Saint Thecla: The Iconography

In Iconium, Lyconia, St. Thecla, Virgin and Martyr. She was brought to the faith by St. Paul the Apostle. During the reign of the Emperor Nero she overcame fire and wild beasts, and after she overcame a multitude of tests of her belief she came to Seleucia, where she died in peace. The holy Fathers have celebrated her with the highest praise. – Roman Martyrology for September 23

The veneration of this supposed follower of St. Paul was widespread in early Christianity, and we have images of her from as far back as the sixth century (example). Her story comes to us through the 2nd-century Acts of Paul and Thecla. Its most dramatic elements are the Iconians' attempts to kill her first by fire, second by throwing her to the lions, and when that also failed by sending enraged bulls against her. In these situations she protected herself with the Sign of the Cross, so images will sometimes show her with a cross (example). The statue shown at right uses all these elements as attributes of the saint. Other portraits will leave out the bull (second picture on the right) or focus on just the fire (third picture).

Having survived all these attempts on her life, St. Thecla went on to live for another 72 years as a hermit in a cave in Seleucia, Syria. Even though she died a natural death, she was universally revered as a martyr. Indeed, the martyrology of the Greek Church lists her with the title, "Protomartyr among women and equal to the Apostles."1 St. John of Damascus' eighth-century hymn to St. Thecla seems to imply that it was her willingness to be a martyr that made her one. ("You chose to die, and now you live to the ages.")

The Acts of Paul and Thecla was rejected as spurious by both Tertullian in the 3rd century and Jerome in the 4th. Nevertheless, Thecla's story continued to influence western art at least intermittently until 1969, when the Roman Catholic Church suppressed her cult. In 1630 the people of Este, Italy, credited St. Thecla with interceding for them during a plague. In the following century Tiepolo painted a commemoration of that event.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-12-27.

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St. Thecla's statue in Judenburg, Austria – with bull, lion, fire, and cross (See the description page)


Antoni Szulczynski's St. Thecla with lion, torch, and palm branch (See the description page)


The Iconians try to kill the saint by fire: the St. Thecla Altarpiece in Burgos Cathedral (See the description page)

DATES

  • Feast day: September 23 (suppressed in 1969)

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Sts. Thecla."