Iconography 101: Attributes in Scripture

If iconography is “writing with images,” then attributes are among the key words and phrases that constitute a legible script. What are attributes? I think of them as visual cues to a person’s identity in art. Dr. Beth Williamson in Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction defines attributes as “pictorial labels.” They typically refer to a well-known event or story by which someone—a prophet or king from the Hebrew Bible or a Christian saint—is identified. While a number of attributes have their origins in scripture, many others derive from legends about the saints. Occasionally attributes are linked to customs associated with a saint.

Today’s post features a small sampling of attributes that have a basis in scripture. We’ll find them in the sculpture and stained glass at three cathedrals in Europe and four churches in the U.S. Taken together they illustrate how the traditional iconography of the Church’s heroes has persisted over the years. The use of attributes in sacred art, however, predates Christianity by many centuries. So before we visit the churches, we’ll take a short detour to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where we find several outstanding examples of attributes as they appeared in antiquity.

Attributes in Antiquity   We don’t know exactly when sculptors and other artists began to use attributes as labels for their deities. It is evident, though, that early Egyptians associated the falcon with their sky god Horus more than a thousand years before Christ (photo 1). On the other side of the Mediterranean, Greeks in the classical period used attributes to distinguish among their panoply of gods and goddesses. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, holds an owl with her left hand in a sculpted procession of twelve gods that dates to the first century B.C.E (photo 2).

1. Falcon Reliquary, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

1. Falcon Reliquary (1st century, B.C.E.), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Athena and Owl Detail, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

2 Athena and Owl, Detail from Procession of 12 Gods, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

To the east, Assyrians in the ninth century, B.C.E., depicted their winged genies carrying a pine cone and pail (photos 3 & 4). The winged genies were benevolent protective deities akin to angels, and were probably related to the “winged man” that eventually came to symbolize the gospel writer Matthew (see my 7/21/14 post on the Tetramorph) . Some scholars assert that these attributes are tied to a belief that the winged genies tended the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Significantly, Christians later adopted the pine cone as a symbol for eternal life, most likely because its seeds produce a tree that is ever green. For more on how the pine cone became a Christian symbol, see the Daily Beagle’s informative article on the Vatican’s pigna [http://thedailybeagle.net/2013/09/08/the-pigna-and-the-apollo-belvedere-two-treasures-of-the-vatican/].

1. Winged Genie from Palace at Nimrud, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

2. Winged Genie from Palace at Nimrud, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

2. Winged Genie and Pine Cone Detail, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

3. Winged Genie with Pine Cone Detail, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Biblical Attributes   Many attributes in Christian art have their basis in scripture. St. Peter’s keys offer a prime example (photos 4 – 6). A key or set of keys refers to the verse at Matthew 16:19 where Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven….” For Roman Catholics, the keys symbolize Peter and his status as the first pope. In time, the keys also came to signify the papacy itself. Today, two keys, one gold and the other silver, adorn the Vatican’s coat of arms in an iconic reference to the verse in Matthew.

Peter (far right) with other Apostles; Chartres Cathedral's South Porch, France

4. St. Peter (far right) with other Apostles; Chartres Cathedral’s South Porch, France

St. Peter (left) and St. Paul, All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee

5. St. Peter (left) and St. Paul, All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee

Peter Receives the Keys of the Kingdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Church, Petersburg, Iowa

6. St. Peter Receives the Keys of the Kingdom, Sts. Peter & Paul Church, Petersburg, Iowa

King David’s harp is another familiar attribute with its origin in scripture. The image of Israel’s famed ruler holding a harp comes from the book of 1st Samuel where the writer recounts how a young David played a harp for King Saul to dispel the “evil spirit” that troubled the older man. The music of the harp, the Biblical account reports, “refreshed Saul” and made him well. The harp attribute also calls to mind David’s presumed authorship of many psalms (songs in Greek) that were set to harp or lyre music.  A deteriorated 13th or 14th century sculpture of King David at Rouen Cathedral shows him with a large harp (photo 7). Similarly, David is shown playing a harp in a post-Reformation stained glass window at Cologne Cathedral. He appears as one of Jesus’ royal ancestors in a “Jesse Tree,” dressed as a sixteenth century nobleman (photo 8). David’s harp shows up in North American churches as well. British artists incorporated it in a lovely late 19th century window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Philadelphia (photo 9).

King David with Harp, Rouen Cathedral, France

7. King David with Harp, Rouen Cathedral, France

King David (left) and Solomon, Jesse Tree Window, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

8. King David (left) and Solomon, Jesse Tree Window, Cologne Cathedral, Germany

King David, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

9. King David, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia

St. John the Baptist’s garments provide our third example of an attribute with roots in the Bible. Artists typically depicted John dressed in clothing made of skins. A restored 13th century sculpture on the west facade of Reims Cathedral (photo 10) aptly conveys the description of John’s rough attire in Mark’s gospel: “And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins.” John wears a hairy, brown-colored, tunic in a stained glass baptism scene at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 11). You’ll also sometimes see him holding a lamb, or a medallion with a lamb, as a second attribute. This illustrates the verse at John 1:29 where the Baptist sees Jesus approaching the River Jordan and pronounces, “Behold the Lamb of God….”

John the Baptist, West Facade, Reims Cathedral, France

10. John the Baptist, Reims, France

John the Baptist and Jesus (top center), Baptism Window, Washington National Cathedral

11. Theology of Baptism Window (1954) by Burnham Studios, Washington National Cathedral (click to enlarge)

As noted above, there’s more to attributes than their references in scripture. My next post will take a look at attributes that grew out of the curious legends involving some of the saints. Paul, Hubert, Agatha and others will be in the spotlight.

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, November 22, 2014

One thought on “Iconography 101: Attributes in Scripture

  1. Bob Wagner says:

    Apparently icongraphy trumps photos as saying 1000 words. Who Knew?? Mike Klug knew, that’s hoo. I will hereby Photoshop an owl into all of my Mike Klug photos.

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