Saint Brigid, Abbess (453-524): The Iconography

With St. Patrick and St. Columban, Brigid is the co-patron saint of Ireland. Her parents had been baptized by Patrick himself, and in the legends she often meets with him. Her birth and consecration as a nun were attended by miraculous manifestations of fire.

Unlike virgin martyrs St. Brigid never suffers from the violence of others, and unlike other religious she rarely makes a point of abstemiousness or other forms of self-denial. Instead, the legends celebrate her acts of charity on behalf of the poor and the infirm. These are usually attended by miracles, but almost always it is the charitable impulse or deed that comes first.1

Portraits

Many of these acts of charity involve the provision of milk, butter, or even cattle to poor people who seek her help. For this reason the portraits often include a cow, as at left. Sometimes there may also be a milk jug (example).

The saint founded the Abbey of Kildare and several others in Ireland, so portraits usually show her in a nun's habit, sometimes with a book referring to the Rule she wrote (as at left). As an abbess, she almost always holds a crozier and as a consecrated virgin she is also occasionally portrayed with a lily flower (example).2

Because of the mysterious fires that attended her birth and her consecration, she sometimes holds a candle (example).

Narrative Images

These are rare, but there is one particularly impressive fresco by Lorenzo Lotto that traces many of the more notable episodes in the saint's life.

Feast day: February 1

At left, an 1850 statue

Alternate name forms: Brigit, Bride

Among other saints:
Circa 1300 manuscript illumination
The Cross of St. Brigid:


Hagiography:
Early South English Legendary 192-93
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1Five vitae of St. Brigid are printed in Acta Sanctorum, February vol. 1, 99-185. For a more historical account see Butler I, 225-229.

2Butler, ibid.