The Apostles: The Iconography

The 3rd-century catacombs painting above is one of the earliest images of the apostles as a group, and a model for thousands to come. Seated on a throne-like chair, Jesus makes a gesture as if teaching, while the apostles stand to his left and right. Six apostles stand on the right, and apparently four on the right. All the figures wear togas and are clean-shaven.

By the time of this 6th-century mosaic there is some limited effort to individualize the apostles, but the main interest seems to be in carefully balancing the composition, with six apostles on each side (still in togas) and Christ in the middle (in this case seated on a globe representing the universe). We see a similar emphasis on balance, though quite differently realized, in this altar frontal from the 12th century in Catalonia or in the predella of this polyptych from the 15th century in Croatia.

Although one can expect to see exactly twelve persons in such assemblages, they will not always be the same twelve. At the cathedral at Cefalu, Sicily, for example, the twelve figures in the apse include only one of the two Jameses and omit Jude Thaddeus and Matthias. The three are replaced by Saints Mark, Luke, and Paul. Indeed, it is very common for Paul to be included among the twelve figures, he and Peter often being the only ones with attributes.

Or the apostles may be represented as lambs, as in the picture at right and this mosaic in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

In the later Middle Ages the Virgin Mary may be the central figure with the apostles again arrayed in some balanced fashion with six on each side. One creative example of this is the arrangement of the apostles on both sides of the Assumption mosaic on the west façade of Orvieto's cathedral.

In the earliest Christian art there was a vogue for processions of saints bringing their crowns to the heavenly throne, an adaptation of the vision in Revelation 4:9-11. The most famous examples of these are the processions of martyrs along the left and right walls of the nave at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. But there are also processions of apostles bringing their crowns to Christ. The Vatican Museums have a sarcophagus frontal with a central symbol of the resurrected Christ to which the apostles process from each side. Another fragment in the museum retains just four of the apostles, but it is clear that the original frontal also had all twelve processing to the same symbol or one very like it. The sarcophagi are from the 4th century, or possibly the early 5th. In the 6th-century mosaic mentioned above, some of the apostles bring crowns to the throne of Christ, while others bring books or scrolls. After that, we do not see much of this iconographic type.

Sometimes the apostles are displayed with scrolls on which are written twelve phrases constituting a familiar prayer or hymn. In the apse mosaic at St. Paul Outside the Walls it is the Gloria in Excelsis hymn from the Mass. More commonly it is the Apostles' Creed, as in the predellas of the l'Alunno Coronation of the Virgin and the Master Morata Passion Altarpiece. In a monastery in Teposcolula, Mexico, twelve statues of various saints have been repurposed as apostles with phrases from the Creed painted onto their garments.

In Matthew 19:28 Jesus tells the apostles, "when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of his majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (cf.Luke 22:30, Revelation 20:4). In St. Cecilia, Trastevere, a fresco shows them on their thrones.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Georgia Regents University

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An image in the Catacomb of Domatilla of Jesus teaching the apostles. See the description page.


In Acts 5:40 the Sanhedrin orders the apostles flogged. For this image of the episode, see the description page.

In the lower left of the apse at San­ta Ma­ria Mag­giore, six lambs ap­proach the gates of Je­ru­sa­lem. The cor­res­pond­ing image on the lower right has six lambs at the gates of Beth­le­hem. These twelve most like­ly re­present the Apostles. See the de­scrip­tion page.

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