St. Ignatius of Antioch: The Iconography

In Rome the passion of St. Ignatius, Bishop and Martyr. He was the third man after the blessed Apostle Peter to govern the Church of Antioch, from whence during the persecution of Trajan he was sent to Rome condemned to the beasts. In Rome he was first put through monstrous tortures while the Senate observed, and then he was thrown to the lions. Ground by their teeth, he became a victim1 for Christ. – Roman Martyrology for October 20

St. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch, the first having been St. Peter. On the orders of the Emperor Trajan he was sent to Rome to be thrown to the beasts (image). On the way, his ship stopped in Smyrna, where he met St. Polycarp (image) and wrote four letters to various churches in Asia Minor, and then in Troas, where he wrote three more. The letters urged steadfastness in the face of heresies and became widely known in the Christian world.2


Portraits in the West sometimes have the saint holding a heart, which in the example at right is inscribed "YHS," a form of the name of Jesus. The reason is a passage in the Golden Legend in which Ignatius tells his torturers why he keeps repeating Jesus' name: "I have this name written on my heart and therefore cannot stop invoking it" (Ryan, I, 143).

Portraits in the East sometimes include two lions devouring the saint, arranged on each side as in the second image at right. The earliest narrative of his death, possibly from the 2nd century, does not specify that the beasts in question were lions, nor does it give a number. But in the 9th century the Martyrology of Ado specifies two lions, as does the Golden Legend in the 13th.3


The Legend also follows the Martyrology of Ado in claiming that the lions did not eat the saint but rather suffocated him (praefocaverunt in the Latin). This statement would seem at odds with the words quoted in the preceding sentences of both the Legend and the Martyrology: "I am the wheat of Christ. May I be ground fine by the teeth of these beasts, that I may be made a clean bread" (Ryan, I, 142; cf. Martyrology, 28).

To my knowledge, however, images of the martyrdom always ignore this suggestion and show the lions eating the man and leaving nothing but the bones, a detail provided by both the 2nd-century source and the 10th-century work of Simeon Metaphrastes.4

The Church of Saint Clement in Rome has a series of paintings of St. Ignatius's life and death. Here are thumbnails of three of them (click for full image and description):

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2021-07-29.


A Western portrait of St. Ignatius of Antioch (See the description page)

An Orthodox icon of the saint (See the description page)

In a late Baroque painting the lions begin to devour St. Ignatius. (See the description page)


  • Two lions
  • A heart held in his hand


  • 12th century: In Palermo's Palatine Chapel, a medallion placed between mosaics of Jacob dreaming of the ladder and wrestling with the angel.


  • February 1 is the saint's original feast day in the West. Catholics now celebrate it on October 17, Orthodox churches on December 20, the day on which he died. One Russian Orthodox site gives both December 20 and January 29 as feast dates.
  • Death probably in 107.


  • Ignatius was also known by the epithet Theophoros, one who carries God.



1 The Latin word here translated "victim" is hostia, the word also used for the bread in the Eucharist.

2 Butler, 219-223.

3 The Martrydom of Ignatius, chapter 6. The Martyrology of Ado is in Acta Sanctorum, February vol. 1, 28-29.

4 Martyrdom of Ignatius, ibid. Simeon Metaphrastes, Vita, in Acta Sanctorum, ibid., 27.