Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Iconography

In the monastery of Fossanova, near Terracina [Italy], St. Thomas Aquinas, Confessor and Doctor of the Church, of the Order of Preachers, illustrious for his noble family, holy life, and theological wisdom. Pope Leo XIII declared him the patron saint of all Catholic scholars. – Roman Martyrology for March 7

Much of Thomas Aquinas's writings were aimed at refuting Christian thinkers who had been led by their study of Arab philosophers to question the Eucharist and other church doctrines.1 Consequently a number of images of the saint follow the program seen at right: The turbaned figure lying vanquished under the saint's feet represents the errors of the Arab writers. The two men on his left and right are Aristotle and Plato, and above him the four Evangelists sit writing their gospels. Similar images abound (examples from the 14th century and from the 16th).

Above them all, Christ himself approves the saint's work with the words BENE SCRIPSISTI DE ME THOMA, "You have written well of me, Thomas." A late version of the Golden Legend says these words were spoken to Aquinas by Christ as he contemplated the crucifix one night in prayer (image). Another episode in the same work has St. Peter and St. Paul come one night while Aquinas is praying and help him to understand the scriptures (image).

The legend's emphasis on Aquinas's prayerfulness probably explains the phrase on the left leaf of the saint's book in the first picture at right. The same phrase appears in many other images of Aquinas: Veritatem meditabitur guttur meum et labia mea detestabuntur impium, "my mouth will meditate on truth, and my lips will detest the impious man" (Proverbs 8:7).

Aquinas was a Dominican, so portraits normally show him in the black and white habit of that order with a distinct tonsure and often a shining sun on his breast as an emblem of his role as teacher of doctrine, as in the second picture at right. Some portraits show a dove at his ear to symbolize the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (example) and, less often, a monstrance referring to his work on the doctrine of Transubstantiation (example). Sometimes the saint holds a pen, as in the third picture at right.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-16.

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Benozzo Gozzoli, The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1471 (See description page)


Sebastiano Ricci, Saints Pius V, Thomas Aquinas, and Peter Martyr, 1730-33. Aquinas is on the left with a sun on his breast. (See the description page).


Francisco Zurbarán, The Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas , 1631 (See description page)

MORE IMAGES

  • 15th century: A della Robbia Lunette with the Madonna and other Dominican saints.

DATES

  • Feast day: Originally March 7, changed to January 28 in 1970.
  • Born 1225, died 1274

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend includes a life of Aquinas: html or pdf
  • Acta Sanctorum, March vol. I, 655-747

NOTES

1 Butler I, 510-11. Farmer, 419.