Saint Luke: The Iconography

In Bithynia the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of blessed Luke the Evangelist. He suffered much for the name of Christ and died filled with the Holy Spirit. His bones were later translated Translation is a rite in which the relics of a saint are solemnly transferred to a more appropriate church or chapel to Constantinople and thence to Padua. – Roman Martyrology for Ocotber 18

The evangelists are traditionally symbolized by the four animals of Revelation 4:7-8, with Luke as the "calf." A small tympanum at St. Marks in Venice pictures a literal calf among the four, but almost always the animal shown is a full-grown ox, often with the wings specified in Revelation (example). Normally a literal depiction of an ox suffices, with or without wings, but in one fresco in South Tyrol Luke is represented by an ox-headed winged man holding a stand with two books.

In the second millenium we see portraits of Luke simply as a human figure, with the ox often added as an attribute, as in the first image at right.

The books pictured with Luke in the South Tyrol fresco naturally refer to the gospel he wrote. Many other portraits show him either writing in a book or holding a book or scroll (example of scroll), and the mosaic in the second picture at right also gives him a basket of scrolls, an emblem from classical times denoting a philosopher.

A separate tradition holds that Luke made a painting of the Virgin and Child. (The first picture on the right has an angel holding up the completed painting.) Molanus (271) traces this story to Theodorus Lector's 6th-century Historia Ecclesiastica. Theodorus said the painting was sent by the Empress Eudoxia from Jerusalem to her daughter Pulcheria in Constantinople (see col. 166). Many images said to be copies of Luke's painting have been made through the years, as well as many images of Luke at his easel with the Virgin and Child sitting for him as in this fresco by Vasari. This tradition led to the adoption of Luke as patron saint of artists.

In Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore a painting of the Virgin and Child called Salus Populi Romani ("The Health of the Roman People") is claimed to have been made by Luke, and the church even has a painting of Luke making the painting.

St. Luke the Evangelist has been assumed to be "Luke, the most dear physician" of Colossians 4:14. Molanus (ibid.) tells of artists who have placed small vases that he presumes to be for medicaments in pictures of Luke's studio.

Usually St. Luke is shown bearded and with a full head of hair, though exceptions include the first image at right and an odd portrayal with a tonsure in Cefalù Cathedral.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2019-09-23.

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Luke with his painting, book, and ox (See description page)


With his book and basket of scrolls (See description page)


The ox represented as writing the Gospel (See description page)

MORE IMAGES

  • Mid-12th century: A mosaic portrait in Sicily emphasizes Luke's reliance on trustworthy eyewitness accounts of "the things that have been accomplished among us."

DATES

  • Feast day: October 18

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