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Saints in Art

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Saints in Art
By Rosa Giorgi. Edited by Stefano Zuffi. Translated by Thomas Michael Hartmann. (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 2003. Pg. 384. 400 color plates.) ISBN: 0-89236-717-2.


Reviewed by Herbert White - July 21, 2003

Saints have long played a major role in early Christian, and contemporary Catholic and Orthodox Christian art. While the representation of a given saint may vary from painting to painting, most artists take care to incorporate imagery that is associated with a given saint. If you happen to know this imagery, you can use this knowledge to easily identify a given saint, even if the saint does not 'look' the way you expect. In other cases, if you happen to already know the name of the saint being depicted, such as via the title, the imagery used in a painting can help provide you with clues about the saints life and deeds.

For example, Saint Martin of Tours is normally depicted as a Knight. In most, but not all paintings, he is astride a horse, with his sword drawn, and with his cloak draped around a beggar. Less commonly, he is depicted in the clothes of a priest with a halo or globe of fire suspended over his head. Why the disparity? St. Martin was born in Italy and started out his life as a solider in the Roman Imperial army, he later went on to become a Christian Bishop. Legend has it that while he was serving in Gaul, he was approached by a ragged beggar. To help clothe the man, Martin cut his cloak in half and gave half to the beggar. It is from this legend that the depiction of Martin as a knight on horseback with his cloak draped around a beggar is derived. After having a prophetic dream, he became a Christian, departed from the army, and was later elected to become the Bishop of Tours. The painting showing him in clerical gear refer to Martin's years as a member of the clergy.

If you are not well versed in the lives and attributes of the saints, how are you to decipher the imagery depicted in religious paintings? In the past, it would have been a time consuming and sometimes frustrating endeavor, as information on some saints can be difficult to access. With the publication of Saints in Art, by Rosa Giorgi and translated into English by Thomas Michael Hartmann, this is no longer the case.

Saints in Art is part of a new series of books being published by the J. Paul Getty Museum. This series strives to provide museum goers with easily accessible information about the 5 W's of fine art. For example, this books explain who's in the paintings, what they depict, where they were painted, why they were painted, and when they were painted. These books measure 5 1/4 inches by 7 3/4 inches, making them handy to carry with you to the museum. In addition there are 400 colored plates in this book, with detailed commentary on each picture.

Over 100 saints commonly found in Western Religious Art are covered in Saints in Art. There is one entry devoted to each saint, and these entries are organized alphabetically, by the saints name. Each entry provides a synopsis of the saints life, with unique details about each saint such as the meaning of their names, the characteristics and activities associated with the given saints, who their patron was, when they were venerated, and the date of their feast day. In addition to this biographical information, each entry is embellished by the inclusion of color plates of various paintings that depict the saint. All the colored plates include commentaries that point out important aspects of the painting.

This is a marvelous book, it is not only beautiful to look through, but it is also like having an art historian in your pocket whom you can pull out and consult at a moments notice. This book will be a boon to art history students, as well as anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the varied masterpieces that depict some of the best known saints in the Western world.

Other books in this series include:
Related Reviews:

Gospel Figures in Art, By Stefano Zuffi.
A guidebook to the artistic masterpieces depicting events, figures, and teachings of the Christian Church surrounding the life of Jesus that are found in the Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels.

Nature and Its Symbols, by Lucia Impelluso.
The fifth book in the Guide to Imagery series, this book looks at the symbolism of various plants and animals found in Medieval and Renaissance paintings and tapestries.

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