Any trip through Italy will invariably involve visiting churches, museums and galleries. People are often surprised to see violent and disturbing scenes depicted in paintings and sculptures. Other artworks show saintly folks holding seemingly random objects, such as a grill or an arrow. But why? What does it all mean?
This quick guide will help you ‘read’ religious artworks throughout Rome and Italy to understand the background and significance of the representations. Just like Professor Robert Langdon following the clues you’ll be able to pick the Angels and Demons.
Sacred, or religious art is dominant in Rome and throughout Italy. This reflects the culture of the time, when the Catholic church was the paramount authority over every aspect of life. It also comes down to simple economics. Since the greatest benefactor and commissioner of art was the Catholic Church it stands to reason that any artist who valued food would demonstrate their talents and piety through appropriately themed artworks.
As you travel through the country you start to notice that some subject matters are more popular than others. Overwhelmingly the Madonna and Bambino is the most represented subject, but there are also a few favourite Saints who pop up with great regularity, these are there stories.
Being an Officer of the Imperial Guard in Rome and a Christian was not a good mix. In 288 AD he was sentenced to death by Diocletian, a notorious anti-Christian Emperor. Taken by soldiers, Sebastian was tied to a stake and shot with arrows by numerous archers and left for dead.
He was found and cared for by a widow with anti-Diocletian sentiments and recovered. Back on his feet, Sebastian went back to town, but was recognised and sentenced to death again. This time Diocletian ordered that Sebastian be bludgeoned to death by soldiers wielding cudgels. Sebastian is the patron saint of archers and athletes. He is depicted in art as a figure tied to a stake, suffering multiple wounds, left from the arrows, with arrows, or as a fallen figure under attack with heavy objects.
Lawrence was a deacon of Rome, which was a pretty dangerous position to hold during the Great Persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian.
In 258 AD the City Prefect ordered he hand over the church’s valuables. Lawrence quietly gathered the sick and poor of the parish and presented them saying “here is the church’s treasure.” Thereupon he was put to death by grilling. Literally roasted alive on a grid. Legend has it that his last words were: “turn me over, I’m done on that side.”
He is most often depicted with a grid, or grill. Here he also holds a palm frond, a symbol of martyrdom. He is the patron saint of cooks and comedians.
As the Great Persecution developed Christians had their rights withdrawn and they were ordered to exercise traditional pagan religious practices. Cassian was a teacher and while at school he refused to make a sacrifice to a pagan god in 363 AD, so he was sentenced to death. His sentence would not be exacted by soldiers though. In a moment of creative genius Cassian was turned over to his students. They were keen to exact revenge against their teacher and tied him to a stake but armed with only writing implements and slate boards Cassian’s death became a drawn-out torturous affair. He is depicted with paper and pen. He is the patron saint of teachers.
Committed virgin. At aged 12, or 13, she refused marriage and promised herself to God. According to legend, Agnes was quite beautiful and a member of the nobility in Rome. She was expected to marry a high-ranking Roman soldier, but she refused. The Roman governor was informed that Agnes was a Christian. Condemned, she was stripped naked in the Piazza Navona but miraculously grew a covering of hair that protected her modesty and prevented rape attempts. Eventually soldiers stabbed her in the neck and she died quickly. Patron saint of virgins, Agnes is depicted with a lamb.
Harking from the 1st century AD, Bartholomew was one of Jesus’ apostles. He travelled far and wide to spread the word through India and Armenia. However, the word wasn’t always appreciated and the Armenian king Astyages called for his death after Bartholomew converted the king’s brother.
Bartholomew was dispatched horrendously, being flayed alive, his skin cut off in strips, then beheaded. Although he died abroad, his image is common throughout Italy as he was one of the first martyrs. Bartholomew is usually depicted holding his skin, and the knife used to remove it. Sometimes he is shown skinned, or half skinned. He is the patron saint of butchers and tanners.
There are thousands of saints and martyrs, a substantial number of whom can thank the industry of Diocletian for their revered status. But this guide represents only a few of the most common you are likely to find while touring Rome and elsewhere in Italy.
If you’ve know of others, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.