The Twelve Apostles: The Iconography

If you see twelve sculpted men in antique garb grouped in a doorway or tympanum, chances are you are looking at the twelve apostles. Among the earliest is a fresco in the Catacombs of Domatilla, with the apostles ranged around Christ in a semi-circle.  At this early stage, the apostles are not differentiated from one another. They are simply arranged so as to fit into the design, or even allegorized as sheep at the gates of the New Jerusalem, as in the 5th-century mosaic at left.

This is a common feature of groupings of the apostles through at least the 14th century. When they appear as a group their individual characteristics are suppressed in the interest of geometric design. For example, the 6th-century vault lintel at Poreč labels the apostles but otherwise barely individualizes them at all: Peter has his keys and square beard, Paul his long beard, Bartholomew and Andrew their characteristic hair styles. But they all wear the same white garments and haloes and stand in a rigorously straight line, shoulders turned in slightly toward Christ in the center.

This privileging of design over individuality continues even after the various apostles have acquired well-known attributes. Thus, in a 12th-century altar frontal, Christ sits between two panels, each with six apostles arranged in tiers to form a triangle. Peter's keys are the only attribute in the design, which gives the apostles similar garments in varying colors to achieve a visual rhythm that has nothing to do with their identities. Similarly the 12th-century apse mosaic at St. Paul Outside the Walls arranges the apostles left and right of an enthroned Cross bearing scrolls with phrases from the Gloria hymn. Variations in their garments are again used to give rhythm to the sequence, and only labels individualize them.

By the 14th century, artists may choose either the design-oriented approach, as in the left and right sides of the apostle grouping on the fašade of the Orvieto Duomo, or one that gives each apostle his attribute, as in a retablo fragment in the Metropolitan Museum.

Other images:
Late 13th-century painting in Rome
Predella of a 15th-century polyptych in Croatia
15th-century panel at St. Mark's, Venice
Modern window in late-medieval style, Pamplona, Spain
Also see:
The Last Supper
Individual apostles: Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the Less, Jude Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, Matthias, and sometimes Paul.