Saint Benedict of Nursia, Abbot (480-550): The Iconography

St. Benedict contributed more than anyone else to the rise of monasticism in the West. His Rule was the foundational document for thousands of religious communities in the middle ages. Monks and nuns in these communities are known as Benedictines; the monks wear a cowled black habit as seen at left.

Benedict's story circulated first as part of Gregory the Great's 6th-century Dialogues, which recounted a great number of miracles wrought by the saint in his lifetime.


The earliest image of St. Benedict that I have yet seen is a 10th century fresco featuring one of the saint's miracles related by Gregory the Great.  The fresco is in the 8th century church beneath San Crisogono in Trastevere.  In it, the saint wears a black habit with a peaked cowl, as he does also in an 11th or 12th century ivory from the Veneto.

In later portraits, St. Benedict is usually shown holding a crozier and book and wearing his Benedictine habit, sometimes over an alb (example). The crozier, normally a sign of episcopal status, signifies an abbot when it is carried by a person in monastic garb. The book is St. Benedict's Rule.

Sometimes instead of a crozier he will carry a tied bundle of rods to symbolize the strength of monks who live together in a community (example).

Occasionally a portrait will use some other attribute drawn from an episode in the hagiography -- for example, a broken glass cup (example) refers to an episode of attempted poisoning, and a wine flagon (example) figures in another episode (cached) involving a flagon hidden away by one of the monks.

Narrative Images

During the middle ages a large number of image cycles depicted episodes from Benedict's life, especially his miracles.
Perhaps the most famous cycle is the one in Florence by Spinello Aretino (1387), but also see the vast cycle of frescoes in Monte Oliveto Maggiore (1498-1502) begun by Signorelli and completed by Il Sodoma, the 15th-century frescos in the Badia Fiorentina abbey in Florence, another fresco cycle in Plankstetten, Bavaria, and so on. These cycles can be "read" with the help of Gregory's work (see below).

Feast day: March 21 (changed to July 11 in the Roman Catholic Church in 1969)

At left, "St. Benedict" - Pamplona

Other narrative images:
Aretino, Stories from the Legend of St. Benedict,
                  1387Some of the Aretino frescos
Episode: Benedict revives a dead boy
Gozzoli, mid-15th centuryEpisode: The Impersonator of King Attila
Episode: The Death of St. Scholastica
Mexican santoMexican santo
Spanish painting
With other saints:
In an Annunciation triptych
Gregory the Great, Life of Benedict (cached)
Golden Legend #49: html or pdf
Stouck 167-204
Internet Medieval Sourcebook

Also see:
St. Scholastica