Have you ever noticed — in artwork such as paintings, statues and sculptures — how saints are depicted with certain objects or symbols?
For example, the young St Maria Goretti holds lilies. St Teresa of Avila is usually seen with a book or pen, and a dove hovering above her. St Anthony of Padua carries the Infant Jesus and/or loaves of bread. St Therese of Lisieux is pictured with roses. St Peter the Apostle is portrayed as looking to the heavens and holding keys.
What were the symbols for?
You may have even noticed that some saints have similar symbols. These symbols have certain meanings, enabling those who were unable to read to understand what that saint’s story was all about.
“When Christian religious ceremonies were conducted entirely in Latin, foreign or written words were therefore inappropriate for conveying the Christian message to the majorities. However, the Catholic symbols which were adopted enabled people, who adhered to the same Catholic Christian religion, could understand the meaning of a symbol regardless of understanding the written word or whatever county they were in. The use of Catholic symbols made it possible for everyone to understand the figures and the messages which were portrayed in Christian art or in the images and objects included on stained glass windows or the actual architecture of Catholic Churches.” (Source: http://www.catholic-saints.info/catholic-symbols/)
Here is a list of some saints and the objects portrayed with them:
St Peter – crossed keys, symbolizing the keys to the Kingdom and his God-given authority to “bind and loose”.
St John the Apostle – a chalice, referring to what Jesus said, “Of My cup, you shall drink”.
St Paul – a book, pertaining to the epistles in the New Testament that he had written.
St Lucy, St Apollonia, St Stephen – these saints, all of whom are martyrs, are depicted with a palm branch, symbolizing the ultimate victory of life over death; palm branches are also reminiscent of Jesus being greeted with palm branches as He entered Jerusalem before His Passion.
St Maria Goretti – her white garb and white lilies refer to her purity and virginity.
St Francis of Assisi, St Mary Magdalene – they are sometimes depicted with skulls, skulls representing the meaninglessness of vanity.
St Teresa of Avila – shown with a book to show her important writings and a spear symbolizing the vision she had of an angel piercing her with a spear that set her afire with love for God.
There are many other symbols and objects attached to various saints. Aside from telling the stories of the saints, they also teach the faithful various elements and concepts of Catholicism, as well as “add mysticism to the Catholic Christian religion.” (Source: http://www.catholic-saints.info/catholic-symbols/)
Who are your favorite saints? What symbols and objects are portrayed with them? How do these deepen your knowledge of their exemplary lives?