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St. Luke, patron saint of artists

nikopeiaSt. Luke (San Luca) is the patron saint of artists because supposedly he was a painter himself. Legend has it that he painted a portrait of Mary from life, with her actually sitting there, making it the equivalent of a photograph, I guess. Some versions of the legend say that he did the painting on a wooden table top that Joseph and Jesus had made. The story goes that Mary infused the painting with her blessings and grace, turning it into a miracle-working icon that would carry her power across the centuries.

Now I’m not sure if Luke did one painting of her or many, but there are churches all over the globe that claim to have a St. Luke painting of the Madonna, and these images have been revered for hundreds of years with lots of stories about miracles, healings, and deliverance from wars and disease. In the Middle Ages, people made pilgrimages to visit these paintings which were just as venerated as the relics of any saint.

Well, Venice has not one but three icons that were supposedly painted by St. Luke. One is the Madonna Nikopeia in the Basilica di San Marco (that’s her in the photo above), the second is the Madonna de Pace icon in San Zanipolo, and the third is the Virgin Mesopanditissa icon on the high altar of Santa Maria della Salute.

These icons were legendary before they were brought to Venice (and actually, that’s why the Venetians stole them). The Nikopeia was brought to Venice from Constantinople in 1204 as part of the spoils from the Fourth Crusade; she quickly became the most revered image in the city and she still is today. It's interesting that most of the Masses celebrated in the Basilica are held in her chapel rather than in front of the high altar where San Marco lies.

The San Zanipolo icon came from Constantinople in 1349 about one hundred and fifty years after the Nikopeia. The Salute icon was brought from a church in Crete in the late 1600’s shortly after the church was completed. Crete was a Venetian territory at that time so technically I suppose they didn’t really steal that one, but they were on the verge of losing Crete to the Turks (and Venice had a beautiful new church that needed a Madonna icon).

All three of these icons are very interesting but in truth, they don’t look like they were done by the same artist, and Mary looks quite different in each of them. Plus most historians estimate that they are closer to 1000 years old rather than the 2000 they would be if they were really painted by Luke. But it's a nice legend, and it seems that in the Middle Ages, if you had a miracle-working icon of the Madonna, you should be worried that the Venetians were going to steal it from you. :)

Other places that claim to have a St. Luke Madonna include churches in Rome, Bologna, Germany, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Egypt, and India. There’s also one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The most famous is probably the Black Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland. The only one of the Venetian icons that is a Black Madonna is the one in the Salute (photo below isn't great since I didn't use a flash but you can kinda tell what she looks like).

Icon Salute

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Comments (12)

Very interesting story on St. Luke and his Madonnas. I don't recall seeing the Madonna Nikopeia when I was last in San Marco so this is something I want to see next time I'm in Venice (hopefully soon). The photo of the black Madonna is beautiful. I love how the light just shines bright in just the right spot to see the icon. I love reading your blog, there's always something very interesting to read with wonderful photos.


Fascinating! I love icons and I can easily imagine how they could become infused with legend and lustre, making them incredibly powerful.

Your photos are wonderful, with or without the flash.


Sigh...maybe I should go to Venice instead of Florence!

(I've decided to take the plunge and go in October. My Mom is taking a day or two to think about joining me, although it seems unlikely. But my mind is made up either way. YAY!)


Oh by the way, Winston is five. We also had his sister, Rainbow, but she was hit by a car two years ago. I hope he is accepting of the new kitten when she arrives. I think he will be ok, he's pretty social (and ever so vocal - he drives Dave nuts with his "talking"!)

Great post! Beautiful icons, and such interesting stories/history surrounding them. And you are right, those Venetians sure robbed a whole lot!

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, this is so interesting learning about St. Luke and his painting of the Madonnas.

I thought the legend that he painted Mary while she was sitting on a table that Jesus and Joseph built was fascinating!

Thank you so much.


St.Luke......A painting of Mary....I would have LOVED to paint MAry herself

AnnaMaria Pais:

According to tradition, St.Luke, who was a doctor in medicine graduated in the University of Antiochia, besides beein a painter contemporain of Our Lady and the author of one of the official four Gospels,had made the portrait of Our Lady that, with all probability, we don't have anymore, because lost in time. From the original portrait derive all the ikons raffigurating Our Lady, some of which still exist.
I advise the persons who wrougt you so enthousiastic about the ikons raffiguratin Our Lady, to reed the Gospel of St. Luke when they go and see the ikons.

peter rainey:

The Holy Monastery of Mega Spileo was built in 4th century to house a st luke painting that is still on display there.

Peter, thanks for the link. I'll check it out!

Roberto Castaneda :

Dear: Saint Luke patron of the artist, the one that with the blessing of god our all mighty Creator allows for us the simple artist to swim in the seas of creativity and be able to increase our clarity and positivity. He who allows us that next day and give us the license to hone our skills. I came to give thanks for all my successes and to ask for your mighty blessing in the new projects in which am about to start. may your hand be in my work, may my heart be evident in the work, may i do your bidding and honor my relatives and friends that sit close to you.
this i pray in your name St. Luke
in the name of the all mighty Creator of the sky heaven and everything in between

Roberto, thanks for sharing that. A beautiful prayer!

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