How to Recognize a Saint

by theresamoritz

x200_30982_p0007289_001x200_64474_10-517323Entry 17 June 15, 2013

I returned this week to Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, the exhibit at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario that I wrote about in blog post 14. I sat for a long time with my husband in front of Giotto’s Christ Blessing with Saint John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Francis (Peruzzi Altarpiece), ca. 1309-1315. (I am including the URL for a website where the altarpiece is reproduced: started talking about whether or not Giotto had given enough information in the portraits to enable a viewer to identify who was being depicted.

It was easy enough to say that the central figure was Christ: the arms of a golden cross framed his face; his right hand, marked with the stigmata, was raised in blessing, and tucked in his left arm was a book, as often appears in images of Christ enthroned in heaven. The figures on Christ’s immediate left, we thought, were John the Baptist and Francis of Assisi. My companion identified John the Baptist on the basis of his unkempt hair and beard, notably longer, thicker and darker than Christ’s; the scroll he held, which contained, “Ecce agnus Dei…”, that is, “Behold the lamb of God”; and by his clothes, “a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4). We both spotted traditional signs of Francis: his robes and also the marks of the stigmata, clearly displayed on his crossed hands. The woman on Christ’s right was, we agreed, almost certainly the Virgin Mary, although the portrait differed from the many I’ve looked at in the Louvre book. She was standing alone, whereas in every Louvre painting I have looked at so far she is presented in some type of interaction with Christ; moreover, her head was not surrounded by a halo. I learned later in the exhibit catalogue that at one point the woman was identified as Mary Magdalene, rather than the Virgin Mary.

But the man next to her, I said, was difficult to identify. He held a book, which marked him as either an author or a scholar, but there were no other special objects in the image, none of the four symbols that are traditional marks of the four Evangelists, for example, and no weapons of torture that would identify him by the manner of his death. My husband thought it was likely John the Beloved Disciple, Mary’s companion at the foot of the cross and, therefore, John the Evangelist as well. His evidence: the man was very young and without a beard; his coloring was reminiscent of Christ’s and Mary’s, and he and Mary both wore clothing of rose and blue.

The information provided in the gallery confirmed the identification; the catalogue added that scholars identify the church for which the altarpiece was created as dedicated to the two St. Johns, Evangelist and Baptist. I suppose we might have spared ourselves the exercise of attempting to interpret the symbolism of the portraits; after all, the original churchgoers would have had the church’s name to guide them in identifying the saints. Still, I was happy to have had the experience, to test my powers of observation and my ability to call up information from memory.

Not unlike that original churchgoer, I this week approached another saint’s likeness with the saint’s name already in hand. It was a painting of St. Cecilia as depicted ca. 1640 by Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610-1670). I had heard of St. Cecilia before; in fact, about two months ago I was looking at St. Cecilia with an Angel Holding a Musical Score (ca. 1617) by Domenichino (1581-1641). The two paintings are very different; I could see no object or symbol in Sirani’s portrait that distinguished his Cecilia from any other lovely, well-dressed young woman, whereas Domenichino showed Cecilia singing and playing a bass viol. Her companion is an angel, who is holding music open before her, music that she is not consulting as she plays. The Louvre book also contains a painting of Cecilia, contemporaneous with Sirani’s, St. Cecilia Playing the Organ (ca. 1640), by Jacques Stella (1596-1657), and a 1655 painting entitled Allegorical Portrait of a Couple with an Organ Player by Nicholas Knupfer (1603-1655) that the French language version of the Louvre website says may include, in the “Organ Player”, a portrait of St. Cecilia.

It is notable, I think, that it wasn’t the painting of St. Cecilia as heavenly musician that prompted me to write about her but rather the painting of her that puzzled me because of its lack of distinguishing marks. I had become accustomed to expect a saint’s portrait would contain such marks. Are the instances of John the Evangelist in the Peruzzi Altarpiece and Cecilia in Sirani’s St. Cecilia similar in that they indicate a shift away from the longstanding medieval and early Renaissance practice of providing a visual sign of a saint’s identity, or did Giotto regard John’s clothing, youth and close proximity to the Virgin Mary as such a sign? Is there, perhaps, a sign that I’ve missed in Sirani’s portrait?

For more on St. Cecilia, the early Christian martyr and patroness of music, visit the Louvre’s commentary on Domenichino’s painting at The commentary states, “The body of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was discovered in a miraculous state of conservation in Rome in 1599.” Might this event explain the early 17th-century vogue for portraits of Cecilia?