In Monte Cassino the natal day of St. Benedict, Abbot. He restored monastic discipline, which had nearly collapsed in the West, and propagated it widely. Blessed Pope Gregory wrote of his glorious life, virtues, and miracles. – Roman Martyrology for March 21
St. Benedict is almost always shown in the black Benedictine habit seen at right, usually carrying a crozier and a book. The habit includes a cowl, which in some images is pulled up onto the head. The crozier, also a sign of episcopal status, signifies an abbot when carried by a person in monastic garb.
In Benedict's time, and in the five centuries following, only bishops wore mitres; but starting in the 11th century the papacy authorized some abbots of important monasteries to wear them (Venables, 24). This may explain the appearance of mitres in some late images of Benedict. One example is in the Hours of Henry VIII (Wieck, 57) from 1480-1500; another is this painting from the 18th century.
The book is St. Benedict's Rule, the foundational document for thousands of religious communities in the middle ages. Many portraits have the book open to the first words of the Rule: Ausculta o fili precepta magistri, "Hear, o son, the precepts of the master" (example).
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 the cowl is usually down, exposing a bald or tonsured pate. In late medieval images he usually has a forked white beard (example). Instead of a crozier he may carry a tied bundle of rods to symbolize the strength of monks who live together in a community, as in the second picture at right. A few images put him in a white habit (example), and in some narrative cycles his fellow monks also wear white (see below).
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 involving a flagon hidden away by one of the monks (See the Dialogues, II, xviii). A crow with a loaf in its mouth (example) refers to a poisoned loaf that an envious priest had sent to Benedict, which the saint told a crow to take away and dispose of safely.
Benedict's life is recounted in the second book of Gregory the Great's 6th-century Dialogues. At first he was said to leave his comfortable home and shelter in a nearly inaccessible cell at the base of a tall cliff. A monk named Romanus would sometimes lower a loaf of bread for him from the top of the cliff, as pictured in a 1538 painting by the Master of Messkirch (One Hundred Saints, 147). Gregory tells of numerous miracles wrought by the saint in his lifetime, and during the Middle Ages a large number of image cycles depicted these miracles along with other episodes from Benedict's life. One of the most famous of them is Spinello Aretino's. Some others are listed at right.
There are also plenty of individual images of Benedict's miracles, such as his resuscitation of a dead boy and his recognition of King Totila.
Benedict's story is entwined with that of his sister St. Scholastica. See her page for details.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2015-09-16, 2020-05-17.