Saint Barnabas: The Iconography

In Salamina, Cyprus, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Barnabas the Apostle, a Cypriot who was ordained by Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. He traveled with Paul through many regions and joined him in preaching the Gospel. He crowned his apostolate with a glorious martyrdom in Cyprus. In the time of the Emperor Zeno [474-91] his body was discovered, himself having revealed it, along with a copy of the Gospel of Matthew written in Barnabas's own hand. – Roman Martyrology for June 11

This saint's attribute is a book or scroll. Many of the legends say that when he went to preach in Cyprus he took a copy of Matthew's gospel with him and would lay it on sick people to cure them (image).1 Of course many other saints are depicted with books, so he is not always easy to identify unless there is another attribute. In the first image at right his hand holds a flame along with the scroll, referencing his death by fire. In another case his attribute is an olive branch, perhaps because of the "peace mission" on which the Apostles send him and Paul in Acts 15. In the Hours of Henry VIII the artist gives him a spear (Wieck, 62), but I have not found anything in the legends that would explain this choice.

In the Acts of the Apostles Barnabas is a companion of St. Paul, so we see them together in some narrative images. Ambrosius Francken painted the scene in Acts where the two are "set apart" by the Holy Spirit. Especially popular is the episode in which the people of Lystra mistake the two for gods come to earth, as in the second picture on the right.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.


Anonymous, St. Barnabas, 18th century. The fire on his hand most likely refers to the manner of his death. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Paul and Barnabas mistaken for gods: From the 19th-century fresco cycle in St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. (See the description page.)

Guercino, The Martyrdom of St. Barnabas, 17th century. The saint is dragged to the pyre where he will be martyred. (See the description page.)


  • Book or scroll
  • Fire


  • In Rome, a mysterious painting of St. Barnabas with a woman designated "Teacher of the Apostles."


  • Feast day: June 11




1 In the Golden Legend "he held the book over sick people and thus, by the power of God, cured many" (Ryan, I, 321). Caxton's translation of the Legend omits this detail. In the Early South English Legendary (28) it is a holy man named Timon who is thus cured. In the 5th-century Acts of Barnabas Timon is cured after Barnabas "called upon the name of the Lord Jesus." Only afterwards did the saint receive from St. Matthew the book of "miracles and doctrines" that "made a cure of their sufferings" whenever he laid it upon sick people. See the translated Acts of Barnabas in Schaff or the Acta Sanctorum (June vol. 2, 431-36) for the Latin and Greek.