Thursday, October 18, 2012

Saint of the Month: Saint Luke!


St. Luke

AKA: n/a
Feast Day: October 18.

Really Existed? Sure, although it's possible that there were two guys named Luke whose attributes have blurred together.
Timeframe: Is thought to have died in A.D. 84 at the age of 84, or perhaps A.D. 74 at 74.
Place: Antioch.  (One of the great world cities for almost 2000 years, but wiped out in the fifteenth century.  Basically in the little tab of modern Turkey that sticks out to the south along the eastern Mediterranean coast.)

Credentials: By tradition, unambiguously, in both Catholic and Orthodox hagiographies.
Martyrdom: Most say no.  Now, there's a story that the Emporor Nero (reigned AD 54-68) had St. Luke's hand cut off, but then Luke reattached it, whereupon Nero beheaded St. Luke and the 276 people who had witnessed the miracle, including his "prime minister."  But this does not seem to be a widely-believed tradition.

Patron Saint of: artists, bachelors, bookbinders, brewers, butchers, doctors, glass makers, goldsmiths, lacemakers, notaries, painters, physicians, sculptors, stained glass workers, students, surgeons, Capena (Italy), and Hermersdorf (Germany).
Symbolism: A bull or ox, sometimes with wings.  Often shown painting the Madonna.

Last month, I promised that we’d have a more prominent saint this time around. Well, how about Saint Luke? Yes, that Luke: Luke the Evangelist! Best-selling author, by tradition, of the Book of Luke! And also the less well-read but still very influential Acts of the Apostles.

Now some of you who, for whatever reason, do not have the New Testament Gospels fresh in your mind, are thinking “Yeah! Luke! One of the twelve Disciples!” But no. The book of Luke says right up front that it’s a second-hand history of events that happened quite a while in the past. Luke is more what you’d call an “Apostle,” and seems to take part in some – although not all – of the eponymous Acts of his second-most-famous writing.

As a high-profile saint, St. Luke holds a broad portfolio of patronage. He is thought to have been a physician, making him the natural patron of doctors. Students are in his docket, as are the unsettling duo of surgeons and butchers. He is also the patron of artists, based on a tradition that he painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary from life. There are those that maintain that Luke’s renditions of Mary are held in the Vatican collection, but this seems awfully unlikely, and it’s worth mentioning that there doesn’t seem to be any mention of this particular story until about five or six hundred years ago. (Interestingly, artifacts that are held to be bones of St. Luke have been scientifically tested and shown to be of the right approximate geographical source and era, so – although it’s awfully hard to track a 2000 year chain of custody – who knows?)

Luke, the first of our Saints of the Months to make much of a splash in the artistic tradition, is said to be symbolized by a bull or ox, often winged. I have no idea why. But sure enough, in many paintings and illuminations there’s a cow placed right there with him according to the affable logic of symbolic art: standing on his desk, tucked under one arm, whatever. His supposed painting of Mary is a fairly common subject for artists, and you will most often see him at his easel or discussing the final touches of a portrait with his famous subject.

Does all this make you feel like browsing the internet for paintings of St. Luke? No need! I did it for you. Here are a handful of my favorite depictions of October’s Saint of the Month.

Giorgio Vasari.  Note that Mary is being held in midair, that her index finger rather brilliantly
defies ordinary geometry, and of course that Luke likes to have his cow at hand while painting.

Guercino -- Luke shows off his finished product; this time the cow is
a decorative piece in the background.  A lot of painting from a limited color palette.

The doctor-saint watched over by a benevolent winged cow.

In late-medieval illumination, St. Luke works on his portrait with his
adorably happy pet cow at his feet.

Paolo Verenese -- I am not completely sure what is going on here, other than an association of
St. Luke with his Gospel and with his symbolic animal.

The always amazing Rogier van der Weyden.  Luke is apparently sketching.
There is no cow present, but how about those fields of color?

5 comments:

mrs.5000 said...

This is a real visual treat. Not only excellent cow content, as promised, but cow contentment. It would be a pretty plum bovine assignment to be St. Luke's cow (provided you didn't have to turn into a paperweight). I really love the dutifully posing cherubs in Vasari's behind-the-scenes life of an artist. Also, that Veronese's Luke has to duck to get his head in the low-hanging frame of the painting, while reading two books at once, riding a cow. You can't blame him for being contorted, though I fear his arm is broken.

Kenneth Noisewater said...

"Someone want to get this cow out of here? I can feel its breath, for Christ's sakes! I'm trying to paint some angels up in this bitch!!"

Michael5000 said...

Ladies and Gentleman, the now Reverend -- for real -- Dr. Kenneth Noisewater!

Anonymous said...

I am trying commenting for the first time!
A little-known item about St Luke:
The Old Farmer's Almanac has "St Luke's Little Summer" occuring on or about Oct. 18. It's a precurser to Indian Summer &/or St Martin's Summer. Susan

Michael5000 said...

I'll take all the summers I can get!