollonia, brings us to the martyrs. Martyrs died for their faith, so their
attributes are usually gruesome reminders of how they suffered. She holds a pair of
pincers and a tooth – she had her teeth pulled out. Saint Peter Martyr has a sword
or cleaver in his head, sometimes his chest. He was killed by assassins hired
by vengeful Venetian nobles who had fallen foul of Saint Peter’s relentless
persecution of heretics. He also holds the common attribute of all martyrs: the
palm leaf of victory. It’s what Greek or Roman athletes would be given when they won sporting contests. Martyrs are victorious in death, reborn in heaven.
Spot a palm leaf, spot a martyr. Here’s another Saint Peter holding the
keys to heaven and hell. You can also see him wearing blue and gold. Saint Dorothy was mocked on the way to her execution by a man who said, “Bring me back flowers
from paradise.” Miraculously, they were delivered to him, and put in his place, he
converted to Christianity. So, Saint Dorothy appears with flowers. Saint Catherine appears with a wheel, or part of one. It was the breaking wheel she was
meant to be tortured on – I won’t explain how that works it was horrible – but the
wheel was destroyed by a bolt of divine lightning. Then, she had a head cut off, so
she often appears with a sword. Saint Lucy’s name means light so she often
appears with an oil lamp, or, eyes eyes on a plate. A later legend says that she
plucked her own eyes out to silence an admirer who wouldn’t stop praising her
beauty. She’s the patron saint of eye afflictions. Saint John the Baptist can
sometimes be seen holding a lamb. This is the sacrificial lamb which is a sign of
Christ’s sacrifice for all mankind. John can also appear unkempt because he lived
in the desert and holding a staff with a crucifix on top. You’ll find him elsewhere in the gallery not looking too well. So, if you see a saint in a painting,
have a look for what they’re holding or wearing and you might find the hints you
need to identify them. If you’d like to learn more about our paintings, click
here or here. For a full list of all the paintings we’ve shown in this video, have
a look at the description below. If you’ve enjoyed these sorts of videos, why not subscribe or leave us a comment down below. Thanks for watching!

Randy Schultz

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