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Saints and Art, or ... Who is that guy crucified upside down?


When you’re wandering through churches or museums, do you ever wonder why that sad-eyed man in the painting has a sword sticking out of his side? Or why that pretty young woman is carrying a pair of eyes - or breasts! - on a tray? After too many questions and not enough knowledge about religious martyrs (who then became Catholic saints), I decided to look for “the rest of the story.”

Here are tales of a few commonly seen saints in Renaissance art, along with details of their traditional icons or attributes. I have to say, portrayals of the martyrdom (c. 251 AD) of St. Agatha (or Agata) of Catania, Sicily are particularly chilling for me to see. The thought of a woman’s breasts being torn off with pincers sends shivers down my spine! Agatha was a beautiful noble Christian woman who refused to offer sacrifices to the gods, or deny her Christian beliefs to the Roman governor of Sicily. She also refused to give herself to him, and insisted she was the bride of Christ. Agatha’s execution over burning coals was reputedly accompanied by earthquakes.

St. Agatha’s attributes are shears, tongs, and breasts on a plate. She’s invoked against diseases of the breast, earthquakes and lightning. (And eruptions of Mt. Etna in Sicily!) Her feast day is February 5th. Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, Sicily and is one of the patron saints of Malta.

As gratitude to St. Agatha for saving her mother from an “incurable” disease, the young Sicilian noblewoman Lucy (also Lucia) of Syracuse, Sicily gave all her belongings to the poor and committed herself to the church. She resolved to never marry. In anger, her rejected fiancé denounced her as a Christian to the authorities (c. 304 AD). When the soldiers tried to drag her away, the Holy Spirit made Lucy so heavy that a team of oxen couldn’t move her! She then survived an attempted burning - the flames didn’t touch her - and the threat of rape at a brothel. A dagger in the neck finally did the virgin in, but only after her eyes were torn out. And she personally reinserted them!!

You can recognize St. Lucy in paintings by the pair of eyes on a plate or in some other form. There’s a beautiful painting in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery showing St. Lucy delicately holding a slim stem with two eyes at the ends instead of flowers. Admittedly, it’s kind of creepy, too!

Lucy’s typically shown with the palm branch of the martyr, tied to the oxen trying to carry her away, near a lamp to suggest divine light and wisdom (her name in Latin means light), with a neck wound or dagger. Lucy is patron to electricians, ophthalmologists, the blind and those with eye trouble, and her feast day is December 13th. Lucy is the patron saint of Sicily.

In 258 AD, Lawrence (Lorenzo) was a Catholic deacon in Rome. Pope Sixtus II had placed him in charge of the church’s possessions, including the treasury and archives. When Sixtus was seized and condemned to die because of his religion, he tasked Lawrence with distributing the church’s wealth to the poor. A Roman prefect who coveted the church’s treasures arrested Lawrence and tortured him on a burning gridiron. According to the “Golden Legend”, Lawrence shouted to the prefect and the spectator, Emperor Valerian, “I am roasted on one side! Now turn me over and eat!”

Many think the word “roasting” was a transcription error, and he was most likely beheaded - but the quote makes it a good story!

As one might guess, one of St. Lawrence’s attributes is a gridiron or grill. (The supposed gridiron he was tortured on is on display in a Roman church.) Lawrence is also typically shown with the palm branch of the martyr, and occasionally a dish of silver and gold coins - alluding to his distribution of the church’s treasures. He’s a patron to rotisserie owners, librarians, cooks, firemen, and the poor. St. Lawrence’s feast day is August 10th, and he’s one of the city of Rome’s patron saints.

Ah, St. Sebastian. He’s the real reason I started collecting information about saints. On my first trip to Italy, I kept seeing paintings of him, and had no idea why this man was tied to a pole with swords or arrows in his body.

My knowledge of Catholic saints was pretty much restricted to the Virgin Mary (or The Blessed Mother as my grandmother called her), St. Joseph, St. Christopher, and St. Francis. Oh, and St. Valentine and St. Nicholas!

Sebastian, it turns out, was actually killed by being clubbed to death. Renaissance artists (including Mantegna, Sodoma, and de la Tour) seemed to prefer painting his prior punishment of being shot with arrows and left to die. Sebastian was a Captain of the Praetorian Guard (high ranking soldier) in the third century who converted to Christianity. When he was found helping imprisoned Christians, the Roman emperor Diocletian condemned him to death.

His lifeless, arrow-infested body was discovered by the pius widow Irene, who tended his wounds. The healed Sebastian confronted Diocletian and berated him for his cruelty. Here’s where the clubbing to death comes in, and a nasty insult - his body was thrown into the Cloaca Maxima ... Rome’s main sewer.

Sebastian is sometimes shown dressed as a soldier, but more likely not. His attributes are arrows and the palm of martyrdom. Sometimes he’s shown with five arrows, to bring to mind the five wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion (sometimes called Stigmata). Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes, archers, tapestry makers, and traffic cops. His feast day is January 20th, and he’s the patron saint of Caserta, Sicily.

And if you need protection from the plague, St. Sebastian’s your man! (Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that disease was sent via Apollo’s arrows.)

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian

“The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” by Andrea Mantegna, the Louvre, Paris, France


So, who IS that guy crucified upside down - and why is he always carrying keys?

The Apostle St. Peter - leader of the twelve disciples. Peter was originally named Simon, until Jesus said to him, “You are Peter, the Rock (Kephas, the Aramaic equivalent of Peter, i.e. “rock“); and on this rock I will build my church ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven ...” Aha! The keys attribute! (And why he’s sometimes called Simon Peter.)

Peter and his brother Andrew had spent all night fishing without success, when Jesus called to them. He promised to make Peter a “fisher of men” ... aha! The fishing attribute!

Peter is shown in Leonardo’s “Last Supper” in Milan, Italy on the right side of Jesus, leaning behind Judas, and with his left hand on John’s shoulder. He’s holding a dagger in his right, which he later used to wound a servant of the high priest attempting to arrest Jesus.

Several beautiful frescoes by Masaccio that include Peter are in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy. A memorable painting of Peter’s martyrdom is by the marvelous painter Caravaggio, “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. You can see the muscles straining in the men lifting the cross, and Peter looking old, sad, and bewildered. The story goes that Peter claimed he wasn’t worthy to suffer the same fate as Jesus, so he was crucified on an inverted cross. The historian Josephus noted that Roman soldiers amused themselves by crucifying criminals in different positions, so the upside down crucifixion certainly could have happened.

Peter is considered the first Bishop of Rome (the Catholic Pope is also the Bishop of Rome) after he traveled to Rome to preach and was martyred there (c. 64-67 AD). In Catholic tradition, the glorious St. Peter’s Basilica is built over the burial place of Peter. St. Peter is a patron saint of cobblers, key makers, fishermen and doorkeepers, and the city of Rome. His feast day is celebrated on June 29th.

Byzantine mosaic of St. Peter in Ravenna, Italy

Byzantine mosaic of St. Peter in Ravenna, Italy


A few words about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - the four evangelists of the New Testament of the Christian Bible (c. 70-95 AD). The writers are most often depicted together, and are easily recognizable by their attributes, which are winged and symbolize divine mission. St. Matthew’s symbol is an angel (or a winged man); this refers to the angel who inspired him as he wrote the Gospel. St. Mark’s attribute is a winged lion. St. Mark’s Gospel begins with Saint John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, “inhabited by lions.” As St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice, Italy, the city is filled with the most marvelous winged lions! Luke’s attribute is an oxen, a symbol of a sacrificial animal. His Gospel begins with Zechariah’s sacrifice. John the Evangelist’s symbol is an eagle - the king of the birds who flies close to heaven, and parallels John’s vision of God.

The attributes (and a pigeon) of the four gospels on a lintel of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy

The attributes (and a pigeon) of the four gospels
on a lintel of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy


I hope these notes are helpful to you as you wander and enjoy the beauties of Western religious art.

Coming soon: “Signs and Symbols … or, why does the number three show up everywhere?”

Related Articles

Fourteen Secrets for Enjoying Visiting Churches in Italy With Kids

Walking to paradise in the Monferrato – Sacro Monte di Crea

The Vatican’s Scavi Tour – Excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica


  • Rosa Giorgi; Stefano Zuffi (ed.), Saints in Art (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003)
  • Lodwick, Marcus. The Museum Companion, Understanding Western Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002)
  • Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford University Press: 1966)
  • www.wikipedia.com
  • Discuss this article in our forums


Colleen lives in San Francisco.


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